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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Red Shirts is Free From Tor

Through March 21st, you can download John Scalzi’s Red Shirts from Tor, for free. It’s a great deal because, in my opinion, this 2013 science fiction comedy about those poor starship crew members who always die on away missions is worth actual money.

This book is very free through March 21st

It’s a great way to kill some quarantine hours. Enjoy!

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.