Saturday, May 23, 2009

Short SF Review #7: "Testing... One, Two, Three, Four"

"Testing... One, Two, Three, Four," by Steve Chapman
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact, December 1969

Colonel Rafferty was surrounded by a computer. And he felt it. Little orange lights were staring at him. Plastic buttons were shouting orders at him. "Do not bend, staple, or mutilate." Feet on his desk, Rafferty fingered a heavy paperweight and thought dirt at the machine.

Secret tests of character, for good or ill, abound in fiction throughout history. They're certainly present in modern science fiction, particularly in those stories set during the pioneering days of spaceflight, when the tools are too limited and the environment too hostile to allow anyone but the most capable to test their mettle against it. Determining just who those people are has doubtless been the seed of many stories. "Testing... One, Two, Three Four," Steve Chapman's first published story according to the ISFDB database, is probably one of the more obscure.

"Testing" is centered around Colonel Rafferty - no first name given - and his antagonistic relationship with the MaCoApTe computer, a typically 1960s room-filling monster that runs on punch cards and also appears to have some level of artificial intelligence. The United States, at least, is involved in the establishment of a Mars base, and MaCoApTe's job is to test the applicants and filter out all but the very best.

Trouble arises when the computer abruptly stops working, the frustration of which is far more familiar to the average person on the street in 2009 than in 1969. Two of the Mars hopefuls are locked away in computer-sealed testing chambers where they are exposed to "hypnotically created beasties" and a gradual carbon monoxide leak, respectively, in order to create challenges for them to overcome. With MaCoApTe down for the count, it falls to Colonel Rafferty to save the men (of course they're men - 1969, remember?) on his own.

For its length, the story didn't waste time ramping up the action - always a positive quality. We're introduced to Rafferty and the computer just enough to get an understanding of their personalities before Things Go Flooey and Man must right the wrongs of the Machine. Nevertheless, it on the whole seemed sterile and flat. This may have been intentional, to echo the "institutional testing chamber" setting, or it may not have, but either way it didn't draw me in as well as it might have.

What really grabbed my attention were those asides that are endemic to, and unavoidable in, science fiction; offhand references or window dressing that, while sensible at the time the story was written, contribute to its datedness. MaCoApTe seems almost a refugee from the pre-transistor era, although an unusually intelligent one - even today, few computers have the werewithal to curse at their users, rather than the other way around. Rafferty himself has fond memories of flying an F-104 Starfighter, but Chapman's choice of this aircraft in his character's past turned out to be a good one; even after the U.S. Air Force retired them, NASA continued to use Starfighters in training and testing roles as late as 1994. In 1969, with the world still light-headed from the success of Apollo 11, the idea that there would not be a human presence on Mars by 1994 would probably have been ridiculous.

The only real negative about the story was that I was able to correctly guess its twist ending from a few pages away - though I'll say that the introductory note left by John W. Campbell probably helped with that.


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