Press Enter by John Varley
IF YOU WISH TO KNOW MORE PRESS ENTER ■
Victor Apfel, a lonely middle-aged veteran of the Korean War, gets a recorded phone call asking him to come to his reclusive neighbor’s house to take care of what he finds there. The voice promises that he’ll be rewarded. Victor would like to ignore the message, but he gets another call every 10 minutes. When Victor arrives at Charles Kluge’s house, he finds Kluge dead and slumped over his computer keyboard, so he calls another neighbor — a computer operator named Hal (har, har) — and the cops. When the computer screen asks them to PRESS ENTER, they do, and this initiates Kluge’s strange interactive suicide note. Things get weirder when Victor finds a large deposit in his bank account and the cops find no record anywhere of Charles Kluge. Even the IRS didn’t know about him.
The police investigator doesn’t think it’s a suicide, so they hire a Vietnamese computer programmer named Lisa Foo to figure out what Kluge was up to. When she drives up in her silver Ferrari, she brings a little joy to Victor’s lonely existence. As the two of them get to know each other, both start to deal with troublesome issues such as Victor’s serious medical condition and the horrors of the wars they’ve lived through and the racism those experiences engendered. (The focus on the geo-politics of Southeast Asia during the middle 20th century is a refreshing change from the Western focus of most science fiction.)
Press Enter, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novella in 1985, works on so many levels — it’s a romance, murder mystery, psychological drama, and horror story. It’s exciting, moving, and scary. Though Press Enter is set in the early 1980s, it feels nostalgic rather than dated. Discussions comparing and contrasting the computer to the human brain feel current, as does Lisa’s understanding that her skill with computer programming gives her power over others — power that could corrupt her.
I read Audible Frontier’s version of Press Enter which is 3 hours long and is narrated by Peter Ganim, who does a nice job, as usual. Press Enter is going to stay with me, and not just because I have a son who’s about to leave for college to study computer programming (shudder). I was enthralled from the first sentence to the last.