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Michaelmas by Algis Budrys

Michaelmas (1977)

by Algis Budrys

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Showing 5 of 5
I read the version of "Michaelmas" serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction many decades ago and remembered it as one of the first stories featuring an artificial intelligence as we now understand the term. Reading this fairly different novel version, I am impressed by how Budrys anticipated changes in the news business and again with his portrait of an AI and how it interacts with Michaelmas. The plot, insofar as there is a plot, seems like an homage to A.E. van Vogt. ( )
  nmele | Aug 1, 2017 |
Published in 1977, this is a novel about a man who has a portable computer and an internet connection. Hopefully the prescience will not stop there. This from chapter 13:

“Somewhere among her followers, or in her constituency, was the next person who'd try combining populism and xenophobia. It was a surefire formula that had never in the entire history of American democracy been a winner in the end.”

I write this in the year of Brexit and the election of Trump.

Anyway, Michaelmas is using the internet to secretly rule the world. The problem with the novel is that it is a series of scenes of Michaelmas in uninteresting places (his apartment, a press conference) while information is fed to him.

Despite the flat means by which the plot is unfolded, the novel is not without merit. Budrys throws out some interesting thoughts on the effects on the soul of the slush of the information superhighway and the healing effects of the natural world; autonomy and control and their illusory nature. There is also some fine writing when Budrys lets his characters monologue. ( )
1 vote Lukerik | Nov 18, 2016 |
My reactions to reading this novel in 1991. Spoilers follow.

Algis Budry's expressed, in review columns of Fantasy & Science Fiction, admiration for William Gibson's Neuromancer. I don't know the exact reasons for his consideration of Gibson as sf's salvation. Perhaps he considered Gibson as a writer who knews the implications of the information age. I would argue, though, that Budry's fine novel is more conscious of the implications of the mass media and information age than Gibson's early work.

True, his novel lacks, unlike Gibson's, any of the low-life element of cyberpunk's "hi-tech, low-life" but he has the elements of artificial intelligence, advances in the biological sciences (though Budrys places less emphasis on these than Gibson and Gibson is, as is his almost unique trademark, interested in the "street" uses of biotech), and an alien presence. But if Gibson is interested in flashy images and Gothic plots of a criminal nature, Budrys is interested with the realistic physical and psychological ways the information age can alter our world and make manipulation possible. Domino and Michaelmas rifle inventory records, travel logs, shipping records, engineering studies, news files in a fast-moving plot. Gibson's baroque plots center on getting keys, fleeing killers, the data sought by his cowboys is vague. Budrys novel shows the vast potential in having rapid, unlimited access to the data of man's social transactions and does so quite realistic.

Budrys doesn't stop there though. He deals with how mass communications affect us. Some of his criticisms are not new, e.g. that tv news and drama desensitizes us, that we judge suffering on its drama not its reality and importance, that media savy business and government manipulates (" ... make'em believe what you're doing is real." as Laurent Michaelmas' journalist friend Horse Watson complains) our views en masse. Others parts of the novel ring true: the ambitious Doug Campion who wants to be a newsman for the power. Ironically, his hero, the modest Michaelmas -- part of his demeanor is carefully cultivated to evoke trust, but he is rather modest in his dealings with the world though he and Domino "run the world" -- really does have that power via his subtle manipluations of information. Michaelmas' public manipulation of the truth is done by delaying its revelation, putting a spin on it, assuming the careful, rational air one must assume on tv to seem credible. (" ... not merely the event itself, but opinion of the event, rebuttal of the opinion, and the ready charge of self-interest, and the countercharge. There was the analysis of the event, and the excavation of the root causes of the event, and the placement of the event in the correct historical context."), This novel makes you see the world of news anew. (Budrys has, according to his Dream Makers information, been an adman and public relations consultant.).

There is a wonderful passage in the first chapter on the human effects of "election valves" and "carbon fluids": the loves effected, the fortunes rising and falling due to the information carried in a few electronic pulses. Budrys' plot is fast-moving, Domino and Michaelmas interesting, fascinating manipulators who are remarkably uncorrupt, gently steering man to a more peaceful, prosperous destiny. The plot does have what I consider a few flaws. The main one, the feature that drives the plot of intrigue, is the not very well-explained alien presence of the Fermierla, an alien philosopher with a "probability coherence device" who, his human allies think, may have simply called us into existence as intellectual representatives of the human race. Is man a fantasy delusion of his? The novel seems to reject this and imply that the Fermierla has fooled itself. However, it is even implied at novel's end, however, that Michaelmas may believe this to be true. I suppose some found this enigma philosophically interesting. To me it seemed very jarring in tone to the rest of the novel and sort of a deus ex machina to justify the plot.

Another flaw is that there is no real detail on how Domino became sentient or how Michaelmas first hooked up with him or why and how they decided to amiably, unselfishly, run the world. And all we know of Michaelmas' pre-journalist past is that he seems to have been an electrical engineer, and it is heavily implied his wife died in a Chicago political riot in 1968. I once read a reviewer state that Budrys characters often have either their present actions depicted or their past but rarely both, so this seems to be a characteristic feature of his characterization. It doesn't really spoil the novel, but it would have been nice to have Michaelmas' and Domino's pasts. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 7, 2012 |
In the year 2000 (yes, that does seem to be the year this takes place), war has faded from the Earth, and humanity growing ever-closer together is getting ready to explore the rest of the solar system. Humanity doesn't know that one man is responsible. The Anderson Cooper-like Laurent Michaelmas is not only the world's top newsman; he is the man behind the curtain. He has a superintelligent computer, Domino, and together they run everything, gently nudging humankind forward. But when a Swiss doctor announces that he has cured an astronaut thought vaporized in a shuttle explosion, Michaelmas suspects that something alien is behind it. This novel is by turns interesting and half-baked. Much like the action in Lem's The Investigation and the Strugatskys' Definitely Maybe, the conspiracy and Michaelmas-Domino operate through accumulations of slight probabilities, an overheated wire here, an anonymous tip there. But this setup raises many more interesting questions than it answers. Why is Michaelmas running the world? How did he create Domino? The conspiracy plot seems to be a mismatch of ambitious aims with slight means, like trying to destroy the Great Pyramid by sanding it down with a nail file. The minor characters notice something is strange with the world ("like being stuck in Jello"), but the interesting idea that humanity might not really appreciate sidling toward utopia is never really addressed. However... a few days ago, I saw a graph that showed a sharp drop in deaths by war since the 1950s. That seemed to me to be a Michaelmas-Domino result. But then there is the recession, where no one's hand seems to be on the tiller at all. Both are equally discomfiting. ( )
1 vote rameau | Oct 4, 2011 |
This is a computer-that-takes-over-the-world novel with a difference: the computer is benevolent, and is controlled by a human almost as benevolent. Sleek, clever, entertaining, this is a novel that disappoints only by being so short. Very enjoyable.
  pipecad | Jul 4, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Algis Budrysprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gurney, JamesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Sidney Coleman, my friend and this book's friend
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When he was lonely as he was tonight, Laurent Michaelmas would consider himself in a dangerous mood.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Published less than a decade into the Internet era, this remarkable science fiction novel foreshadows many of the world?s technological advances One of the world?s wealthiest and most influential men, journalist Laurent Michaelmas lives in a penthouse overlooking New York City?s Central Park with his superintelligent computer, Domino. He attained his fame and power after hacking into the worldwide computer network. He then went on to use his unique gifts to create a version of the UN that would ensure global peace. In short, he and Domino secretly run the world. But now he has reason for concern. A Swiss doctor has cured an astronaut believed to have vaporized in a shuttle explosion during an expedition to the outer planets of the solar system. Suspecting that something extraterrestrial is behind this miraculous recovery, Michaelmas uses his immense influence to launch an international investigation. Are there really aliens in their midst? Is the resurrection of a dead man an attempt to cancel history and destroy the world?s precarious balance of power?… (more)

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