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"The best fuzzy rules, the best knowledge, deal with the turning points of the system. If a race-car driver teaches you how to drive, you don't need him to show you how to drive on the straightaway. It's how he handles the curves that matters."
- Bart Kosko

City Fathers  
  A set of computer systems which run every mechanical system in a city.  

Cities in Flight deals with long-term space travel. The cities are actual Earth cities (like New York and Scranton, Pa.) that were able to literally pick up and leave the planet thanks to the development of the spindizzy. Some of the city inhabitants were able to live effectively forever, thanks to drugs that were available; but only if they had the skills needed by the city. The City Fathers tutored the children of the city, decided who would be a citizen with skills that were needed (and live forever with geriatric drugs) and who would be a passenger with a normal life span.

It's easy to think that because the City Fathers are dead, they're also stupid… Otherwise they would never be given the power they wield - and in some departments their power is absolute.

Suppose they had a breakdown?

If there were only a few of them, that would be a real danger; but there are more than a hundred, and they monitor and repair each other, so in fact it will never happen. Sanity and logic is their stock in trade.

From Cities in Flight, by James Blish.
Published by Avon in 1957
Additional resources -

This is an interesting early look at the idea of intelligent computer systems. One of the most important aspects of the City Fathers is that the plural is used because the system consists of a group of computers. The different units monitor each other, and constantly gauge each other's behavior and make repairs. The system has both redundancy and internal error-checking.

One of the essential functions of the City Fathers was to act as the memory for the people under their care. In the novel, the city administrators (as opposed to passengers) were practically immortal.

Nobody bothered to remember many facts. That was what the City Fathers were and like machines were for; they stored data. Living men memorized nothing but processes, throwing out obsolete ones for new ones as invention made it necessary. When they needed facts, they asked the machines.

This excerpt describes one of the machines which comprised the City Fathers:

The Librarian was that one of the 134 machines comprising the City Fathers which had prime charge of the memory banks, and was additionally charged with teaching; it did not collect information, but only catalogued and dispensed it. Interpretation was not one of its functions.


[After getting the answer,] Chris sat back, scratching his head in exasperation. He had hoped for a clear-cut, yes-or-no answer, but what he had gotten stood squarely in the middle.

Then he noticed that the booth had not returned his card to him. This was quite usual; it meant only that the Librarian, which spent its whole mechanical life substituting free association for thinking, had a related subject it would talk about if he liked. Usually it wasn’t worth while exploring these, for the Librarian could go on forever if so encouraged; all he needed to do now was to say “Return,” and he could take his card and go. But the take-cover alert wasn’t over yet; so, instead, he said, “Proceed.”

Compare this system to another which seems to consist of a single entity; check out the Big Computer, from Millennium, by John Varley.

The oldest reference I know about is the Government Machine from Mechanocracy (1932) by Miles J. Breuer.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Cities in Flight
  More Ideas and Technology by James Blish
  Tech news articles related to Cities in Flight
  Tech news articles related to works by James Blish

City Fathers-related news articles:
  - RocketScore Tells You Your SAT Essay Score
  - Robot English Teacher From KAIRA
  - Polaris Poker AI Defeats Humans, Rakes In $195K
  - Computer, Heal Thyself - With ClearView

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