Tag Archives: isaac asimov

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

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Asimov and Channel 4’s ‘Humans’

My wife and I have been happily enjoying the Channel 4 program Humans. I have no idea whether or not it will air in Canada and the US, but I hope so. This is a show about an alternate present where human society is fully integrated with androids (‘synths’), telling the story of one family in particular that purchases a synth named Anita who shows some oddities.

The show has some very direct Asimov referencing, specifically citing ‘Asimov Protocols’, with which all synths are programmed. I’ve mentioned them here before, but these are the Three Laws of Robotics from Asimov’s famous robot stories:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except where this contravenes the First Law.
  3. A robot must preserve its own existence except where this comes into conflict with the First or Second Law.

After watching the second episode of humans, I decided to read I, Robot, Asimov’s 1950 collection of several of his 1940s robot stories. These stories tend to focus on the Three Laws and how things could go wrong (or right) depending on orders given to robots in relation to the laws — as well as how roboticists might reprogram robots with stronger or weaker applications of the Three Laws to make them more useful in different situations; how might these situations play out?

The first story in I, Robot is called ‘Robbie’. In this tale, a mother who doesn’t like her daughter’s robot nanny, the titular ‘Robbie’, has the robot sent back. The daughter pines away for her robot for a long time until the family decides to go on vacation to New York. There, the young girl thinks she will be able to find Robbie. Part of the trip — organised by the father who didn’t think they ought to have sent Robbie away in the first place — was a visit to a robot factory. There, the daughter saw Robbie in a construction area and ran to meet him. A heavy piece of machinery almost ran her over, but Robbie saw the danger and intervened in time, saving her life. Robbie got to go home.

In Humans, the mother of the main family we follow is concerned about their synth, Anita. Anita acts strangely, doing things like looking at the moon at night, or acting afraid sometimes. There is suspicion that she took the youngest child, Sophie, for a late-night walk one of her first nights there. The mother never wanted a synth in the first place, so in Episode 3 she decides that she’s had enough of Anita’s ongoing bizarre, too-human behaviour and goes to return her. Toby, the son, becomes frantic at this (he has a crush on Anita), and tries to stop her. As he cycles along, he is almost hit by a car, but Anita sees him approaching, leaps from her own vehicle and saves Toby’s life. Anita stays.

I’m sure you can see the parallels.

I wonder if I would see more parallels, besides the Asimov Protocols and ‘Robbie’, if I had a stronger acquaintance with the robot stories. I am quite pleased with this use of literary science fiction on a television series that is asking a lot of the philosophical, psychological, and anthropological questions that the existence of androids and true A.I. would raise.

Best book I read this year?

A friend posted an article on Facebook from the New York Times where the 15 Bookend columnists shared the best books, new or old, they’d read this year. ‘But who are these people?’ he wondered. ‘What about friends whose opinions I actually care about?’

I was thus tagged.

Pulled out the list of fun books. Scanned it. Dracula? Frankenstein? Some souvenir guidebook to a place I’d been? The Day of the Triffids? Well, it had to be —

Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Why? Because it’s basically pure awesome. Once you get into it, that book swallows you whole and sends you on a journey through heaven, hell, and Eden bouncing along in English blank verse never wanting to do anything else. Here’s my ‘epic review’.

But then, the work list. Shorter. Less fun, although often great and profound and whatnot. A quick glance leaves me without a question —

City of God, by St Augustine of Hippo. It, too, is basically pure awesome. So much depth of thought and intricacy and bewildering everything in that book. Here’s my initial thoughts review.

But what about all those other books?

I had to mention The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. Here’s a book that runs on a concept I’d never heard of before — the idea of generating energy by transferring particles between parallel universes. And, as always, the story was interesting and the characters captivating.

After Asimov, Masterharper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Maybe not actually the best Pern book I read this year, since this year I reread Dragonflight. But it is a very good book with a compellling tale and the most captivating of all Pernese characters as its protagonist — Masterharper Robinton.

Finally, Discourse Particles in Latin by Caroline Kroon. This is not a book one recommends to friends, I admit. But it was thorough, well-researched, clearly set out, and it has had an impact on the way I read Latin. An important book, to say the least. My review of it here.

In the end, since I read so much, this was an impossible task.

What was the ‘best’ book you read this year?

Movies that would be different with the Three Laws of Robotics

First, so you know what’s going on, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws were developed in Asimov’s various robot stories and novels as a way of protecting humanity from the Frankenstein complex. The laws are so thoroughly encoded into the positronic brain that an Asimovian robot would cease to function were it to break one of the laws.

The thought came to me while watching Elysium that none of the action of the film would have happened with the Three Laws — the robot cop wouldn’t have been able to use force against Matt Damon’s character, who would thence not be irrated, and thus never invade Elysium. Boom. Done.

What other films would be affected by the Three Laws of Robotics? Obviously robots built by aliens, such as Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, don’t count.

Well, straightaway, obviously no Terminator, Matrix, Blade Runner, or Battlestar Galactica or any other film/TV series wherein robots are the antagonists. The Three Laws are meant to prevent precisely those films.

Alien would only be slightly different. Ash would have to be replaced by a human who, for some diabolical reasoning or bent in his psychology, was willing to do what Weyland Industries wanted. Similarly, then, for Michael Fassbender’s robot in Prometheus. It is plausible to use a human being in these two cases.

Star Wars would lack the interrogation droid, but I’m pretty sure people could have given Princess Leia needles instead. And the droid army in Phantom Menace was utterly useless, anyway; the Trade Federation would have done better to hire mercs or something that can’t be taken down by a power failure. However, the fact that their actions in helping run small fighters kill ‘human’ life, programming R2 units and their ilk with the Three Laws would make them unserviceable in the Rebel fleet.

The auto-pilot in Wall-E would not have suppressed the information of Earth’s habitability brought back by EVE and they would have gone straight home.

Do mutants count as human? The Sentinals in X-Men: Days of Future Past are designed precisely to hunt down mutants, although they do turn on human sympathisers and potential parents of mutants. I wonder.

These are all I can think of. Of course, the robot brutality in Elysium is of interest because the robots can only harm or even arrest non-citizens of Elysium. So there is an element of the Three Laws as applied only to the wealthy in that case. So even foolproof programming can lead to problems for the fools…

Asimov’s Multivac and the Sybil at Cumae

Tomorrow I am leading a tutorial about the episode ‘Dinner at Trimalchio’s’ from Petronius’ Satyricon. This moment in the (oft) inane dinner conversation caught my eye:

… I actually saw with my own eyes the Sybil at Cumae dangling in a bottle, and when the children asked her in Greek: “What do you want, Sybil?” she used to answer: “I want to die.” -Trimalcio to Agamemnon, Satyricon 15.48, trans. J. P. Sullivan for Penguin

The endnotes to this description of the Cumaean Sybil (the famous one from Vergil) refer the reader to T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, which uses the original text as its epigraph before launching into the poem.

I found a different literary resonance — Isaac Asimov’s 1958 short story ‘All the Troubles of the World’ (available in The Complete Stories Vol. 1 and Nine Tomorrows). I am now about to give away the story, so apologies if you really want to read it; it’s quite clever, and deals with the issues of probability that arise from predictions not dissimilar to the same ones in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’.

Although you don’t quite know it for most of the story, the giant supercomputer Multivac is trying to orchestrate its own sabotage and destruction using crime reports — these reports themselves causing officers to engage in activities that would make Multivac’s destruction more and more likely, moving from putting someone under house arrest to that driving his underage son to seek advice from Multivac to Multivac giving him instructions on how to commit the sabotage.

Multivac was being used by the people of Earth to solve all their problems. They would ask Multivac a question, and an answer would pop out. They were required to tell the computer every aspect of their daily lives, including their thoughts, so that Multivac could reliably predict crimes and seek out solutions to political problems that would be the best available. In Asimov’s earlier story of 1955, ‘Franchise’ (also in Vol 1), Multivac would predict the outcome of the election with not a single vote being cast. In ‘All the Troubles of the World’, since crime was basically extinct, they were now about to pose to Multivac the question of curing disease.

So Multivac tries to get itself destroyed.

The story ends with the analysts asking Multivac the crucial question of Multivac’s own desires in the face of all the troubles of the world. Multivac answers, ‘I want to die.’

Multivac is a mechanised Sybil. Technology, in this vision of human development, has successfully supplanted this one role of religion. Come to Multivac with a problem, and he will give you the right answer. Like the Sybil, he is immortal. And like the Sybil, he would rather die than continue being weighed down with all the cares of the world.

Asimov

I am in the midst of (well, almost finished, actually) Isaac Asimov, The Complete Stories Vol. 2, comprised mainly of stories from the 1950s and including the famous stories ‘The Ugly Little Boy’ and ‘Nightfall’. This is the third Asimov book I’ve read in the past year after a time when I went far too long without reading any! The other two were the novel The Caves of Steel which is the first novel of the Robot series starring Lijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw and The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories which is a collection of stories from the 1970s.

What makes an Asimov story great isn’t the science. Certainly, it helps that Asimov was a scientist with a PhD who could communicate scientific principles to the lay reader. That alone, however, does not make a great story. In fact, I’m sure I’ve read some short stories in Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction where the authors have spent so much time setting forth science and engineering that I really didn’t care, wondering whether those guys were in it for the story or the science.

Asimov gives us both, but the story is what drives us through it all. In some cases, such as The Stars, Like Dust, this is because what drives him is something more along the lines of the adventure or a sociological/philosophical concept. Yet even in ‘Nightfall’, which is driven by an astronomical, scientific idea, what keeps you reading is not a description of the star system where the characters live or any of the (few) conversations about astronomy. No, it is the characters, the people, their social interactions. This is what keeps you hooked as ‘Nightfall’ pulls you inexorably along.

He also produces snappy dialogue. In some of the Foundation novels, I felt like the dialogue was propelling almost the whole story through space. Different characters and narrators have different voices. As in real life. Asimov’s characters read like people you could meet on the street.

Or he has a brilliant, little nugget of an idea that he ties to the undergirding of the whole story. This is reflected in a small amount of exposition and dialogue. But the characters keep you going. We explore what a germophobe society might be like with transporter-style Doors in ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day.’ We are given a vision of a world where cars have positronic brains in ‘Sally’, where the appeal of the tale is not solely in what is said but what is left unsaid. Sometimes, the satisfaction of a story is the implications the action of the ideas give us, not in the detailed crafting of every possible event or moment in a particular timeline, world, or series of events.

Since Asimov is so story- and character-driven in his narration, even if you don’t like science fiction, I think you might like Isaac Asimov. Give him a try! The original Foundation trilogy is a good place to start, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, or a collection of short stories such as The Bicentennial Man or Nine Tomorrows.