COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT: Evolution and Artificial Intelligence

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Welchman, Jennifer. "COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT: Evolution and Artificial Intelligence." Michael Berman and Rohit Dalvi, eds. Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. Chapter 4, pp. [57]-71. Mentioned in review of the essay anthology by Dennis M. Kratz, Extrapolation 54.2 (Summer 2013): 210. Available on on as of 7 February 2019 at <>.

Kratz praises the essay and notes that it "attributes the source of the viewer's horrific response (and the film's power) not to the god-replacing computer itself", Colossus, "but to the loss of 'humanity's pride of place as the dominant form of life on the planet' (67) that the computer will initiate," which he goes on to associate with "dystopian visions driven by human technological achievement," which he deems "a recurring theme of the collection" on Heroes, Monsters and Values "and the avowedly anti-modernist perspective taken by several of the essays" (Kratz, p. 210-11).

Usefully, if perhaps too insistently, Welchman compares and especially contrasts the upshots of the AI (or "machine intelligence") computer take-over theme in FORBIN PROJECT (1970) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968); "In Colossus, it isn't the computer that is reduced to emotional babbling by its ultimate defeat, it is the computer's human creator, Charles Forbin" ([57]). And then Welshman expands this contrast to note the general optimism on a high-tech future in SF films from the 1950s into 1968 as opposed to the next round: "With a few exceptions [...] most of the signature films of the 1970s neither celebrated the potential of new scientific and technological advances to improve human life nor predicted the generation of genuinely new and horrific entities of the sort that had populated earlier science fiction films. The films of the 1970s are given instead to reflecting upon the social implications of what already was (or was fast becoming) established science and technology. And these reflections were almost uniformly depressing" (p. 58), with FORBIN PROJECT particularly bleak.

Doesn't mention Mary Douglas's classic Purity and Danger (1966, most specifically on "The Abominations in Leviticus")[1] but uses Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror (1990) to discuss how the huge supercomputer Colossus is scary but not horrific, without Horror's sense of a monster that violates the natural order.

 Enlightenment science depicted the world as a vast deterministic mechanism in which supernatural forces had no place. Such forces came to be seen as contrary to nature or "unnatural." Consequently, fictional entities assigned supernatural properties became horrific for early modern audience. But while Carroll's hypothesis explains how supernatural entities became categorically interstitial and so disorientating, it does not explain why creatures that transgress species boundaries or other metaphysical categories were also horrific. To explain this we need to recall that the Enlightenment science retained a much older notion about the constituent elements of the world alongside its more innovative mechanistic assumptions about its operations. (p. 62)

So to the mechanistic idea, Welchman adds the idea of "unchanging essences" whose transgression or admixture resulted in a disturbing, a horrifying, impurity.

For the earliest film audiences, who understood internally-generated movement as an essential property of organic entities and analytic functioning as an equally essential attribute of human nature, a machine like Colossus could have seemed categorically interstitial and so horrific; i.e., simultaneously dead and alive, organic and inorganic, human and nonhuman. But by the 1950s, film audiences were so familiar with complex and internally self-regulating mechanical systems, that this sort of category confusion was fast becoming impossible for them. After 1950, rogue computers could credibly induce fear in the fiction human character [...] but not horror. (p. 62)