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.

Logical Loops With Georges Perec

In delightful translation by David Bellos (he uses the word circumperambulate a lot), The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise by French experimental author Georges Perec is best read aloud. It’s a theatrical piece with dazzling, recursive language that evokes laughter and pity at “your” plight as you tackle the practical and emotional burden of asking for a much needed (if not deserved) pay increase while in the employ of. one of France’s largest companies.

Avec Perec!

The entirety of the books 80 pages are one sentence, without punctuation, capitalization or spatial breaks. Reading the text aloud pulls you right through and makes you wonder how much we need the adornments of commas, periods or paragraph breaks. Perec wrote this short book, which also factors into the full-length novel, Life: A User’s Manual as one of its later chapters, specifically to resemble a computer algorithm. Algorithms have become a larger part of our lives since Perec wrote this in the 1970s, so it’s partially a survival guide to live in the 2020s.

The piece would make a fine one man show and also reminds me very much of Mac Wellman‘s Terminal Hip which, if you have forty minutes, you can watch:

Terminal Hip was one of the last live shows we saw in New York City, pre-COVID, at the legendary Dixon Place. We learned that Panda are bears and NOT raccoons, in a revival produced by Jeffrey M. Jones, curator of the Little Theatre series.

I digress, but thats part of the fun of Perec’s short book. Digressions and regressions are progress. Give it a read and you’ll see.

Slouchers: The 90s Movie Parody Novel We Need at the End of 2020

I was still in high school in New Mexico at the time, but we all know that Seattle in the early 1990s was the most magical, exciting place to be. This is the ethos of Slouchers, the new film-inspired comedy novel from Mike Sacks, who oreviously delighted with Stinker Lets Loose!, a send-up of 70s road movies, and Passable in Pink, his homage to John Hughes. Slouchers takes on films like Singles, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, Reality Bites and the early Kevin Smith films. It’s all about people in their early 20s (and also late 20s and also Kurt Loder) pitting grunge authenti city against yuppie Boomerisms in a short-lived, pre-internet era.

The latest from Mike Sacks

Willow is our hero. She’s moved to Seattle from “back east” and is making a documentary about her generation, embodied by the “Lost Boys,” a group of slackers and stoners. The crew includes: Toodie, her sometime boyfriend who is going to be the next Nirvana; Skip, her boss at a record store who brandishes weapons at people who buy commercial rock albums; Vicky, her best friend who is just kind of average looking but a slut, Wake and Bake (two guys, no explanation needed) and a host of others, including the requisite recently out gay characters whose parents are still coming to terms with what they should have realized anyway. Also, there’s “Mr. Straight,” who is a business man from out of town who is into “commerce” and would as clearly be played by Ben Stiller as Winona Ryder would be Willow. His purchase of the failing record store incites the plot.

Willow, by the way, has been in Seattle all of two weeks, but it was before the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, so her roots burrow deep. Her documentary’s goal are comically amporphous:

“But her documentary isn’t about her sex life. Who would be interested in that anyway? It’s really more about her friends and how they are changing the universe.”

Meanwhile her foil, Mr. Straight, is no better grounded. When asked to explain his line of work he answers: “Business,” says Mr. Straight. “Finance. Commerce.”

Everyone is earnest and right on ths surface. It sets up a showdown between grunge authenticity and corporate capitalism, all set to be exploited by MTV. We’re reminded with a laugh and poke in the ribs that any nostalgia we have from that era is nostalgia for something that was created and mass marketed by the same multinational conglomerates we worry about today.

But, don’t worry, there’s no semornizing, except for comic effective and there are multiple laughs per page. Another triumph for Mike Sacks. By the way, I think I read that Sacks didn’t love the 90s grunge era films or the aesthetic, and yet he’s built a following for his novel movie parodies in a totally 90s, DIY, indie way. That’s not the technical definition of irony that I learned studying theatre history back in those days, but it’s close enough for the Hollywood take.

Late to “The Memory Police”

I didn’t hear mention of the Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 novel The Memory Police until 2016, when people referenced it with regards to how fascist governments change people’s reality by slowly altering the parameters of normal life until only the reality of the oppressor remained. At the time, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’d already read It Can’t Happen Here and then Night of Camp David, not to mention that Michael Wolff book and so I didn’t pursue this.

What a mistake!

The Memory Police is actually tonic for the purely political novel. As with Franz Kafka, its political dimensions only serve to accent the greater absurdities of human existence and mortality.

This dreamlike book tells the story of life on an island governed by a group called “The Memory Police,” who seemingly at random remove items from people’s lives. The losses have varying significance. Sometimes it’s calendars or music boxes, other times roses or books and ultimately body parts. When an item is removed, the people forget it ever existed. A few, however, remember. The Memory Police hunts down those who can remember, to enforce a strict elimination of objects or ideas deemed irrelevant.

The premise. naturally evokes the kind of gaslighting practiced by totalitarian governments around the world and throughout history. But I think there’s much more to it, especially when the people start to lose memory of their bodies.

One thing I considered, perhaps more horrifying and merciless even than a dictatorship would be a diseases or conditions that rob people’s cognition. Or diseases like diabetes or certain cancers that cost people body parts. Ultimately, The Memory Police seems to be about mortality, the little things that life takes from us along the way and our struggles to preserve what’s precious.

Certainly, it’s a fascinating book and something far bigger than a political commentary (though, it’s that, too.)

Galapagos vs. Seveneves

Somehow I got sidetracked and despite really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos, it somehow took me more than a month to finish the book. It’s a delight, even read in bits and smatters. Along the way, I was reminded of 2015’s Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

What the two books have in common is that they both deal with the evolution of the human race after a species-ending event. In the case of Galapagos, it’s a financial crisis, followed by a war, followed by a sterilizing virus. The only survivors are some passengers who take a cruise to the islands that Darwin made famous. There, isolated from the rest of the world, and the virus, they mutate over a million years into what reminds me of a walrus — intelligent, ocean dwelling fishers with flippers instead of arms. In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon rains meteorites onto Earth, setting the atmosphere ablaze and killing everybody but the few who escape to space on an ark and some who flee into the oceans in nuclear submarines. Over millions of years these survivors evolve according to their circumstances, guided by natural selection.

In Stephenson’s world, humanity changes but retains its sentience. Vonnegut tells a different tale — humanity saves itself by losing its sentience. The big brains bestowed upon us by evolution turn out to be a hindrance and were the cause of the catastrophes that befell the species. You don’t need a reflexive self conscious to hunt for fish and so we lose it. Vonnegut’s narrator is the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, who refuses to cross into the afterlife and lingers on Earth to watch humanity evolve.

Stephenson’s message is that life will find a way. Vonnegut’s is that life will find a way back. All of humanity is reduced to a small population of semi-intelligent walruses living on or around the Galapagos Islands. Without big brains and opposable thumbs, they’re free from common human mischief. They do not even, Vonnegut tells us, know that they will inevitably die, and are spared the greatest anxiety brought to us by our sentience.

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.”

A Course on Kafka’s “The Trial”

I just completed Professor Richard T. Stock’s online course about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and if you’re a fan of podcasts and literature, I highly recommend it. Professor Stock takes you through the book chapter by chapter, with a plot summary and analysis of each. It’s an enriching reading experience (and a great reread).

I won’t spoil the course, but I was surprised that Professor Stock does not read the story the way I do at all. To me, “The Trial” is an allegory for life. As Woody Allen quipped in “Love and Death,” all people are ultimately sentenced to death for crimes they never committed. Like Jospeh K., we are all subjects to a capital punishment heariing where the best we can hope is to push back the inevitable sentence. Or, as Allen put it:

“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.”

“Wheat. I’m dead and they’re talking about wheat.”

Joseph K.’s last thoughts are that he’s executed “like a dog.” This seems to be the condition of life. We are all sentenced for execution and the best we can hope, as Joseph K. is urged over and over, is to fight to prolong the trial, not to seek its end.

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.

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