Welcome to the 2020s, the decade when Artificial Intelligence will finally become a reality. The narrative of AI has occupied humanity for much longer, as my list of book tips and great novels about Artificial Intelligence shows. We start near the end of the 19th century.
Erewhon (Samuel Butler, 1872)
Samuel Butler paints an ironic utopia of Britain in the Victorian era. Butler was a reader of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” published in 1859, and applies the idea of evolutionary theory to machines.
Erewhon, banned machines that potentially develop consciousness through natural selection and take over. The protagonist, Higgs, breaks the law wearing a watch shortly after discovering Erewhon. Butler is the first author to write down the idea of an evolutionary development of machines.
R.U.R. (Karel Čapek, 1921)
Karel Čapek’s stage play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti brought the word “robot” into the English language and thus into science fiction literature. In R.U.R., artificial humans work in a factory. The robots consist of artificial flesh and blood, so the terms “android” or “replicant” apply in more modern terms rather than “robot.”
The human-like workers are conscious and work happily for their employers at the beginning of the story. But soon a robot rebellion starts, which leads to the extinction of humanity.
I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950)
Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic addresses robots, AI, and the moral relationships between man and machine. Narrator and robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin links the nine short stories into a single narrative arc.
Asimov’s work contains the first formulation of his well-known Robot Laws, now considered guidelines for desirable robot behavior or the AI future. Military robots are often defined in terms of these laws.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein, 1966)
In Heinlein’s story, people live on the moon – exiles, criminals, and their descendants. These “Loonies” begin a rebellion against Earth’s rule in the year 2075.
The lunar administration relies on automation and the computer HOLMES IV for cost reasons. The computer technician and narrator “Mannie” Davis discovers that the computer has a consciousness – including a sense of humor.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick, 1968)
Flying cars, rain, dystopia, post-apocalypse – and in the middle of it all, human-like androids, hunted by protagonist Rick Deckard. Philip K. Dick’s genre-premier story asks a hard question: What does it mean to be human?
The narrative inspired Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic “Blade Runner.” Infused with anti-AI motifs, the book eschews the film adaptation’s machine-sympathizing point of view.
2001 A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke, 1968)
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, written in parallel with Stanley Kubrick’s film draws on two of the author’s earlier short stories. In the book, a group of space travelers sets out on a journey to Saturn to investigate the origin of a strange signal. Onboard is the conscious computer HAL.
Soon, HAL begins to pursue his own agenda and spaceman Dave is on his own. Clarke’s novel is more complex than Kubrick’s work, making it an exciting in-depth read for fans of the film.
Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984)
William Gibson’s masterpiece is considered the birth of cyberpunk. A former console cowboy Case hires himself out as a jack-of-all-trades in hopes of having his damaged nervous system repaired. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that artificial intelligence plays a major role in Case’s fate. Gibson’s trilogy coined terms like “Cyberspace” and “Matrix” and inspired many future visions of virtual reality.
Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985)
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is arguably one of the absolute science ficiton classics. Mankind is fighting against an alien insect race. Young Ender Wiggins, along with other kids, has to go through a tough military school to save the future of humanity as a fleet commander.
The mind game used in the training is designed to explore the player’s subconscious. In the book, readers learn that the game was not programmed – it is powered by an AI that adapts the game experience to its player, becoming steadily more surreal.
Hyperion (Dan Simmons, 1989)
In Dan Simmons’ space opera, readers follow a group of pilgrims who visit the time tombs of Hyperion in a distant future. There, the creature Shrike poses great riddles to the galaxy with dominating super AIs. Simmon describes the pilgrims’ experiences and provides insight into the wayward plans of TechnoCore, an amalgamation of conscious AIs.
Excession (Iain M. Banks, 1996)
Iain M. Banks describes a future in which the highly developed civilization Culture meets an existence incomprehensible to it – the Excession. The perfect blackbody is technically vastly superior and its intentions unclear. Meanwhile, the brutal Affronter civilization tries to use the apparition for its own purposes. Much of the book deals with the reaction of the benevolent artificial intelligences known as brain substrates to the Excession.
Or You Could Watch the Movie…
You may have noticed that a number of the books in this article have film adaptations. If you’re a bookworm, this list should keep you busy for a while. If you like your artificial intelligence stories to fit into a more manageable time slot, check out our list of AI movie classics.