Posts Tagged ‘future of humanity’

James Blish: The Seedling Stars

March 21, 2021

     Found this one that I bought in 1977 and apparently hadn’t read. It’s a set of four loosely linked tales about adapted humans, with the basic premise that finding habitable earth-like planets is pretty unlikely, terraforming planets is very long-term and costly, and therefore the way to go is to manipulate humans so that they can live in radically different conditions. And yet Blish’s adapted humans think and emote just like us ordinary humans in hard SF… I found this just a little unconvincing, really. The novel dated from the mid-1950s, and yet already there is the notion that humans are outgrowing, and wearing out, their own planet.

As I read this moderately interesting novel of ideas – for that’s basically what it is, nothing plot-wise to sustain a reader’s attention here – I was struck by the progression from Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, where humans modify themselves in order to colonise planets, in the sweep of a story of humanity across several billion years, to Blish in this novel, exploring a similar idea, but focusing on smaller groups of individuals in a more limited time-frame, with the similar idea of humanity ‘seeding’ other worlds with intelligent life. And then I realised what Ursula Le Guin had done, picking up the same idea in a much more sophisticated manner in her Hainish novels and stories. In those, the Hainish, in the distant past, seeded many worlds across the universe with variations on the human form; these eventually re-discover each other and form a loose association called the Ekumen, and homo sapiens here on planet Earth is merely one of the results of the Hainish seeding. And then, with her background in anthropology, she can put homo sapiens under the microscope.

It’s good to see how writers play with each other’s ideas, develop and vary them, and provide us with more food for thought in different ways. I can acknowledge Blish’s part in this sequence, and I liked the final twist at the end where the racism that had always blighted humanity’s time on Earth, re-appeared as the different human types re-connected with each other, and the ‘original’ Terrans demonstrated their innate sense of superiority once again… But ultimately Blish is too much hard science, and unconvincing would-be humans for me.

Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

February 6, 2021

     I think it’s pretty well-known that the word robot comes from the Czech word for work, and was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1922 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). I’ve just gone back to the play, which I first sought out in the 1980s.

Rossum originally set out to make artificial humans, but his son realised that a simplified, and more functional version would be cheaper and more profitable; soon these creations flood the world and take over almost all human tasks. The unbelieving heroine is shown as unable to tell the difference between human and robot, and then we are in the territory of, is there any real difference? Aren’t these creatures de-humanising humans by taking over their tasks? Our heroine belongs to an organisation that would give robots ‘human rights’; their creator thinks that everything will be produced so cheaply and plentifully that humans will be able to just help themselves to whatever they need…

It’s a play, and the dialogue is rather wooden. It reminds me of some of Shaw’s plays, though a kinder comparison would be with the kind of theatre Brecht was developing around the same time.

Things do not turn out as planned. Five years elapse between the first act and the remainder of the play, during which time humans have used robots as soldiers, wars are being fought everywhere, it’s clear that sometimes robots go berserk, and that they increasingly despise inefficient and useless human beings, who are gradually dying out because they have no real purpose any more. The robots set about eliminating the last of our species. Unfortunately, the papers detailing how the robots are made, are destroyed.

Only one human survives, and the robots expect him to be able to reconstruct the recipe for making more of them, as they only have a 20-year lifespan. He cannot, and strangely, the robots become more despairing as they foresee their eventual disappearance; there is some essence of humanity in the final robot prototype and the last human finds himself in the position of God in Genesis; the ending is at once blindingly obvious, very clever and also highly satirical.

The play R.U.R. is now a curiosity more than anything, I think, and yet extremely prophetic in the issues it raises and foregrounds, and it deserves revisiting in these days of AI, if only for the purpose of making us think a little more deeply and clearly about what is going on, and what we may be preparing for our futures. Military use of robotics is already, frighteningly, well under-way. Human redundancy in many areas of the workplace has already begun. Can we be sure that robots will always act in our best interests, benevolently obeying Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics? We should not be so complacent…

%d bloggers like this: