Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of science fiction’s most important works, not to mention literature’s, in this day and age. Examining the idea of man as god—a creator of man, when published it set the tone for ethical and existential discussion on the subject. But in the wake of scientific progress since 1818, a similar yet different idea has appeared: man creating sentience in a machine. Though AI is now a relatively common theme in science fiction, it’s fair to say most exploit the concept for entertainment purposes, or as a simple plot device to get from point A to B. There are, however, some works, which in the tradition of Shelley, look at AI with more erudition. Roger Zelazny’s 1975 Home is the Hangman, with its focus on the psyche, religion, and guilt, is one such novella.
The brief opening scene of Home is the Hangman is fraught with tension from a threat palpable yet unnamed. But before matters can be explained, Zelazny jumps into the back story. Technician, detective, and recluse, an unnamed narrator is located on his houseboat by a man seeking assistance, and sets about relaying the history of sentient machines. Many years prior, advances in robotics and telefactors had accidentally brought about the first artificial intelligence. Sent by NASA to assist the exploration of distant moons and planets, the humanoid at first performed its duties as expected. But with time came deterioration in its willingness to obey, followed by outright disappearance, and ultimately a loss in hope it would ever return. But the narrator has been located for a reason: the machine’s space lander has been found in the Gulf of Mexico, and immediately thereafter, the murder of one of its four creators in New Orleans. Requiring further investigation, the most influential of the remaining three has sent a man to hire the narrator to find the AI before it kills them all. A most interesting and truly unpredictable investigation unfolding thereafter, the narrator discovers for himself what sentience in a machine means.
Based on the above, it would seem Home is the Hangman is a run-of-the-mill thriller. While Zelazny certainly builds tension admirably, he also does it intelligently, resolving matters in a clever yet mature fashion that does not descend into slasher film antics. As the three creators still alive are a psychologist, religious zealot, and anxiety riddled politician, the conversations the narrator has when seeking clues to help understand the machine’s intentions are ripe with discussion on the mind, cosmology, and guilt. Zelazny tying matters not only to Freud, Christianity, and deep rooted fear, he also throws commentary on Goedel, Turing, and a handful of other prominent thinkers into the mix, all to positive effect.
In the end, Home is the Hangman is a great mix of thought-provoking material written in Zelazny’s sparse, accomplished hand—all on top of being a good noir thriller that fully pays out in the end. Not a modern retelling of Frankenstein, the story nevertheless covers much of the same thematic ground as Shelley’s classic, confirming the tradition and helping to bring her story into the modern era. Accordingly, this novella stands amongst the tallest of Zelazny’s short fiction, perhaps only He Who Shapes and 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai able to match it for depth.