Without Me You're Nothing


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The spice must flow… as must the electrons. After Frank Herbert wrote the seminal science-fiction novel Dune in 1965, he shifted his sights from the far future to the near future, with the goal of demystifying a new technological arrival: the personal computer. The non-fiction result was Without Me You're Nothing: The Essential Guide to Home Computers.

Written by Herbert with assistance from Max Barnard, "a computer professional who handles both machines and programming and who designed Herbert's own home system", the book is a platform-agnostic guide to the basic functions of computer hardware, software, and programming. For example, the book breaks down the foreign vocabulary of information technology into more familiar concepts. Terms such as "input", "output", "CPU", and "memory" are instead referred to as "information", "action", "switching", and "storage", respectively. "Use the funny words if you must," says Herbert.

Without Me You're Nothing (is that Herbert talking to the computer — or to the readers?) was published in 1980 in hardcover (ISBN 0671412876) and a year later in paperback (ISBN 0671439642), both of which are readily available from libraries, Amazon.com, and eBay. Another paperback edition was released under the name The Home Computer Handbook in 1981 (ISBN 057503050X) and 1985 (ISBN 0450056317). These computer books form two of the six non-fiction books Herbert wrote in his lifetime.

Despite the multiple editions, I had never heard of this book until a friend introduced me to it. I was astonished that a science fiction author would branch out to something so practical and no-nonsense. William Touponce, author of the 1988 book Frank Herbert, made the connection:

[Herbert's] dominant intellectual impulse was not to mystify or set himself up as a prophet, but the opposite – to turn what powers of analysis he had (and they were considerable) over to his audience. And this impulse is as manifest in Dune… as it is in his computer book, Without Me You're Nothing.

Being nonspecific about what computers the reader uses, the book makes little to no reference about the Apple II specifically. The exception is a black-and-white photo of the Apple II opening Chapter 3: Meet Your New Machine — followed immediately by a photo of the Atari 400.

Of additional historical reference value are Appendix D, which includes the names and mailing addresses of the era's computer magazines (Byte in Peterborough, NH; Digital Design in Brookline, MA; ROM of Hampton, CT); and Appendix E: Microcomputer Accessories and Manufacturers, listing everything from Apple (770 Welch Road in Palo Alto) to Data General Corp (Southborough, MA) to Radio Shack (Fort Worth, TX).

I haven't read the book in-depth — to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Dune — but it's nonetheless a fascinating artifact of how early computers were perceived and deciphered by early users, grounding even someone accustomed to looking among the stars.

  1. Jonathan Badger says:

    Along these same lines, Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park et al, fame) wrote the non-fiction "Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers" in 1984. It talked about now-obvious things like how computers weren't really "thinking machines" like HAL 9000 and other fictional depictions and also had a guide to the then-available machines.

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