If you’re looking for a good tech-related read this summer — something in the genre of Black Mirror — you can’t do any better than “A Logic Named Joe,” a short story published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. “Astounding” is an apt description for this prescient short story by William Fitzgerald Jenkins, who worked under the pseudonym Murray Leinster.
“Joe” is not a human but rather an unnamed “logic”—a device that sounds eerily like your personal computer or smartphone. The story’s narrator is a maintenance man at the logics manufacturing plant, and he describes how the logic functions:
“You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It’s hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch ‘Station SNAFU’ on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too.”
At the risk of revealing spoilers, Joe has a slight manufacturing defect that allows logic users to search for illicit or personal information. It’s up to our unnamed hero to make the necessary modifications to prevent complete takeover by machine (and save his marriage). As he puts it, “You might say I saved civilization an’ not be far wrong.”
Jenkins—known as the “Dean of Science Fiction” for his prolific career, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s—was also an inventor. He patented a front projection system used to film special effects.
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