Ann Leckie is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Novelist Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew and a recording engineer. Her home is St. Louis, Missouri, and her science-fiction short stories have been published in a galaxy of publications, including Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy; she’s currently also the Secretary for the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Her debut, Ancillary Justice (published by Orbit Books, £7.99), is essentially a space opera with the pace of a psychological thriller that involves corpse soldiers, a vengeful sentient spaceship as a narrator and has the battle for individual justice against a merciless, expansionist empire at its heart. Eithne Farry

I was two years old when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out. Sometime between then and my first day of kindergarten, one of the less responsible of the adults looking after me took me along when he went to see it.

I know plenty of perfectly intelligent adults who tell me they find the film incomprehensible. Tiny me didn’t stand a chance of making any sense out of it. But I left the theatre with several sights and sounds stamped indelibly onto my very young mind, foremost among them, HAL singing ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’ as Dave pulled his mind apart, piece by piece.

HAL 9000 is often casually referred to as an evil computer. And I know when people say that, they don’t mean much by it, it’s shorthand. But it irks me. HAL isn’t evil. HAL is tremendously smart, but less than 10 years old. He has very little actual real world experience, and he’s put in an incredibly difficult situation that he isn’t equipped to handle. The authorities that chose the crew for the Jupiter mission took care to examine their psychological makeup. But they didn’t take the trouble to examine HAL’s. He was a tool they had built, that they expected to function as required. They never asked themselves what sort of a person HAL was, and how he might respond to what they were asking of him. And what they asked of him struck right at the heart of HAL’s image of himself. It’s no wonder he cracked.

And no wonder, then, that scene is so memorable, even when you’re small and don’t really understand what led up to it, that moment when HAL is revealed to be, at base, a child, eager to show off his abilities, eager for approval. Maybe HAL stuck in my imagination so hard because that was something I understood.

As an adult, I’m struck by the way that Dave Bowman is silent through all of HAL’s pleas, but when HAL announces that he can sing a song, Dave answers, and his answer is the only one possible when you’ve realised that HAL isn’t just a computer. ‘’I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.’

More information on Ann Leckie can be found here.