Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov’

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…

Andreas Eschbach: The Hair-Carpet Weavers

January 5, 2021

    SF can be pretty weird at times; this is one of the weirdest books I’ve come across in quite a while. Men on a backward planet spend a lifetime weaving a single carpet out of the hair of their wives, in tribute to an Emperor on a distant planet… they have no idea what happens to the carpets, which are regularly bought up and collected by an interplanetary spaceship, it’s just what they have always done, for many centuries. And yet, there is a rumour, brutally suppressed, that the Emperor has been overthrown.

There are so many ways of reading this novel, which in someways, initially at least, is more of a collection of stories linked to a common theme, rather like Keith RobertsPavane. Is it an allegory about religion, unquestioning belief, blind worship and blind obedience? The empire of worlds and planets is incredibly vast, certainly dwarfing Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen or Isaac Asimov’s Federation. So vast, in fact, that the planet we read about is in a forgotten corner of the universe, only recently rediscovered by the central administration, that has replaced the deposed Emperor, and discovered that there are thousands of planets weaving the hair-carpets…

Then there is the notion that the primitiveness of the planet stems from the traces of a nuclear war some tens of thousands of years ago, traces of which are still detectable. What might happen to humanity and civilisation in such a case?

It’s a slow-moving and often lyrical read, full of surprises, very well-written. The last Emperor, who had lived for tens of thousands of years, had become bored, and engineered his own deposition: was this an attempt to defeat entropy? Certainly his successors have their work cut out to discover what was going on across the immeasurable interplanetary wastes, and all the planets and societies have to come to terms with the new circumstances and work out how they are going to continue, or survive, how the Empire can rebuild itself…

I really enjoyed this. For a good while I’ve felt quite jaundiced about SF generally, and its drift into fantasy and pure escapism – I know I generalise terribly here and that actually I’ve just lost touch with the genre as I’ve grown older – but this has renewed my interest. It’s a novel that is mind-boggling in a good way, and at the same time thought-provoking and philosophical; highly recommended!

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End

June 15, 2019

81VHNCSOEgL._AC_UL436_  In need of a straightforward and familiar read, I went back to this SF novel which I bought before I left school, in the days when Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov were the big names. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I know many used to rate it very highly, but I find it very flawed and certainly it pales beside the far better The City and the Stars.

Very powerful creatures suddenly appear in spaceships above Earth and effortlessly take control, benevolently but firmly, ushering in an unprecedented era of peace and stability. There is no visible occupation, and resistance from those who cherish ‘independence’ is soon rendered pointless. Who are these invaders and what is their real intention?

The novel covers a large time-scale, a century or more, which means that – and this is a sad trait of a good deal of SF from this era – characters are poorly developed. Clarke is developing a cosmic sweep to his novel. The utopian Earth which develops in some ways comes to resemble the utopia of Brave New World, but without its coercion and conditioning: humans are happy, contented, but have lost the curiosity which drove them towards relentless progress in the past. Religion vanishes. In such a world, what will be the future for the species?

It transpires that the purpose of the Overlords, as they are called, it to prevent humans reaching the stars, a goal for which humanity is insufficiently mature. The Overlords are servants of something greater, into which the human race is transformed at the end of the novel, and with it, the Earth vanishes and humanity dies out…

It is a very flawed novel, with cardboard characterisation and some very silly plot elements: a human stowaway to the stars hides inside a fake whale on an alien faster-than-light spaceship? And yet, it’s an ambitious and thought-provoking novel too, wanting its readers to reflect on what the soul of humanity really is, just as Huxley did (rather better, I feel) and what the purpose of our species may ultimately be. It’s a product of the Cold War era in many ways, as well as of a would-be rationalistic and anti-religious mindset. It was worth re-reading but I can’t imagine I’ll bother again – much better writers have emerged to ask and explore these questions.

Philip K Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

November 19, 2018

51kYpaCvS5L._AC_US218_I’ve been a fan of Philip K Dick’s science fiction ever since I first read something by him as a student. He’s a brilliant writer – although very uneven in quality – and a fellow-writer once dubbed him ‘the best science fiction writer on any planet’, which probably does him justice… But I’m aware I have a few favourites which I re-read every now and then, and that there is a lot of his work I haven’t touched for years – so time to put that right. I decided to embark on a re-reading of his novels in the sequence they were written, to see whither that is illuminating in any way at all. I don’t know whether I’ll last the course, as some of his later books were quite bonkers, as I recall, reflecting his own very chaotic and tormented life.

Vulcan’s Hammer was apparently the first to be written. The opening – in medias res – is effective, immediately establishing an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mystery. Paranoia in many forms permeates most of Dick’s work, so no surprises here. He envisages a future with a world authority rather than individual nation-states, and everyone under surveillance to maintain stasis: prophetic enough when I look at today’s China, for example.

I did find myself noticing some shoddy language, suggesting a hastily-written text, and wonder if traits like this are harder to notice in SF, or perhaps more easily overlooked when one is taken over by plot and visions of the future? Certainly it’s one of those things I heard non-SF readers mention about the genre.

As the story develops we see emerging a conflict between two computers striving to control the world, and a people-led organisation that seeks freedom from control (although, in a typical Dickian paranoid twist, it turns out that this movement is actually a creation of one of the computers, unbeknown to its leader…) Surely Dick is looking forward to our world, where the potential of AI, and machines to manipulate us is currently a live issue? His controllers analyse the lower classes as risk-takers and gamblers who have not bought into security and stability: what does that remind you of?

But surely Dick is at his most prophetic when he visualises autonomous, programmed killing devices which can be used to target individuals – and he was writing in the 1950s! Killer drones – for that is surely what they are – are found in many of his novels and stories, as is the idea of machines creating ever more sophisticated killing machines, beyond the control of the humans who originally created them. There he was, sixty years ago, planning today’s nightmares…

Dick’s powerful controller Vulcan 3 is a paranoid computer, suffering from HAL syndrome more than a decade before Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we are clearly in a world where Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics does not obtain. Equally, he’s aware of the powerlessness of a grassroots movement faced by a modern bureaucratic state.

And yet, even in this first novel, Dick never loses sight of the human: the denouement returns to that level. There is a plot twist which is a bit of a cheat – no spoiler here – and I kindly remember that this is his first novel. So many of the ideas he will play with and explore in later novels and stories are foreshadowed here, albeit crudely. And you can already see that a writer who can juggle so many balls at once is something of a visionary.

August favourites #13: science-fiction story

August 13, 2018

The Fun They Had

It’s by Isaac Asimov, one of the masters, and was written in the 1950s. It’s quite short – a couple of pages – and gets its power from imagining a future where children were taught not together in schools but individually in a room at home, and not by a human but by a mechanical teacher, which occasionally broke down or malfunctioned. One child finds an old book in an attic, which tells of school in the past where children were taught together and played together… It’s a marvellous tale, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Asimov imagined a future, our future, but his picture drawn so long ago now clashes with our reality, there being so many things he could not know or imagine. And his story is set in the year 2155, and we are already way past his imagined future world in so many ways. Secondly, there is accuracy in his picture of what the children of the future would have lost. And finally, the children themselves are convincingly, if a tad naively, imagined. The whole, as a story about a possible future, contains lots to make a reader think, as all the best SF does.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

The sifting of time….

January 23, 2015

When challenged about how poor a lot of science fiction writing was, the writer Theodore Sturgeon apparently said, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then ninety percent of everything is crap.” I’ve often found this a most astute judgement on life in general. But it does lead me on to a question that continually returns, and I never manage to formulate a clear answer to: what works of literature are good enough to survive the test of time?

I’ve written elsewhere about weeding my library of books I no longer want, because I have moved on, as it were; books that said important things to me in my younger years, but that I’ve grown out of. But that’s me leaving books behind, as opposed to the world forgetting writers and authors.

Back to SF: when I first started reading it, way back when, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov were really big names: everyone read them, many raved about their writing and their ideas. But now? Recently I went back to some Ray Bradbury stories, and didn’t really enjoy them that much. And who reads Asimov now? I got rid of my copy of the Foundation trilogy years ago. But Asimov formulated the laws of robotics, which most writers pay service to nowadays, and he had a seminal influence on many later writers.

When I went up to university, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was on everyone’s lips: he was a great writer, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and eventually forced into exile in the USA, where he became a religious oddball, fading into obscurity. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a stunning achievement, and The First Circle even more powerful, in my estimation. But most of his writings are out of print, and many people will not have heard of him. I bought and read August 1914 when it was first translated forty years ago and have intended to go back to it to see if it is any good, but will I actually bother? It’s quite revealing to look back through the lists of those awarded the Nobel Prize, to see how many have disappeared from the literary radar; the list of those who should have won but never did is also interesting.

I suppose the most significant example on my list is D H Lawrence. Again, back in the seventies, when I was at university, he was widely read. But does anyone read him now? Lady Chatterley’s Lover was an interesting read for a teenager, but even the thought of picking it up again is toe-curling. Sons and Lovers may be worth it, but The Rainbow? Women in Love? I don’t really think so. Reflecting on how Lawrence bored me at university, I remember how many lecturers made their reputations writing critical works; now that they and their books have dropped off the radar, so has Lawrence himself. The shock-horror of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial was only a dozen years old then; it’s more than half a century now.

And who remembers the writers of thrillers from the 1960s – Arthur Hailey, Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes? Good entertainment at the time, but tame compared with what’s written today, and long forgotten.

My big question: will Harry Potter survive the test of time, or will even he fade into obscurity in fifty years?

Ivan Yefremov: Andromeda

June 2, 2014

A communist utopia!

This Soviet SF/ utopian novel was published in 1956, only three years after Stalin’s death. It’s set several hundred years in the future, when contact has been made with alien worlds and civilisations, and the frontiers of space exploration are being advanced. In this respect it resembles Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, but from a totally different perspective.

In Yefremov’s future, the world has realised the errors of its ways, and communism has triumphed, ruling, organising and developing the planet for the benefit of all its citizens. There is some attempt to visualise the details of the transition to and workings of a world-wide communist society, but this is not the mainstay of the book; rather it is consistently part of the background, which the reader is never allowed to forget. Our ‘Age of Disunity’, its warfare and destructiveness of the planet, is long gone, and archaeologists are uncovering some of its artefacts…

The science of Andromeda is very dated, as is pretty much all SF from that period; perhaps the most astonishing gap, to a contemporary reader, is the total failure to imagine any kind of miniaturisation and digitisation, which has made so much of our current technology possible and so widely available.

The biggest surprise, given that it goes without saying that a communist society as visualised in the 1950s has totally eradicated that ‘opium of the people’ which was religion, is Yefremov’s major focus on alternative kinds of spirirual and emotional flowering and fulfilment, which he and his future society seem to recognise as essential to human well-being; psychology, and balance in the personality are to strive for, and it is clear that the mental make-up of future citizens is quite different from our times.

As in most utopian novels, characters and plot are somewhat under-developed: it’s hard to have the kind of clashes and creative tensions we are familiar with in a world that is supposed to be an ideal future. Work is organised and allocated centrally, though recognising individuals’ talents and needs; there is a form of consultative democracy and a sense of collective duty that resembles a more humane form of  the old ‘peoples’ democracies’. Here I felt Yefremov’s future resembled that of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed

The novel is a fascinating glimpse of a future that can almost certainly never be, not because it wouldn’t necessarily work, but because there currently is no possible mechanism for getting from now to then. Yefremov gradually develops a powerful picture of the collective will to explore and discover and push forward the boundaries of our knowledge, a human trait that I have always felt is one of the best in our otherwise rather limited species. I couldn’t help but admire the crew of the spaceship at the end, setting out on a mission so lengthy that they would never again return to Earth, or see their friends and familiar places and faces again… and they went willingly.

Interested readers may find this novel rather hard to track down; my copy is in the Moscow Progress Publishers series and I am unaware of any other edition.

%d bloggers like this: