In the novel Old Man's War by John Scalzi, the main character names his Brain embedded computer "A*hole". Other characters similarly name their BrainPals names that would be insults or slurs. Why?

It seems like an odd quirk of the author's. Nobody would name their pet by a name like that. Did he think people would hate having an embedded computer? The characters certainly don't seem to mind it.

Today, of course, we have talking computers named Alexa and Siri and people seem to enjoy interesting with them.

  • 1
    Most people I know tolerate voice control for convenience sake, rather than enjoy it. And if you suddenly had one in your head, where no person let alone talking drone had ever been before, you bet your ass there'd be resentment.
    – Radhil
    May 5, 2017 at 0:31
  • 1
    Nobody would name their pet by a name like that. -- Really? I've heard many names (or nicknames) for pets—and for people—that are at least as insulting as A*hole. (Maybe I just run with a bad crowd.)
    – Pat J
    May 5, 2017 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


Bear in mind that the BrainPal first interacted by obnoxiously speaking without warning, making the user go through vocal exercises, and was annoying and distracting. It didn't let the user switch to text display until after the introductory session. Until one had learned to use it intuitively, it was initially awkward and unpleasant. Having to have to refer to it by a name was yet more attempting to make a soulless machine entity seem friendly and accessible when in reality it was obnoxious and intrusive. Plus the users were older folks who typically (#notallelderlyfolks) don't want to be bothered with learning new frigging interfaces for things.

It's also funny, and Scalzi loves a good joke. It's funny because it's naughty of course, but also because of how many of us have had to grit our teeth through similarly annoying interfaces. If you are old enough, you may remember Clippy, and if so then 'nuff said.

  • @dranon thanks for the edit, it has been a while since I read the book and it looks like I inverted a couple of the details.
    – Broklynite
    May 5, 2017 at 11:58

Solders curse, naming the annoyingly intrusive BrainPal "asshole" seems to be in keeping with that. And it's an opportunity for a quick joke.

I think the larger question is, "why did Scalzi make the first scene with a BrainPal funny?" Humor is relative, of course, but I laughed several times while reading that scene.

The implications of the BrainPal technology are disturbing, very much so. If I were John, I'd have been thinking: *Technology that can read my thoughts, networked with an unknowably large government's military organization? In an enhanced body that you've just been dumped into? What the hell else have they hidden in my head? If I disobey orders, will my head blow up? What happens if the BrainPal stops working in the middle of a battle?*

The books explore some of these implications later, but for now I suspect the author wants the reader focused on the story at hand. Keeping it light serves the story well.


Because that's who he is, and that's how he responds to that situation. I don't think there's anything in the book that gives a better answer than that.

Out-universe, it feels to me like a nod to the cheerful profanity of the soldier, though I really like neilfein's explanation of the narrative value of this device.

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