The book is an exploration of it's title: A one-line BASIC program that was intended to run on an early 80s Commodore 64 computer. The program produces the maze-like pattern shown on the book's cover, and inner sleeves.
Each chapter explores a different facet of this program, and by doing so it covers an incredible amount of ground. There is a chapter on mazes, a chapter on randomness, a chapter on grids, a chapter on the BASIC language, and so on. If you think this is a lot of pages to devote to a one-line computer program, you are mistaken. The book barely scratches the surface of each of the diverse subjects it touches upon, from Falcon looms to flying toasters. There have been many books written about mazes, and whole careers built upon studying randomness, and this is a short little book.
It is the surprising depth and far-reaching ramifications of little useless programs like these that got me into this game, back in the early 80s. After my Timex Sinclair, my second computer was a Commodore VIC 20, the precursor to the more successful C64, and I fondly remember writing one-liners like these, staring into the glowing phosphors of a little television, until I could barely keep my eyes open in the early morning light. During the months that I manipulated those phosphors, the symbols they represented were manipulating me. My fevered brain underwent more intellectual growth during that period than any time in my life since my early childhood.
The book was written by a team of what my colleagues call "unicorns" - cross-disciplinary people who straddle the worlds of creativity and technology. I was expecting a set of disconnected essays from different voices, but I didn't get it. The authors used a Wiki to collaborate, and the book feels as if it were written by a single, extremely erudite author. The chapters cover separate subjects, but the whole is very much connected, helped by it's extremely constrained subject - that single one line program. Although the book necessarily describes some technical subjects, it is written for a lay audience.
I think of myself as a unicorn. There are a lot of us out there, but we are not as common as I would like. My feeling is that unicorns provide an important bridge between the liberal arts and the physical sciences, and that unicorn skills should be nurtured. All of my professional career, I have obsessed over a set of subjects which were, until recently, not given sufficient attention in the computer science press.
For example, I've always been fascinated by the RND() function in the BASIC language - I initially thought it was the most important feature of the language. For a long time, the amount of joy I derived from writing software was proportional to the amount that the software depended on randomness. There is a relationship between the RND() function and the perception of utility. To me, programs that are useful, and that do not require randomness, are boring. The RND() function is like a firehose from God, and the programs that use it are fun. They are games, and simulations, and art.
So, as an auto-didact (as many unicorns are), I was surprised that in programming texts that describe programming languages, the RND() (or rand() or random()) feature is always given such brief treatment. I've even met programmers who (gasp!) have never used it! Meanwhile outside of programming language texts, the topic is barely discussed. It's not a topic that non-programmers have been exposed to. To me, it's the first thing you should learn as a neophyte programmer. Yet so many computer science students are not exposed to it early enough - instead, they are compelled to write functions which factor numbers and do other numeric manipulations. Many programmers have thrived in this sterile environment, but it doesn't suit unicorns.
It is the love of RND() that separates this particular creative coder from your dyed-in-the-wool computer science nerd. At this late stage in my creative programming career, I no longer make as much use of RND() - I've discovered new ways to achieve the same important thing it gave me: complex and beautiful behavior with very little effort. The holy grail of the unicorn is the perfect one-line program. The one-line program that succeeds in recreating the universe, and making it's own DNA, and breeding with itself so that a new sub-universe is born. This is our philosopher's stone.
Another feature of unicorns is that they don't mind using programming techniques that are no longer on the list of officially approved methodologies by the software engineering orthodoxy. Incantations are only a means to an end. We are not in the business of making incantations, we are in the business of making universes, using incantations as a tool. 10 PRINT, for example, contains a GOTO command. GOTO, of course, has been the bane of readable code almost since the second edition of "The Elements of Style", and the BASIC language itself sits on a lowly plain of derision slightly above COBOL. The book also addresses the unfortunate gulf between recreational coders and the computer science establishment.
Unfortunately, one line programs, like unicorns, have become an endangered species. Those of us who remember one line BASIC despair at the new hurdles that have been raised, which prevent young people from discovering the joys of the random number generator. When we expunged GOTOs from the reserved words of all the new programming languages, when we made our code structured, object-oriented and useable for large complex software engineering projects, we also made it much harder for kids and teens to use those same technologies to explore the imaginary landscape. If the first programming language I had been exposed to was Java, I think I might have ended up in a different profession entirely.
The proceeds of this book go to PLAYPOWER - a charity which aims to give disadvantaged kids access to extremely cheap computers that have a one line BASIC. This seems like a wonderful thing. Damn, I want one of those computers too! I miss my VIC 20.