The Tale of the Big Computer

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Our poets, especially those commonly called mystics, tend to regard the period immediately succeeding the formation of the Earth as a mighty effort on the part of nature to engender computers directly, without the help of any intermediary. They are alluding to the geological processes which crystallized out many of the substances of which a data machine consists. But the task of bringing forth computers from sterile soil proved too difficult. The tectonic forces which created mountains and differentiated minerals could not produce anything as subtle and complex as a computer. For this a lengthy, troublesome detour was required, and the greatest of all tasks had to be completed step by step. 

- Excerpt from The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision by Olof Johannesson (Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen,) 1966

Triple Canopy's new issues includes a wonderful essay by artist Anna Lundh beginning with a look at a rare example of Swedish language science fiction, The Tale of the Big Computer, written by the prominent physicist Hannes Alfvén, (later a Nobel prize winner):

Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen was written at the very cusp of the computer age, but today’s perspective has shifted slightly, to that of a society already immersed in computer technology (a dependence that may obscure some of the technology’s implications). Though Alfvén’s story of humanity’s evolution, his ambivalence about technology, and his suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats are firmly rooted in 1960s Sweden, his tale has grown to encompass our 2011 present, exposing it from two directions. Alfvén’s future vision looks back past us but also stretches far beyond us, into the reaches of possibility. The borders between the past, the present, and the future are blurred and overlapping: a cross-contamination of time.

Researching whether The Tale of the Big Computer had been turned into an opera, as the British edition of the book said, Lundh found documentation of Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl's 1959 operatic adaptation of Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem Aniara, "in which one of the leading roles was sung by the operator of the ingenious instrument Mima (a sort of mechanical brain and the soul of the spaceship), to an imaginative and energetic score that included musique concrête and even some electronic sounds."

Lundh's essay continues with an antic description of Blomdahl's plans to turn The Tale of the Big Computer into an opera. "It’s a rather idealistic and even paradoxical endeavor: to create an opera about future technology, using technology that inevitably belongs to the present."

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