(My own copy)
(original review, 1998)
I liked “Steel Beach” by John Varley much more than I expected, as the AI is much more insidious that we usually see in most contemporary SF. Most of the others assume that an AI would go rogue, but "Steel Beach" assumes the opposite, that the AI would work exactly as designed. In “Steel Beach”, the residents of Lunar all live under the benevolent auspices of the Central Computer, which has essentially replaced even the idea of government, automating all the boring jobs, inventing paradigm shifting technology & freeing up humanity to live a life of ease (with near immortality thrown in). Problem is that humans aren't built to live that life: Humans need conflict, they need those tiny little jobs to make life worth living & so the humans with no understanding of what they are angry about start to kill themselves. They can't fight the CC, they can't even think of the CC as something TO fight, since the CC has always been there, but after a century of looking for distractions people are starting to realize that their lives are empty of meaning, but lack the understanding to put that concept into words. There's actually a scene in the book where there is a new construction project & there are dozens of people standing around in blue collar work outfits, leaning on shovels, but the shovels look new and shiny. When questioned about it, it is explained that their job is entirely hypothetical, that they belong to a union of such workers whose entire job is to show up at designated construction sites & spend all day leaning on their shovels, doing nothing.
Much of the culture is like that, totally stagnated because the CC does everything through automated machines. Worse yet, the technology that keeps people alive is also controlled by the CC, you'd die if it decided to turn it off. That's much scarier than any Skynet, end of the world AI, because that's something that people not only could, but WOULD fight against. Sure such conflict may be futile, but at least it'd be humanities choice, live on your knees, or die on your feet. How do you fight against something that controls every aspect of human culture & has given you literally everything you thought you wanted. You'd be a prisoner of your own desires, even if you wanted to fight it, you've already lost.
Now THAT is scary.