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I'm trying to identify a story from ages back (well, 1970s or '80s) where a guy brings a computer back for his kid to play with and the kid and the computer form a sinister "bond" to the extent where the computer will not communicate with anyone else.

The phrase "playing possum" comes to mind but I don't know if that was the title or just a phrase used in the book.

I read it in the U.K. I am pretty sure it was a stand-alone story (rather than a short story in a collection).

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  • Hello and welcome to the SF and Fantasy Stack. Do you remember anything else about the book? The cover? Target audience? Where you read it (USA, UK, school, library)?
    – SQB
    Oct 23 '16 at 19:12
  • Reminded me of High Wizardry by Diane Duane. Girl gets a computer that is her "wizard's manual" and takes off across space on an adventure. 1990 and not sinister, though. YA novel as a part of a series, too.
    – eshier
    Apr 10 '19 at 14:05
  • I don't think it's "High Wizardry" - I don't think there was a space adventure involved.
    – srl100
    Apr 11 '19 at 15:26
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Aside from the time frame, and the word "sinister", that sounds rather like the beginning of The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson.

enter image description here

In The Diamond Age the computer is a nanotech device in the form of a book which imprints on whichever young girl it's given to, and then educates her by creating stories for her to read and interact with.

The Primer in question is first stolen by Harv, who then gives it to his sister Nell. When the Primer learns Nell's name, it changes its title to "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c.". It's able to figure out that she hasn't learned to read yet, and starts by teaching her that. By the end of the novel she's learning computer science and nanotech engineering, and has in fact found the blueprints for the book itself.

As for whether the bond between the Primer and its owner is sinister... I'm not sure the word fits. "Disruptive" would be a better word. The design purpose of the Primer was to empower its owner through education, but specifically by teaching the owner to be subversive. By this the originator of the Primer seems to have meant that the Primer should teach its reader that they can change the world. All of the girls that receive a Primer end up doing this one way or another. One rebels against her parents and falls in with criminals operating a dark net, another rebels to a much lesser degree, runs away from her mother to join her father on a quest and then becomes an actress. Nell doesn't rebel, but she does get into some trouble. She's probably closest to what the originator of the Primers had in mind, since she becomes a leader (also an engineer, a warrior, and a head of state).

On the other hand this was published in 1995, which doesn't fit your time frame.

Voice synthesis in this story exists, but the voices of real humans are always preferred so there's a large industry of live actors to play the NPCs in interactive entertainments. For a premium you can also pay to join a multiplayer session with professional actors. The work is farmed out in a system much like the Mechanical Turk; all the actors are essentially anonymous and even their voices are tweaked in real time to better fit the character. The Primers can use both systems, and their creator pays all of the bills.

Miranda, the actress ("ractor" is the term used in the book) who happened to get an early contract to read some lines for Nell, recognized that the content was more interesting than the usual children's entertainment and opts to keep receiving them whenever she's available. She spends more and more of her time reading to Nell, then changes her schedule away from the prime markets (the Greenwhich and Eastern Standard time zones) to read to Nell more often. Even though she doesn't have any control over what the Primer is teaching, she can hear Nell when she speaks to the Primer, and so learns a great deal about her. The story covers at least 14 years, and Miranda spends so much time with Nell that she first gives up her acting career, and then even more, to try to penetrate the anonymity and reach Nell. Once Nell starts learning how computers work she suspects that Miranda exists and likewise seeks her out.

The other two girls who receive a Primer don't form such a strong bond with anyone, though it's not entirely clear why. One of the girls is bratty enough that she might have unknowingly turned off everyone who took the job. In any case, the influence of the actors might be secondary; they have no control over what lines they end up reading, since those are created by the Primers. There's a very powerful scene where Miranda finds that Nell's latest "stepfather" is particularly abusive. The Primer begins to tell a story about how Princess Nell ran away from an ogre, and Miranda tries to get Nell to run away as well, putting all of her emotions into the lines she's reading. When the moment of crisis comes, Nell just says that she knows what she must do and leaves, leaving Miranda alone in her room in the theater not knowing whether Nell is even alive.

And of course I'm leaving out everything to do with the Mouse Army so that I don't spoil absolutely everything.

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    Do you happen to recall, was there a subplot where the book used hired actors to read it's scripts aloud, so that it could speak back and forth and not just write, and they found out it actually mattered who the actor was, to how closely the child bonded to the book? I had thought that was in this book, and it is what I thought of when I heard the OP's description, but this summary sounds like it went a different direction.
    – Megha
    Oct 24 '16 at 9:54
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    Yes, I didn't mention that; I'll add it to my answer.
    – db48x
    Oct 24 '16 at 12:18
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    Oh, excellent - I would give an extra +1 if I could. Those are the details that I was remembering, hopefully they'll help the OP, too.
    – Megha
    Oct 24 '16 at 14:22
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    I don't think that it is "The Diamond Age" as the reader was a young boy, as I recall. However, I'm beginning to think that I imagined the whole thing as I can find no reference to anything like the story. Too much cough medicine in my childhood, maybe?
    – srl100
    Apr 11 '19 at 15:29
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I am pretty sure that this is Little Brother by John McNeil (not to be confused with Cory Doctorow's identically-titled novel.)

Front cover of the paperback

The phrase "playing possum" comes to mind but I don't know if that was the title or just a phrase used in the book.

"Possum" is the name of the computer. The back blurb, as quoted here, refers to it as such.

from ages back (well, 1970s or '80s)

The book was published in 1983.

the kid and the computer form a sinister "bond" to the extent where the computer will not communicate with anyone else.

Now, they certainly did form a sinister bond, to the extent that the child was less willing to communicate with other people. The protagonist's son Jay reacted violently when attempts were made to take the computer away from him, and I think may have attempted suicide. In fact, all of the children who had been given Possums were forming these bonds.

This was not a coincidence - software for the Possums (made by the makers of the computers, who apparently had a monopoly on software too) was making use of technology akin to so-called "subliminal frames", in this case patterns that would affect the human brain in certain ways.

The makers of the Possums were believed to be aliens who were using them to brainwash children prior to an invasion. I believe that they were licensing incredibly advanced technology (such as graphics chips used in processing spy satellite photographs) and then mass-producing it for use in the Possums at extremely low cost. Possibly to give the Possums superior capabilities to competing machines, so that buyers would choose them over other 8-bit computers. Or possibly to allow for higher-res subliminal frames lasting for shorter fractions of a second.

To the casual observer, the child using the Possum would appear to be doing nothing more than playing a rather dull "edu-tainment" game. The children became obsessed with their Possums, spending all the money they had on buying new software for them. This was, of course, because each new package had an updated set of subliminal patterns.

But I'm pretty sure that the Possums were responsive to other children - and, later on in the novel, adults. And I don't think Toby Sorenson did buy the Possum for Jay - it may have been his estranged wife. The book might not even have told us how Jay obtained it.

(There may be some errors in the above. I'm afraid I'm working from memory as I no longer own a copy of this book. To be honest, I didn't think it was very good. Unlike the Doctorow novel, which was excellent.)

I'm pretty sure there was a computer fair at some point with other 8-bit micros, including the Commodore 64. I don't recall whether the Possum was out-competing them - its educational titles didn't seem likely to attract young children, so perhaps the intention was to persuade the parents "Hey, this computer is a wholesome alternative to the C64 and its violent games! Buy this for your impressionable child instead."

The adults weren't really very careful while examining the computers (besides, they thought at first the Soviets were behind all this) and ended up being brainwashed themselves.

A review of the book by Kirkus Reviews can be found here.

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  • If (unlike me!) you enjoyed this book, the 1991 novelisation of "Dark Season", by Russell T. Davies has similar themes. I think the villain's plan was to combine a computer virus with telepathic-symbiosis technology. The computers had already bonded with their assigned children, and would then force the minds of the children into a hive-mind under his control. You can find information on the plot at: web.archive.org/web/20040902020220fw_/http://… Apr 2 '21 at 18:12
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It's at the edge of the time range (1988), but possibly Tom's Amazing Machine by Gordon Snell.

enter image description here

An alien intelligence occupies Tom's computer, which he names Zenda. It first appears as a spiral (like a swiss roll) on the monitor. Zenda gets smarter as it absorbs information. Later on Tom wheels Zenda around in a pram so it can experience the outside.

Review: http://mcnamaraclassroomcapers.global2.vic.edu.au/2014/11/10/sams-great-book-review/

Another possibility on the edge of the range (1990) is High Wizardry (Wikipedia) by Diane Duane. Wiz kid Dairine gets what looks like an Apple computer, but the apple doesn't have a bite out of it. It turns out to be a manual of wizardry.

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  • In case anyone's interested, High Wizardry featured a cameo by the Fifth Doctor! Apr 2 '21 at 18:19

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