The Machine That Won the War by Isaac Asimov
In The Machine That Won the War by Isaac Asimov we have the theme of doubt, reliability, trust, chance, responsibility, independence and self-importance. Taken from his Nightfall and Other Stories collection the reader realises after reading the story that Asimov may be exploring the theme of doubt. All three men in the story (Swift, Henderson and Jablonsky) have or had their doubts as to the reliability of Multivac. Some of the doubts, particularly Henderson’s doubts, were based on obviously defective information. While Jablonsky worked on intuition and Swift figured things out for himself by way of chance. This may be significant as Asimov may be suggesting that the heavy reliance on Multivac by others to win the war was not necessarily seen as a game changer for others. Swift’s approach in particular is risky and highlights that he had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Whereas others considered that Multivac would always be right and as such should be credited with winning the war against the Denebians. If anything the reliance or reliability of Multivac is being called into question. Which may be the point that Asimov is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that computers (Multivac) are not necessarily better than men and all that they really are is a machine that processes data that has been inputted and formatted by humans.
What is also interesting about the story is the fact that it becomes clear to the reader that none of the three men trust the data that Multivac outputs. In Henderson’s case he sees clearly that the information needs correcting and as such does so. Jablonsky like Henderson makes minor adjustments to the information based on intuition and Swift takes a risk between only two options (heads or tails). Not exactly a definitive way to approach or tackle a war but nonetheless it worked to Swift’s advantage. Earth won the war against the Denebians. However the bigger question to ask is whether or not any of the three men and Multivac should have been allowed to make the required decisions in the war against the Denebians. Some critics might argue that Multivac because it was receiving corrected information form Henderson might have a responsibility in winning the war. Others might suggest that Jablonsky by working on intuition was taking unnecessary risks. Though the real driving factor for winning the war appears to be Swift and his game of chance. As mentioned he was guaranteed a fifty-fifty chance of being successful. Which is higher odds than Jablonsky’s method and because Henderson’s information was tampered with by Jablonsky before it reached Swift. Henderson’s input in winning the war is minimal.
Though all three men really take responsibility for their input into winning the war. Leaving the talents of Multivac aside and allowing for a human input to decide the fortunes of Earth. It really is the risk-taking of Swift that decided matters. Something that becomes clear to the reader at the end of the story. As to whether Swift’s decision making was right his efforts decided Earth’s faith. It might also be important to remember that things could have gone differently for Swift. He could have been responsible for losing the war and in the process Earth’s inhabitants may be under the rule of the Denebians. However Asimov might be suggesting that regardless of how the war was won. It was just as risky to allow Multivac make the decisions as it was for Swift to make them. Even today people may not trust computers or those who operate them. Particularly when human information is being feed into the computer. Man in himself is unreliable just as Multivac may be.
The end of the story is rather muted because it becomes clear to the reader that those in responsible roles mistrusted Multivac. Though they were clever enough not to say so. Instead Henderson and Jablonsky worked in secret and allowed for Multivac to output the information that they thought was best. Only then did they decide to pass the information on to Swift. Who made his own decisions by flipping a coin. Though Asimov does not give tallies for those who were killed in the war. It is possible that all three men are responsible for unnecessary deaths. As often happens at times of war. Swift could not be right all the time so it is conceivable that many men and women perished based on Swift’s decisions. Something that Swift himself does not appear to recognise. Though again Asimov does not go into how many casualties there may have been. At the end all three men seem to be more concerned with taking credit for winning the war. Which may suggest that all three men believe in their own self-importance.