For about as long as we’ve been able to imagine computers, they’ve had a place in our science fiction stories. Whether it’s the machines in Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R (which, fun fact, coined the term “robot”), or The Engine in Gulliver’s Travels, these machines have provided information, service, and plot devices for decades. Sometimes, though, computers go bad, and when that happens, you best be armed with prayer, and a good hammer.
February 10 is Clean Out Your Computer Day, and though it might seem like a chore, I beseech you, please organize your PC. Make sure you know what programs are running, and where all your important documents are. Makeover your MacBook. Dote on your desktop. Because if we don’t keep a close eye on these suckers, they’ll be coming for us.
And if you still don’t understand the urgency of our plight, take a look at these six fictional computers that, in their own special ways, almost trounced humanity:
1. HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey: Both a novel and film, 2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of a mission to Jupiter that goes horribly awry. Since most of the crew is in suspended animation, ship maintenance is left to HAL 9000, an AI that very quickly becomes homicidal.
The book explains that this is due to HAL’s internal conflict—he’s been asked to keep information from the two conscious scientists, and this contradicts his programming—but does intent really matter when you’re alone in space and you hear the airlock click open?
2. The Mark 5, The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke: Three centuries ago, monks from a Tibetan lamasery created an alphabet through which they hoped to list all the possible names of God, following the belief that the universe was created for such a purpose, and that when the naming was done, God would bring about its end. Not wanting to take the 15,000 more years it would take to write it all out by hand, the lama purchases the Mark 5 computer to do it for them, and hires two engineers to keep it running. Sure the Mark 5 isn’t sentient, but when you contribute to all the stars going out, you get put on this list.
3. The Borg, the Star Trek franchise: Star Trek has had its fair share of computer mishaps (anyone remember M-5?) but by far the most terrifying threat comes in the form of the Borg, a hive-minded species that operates much like a computer network, complete with Borg Queen/motherboard. Cold, uncaring, and frighteningly rational, the Borg exist solely to assimilate other species, learn whatever new information they can, and grow their already vast armies of drones. Resistance is futile, indeed.
4. Colossus, Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones: In a stupendously stupid move, the United States of North America (poor Canada has been annexed at this point) irreversibly give all control of their nuclear defenses to Project Colossus, a computer system in the Rockies.
Unbeknownst to the powers that be, a similar project was set up in the USSR, and the two computers quickly develop a rapport, even killing thousands when disconnected. It seems clear that the systems need to be taken offline, but scientists keep dying, casualties keep piling up, and Colossus remains undeterred.
5. GladOS, Portal and Portal 2: As a guinea pig in the Aperture laboratories, you’re not sure of anything. Who you are is a mystery. Why you were put in this maze of testing facilities you don’t know. All that’s certain is that GladOS is here, and she is watching. Stealing the show in both games, GladOS is the breakout star of the franchise, proving that a creepy disembodied voice is sometimes the best antagonist of all.
6. The Matrix: No list would be complete without the Matrix, the all-encompassing virtual reality to which humanity has been condemned. Ever feel that niggling discomfort that everything in your life could be fake and you’d never know? Welcome to The Matrix, the movie trilogy that takes that unsettling idea and cranks it to eleven. Once you’re aware of it, living on the inside isn’t really an option, but as it turns out, escaping the Matrix, and staying escaped, is fraught with peril. Even Zion, the sexy rave/all-human hideout isn’t safe.
We have a long history of fearing and mistrusting computers, and there were many, many book, movie, and game characters to choose from. Honorable mention goes to Skynet in Terminator, The Overmind in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Auto from WALL-E.
Decisions, however, had to be made, so if your favorite virtual villains were missed, make sure to add them in the comments.