After its initial appearance in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in October 1961, “The Machine That Won the War” was republished in Nightfall and Other Stories (1961) and Robot Dreams (1986), and in innumerable student anthologies. The machine, named Multivac, is featured in several of Isaac Asimov’s tales, but in this one, in particular, the relationship between computers and humans no longer looks like science fiction. Despite the nearly five decades that have elapsed since its initial publication, the story not only remains relevant but continues to impress contemporary readers because of its ironic understanding of fate and human fallibility.
The setting of the tale occurs in “the silent depths of Multivac’s underground chambers” (593) in the aftermath of Earth’s triumph over Deneb. Unaccustomed to being at peace after years of conflict, three men relax in the brief interval between war and peace and discuss the reasons for Earth’s victory. Lamar Swift, a military captain and executive director of the Solar Federation, is the oldest of the three; using almost human terms, the other two men, John Henderson, chief programmer, and Max Jablonsky, chief interpreter of Multivac, discuss the machine as the apparent “hero” of the war. Henderson is the first to unburden himself of his guilty secret when he announces that Multivac was irrelevant to the victory. Believing Multivac’s data to be corrupt and therefore unreliable, Henderson confesses that he corrected the data by using his intuition and juggling the bits and pieces “until they looked right” (595).
Jablonsky smiles and reveals that he, too, knew that Multivac was not functioning properly. He therefore put no faith in its conclusions and, like Henderson, used his intuition to correct the results. Swift, looking from one man to the other, remarks that by the time he received the material, it was a “manmade interpretation of manmade data. Isn’t that right?” When the other two acquiesce, Swift reveals that because he believed the material to be unreliable, he made his decisions on prosecuting the war by using a simple computing device far older than Multivac: Reaching into his pocket and flipping a coin, he asks, “Heads or tails, gentlemen?” (597). Although Asimov’s tale is brief, it employs human guilt and the confessional urge to demonstrate that human arrogance, self-centeredness, and propensity for risk taking are inherent in all human action, whether or not “machines” are involved.
Asimov, Isaac. “The Machine That Won the War.” In Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories. Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1990.