R.U.R. at 100

You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.

Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).

Modernist fun!

This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.

In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.

Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.

Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.

What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)

The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.

The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?

All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.

The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.

Everybody’s Orwell

My favorite bit of writing by George Orwell is not 1984, which always struck me as dry, though appropriately horrifying. If I had to pick just one Orwell for the rest of my life it would be Down and Out in Paris and London, which was the Kitchen Confidential of its time (a lot didn’t change over the course of a century, either). But, 1984 is the book everybody talks about and everybody claims vindicates everything they believe.

Twitter banned somebody you like? Orwellian. Got a speeding ticket from a traffic camera? Orwellian. Google Home knows you like pizza? Orwellian. Whether it’s the government or a credit card company, we’re quick to toss around references to the totalitarian surveillance state that Winston endures as an involuntary citizen of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia.

“I wrote this for you!”

I guess it’s helpful to remember that Orwell had a specific agenda. He was very liberal. He’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders today. He’s operating in the socialist tradition of George Bernard Shaw.

He was also a ruthless thinker, as hard on his fellows on the left as he was his opponents on the right. He was very worried about lefties in the west being duped by Stalin and tricked into accepting fascism in place of socialism. Thart’s what 1984 is about. If you told Orwell that your iPhone was Orwellian he’d laugh in your face and tell you to stop using the damned thing, then. The oppression of Oceania was not something you could turn off and toss in the bin.

I imagine he’d be similarly incredulous if you complained to him that Twitter wouldn’t let you plan a demonstration against the government. He might wonder why you’d think a multibillion company would take your side over the government that supports its coffers. Go out and print some flyers, he’d say. Get creative.

Mostly I think Orwell would find us pretty coddled and already duped.

Gatsby in the Public Domain

I tend to go back to The Great Gatsby every few years and it does always bring me something different. This time, I approached it with the news that the novel has entered the public domain, so I might do whatever I’d like with the text. My firsty impulse is to write a play from Daisy’s point of view.

But when? There’s a scene to be written, that would take place within the continuity of the novel, that takes place after the first meeting of Daisy, Tom, Nick and Jordan. Does Tom realize what an ass he’s made of himself? Could he? Daisy does. She calls him “hulking,” (and not for the first time and Tom hates it.)

Is Nick so innocent? He’s judgmental and by the end of the book, he’s proudly judgmental, remarking snidely that Tom can be rid of his midwestern priggishness. There’s an indictment of the libertine East. Nick is judgmental and sure of his own honesty (at least at the start of the summer). When he meets Jordan he can’t place what it is he remembers about her, but then it’s revealed that she’d cheated during a golf tournament.

Nick’s writing a book, or at least a journal. Is Nick’s book every published? Would Daisy have read it? Is Daisy, lumped in with Tom as careless and irresponsible, fairly treated? She fell in love with Gatsby who was, at the time, in no position to marry her. He was penniless, we learn. When Gatsby meets Wolfsheim and embarks on his success through the criminal underworld, he is so malnourished that he eats “$4 worth of food in half an hour.” He could not have cared for Daisy and, we’re told, he was dishonest with her about that. She had no idea why Gatsby dissapeared on her, when they met and fell in love five years before the book begins.

So, Daisy’s crime is that she married another eligible suitor? Well, her other crime is hitting Tom’s lover Myrtle with her car, though there’s no indication she did it on purpose. Myrtle leapt in front of the car, thinking it was Tom’s, after all. Had Nick been driving, he also might have hit her.

But Nick never seems to think that Daisy should be held responsible for the accident. He only grows angry with her when she doesn’t turn up for Gatsby’s funeral. Nick holds Tom and Daisy responsible for Gatsby’s death. Tom is responsible. Myrtle’s husband Wilsonmurders Gatsby after Tom tells him that Gatsby owns the car that killed his wide and is the man who had made Myrtle his mistress. But is Daisy responsible for that? Did she even have a choice.

So I wonder, after this rereading, if Daisy ever read Nick’s book, what she thought about it, learned from it, or didn’t.

The Evolution of a Joke Over 70 Years

From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, 1920:

“It was one of the great liverystableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans wants to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

From Speed the Play, by David Ives, 1989:

“David Mamet knows that Americans don’t like to pay for parking. So he keeps his plays short.”

Vonnegut Invented Google

Taking a dip back into Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, which I haven’t looked at in the internet era. It’s the tale of a stranded voyage to the Galapagos islands during a global financial crisis and a pandemic that sterilizes the rest of humanity. In isolation, the people on the trip spark an evolution of mankind towards better swimming, fish eating and smaller brains. It’s a million-year long return to Eden journey and a deconstruction of the idea that evolution blessed mankind with larger brains, as Vonnegut envisions a human race better off without so much emotional and intellectual volatility.

Along the way, Vonnegut introduces us to the Mandarax, a supercomputer invented by a genius that contains the sum of human skills and knowledge, accessible in a device that resembles a contemporary smart phone. Galapagos was published in 1985 and set in 1986. Funny that the name “Manadarax” was even taken up by a piece of Java code in 2000.

Artist and prophet, who’d be annoyed at being called a prophet.

The ubiquity of smart phones with easy and constant access to Google’s search engine has wildly changed the way we communicate (tall tales told in bar can be fact-checked in real time) and has somewhat devalued an individual’s memory as you only need to know enough know what to look up, from mathematical formula to recipes to quotations from movies.

Summarizes one of Vonnegut’s castaways: “That wonderful Mandarax you’re scratching your ear with now: what is that but an excuse for a mean ego-maniac never to pay or even thank any human being with a knowledge of languages or mathematics or history or medicine or ikebana or anything?”

A lot of writers exporing the future caught on to the growth of computing power combined with miniaturization, but Vonnegut seems to have most presciently grasped its social significance, including the trivialization of an individual’s knowledge.

Sensitivity is Censorship

At least the Streissand Effect still works. I had never heard of the novelist Bruce Wagner before he took back his manuscript from Counterpoint Press over his editor telling him to excise the word “fat” from his story. Chris Beck at SpliceToday has the most complete account of the story where an author with a real following was asked to tone down his content to avoid offending people’s sensibilities.

Wagner uses the word fat to describe a character who calls herself Fat Joan and she is purposefully trying to bring her weight to 1,000 pounds in a bid for reality television celebrity. This is not the authorial voice labeling a character “fat” as an insult — it’s the voice of a character whose psychological fitness is more meant to be questioned by the reader than her physical fitness.

Rather thank make the edits, Wagner has released the novel for free on his website.

Though, what if, I wonder, the author had meant to question the girth of his own creation? It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch without prodigious bellies. Or, in the case of Alfred Jarry, the lard of his Pere Ubu is absolutely meant as moral judgment as a tyrant king starves his people to feed his avarice — such things happen in real life, even in America today. We’re having an election about it.

It’s getting harder and harder for writers who haven’t established an audience to stand up to the demands of sensitive editors and even professional “sensitivity readers” trying to avoid “cancel culture” episodes. I see two big problems for authors with unique voices these days:

  1. A non-trivial portion of young intellectuals, who might be counted on to buy books and support artistic expression, have taken a strict view of “freedom of speech” where only government can “censor” content and no artist can expect an unfettered right of expression on any publishing or even social media platform. They do not view the publisher’s demands for edits as inappropriate and would argue that Wagner’s ability to distribute his novel through his own website is all the free speech that a healthy culture needs. The ethos here is one were you can speak all you want but have no right to be heard. This is unhelpful for artists and thinkers without an established audience or platform and especially for artists who need to be paid for their work.
  2. Related: publishers used to champion controversial work but are unwilling or unable to do so in a culture that will censure them for taking risks. It’s publishers, after all, who brought the ethos of sensitivity reading, not to mention sensitivity readers, into the industry.

Without the support of publishers willing to push back against social prudery, Beck finds that: “Younger writers are more accepting of their prose being nannied by the guardians of faux civility, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the power of the written word.”

What’s little understood here is that freedom of speech isn’t something that can be captured entirely by the first ammendment, and it doesn’t end with government censorship. It’s an ethos, and one that we’re culturally abandoning, one lost novel at a time.

Why Do America’s Most Vile Companies Associate Themselves With Tolkien?

J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.

A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.

In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.

Nerds name their businesses after it.

The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”

But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)

In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.

Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.

Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:

“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”

Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.

A Strange and Delightful Speculative Novella

Imagine a company could hook you up to a machine, delve into your deepest interiors and tell you everything about your soul, including your past lives. Would you? Could you trust them? Sure you would, especially if it meant finding your true companion on life’s endless karmic journey. For the generation that’s given up its DNA to 23&Me and its browsing histories to every free social network out there comes Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler’s delightful and provocative novella, Soul Mates Inc. Erik is a photographer devoted to making art that’s just not selling, so he takes a journalistic assignment to photograph the clients of Soul Mates Inc. But his intentions as the skeptical outsider looking in are soon thwarted when he catches a glimpse of who he really is, where’s he’s been, all he’s done and who’s meant to share eternity with him. Quintenz-Fiedler imagines a universe with a definite absurdist bent and soon Erik’s on the trail of a life he can’t remember to meet the person he’ll never forget. It’s a perfect premise for readers who enjoy the philosophical storytelling of Milan Kundera, who enjoyed The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard and who became healthily skeptical of technology after reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle. This is smart, relevant and fast-moving fiction that reminds us we can’t get to know ourselves without changing ourselves.

The Search for William Troy

William Troy was, says the editor of the only book of his collected lectures and essays, a towering critic of the 30s, 40s and 50s. He wrote many book and film reviews for The Nation, but no books of his own.

I’m reading the collection William Troy: Selected Essays slowly. It’s long out of print but very gettable. His style is expert and delightful. He’s fighting, at this point of history, for literature to be enjoyed and interpreted as art, rather than subjected to the sorts of inappropriate scientific methods that have since subjugated the critical appreciation of the creative arts to some mad quest to view everything within the context of the social and economic sciences, if not even to physics and chemistry.

You Can Find This on Abe Books!

Here he is on the growing popularity of Henry James:

“At a moment where loss of continuity is our gravest threat, when personality is everywhere at a discount, when all consequent values dissolve in general terror, it is probably no great wonder that more and more people are turning to Henry James.”

Troy celebrates clarity in art and it’s darned refreshing.

A Return to Science Fiction

In high school I desperately wanted to write science fiction, to the point that writing in other genres hardly seemed worth the time. In middle school I wrote hard boiled detective stories, which must have been laughable, given that I was 12, but Star Wars and Star Trek were always around and those Pocket Book Star Trek novels were my friends apart from comic books. I think I tried to write my first Star Trek novel by freshman year in high school. I even submitted it to Pocket Books. I forget what it was about but I’m sure it had Klingons, Romulans, the original cast and explosions. I did think to solicit the guidelines and tried to follow it closely, so there were no crossovers with The Next Generation.

Soon after, I was reading Isaac Asimov, partly because he wrote not only stories but about how he got them published, how much he was paid and how he trekked from Brooklyn to Manhattan to bring his carbon copies right to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. I even subscribed to the digests of the 1990s — Analog and Amazing Stories. This was the life I saw for myself.

An English teacher in high school broadened my horizons a bit. To be fair, they all did, but one in particular turned me on to Woody Allen, which led me down the path of playwriting, humor writing, and telling stories about real people, even if magical things happen to them.

During our junior and senior years, my best friend and I still wrote a science fiction novel, but then we went off to separate universities where we both found more grounded literature and I pursued journalism and playwriting and by the time we got back together in Ireland after graduation, I think I wanted to be a cross between Hunter Thompson and Mac Wellman.

GOLDEN AGE SCI-FI: 1934–1963 – HILOBROW
Just a pair of dimes!

But science fiction was always around. The cool kids at the college paper got me to read Snow Crash. The cool kids in theater got me to read The Illiminatus Trilogy and just what was Infinite Jest, anyway, if not science fiction? Also, in high school I learned that I could read any Vonnegut, as fantastic as some of its premises were, and get credit for reading literature. I even have Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Half Shell.

These days, it’s creeping back into my life. I just read Scalzi’s first entry into his Collapsing Empire series and rather loved it. I just downloaded a cheap copy of Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova and I enjoyed reading the first two of the Murderbot books last year.

While I’m not feeling an itch to write science fiction, I think I am looking to it to inspire some high concept contemporary fiction. Not that you asked. I just have stars and robots, intergalactic empires and artificial gravity on my mind.

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