Conn Maxwell is returning to his impoverished backwater home planet, Poictesme (a nod to James Branch Cabell), after years at the university where he studied computer science. The leaders of Poictesme sent him to school so that he could learn about MERLIN, a legendary supercomputer that is thought to be located somewhere near their planet. They believe that if they can find MERLIN, they will have the information and guidance they need to raise the economic power and status of Poictesme back to its former glory. It used to be an important military outpost but it was abandoned by the government when the war ended. Some farmers remain (they produce a highly prized brandy) along with all the stuff that the military left behind.
Now that Conn has returned, the search for MERLIN can begin. But there are people on Poictesme who don’t believe in the legend. There are others who don’t want to find MERLIN — they are afraid of what a supercomputer might do to them. And there are still others who only want to find MERLIN for themselves. Conn must work with all of these people — and some of them are his own family members — to try to do the best thing for his planet. And that might mean telling a big lie!
The Cosmic Computer, also published as Junkyard Planet, is the third book in Piper’s TERRAN FEDERATION series, but it can stand alone. (I have not read the previous novels, Uller Uprising and Four Day Planet.) The Cosmic Computer is a fun science fiction quest story that has a lot going on despite its short length. There’s plenty of science and technology — robotics, engineering, astronautics. Some of this is quite dated because the book was published in 1963, but one of Piper’s female characters is a roboticist (the “real” women don’t like her, of course). There’s also lots of business, economics, sociology, religion, politics, and psychology. Plus, space battles!
It’s a little hard to believe that the people of Poictesme couldn’t figure out another way to make their planet prosper (it will be obvious to any reader). The reveal at the end is really hard to swallow, too, but this is still a nice adventure story with an interesting premise, some exciting exploration, and a couple of unexpected plot twists. The Cosmic Computer has some obvious parallels with Asimov’s ROBOT and FOUNDATION stories.
The Cosmic Computer is now in the public domain. I got the Kindle version for free and then purchased the audiobook for $1.99 with Amazon’s Whispersync deal. Jeffrey Kafer’s narration is quite nice.