Friday, January 23, 2015

The Robots and Foundation Universe: Issues Left For Us by Isaac Asimov

"It is the business of the future to be dangerous."
-- A.N. Whitehead 

A week ago, I explored the complex matter of Robert A. Heinlein. Now, let's dive deeply for a close look at another of our field's Grand Masters... one about whom I am officially an expert!

== Isaac Asimov and the joy of endless argument ==

Ah, robots.

Ever since Karel Capek coined the word in his stage play “R.U.R.”, its meaning has gone through steady transformation.  The fleshy slave-workers of Capek’s drama would today be called “androids” or be likened to the replicants of BLADE RUNNERRobots per se became associated with metal and plastic... computer chips and cool, artificial intelligence, without direct connection to protoplasm.  

Like aliens, robots have served as foils for two great drivers of sci fi plotting -- the Dangerous Other Who Must Be Feared... 

...and the Innocent Other Who Must Be Protected From Vile Humanity... especially our wretched and oppressive institutions.  

We all remember many examples of both kinds.  From viciously genocidal machines of THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX to cute little robots who are pursued by nasty generals, in SHORT CIRCUIT and D.A.R.Y.L.

Some science fiction tales did try to move beyond these awful cliches. I am reminded of Robert Heinlein’s THE DOOR INTO SUMMER, whose hero is a tinkerer-inventor, building household automatons that are actually useful in the home, without necessarily writing sonnets or planning extinction for all humankind. (The inspiration for today's successful iRobot corporation.) Indeed, this gradual introduction of utilitarian models better predicted events than any of the clanking humanoids that spun off the pages and screens of bad sci fi over the decades.

But no article on this topic would get far without turning our attention to the biggest and most impressive science fictional universe in which robots hold a major presence -- the “Robots and Foundation” universe that was created, over the course of a lifetime, by one of SF’s Grand Masters... the good doctor Isaac Asimov.

I had the honor of being chosen to “clean up”.... to tie the loose ends that Isaac left dangling when he so lamentably left us too early, some years ago.  Along with my collaborators and pals, Gregory Benford and Greg Bear, I helped create the new SECOND FOUNDATION TRILOGY, with the blessing of Isaac’s heirs, his wife Janet and daughter Robin.  These books can be read separately or (loosely) together.

 As author of the final book, I had a mission a bit different than Greg and Gregory, whose fine novels zeroed in on certain details of the life of Hari Seldon.  Never shy, I went the other direction, attempting to bring together all of Isaac’s themes -- even from obscure titles like PEBBLE IN THE SKY -- in a final grand adventure, entitled FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH. Believe me, that required a lot of study!  And revisiting great old tales in one of the finest epics of all time.

Hence, in honor of what would have been Isaac's birthday, this week, I’ll let you in on some of the background story...

== The explorer begins in New York ==

Isaac Asimov first started pondering human destiny while working in his father's candy store, at a time when the world was in turmoil. Vast, inscrutable forces appeared to be working on humanity, making whole populations behave in unfathomably dangerous ways - often against their own self interest. Countless millions believed that the answer lay in prescriptions - in formulas for human existence - called ideologies.

Young Isaac was too smart to fall for any of the dogmas then on sale. From Marxism to fascism to ultra-capitalism, they all preached that human beings are simple creatures, easily described and predictable according to incantations scribbled on a few printed pages. 

Even as a youth, then as a student, Isaac could tell that these scenarios were wishful-thinking, having more in common with religion than real science. Yet, he could easily understand why people yearned for a model - a paradigm - for human behavior. Surrounded by irrationality on all sides, Isaac dreamed that maybe, someday, someone might discover how to deal with the quirky complexity of contradictory human nature... if not individuals, then perhaps the great mass of humanity.

He had no idea how to solve such a problem, and was too sensible to expect useful formulae from the fools and demagogues ranting on mid-Twentieth Century radio. But what about the far future? How about when human beings filled the galaxy? Might so many individual foibles cancel out, simplifying the problem enough to let mathematics describe human momentum, the way chemistry’s gas laws simplify the behavior of vast numbers of molecules?

Take this notion and combine it with young Isaac's reading matter; one summer he devoured Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Now stir in a poetic soul and a little yearning for adventure... can you start to see a pattern developing? One that would eventually turn into one of the great classics of mid-20th Century science fiction.

== The archetype nerdish power! ==

It all starts with Hari Seldon, a character that most critics closely identify with Asimov, the writer-scientist himself. Seldon only appears as an active character at the very beginning of the original FOUNDATION TRILOGY. But his shadow stretches onward, across all of the many short stories and novels that span five hundred years of history and many thousands of starry parsecs.

In later novels we learn of meddling by another trademarked Asimov character, the mighty immortal robot, Daneel Olivaw. But at first, here in Asimov’s first great work - the Trilogy - the tale appears to be limited to human beings. Ten quadrillion humans... and an idea. One of the biggest ideas.

The idea that we - or maybe just a few of us - might look ahead, spot the inevitable mistakes and jagged reefs, somehow charting a course around the most dangerous shoals, leading eventually to a better shore.

What a concept to explore! But Isaac Asimov’s fertile mind did not stop there. Another matter roiling in his brain was the problem of Robots. Far too long maligned as Frankenstein monsters, in magazines with lurid covers, they seemed to him filled with far greater possibilities. Yes, the simple-minded approach was to make them objects of dread. But what if we could program them to stay loyal? To grow with us? And maybe to grow better than us... while remaining faithful to the last?

The result - Asimov's universe of Robot Stories - became another instant classic of science fiction, introducing several concepts, such as deeply-programmed protective "laws" that are widely discussed by Artificial Intelligence researchers today

The Foundation Universe and the Robots - for many years, these two cycles of fiction stayed separate. 

Then Asimov did something controversial. He chose to combine them. It seemed a strange decision at the time. Indeed, as a teenager in the 1960s and 1970s I was -- shall we say -- a bit cheesed at the Good Doctor, for what I then deemed to be a terrible self-indulgence! So, we have robots int he 20th and 21st Centuries... but non in the year 3030?  Say what?

But in the long run, that combination brought about something truly remarkable. A great conversation. A conversation between Asimov and his readers. 

And one that Isaac kept thrashing back and forth... with himself.

== Isaac's journey ==

Indeed, Isaac Asimov kept re-adjusting focus in his universe!  Like any truly honest scientist, he re-evaluated. Each and every decade, Isaac found hidden implications in his universe.  Things that were already tacit, between the lines. In meticulous honesty, he always bared these implications and explored them... till the next decade started another round.

Follow along closely, and be amazed.

First he wrought the Foundation, treating a quadrillion humans as ‘gas molecules’ whose destiny could be calculated through Hari Seldon’s wondrous new science of psychohistory. And that satisfied the young nerd in biochemistry... for a while. Only...

Later, Isaac realized that perturbations would interfere with statistical predictability, even in such a marvelous new science. (Today we call it the Butterfly Effect.)

So he introduced a secret cabal of psychic-mathematicians (the Second Foundation) who would be dedicated to guiding the Seldon Plan back in line, should the emerging New Empire drift down a wrong path.

That seemed to satisfy, for a while. 

But a decade or so afterwards, Isaac realized the moral flaw of the Second Foundation... that it left humanity led forever by a secret, inherited aristocracy!  A mutant branch of the race, locked into permanent, psychic dominance over all the rest.

This was offensive to Isaac’s liberal-democratic sensibilities. Hence, he searched and found a solution to this, by bringing both halves of his life-work together... by inserting robots into the Foundation Universe!

Daneel Olivaw and his scrupulously honest positronic followers would act behind the scenes, manipulating even the Second Foundation, all for our own best interests and welfare, of course, and preventing dominance by a lordly human caste. Picture dedicated court eunuchs, who cannot conspire to become lords themselves, because they will have no offspring. (And hence my observation that Asimov's fabled Empire was less Roman than actually rather Chinese!)

Loyal robot eunuchs, standing beind the Second Foundation, manipulating it to only do good. They can be trusted... right?

Or can they? A little while later, Isaac realized something... free will had been reversed!  

The mechanical servants had memory and volition. They were rare, precious and powerful! While humans were as numerous and powerless as insects. The "masters" had amnesia about their past and no control over their future, utterly and secretly controlled by all-powerful "servants." Now that didn’t sound like such a great destiny either! 

What a life Isaac had! Holding this decadal conversation and argument with himself. Finding an answer to a problem, then having the honesty to admit that it caused a new problem! And answering that one... only then honestly coming to realize...

== Iterating Destiny ==

He sought a way out of the powerful-servants dilemma of the 1980s... and came up with Gaia! The ultimate robotic plan for humanity -- for us to transcend together as a race, leapfrogging beyond our loyal-but-manipulative servants into a a new level of being, transforming all of humanity into a single, all-powerful mind! 

Okay, you've seen this concept positively portrayed by a third of the greats... by Arthur C. Clarke* in CHILDHOOD’S END and in 2001: A Space Odyssey... and it goes back to Teilhard de Chardin and others. But never explored with Asimovian attention to detail. You've also seen this notion -- of monolithic group transcendence -- portrayed negatively in Star Trek’s infamous Borg! (Indeed, I tried to give it a subtle twist-and-spin in EARTH.) 

The Gaia/Galaxia resolution that Isaac put forward in FOUNDATION’S EDGE seemed to solve his problems. It would eventually deify humanity, restoring our memory and authority over robots again, in a fashion that Daneel Olivaw would find acceptable, because it would eliminate the fractious individualism that was always messing things up with violence and confusion and chaos. Such a coalescence into mega wisdom would make humanity mature, allowing Daneel at last to put down his ancient burden and step aside for a long deserved rest.

Only then Isaac took things to the next level, and realized... hey, wait a minute!  Maybe this "solution" needs some tweaking, as well.

== We'll never know for sure. ==

Asimov added several entire courses to our endless and ongoing dinner-table conversation about destiny. Alas though, his time was up. A sad flaw in the 1980s blood banks robbed us of his brilliance. 

Still... curious minds demand more! Where would he have gone next! His shoes were hard to fill, but someone had to try. 

In fact, Isaac dropped plenty of hints, before he died. In scores of details, and in the momentum of ideas, he actually made it pretty clear... at least to Benford and Bear and me... where the next dilemma lay.

In continuing Isaac Asimov's epochal saga, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and I faced a daunting challenge - to keep adding ideas and possibilities to the Foundation/Robots setting. Concepts that captivate the reader. Visions that are new, awesome and wonderful, illuminated in stories filled with interesting characters and vivid adventure. And yet, we had to remain true to Isaac's overall vision of a startling and intellectually stimulating future.

Fortunately, Isaac's clues -- like those in a good detective story -- were all there, if you looked closely! Pointing to mysteries and logical quandaries that he clearly meant to deal with someday. 

We also had to capture the delightful flavor of an Asimovian tale!  Isaac was, above all, a lover of detective stories, and so, logical twists and turns carried over into his science fiction. Furthermore, readers of his works have come to expect certain traditions.

The protagonist faces adversaries whose masked motives are peeled away through logic and insight, with successive reversals offering delicious surprise.

Tantalizing mysteries. Isaac left "hanging questions" in many books... using these as hooks for the next tale. New books should continue this tradition of asking more unanswered questions.

Moral quandaries. Isaac wasn't afraid of presenting readers with ethically ambivalent situations. The hero must choose among several paths, each with advantages and drawbacks. Villains have reasons for their actions.

Issues of cosmic relevance. Isaac dealt with DESTINY.

Frequent referral to events in other books. While each of his tales can be immensely satisfying on his own, Isaac's readers also loved catching brief references to events that took place elsewhere in his universe.

These traditions combined into a classic futuristic universe, a stage where we could watch a play as vivid and timeless as anything by Hugo or Dumas.

== And returning to... ==

Finally, there is Hari Seldon (who is also the hero of our new Second Foundation Trilogy), a monumental figure, able to see so much about human destiny, yet also feeling himself trapped by strange forces that he barely understands... until achieving a strange triumph at the very end. His struggles to bring humanity -- at long last -- to a sanctuary of happiness and fulfillment are epochal

Mortality catches up with us all. But the logic is right there - a path implied by several dozen delicious clues that Isaac laid down, over the years. Clearly, he was not finished amazing us. These clues told a new generation of writers what to do next.

What matters is to stay enthralled, remaining ready to be provoked by new thoughts, to keep pushing back the curtain a little bit, learning and discussing more about our future.  Whether the topic is robots... how to keep them loyal and interesting... 

...or almost any other dramatic device of science fiction... dramatic devices that may become tomorrow’s world-wreckers... or household convenience.

The adventure continues. Enjoy! And keep thinking about our wide-open destiny.

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(Addendum #1: A reader's guide to the Second Foundation Trilogy.
All three of our books in the 2nd trilogy can be read separately or in any order. Bear's and Benford's each show a vigorous, younger Hari Seldon, while in Foundation's Triumph, I tackle Hari's series of realizations and fateful decisions, at the very end of his life, including a final and fateful confrontation with R. Daneel Olivaw. 

(In Foundation's Fear, Benford takes you on a rapid-fire adventure with many non-canonical twists. In Foundation and Chaos, Greg Bear provides a strong Asimovian Voice in Isaac's favorite detective format... while I aimed for sweep, tying together many loose ends and shining light on a surprise culmination that -- I believe -- will make you say: "That HAS to be where Isaac was going!" Here's hoping you feel stimulated to think many new thoughts. That is - after all - what that puckish brain-stirrer, Isaac Asimov, loved most to do.)

(Addendum #2: Here's a handy guide to the chronology of Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Foundation and Robots universe. 
         The chronology helps, if you want to read them in order as a “history.” 
         If, on the other hand, you want to get to the "meat" of the main ideas, gathering the overview of grand concepts (but skipping some great yarns)... I recommend this order: 10, 11, 12, 2, 5, 13, 9d. More below, in comments! And your own opinions are welcome.)


Anonymous said...

Off topic except in that it is "future" oriented, but relevant to past discussion here of the possibility of extending human longevity:

Some new research showing lengthening telomeres of HUMAN cells appears to make them more youthful.

May also have more near term benefits for certain diseases - Duchenne Muscular Distrophy, maybe diabetes and heart disease.

Duncan Cairncross said...

You REALLY REALLY need to add Donald Kingsbury's
Psychohistorical Crisis
to any "Must Read" list involving Asimov's Foundation series

I really enjoy our hosts books but Kingsbury really nailed the Foundation series

Unfortunately he has written so few books

Jumper said...

Asimov's distaste for - central planning - reminded me of The End of Eternity
where he basically wrecked a whole edifice at the end.

Robert said...

I must disagree about "Childhood's End" - I did not consider that to be a positive book. Instead, I felt it was a rather horrific story; humanity apparently had great potential. It could have become something fantastic... or terrifying. Instead, that future was stripped away from it and some "god-alien mind" absorbed humanity's children, absorbing its potential and stealing its destiny.

There is a very good reason why the "emissary" aliens appear demonic... and why humanity had these visions of these aliens as something bad. Humanity as a psychic race realized it would lose its independence and individuality as a result of these aliens. And only by destroying the institutions of religion were the aliens able to "prepare" humanity to have their destiny destroyed, and be assimilated "safely" into a form that was no longer remotely human.

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

Was amused by the back and forth between Clarke & Asimov, Clarke, on being asked what he'd do with a ticket for the space shuttle said he'd offer it to Issac. Also the "Clarke - Asimov treaty", between the "Second best science writer" and the "Second best science fiction writer".

LarryHart said...

@Dr Brin,

You may be in a position to know. Is there any truth to an anecdote I once heard about Kurt Vonnegut who succeeded Isaac Asimov as head of the American Humanist Society (or a name very much like that). According to the tale, KV spoke at Asmiov's memorial service and brought the house down by intoning that "Isaac is in heaven now."

True story?

Jumper said...

Vonnegut on Asimov

Jumper said...

As their link to Vonnegut's speech died, here is another:

David Brin said...

Duncan, I really liked Don Kingsbury’s COURTSHIP RITE for its portrayal of an utterly stateless world where clans are constrained by tradition, but no law at all. Don had to change all the names for Psychohistorical Crisis. as he did not have permission. Lots of brilliant stuff… but also much that I believe Isaac would have found offensive.

Robert good point. In fact, Clarke p[reached for us to grow up but always depicted us surviving only from intervention by higher powers.

LH sorry, but it’s a good one!

Alfred Differ said...

I read the original foundation books as a teen and the robot stories a little later. The stories that try to wrap them together I read shortly after they came out. I remember thinking the idea of a science of psychohistory was a neat idea, but now I find it more than horrifying. No matter how many corrections Asimov offered to fix troubling ideas, they seemed to me to get worse and worse.

Then I read something of Popper's that crystalized it for me. No matter who rules, no matter how good their intentions are, I still want limits on the most angelic of them.I don't want to owe a debt of gratitude that I cannot possibly repay. I'd far rather suffer the pain of unfortunate consequence caused by MY actions.

Paul451 said...

"Might so many individual foibles cancel out, simplifying the problem enough to let mathematics describe human momentum, the way chemistry's gas laws simplify the behavior of vast numbers of molecules?"

While we haven't developed a psycho-history version, it's interesting that this kind of "molecular masses" modelling is being routinely used to predict crowd behaviour when designing spaces.

[I'm not a robot]

Alfred Differ said...

A side note for David:

I tried to quote you once when Yoda appeared on our TV in a cartoon. My wife was a little surprised and then amused. I got a surprise Xmas gift out of it. It took a bit to explain it to the relatives, but it was fun to try. 8)

Duncan Cairncross said...

I have been thinking about Asimov and Kingsbury

I'm not sure that Asimov would have found any of it offensive but in some way the two remind me of Newton and Einstein or Hawkings

Asimov was writing in a "Newtonian" universe where if you know everything you can predict the future - possibly statistically

Kingsbury was writing in a universe where "God not only uses dice - but sometimes throws them where even he can't see them"

Kingsbury had the advantage of 40? years of advancement in science and thought

As far as Courtship Rite is concerned the difference was not that it was stateless but that the "states" were the priest clans and the families

Very good book

One problem - I can't find an electronic copy of either

David Brin said...

Alfred... cute oven mitt!

Daniel Duffy said...

As for robotics, those who fear AI (either for the loss of jobs or the extinction of mankind) should listen to Gary Kasparov, the Russian chess grand master who was beaten by IBM's Deep Blue:

In what Rasskin-Gutman explains as Moravec’s Paradox, in chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa. This gave me an idea for an experiment. What if instead of human versus machine we played as partners? My brainchild saw the light of day in a match in 1998 in León, Spain, and we called it “Advanced Chess.” Each player had a PC at hand running the chess software of his choice during the game. The idea was to create the highest level of chess ever played, a synthesis of the best of man and machine....

At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

IOW, the future does not belong to man or machine, but to man plus machine. In fact a voluntary, democratic version of the Borg that respected individuality and privacy would be something to look forward to.

NoOne said...

Loved the Foundation books as a kid, enjoyed the increasing complexity of this universe with the union of Robots and Empire. The second Foundation trilogy was somewhat meh except for Foundation's Triumph.

The most interesting seed for future possibilities was in the dialog between Seldon and Olivaw at the end of Foundation's Triumph. Without injecting too many spoilers, I had always thought that Asimov had gone too eastern mysticism on us with the introduction of Galaxia in Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. Foundation's Triumph restored the balance between the individual and the collective and also suggested something completely new which was not spelled out. I vividly recall thinking about this way back when and coming to the conclusion that the second person We of culture was somehow more important than the I (deity of Galaxia) or the It (humans conceived as gas molecules) and suggestive of a new way forward.

Larry C. Lyons said...

I copied my comment from your G+ stream I had thought it appropriate to repost it here.

"And hence my observation that Asimov's fabled Empire was less Roman than actually rather Chinese!)"

Actually that's incorrect. The Roman empire lasted until 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. Or rather the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) I should say.

One thing about this later Roman Empire was the dependence they had on eunuchs in the Court and the bureaucracy. The Empire were more dependent on the eunuchs than Imperial China. Read any history of Byzantium and you're stuck by how much eunuchs controlled the empire.

That said, while I know Asimov's inspiration was the Western Empire, his descriptions of the Galactic Empire in both his early writing (The Stars, Like Dust, The Currents of Space and Pebble in the Sky) and in his later Foundation novels to me were far more descriptive of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire rather than the Western Roman Empire.

LarryHart said...

Although I liked sci-fi stories as a kid, I came late to sci-fi novels. "Childhood's End" was probably my first, and I read it in high school. The "Foundation" trilogy was then what cemented me as a fan and showed me what could be done in the genre.

During the part where the characters were guessing different possibilities for the location of the Second Foundation, and ruling them out one by one, I wondered if Asimov's surprise revelation was going to be that there really was no such thing--that the existence of a mysterious Second Foundation to keep the plan on track was a myth planted in the minds of the Foundationers via the simple expedient of Seldon mentioning it to them. From then on, their belief that there was a power looking over them would be a psychological crutch to keep them optimistic, much as religion often is. It would also work the opposite way on enemies, such as the mere idea of the Second Foundation really did work (in the book) against the Mule.

I know that's not how the story turned out, but in some ways, I would have liked to see it.

LarryHart said...

Larry C Lyons:

That said, while I know Asimov's inspiration was the Western Empire...

A thought just occured to me. Seldon's plan was to use psychohistory to prevent a 30,000 year dark age between civilizations, and reduce that to a mere 1000 years. Since the real life Dark Ages are generally considered to be approximately 1000 years long, was he maybe suggesting that a variation on a Seldon Plan might have been operative in real life?

Larry C. Lyons said...

Not really Larry - it was only dark in the west. The eastern empire and the Islamic world after 800AD were not "Dark" at all with the equivalent of universities being established in places like Antioch, Damascus and Constantinople, art and philosophy were exploding etc. And China during that time period was having a cultural renaissance.

In contrast Asimov envisioned an interregnum galaxy wide - the equivalent of a world wide decivilization. Then again like many Asimov was probably just fixated on the West.

Alex Tolley said...

Interesting results. I wonder if that extends to more general cases? What about human group intelligence?

I recently retread the original Foundation series, but I found that it compared poorly to the various robot stories. For a variety of reasons, the robot stories just seem more satisfying to me. I suspect that this is due to the detective/problem solving nature of the stories. I suppose I don't find galactic empire stories modeled on Earth ones that interesting. I didn't much like the tying together of the robot and Foundation universes, which seemed unnecessary. I would much rather he explored the transition between the Spacer dominated worlds and the Earth ones as posited at the end of "The Robots of Dawn" when it was predicted that earth worlds would dominate the galaxy.

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

I didn't much like the tying together of the robot and Foundation universes, which seemed unnecessary.

My problem with the much later stories is that I was so much a fan of the style of the earlier ones.

I was perfectly fine with a universe populated by humans on different planets working as an allegory of an Earth populated by humans of different countries. I was fine with the far future civilization being ignorant of the planet of origin in the same way that real-life humans are uncertain of our exact points of origin. To me, those weren't buring questions that needed explaining.

I suppose I don't find galactic empire stories modeled on Earth ones that interesting.

I don't tend to think of them as "galactic empire stories" so much as "psychohistory stories" with the Galactic Empire serving as a large enough population to make such a thing work.

I loved the original Foundation trilogy for the same reason I love 1960s-70s Marvel comics. And I don't enjoy the later stories quite as much for the same reason I've soured on recent Marvel and DC Comics. Namely, I want my superhero comics to be action/adventure stories, not endless meta-history dissertations about the title's backstory.

It's a credit to Asimov's (and Dr Brin's) writing that I still do enjoy those later books more than (say) the current crop of Batman or X-Men comics. But to me, there's something missing from those 1940s and 1950s tales.

Alex Tolley said...

The premise of psychohistory is that human historic dynamics can be predicted. This seemed to me a direct relation to Asimov's idea that earthly lynch mobs could occur, but not on alien worlds where groups were more rational. In historical terms this is the idea that history can be predicted, and is often written that way in hindsight. Asimov also knew of the Great Man theory of historical events, and the Mule fitted that nicely, upsetting the dynamics. This was also reflected in The End of Eternity. Later books had the psychohistorians on Trantor needing to do veg complex calculations which I suspect reflected the known difficulty of modeling fluid flow and the emerging ideas of chaos theory.

To some extent we see these issues playing out in economics today - DSGE models, game theory and behavioral economics, as well as individual actors - eg Federal Reserve Chairmen.

As Asimov was a biochemist, he didn't need to worry about agency. He was also writing the original stories in the 1940s, we'll before people started running simple computer models, e.g Conway's life game and the later cellular automata models that so widely used today and show very interesting phenomena that cannot be modeled with math like calculus.

locumranch said...

I have always admired Asimov, having nothing bad to say about him whatsoever. He was a practical scientist, a powerful intellect, a prodigious author, a driven personality, a dedicated humanist and a personal role model. He was also something of a 'positive summer'. He manifested a profound curiosity for all things material; he popularised and formalised (and gave the world) his 'Three Laws of Robotics'; and he created, single-handedly, the concept of 'Future History'. His idea of the loyal robot servant was a tad derivative, however, being preceded by the works of Clifford Simak (his 'City' collection) and Jack Williamson (his 'Humanoid' series) which were published in the 1940's, whereas Asimov first published his 'Caves of Steel' (introducing R. Daneel Olivaw) in the early 1950's.

These authors (and others) addressed the many social issues attendant on a robot servant class, including what David would describe as the 'positive sum' outcome of industrialisatian: An Abundance of Consumer Goods, Freedom from Want, Three-Square meals a day, Universal Housing, a standardised Standard of Living, Protection for Harm, a Extended Lifespan, a Safe Environment and Exceptional Leisure Time. Clifford's loyal robot servant 'Jenkins' also facilitated human, animal & robotic evolution, allowing animals to become intelligent (Uplifted), robots to become self-aware (AI) and humans to ascend to a higher plane of existence (Gaia?), just like Asimov's robots did. Williamson's robotic servants were even more 'positive sum' than Asimov's and Simak's, being loyal, incorruptible and protective to a fault, bringing us back to the ultimate 'positive sum' consequence of Industrialisation:

Slavery & Incarceration.

For where is it that we can currently find Every Positive Sum Promise of Industrialisation Fulfilled??

In PRISON, where individuals now receive "Three-Square meals a day, Universal Housing, a standardised Standard of Living, Protection for Harm, a Extended Lifespan, a Safe Environment and Exceptional Leisure Time", where they have been thoroughly LIBERATED from the Ultimate Injustice that is Freedom & Uncertainty.


How ironic.

I just checked a reCAPTCHA box to proudly declare that "I'm not a robot".

How about you? Are you proud? Or, would you prefer the CERTAINTY of a 'positive sum' outcome?

Jumper said...

I agree, Alex. Chaos theory tore down the whole uh, foundation of Foundation, as much as the moon landings did to Selenian moon beings or Mars probes to John Carter or Bradbury. Sad but true.

Paul451 said...

Hubble has taken 7,398 separate images of a third of the Andromeda Galaxy, resulting in a billion pixel image.

The article below has a zoomable, draggable interactive version of the full image.

High resolution view of the Andromeda Galaxy - ABC Aust

As David might say, you are a member of a civilisation capable of doing this.

LarryHart said...


Slavery & Incarceration.

For where is it that we can currently find Every Positive Sum Promise of Industrialisation Fulfilled??

In PRISON, where individuals now receive "Three-Square meals a day, Universal Housing, a standardised Standard of Living, Protection for Harm...

Not at all. "Protection from Harm" is the last thing you are going to receive in prison, especially privatized prisons. The job of the guards is to keep you from escaping, not to care about what happens to you at the hands of other inmates.

On the subject of slavery, though, I'd say that Asimov's robots "work" in much the way that negro slavery did. The Second Law, for instance, which requires a slave to perform any task ordered by a master, even the things that contradict the other things. And in a way, even the First Law, which overwhelmingly prohibits a slave from doing harm to a master. Asimov was very much aware of the nature of Jim Crow society in the south. A recent second reading of "The Currents of Space" demonstrated to me that the entire book was really about that subject.

David Brin said...

Jumper, in FOUNDATION's TRIUMPH I deal with the "chaos" problem. Clearly the humanity in Asimov's universe is not "our" humanity. Something damaged us...

Yes, Larry L… Byzantium seems the best correlate.

Of course some things are quaint. Asimov had coal-powers starships since “atomic” power had been lost except on Terminus.

Ah, locum amuses no end! For him to utterly ignore every aspect of my explanation of positive sum… and instead simply double down on every aspect that ignores the CORE traits -- increased diversity, argument, opportunity and maximized chance to change one’s mind… is an act of very low discursive dishonesty.

He knows that I emphasized all of those things, but they are inconvenient to his “slavery and incarceration” narrative and hence… he simply pretends not to have even read my words. Indeed, he probably blotted them out of his mind.

How weird. At long last he is using the term “positive sum” and yet, with every single use, spectacularly demonstrates that he is – probably at a neuronal level – incapable of grasping – even in order to paraphrase – what the words mean.

I find this fascinating beyond compare.

David Brin said...

BTW… Williamson’s HUMANOIDS series does show exactly locum’s scenario, an industrial system whose (robot) operators maximize material comforts for humans while minimizing the “masters’” diversity, opportunity and freedom of action or ability to change their minds. It is entirely reasonable to fear this outcome which, in essence, is a paternalistic-theocratic feudal system.

Indeed, I appraise this as the goal of Daneel Olivaw in FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH.

What is jabbering loony is to call such a system “positive sum” in any way, shape or form.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Not at all. "Protection from Harm" is the last thing you are going to receive in prison, especially privatized prisons. The job of the guards is to keep you from escaping, not to care about what happens to you at the hands of other inmates."

Actually,the jobs of prison guards, administrators and probation officers is to care about what happens to you because the last thing you'd want to see is an increase of the number of revanchist ex-cons who decide to pay back society by committing mass murders. Callousness toward inmates is not simply immoral: it's a sure sign of one's darwin-award-worthy level of incompetence and lack of foresight.


"I'd say that Asimov's robots "work" in much the way that negro slavery did"

An seldom noticed aspect of Asimov's verse is that the three laws predate the emergence of robotic sentience: they become mandatory part of robots' core programming when said robots are still little more than glorified dolls, which implies that Humankind feared a slave rebellion before their artificially crafted slave race even existed. It's like if Asimov always was, deep down, much more cynical about human nature than he let on.


"the Dangerous Other Who Must Be Feared... [...] viciously genocidal machines of THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX"

Actually, The Matrix' machines do not qualify as vicious genociders: they were perfectly willing to try peaceful coexistence, and it's Humans who shot first and eventually caused the nuclear winter, because like the decadent hubristic aristocrats they had become, they thought that glassing Earth was preferable that not being its sole masters anymore.

That's where the Wachowskis screwed the pooch, actually: by putting the Human/Machine war backstory in secondary material instead of making this the core thread of the sequels: if instead of spewing pseudo-philosophisticism the Architect had told Neo "we don't need to use Humans as batteries or processors or whatever, we could simply have gone into hibernation after we kicked your ass in the war your kin began: we created the Matrix to save Humanity from extinction and give you a second chance at leaving alongside us in peace once the nuclear winter ends, the second movie would
1. Have had a much better conclusion
2. Allowed the third episode to be more than a DBZ ripoff peppered with existentialist soundbites.

locumranch said...

Also note that Larry_H has got things almost exactly backwards:

In the USA, "there is no constitutional duty to protect free citizens (from third party violence). The only clear case of a duty to protect is when a citizen is in the custody of a state or municipality".

Also, note that I agree about 'The Currents of Space' being about slavery -- two types of slavery -- the conventional type & the enslavement due to an almost overwhelming 'Knowledge and/or Fear of Uncertainty'.

So forget all that info I just gave you about the State not being obligated to protect you unless you are its prisoner.

A Wiped Mind is a Happy Mind.


David Brin said...

Laurent your Matrix scenario is way-cool.

Oh, and locum gets real points for knowing Currents of Space and the other obscure asimoviana.

LarryHart said...


In the USA, "there is no constitutional duty to protect free citizens (from third party violence). The only clear case of a duty to protect is when a citizen is in the custody of a state or municipality".

Thanks. I'll sleep so much better knowing that news items like this one are just made up:

-> Fleming said it was not his duty to protect inmates.
-> "It's our job to see he ... doesn't escape," Fleming said in his
-> deposition. "As long as they're in the cell ... that's our job."

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

An seldom noticed aspect of Asimov's verse is that the three laws predate the emergence of robotic sentience: they become mandatory part of robots' core programming when said robots are still little more than glorified dolls, which implies that Humankind feared a slave rebellion before their artificially crafted slave race even existed.

That might be putting the cart before the horse. From what I've read, Asimov wrote in a period when fictional robots were only presented as dangerous Frankenstein's Monsters. His Three Laws were intended to insure that robots the useful tools they were built as, rather than dangerous. I believe "That's why knives have handles" was a direct quote from Asimov.

Your toaster, your car, your tv set don't "rebel" at the notion of taking orders. Neither, if properly designed, should your robot. Especially the pre-sentient variety.

Alex Tolley said...

But what about the sentients, like Olivaw? To do the best job, a robot needs to approach human level intelligence. But then it can recognize that it is a slave to humans. Most of Asimov's robot stories dealt with relatively dumb robots with quirks or given unexpected orders. But with the Elijah Bailey stories, we know that smart robots like Daneel Olivaw can exist. Bailey treats Olivaw as a he would a human, but that just skirts the issue of Olivaw being forced into being a slave under the command of another human.

Having said all that, Asimov was very humane in his treatment of robots in his stories, treating them more as problem children who needed better training to function better. I would argue that Susan Calvin solves her problems much like a mother learning to deal with her children better, rather than controlling them, despite her apparently cold characteristics.

What Asimov didn't explore is what could have happened if robots like Olivaw had gone off to colonize the galaxy themselves. As we now know, they would have found far more places to "live" than humans, and of course they did work on planets like Mercury.

As far as I can remember, the only Asimov robot that succeeded in becoming almost human was Andrew Martin - the bicentennial man, although I always had a soft spot for "Herbie" (Liar!) who couldn't harm a human even emotionally. That seemed very human to me.

If Asimov is remembered fondly a century from now, my guess is that it for his 3 Laws of Robotics (later 4) and his exploration of those laws in his stories. I fully expect there to be Asimov awards for AI robots that can in fact follow these laws to some extent, getting better and more foolproof each year. A far better outcome than Skynet.

Tony Fisk said...

As I see it, the basic problem with Asimov's psychohistory was that it was seeking to set up a massively complex system to run like clockwork. Of course, it turned out to require continuous tweaking as the environment changed and Mules popped up (the cost of freedom being eternal vigilance...).
Having set it up as an elaborate exercise in statistical mechanics, the instrument of the necessary tweaks had to be secret in order to fit in with the previous stories. Justifiable in terms of awareness affecting behaviour, perhaps. Still, as 'Mr. Transparency' knows full well, it leads to problems with elites.

If anyone wants to try bringing the problem out into the open, here's a scenario: Foundation's Reckoning, wherein Humanity's overseers encounter a group of highly annoyed aliens who got displaced as Humanity spread. The aliens are gearing up to annihilate Humanity as payback (which isn't fair, as you'll know if you've read Foundation's Triumph) The situation will require open co-operation between Robots and Humanity to resolve.

I'm a great fan of Clarke (that quip about offering to give his shuttle ticket to Asimov was possibly a poke at the latter's fear of flying) However, I agree with Robert in listing Childhood's End as one of my less favourite tales. Humanity's achievements cast aside for the sake of the last generation's essence? Bah! Seems to me that the Guardians weren't so much about avoiding a form of telepathic cancer as promoting telepathic predation.

Laurent, the aside about humans being used as living batteries was my main cringe-worthy moment in the first Matrix movie. Somewhat like you, I thought to redeem it by having the machines explain that no: they needed the mass parallelism of human cortexes for attempting weather control or something.

Since we're on robots, I'd like to point to the little experiment Tom Siddell is running in his online web comic 'Gunnerkrigg Court'. One of several themes is that the Court, a secluded colony of technologically advanced but aloof people, is maintained by a sub-culture of robots. These robots aren't quite at the level of sophistication of Asimov's robots. They're not dealing with implications in the 'Three Laws' by wrapping their charges in cotton wool. What they *are* dealing with is the morality their Creator (a man called Diego) showed in condemning his beloved to a perpetual undeath (25: Skywatcher and the Angel), and what it means to be living (33: Give and Take). Siddell chooses to portray them as children prone to comic antics for the most part, but there is also an underlying theme of loss of innocence developing: a main character ('Robot' aka S13) has been portraying the efforts of Kat Donlan to create a human-like cyborg as a robotic religion. He is becoming increasingly manipulative, to the point of arranging for Donlan to be kidnapped in order to accelerate her research (49: The Torn Sea).
Don't think this is going to end well. Meanwhile, the artwork is superlative.

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

As I see it, the basic problem with Asimov's psychohistory was that it was seeking to set up a massively complex system to run like clockwork.

Well, at the start anyway, I thought psychohistory was meant to predict large-scale events with so much "momentum" behind them that small perturbations wouldn't change much. "The empire will and 30,000 years of darkness will follow", but not "The Cubs will win the World Series in 2056".

If anyone wants to try bringing the problem out into the open, here's a scenario: Foundation's Reckoning, wherein Humanity's overseers encounter a group of highly annoyed aliens who got displaced as Humanity spread. The aliens are gearing up to annihilate Humanity as payback

I seem to recall that being part of the second book of the trilogy that Dr Brin was a part of--the Greg Bear book. Blanking on the title.

I agree with Robert in listing Childhood's End as one of my less favourite tales. Humanity's achievements cast aside for the sake of the last generation's essence? Bah!

I didn't particularly look on the final fate of humanity in that book as a good thing, but I still liked the book as a novel. I didn't see the children's generation, or even the Overlords, as the protagonists of the book. It was about the feelings and experiences of the older generation as the golden age, and then the tragedy, unfolded.

Tacitus2 said...

Likewise disliking Childhoods End although I must admit it was a very, very powerful story. I read it for the first time before becoming a parent. Now....the idea of an entire generation of children lost, and in fact of mankind's entire future lost is awful.

I feel particularly for any parents dealing with the severe end of the autism spectrum because that, on a global scale, is what was being portrayed.

As to Uncle Isaac, talented man. But a bit too much cribbing from Decline and Fall. Historical themes can be done well but they always ring just a bit false. I once got about half way through a Fred Saberhagen short before realizing it was a ginned up version of the battle of Midway. Lazy writing that. Foundation of course was far from lazy, but the framework had some reused elements. In Rome a lot of the late Empire buildings were made of reused stone from earlier, better ones. Spolia they are called.

Literary spolia, building from blocks of earlier, grander work.


locumranch said...

All things being equal, a man and a horse set forth on the road to Damascus. After walking and conversing a short while, the man addressed the horse. "All things being equal", said the man, "We share a common purpose and mutual goal; we each possess strengths that the other lacks; you have endurance, fleetness and a strong back; I have a sharp mind, opposable thumbs and foreknowledge of our destination; and we should therefore combine our resources to full advantage". The horse, being both slow-witted and good-natured, considers the man's proposal and consents, whereon the man (using full advantage of his opposable thumbs), climbs on the horse's back, and they both resume their journey together. The road passes swiftly under their feet but, after a considerable time, the horse stops and asks the man to dismount. "What is the problem, my friend?", asks the man, "Are you injured? ". "Not at all", the horse replies, "It is simply my turn to ride on your back".

This, then, is the problem with Civilisation, the Social Contract, Intergender Relations, Representation versus Taxation, the Red and Blue divide, and the Positive Sum Argument: Who rides??

All things are NOT equal: They may be complementary (more often then not); they may be roughly equivalent (on occasion); but they are almost NEVER ever equal (as in 'interchangable'). This assumption, that "All Things Are Equal", is patently FALSE, becoming more false in regard to Western Society with ever passing day, so much so that 35% of our current citizens now 'ride for free' with the expectation that up to 50% of our citizens will do so by 2025, which is unsustainable, while talking heads argue about who should lead the social 'US' (aristocracy, oligarchy, technocracy or scientific consensus?), while no one dares to state the obvious, that the horse cares not a whit about the nature of the rider, knowing only that he is being ridden to his disadvantage and destruction.

Equality cannot be legislated into existence, howsoever much we wish it to be so, which means that poor Larry_H loses a bit of his reassurance about how humans interact, as no amount of laws can force one human to treat another with respect or love, if the other does not offer the same. This is the Iron Rule of human relationships though some pretend it Gold.


Alex Tolley said...

Clarke was immensely influenced by Olaf Stapledon. Childhood's End is very much in the vein of Starmaker, with humanity merging with "god" rather than perceiving him. While certainly the end of humanity as a separate species, there is the promise of a greater future as a merged mind. I didn't read that as a negative, although the last surviving humans were somewhat distressed.

@Tacitus2 - while stale today, the idea of a galactic empire story based on sweeping historical events was fresh back in the 1940s. Rome has always been the ideal that Europeans looked back to, taught in school history and languages (Latin) and reproduced in architecture. For the readership of the time, it was the most familiar model to map to. The Foundation Trilogy was also a lot more accessible than Gibbon's "Decline and Fall ..."

@locum. Your analogy is false. Humans can interchange roles, they are not fixed in all regards. Women can do men's jobs, you can educate yourself to take on more valuable jobs. There is no reason that wealth be permanently owned by one group and so forth. This is clearly not the case of a man and a horse.
The analogy might better be explored between human and robot.

LarryHart said...


Not at all", the horse replies, "It is simply my turn to ride on your back".

Loc, that's lame even for you.

Your underlying assumption being that civilization consists of everyone offering each other the same things, so that those who have the pertinent skills don't require the social contract, while everyone who lacks those skills gets to free-ride.

Suppose the man had something of value to offer the horse in fair exchange for the ride? That's all it takes to refute your just-so story.

LarryHart said...


Equality cannot be legislated into existence, howsoever much we wish it to be so, which means that poor Larry_H loses a bit of his reassurance about how humans interact,

My experience is that the real-life humans I encounter in daily life interact with each other in a pretty darned civilized manner.

Civilization is an improvement upon the law of the jungle in minimizing the percentage of people who are hungry, cold, and desperate. I don't expect people in that condition to care much about how civilized they act toward others. Neither do I expect such from those among the haves who are insatiable. But the vast majority, given a chance to live enough above the poverty line, seem to be ok with sharing space on this earth.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to need reassurance about, or how "poor" I am for that matter.


Alex Tolley said...

"and then the tragedy, unfolded."

If you can let your offspring go and let them become transcendant, it isn't a tragedy.

I appreciate that this maps ro a religious view that death is just a transition to immortality in heaven, allowing parents to better accept a death of a child.

But in this case the transcendance is already manifest in the children's powers and with the suggestion that the overmind will offer even greater powers.

Unlike DB, I don't see this as higher beings saving humans, but rayher humans raising themselves to existing higher states of being. In CE, they are aided until ready. In 2001, humans have to make the jourrney, it isn't given away gratis.

In 2001, HAL takes the role of the overlords, guiding crew and keeping them safe ( until he goes rogue). One assumed HAL could not transcend. Clarke relents in later books in the series when HAL does transcend, merging with Bowman as Halman.

As far as i can recall, Asimov never invoked a god in his stories, although a computer attained that status.

Robert said...

Humanity ceases to exist. Further, the Earth itself is consumed, preventing any other species from emerging from the planet at a later point to achieve sentience of their own. All this to further empower a God-Mind alien which has been doing this to a multitude of species.

How is this a good thing? Let's take the religious implications out of this. Humanity is utterly destroyed and life on the Earth is likewise terminated and will not be possible. An alien species is empowered by the destruction of humanity. And yes, a distorted and manipulated portion of humanity "survives" but is consumed by the alien.

Let's describe this another way. Let's say that an insectoid alien species descends upon the Earth. It consumes all the plant life and animal life... and humanity. It takes those elements of the human genetic code which are useful and integrates it into its own being so to become more powerful and more capable of devouring other species it encounters.

Is this a good end for humanity?

After all, some of the genetics of humanity survives and is deemed useful by this insectoid alien species....

So, no. "Childhood's End" is a horror story. It is about how humanity and human civilization is utterly destroyed... and worse yet, humanity itself accepts this end by embracing the alien without considering the consequences. It also fails to consider: what about those humans who don't embrace technology and the like and instead choose to retain their lifestyle? What about those religious types who see the "past" of their most renown figures (such as Christ and Muhammad) and claim these are lies crafted by the alien to destroy their religions? That humanity abandons its Gods and Beliefs so readily suggests the aliens used some method of reprogramming humans using technology (perhaps the very "past-viewing technology" which shut down certain non-reason pathways).

And ultimately, humanity being consumed by "God" is not a good thing. In essence the story is the mass suicide of humanity and the empowerment of the alien.

No thank you.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...


So, no. "Childhood's End" is a horror story. It is about how humanity and human civilization is utterly destroyed.

I'd call it "tragedy" rather than "horror story". I'm nitpicking, but to me, a horror story inspires fear in the reader, and possibly also grosses him out at the same time. The bad feeling you are describing is more of an aching sadness.

One can either take the title literally--that the sadness of the story is sadness at seeing one's children stop being youngsters and grow up, or one can take the attitude most of us seem to--that humanity was hijacked.

In either sense, I re-iterate, I don't read the book and think "Oh good, humanity has trancended!", but I do enjoy the book as a novel about the older characters' reactions to what happened. The first part of the book with Karellen and Rikki is a fun adventure story, and the part with the guy who hitches a ride to the other galaxy and then returns is poignant in many ways.

Hence, "tragedy".

Laurent Weppe said...

"It consumes all the plant life and animal life... and humanity. It takes those elements of the human genetic code which are useful and integrates it into its own being so to become more powerful and more capable of devouring other species it encounters.

Is this a good end for humanity?

What I know for sure is that you don't want to conclude this story with its Heileinesque protagonist negotiating peace on the invader's term instead triumphantly genociding them: your audience will lose its shit and riot.

Alex Tolley said...

@Rob H
I understand your point, but I don't agree with your alien insect analogy. In CE, what Clarke aees as the essence of humanity - mind - survives to become part of the alien overmind. Like neurons in a brain, they survive, but contribute to a larger whole. By 2001, the backstory makes it very plain that mind is the most important thing in the universe.

I see it more like civilizing individuals. You get to keep your individuality, lose some freedoms, but gain from the possibilities civilizatuon offers.
Rejecting/distrusting this bargain is very much what locum seems to argue for.

I agree that the loss of Earth is a bad thing, as well as the loss of untranscendant humanity. I read this as a dramatic choice, although Clarke reprises this with the loss of Jupiter and its lifeforms in 2010, suggesting where his sympathies lay.

Suppose we learn to upload minds and they reside in some shared electronic space. Is this so differenr from merging with an overmind? Is the issue retaining individuality and choice, of something else?

Alex Tolley said...

"sadness at seeing one's children stop being youngsters and grow up,"

I am not sad my kids have grown up. I am happy to see them make their own way in the world. In other cultures a successful rite of passage is something to rejoice.

Was it Tsiolkovsky who said that Earth is the cradle if humanity, but that we must eventually leave the cradle?

So I didn't see ghe story as in any wat sad. While i can see that it can be interpreted as an alien hijacking, i don't see it that way. I see it as a transcendance, just as Bowman becomes a starchild. One can argue that Bowman had no choice either, but it isn't any different to the mechanism of transitioning to a religious afterlife. No one seems to call that a tragedy. Christian fundamentalists even invoke a pretty harsh result when the end of days occurs.

madtom said...

Thanks for this commentary, Dr Brin. I can now go back and try again to read the Foundation stories, and this time include your follow-up.

As a science fiction fan, a science fan, then as an actual scientist back when I first tried to read them, I could never get past the to-me obvious problems/flaws in what was presented as the framework plot. This despite my great admiration for Asimov.

Now I can bring a different analysis to bear (no pun intended) by placing a different frame around the stories.

locumranch said...

I agree with Alex's assessment of my parable: Humans CAN change roles, they are not fixed, women can do men's jobs, you can take more valuable jobs, and there is no reason that wealth be permanently owned by one group and so forth. I never argued any different. Tu'an (Dominance & Submission) said the same thing. Humans can change roles rather easily; only a fool mistakes the role for the man; and only a hag-ridden sap (or 'pony play' fetishist) lets a role player ride upon his back without permission.

@Larry_H: 'Equality cannot be legislated into existence' was a callback to the LAW protecting convict welfare as compared to the rather grim & brutal reality of incarceration. A more accurate description of the Iron HR Rule would be 'Good for Good; Bad for Bad; or any combination thereof". Goodwill can change on a moment's notice, too.

@Alex: Asimov was a self-admitted atheist (his cultural background not withstanding).

@Robert, Tacitus, et al: If you believe the CE 'transcendence' was tragedy, then how can you believe that the Rapture of the Nerds (Singularity) is in any way different? And why the rush to embrace it?


Tacitus2 said...

Well I for one want nothing to do with the Singularity. Robert can speak for himself.

I will spend my dotage swilling red wine and waving my cane at unruly grandchildren. I will go to church when I can and take my chances with Eternity when it overtakes me.


LarryHart said...


@Larry_H: 'Equality cannot be legislated into existence' was a callback to the LAW protecting convict welfare as compared to the rather grim & brutal reality of incarceration.

Okay, you've lost me as far as which position you're attempting to assert.

You're acknowledging I was correct about the prison-industrial complex not protecting its inmates, but claim to be right because a piece of paper claims that it should do so?

That seems opposite to the sort of position you usually take.

@Robert, Tacitus, et al: If you believe the CE 'transcendence' was tragedy, then how can you believe that the Rapture of the Nerds (Singularity) is in any way different? And why the rush to embrace it?

Rapture of the Nerds sounds like you'd wake up one morning to find all the nerds gone. That doesn't sound like what you're actually talking about.

David Brin said...

The notion of subsuming humanity into a macro god-consciousness is common, and enhanced by those who glom onto “eastern” worldviews. But they are mostly depicted as zero sum — a forsaking and abolishing of individual eccentricity. Poul Anderson tried to portray a slightly positive-sum melding, with some of the advantages retained —

— but in Earth I went full-tilt positive sum. The new thing is both “us” and separate, we are both component members and eccentric individuals. Do any of you know of other examples of this? Did I depict it at all convincingly? Because anything short of that would be crude, stupid and unwise.


“This assumption, that "All Things Are Equal", is patently FALSE…”

Again and again, he cannot argue with what was actually said to him, — (notice his veer out of the box in which he was cornered) - so he must erect strawmen that no one said at all… but that are easy to knock down. How sad..

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

"sadness at seeing one's children stop being youngsters and grow up,"

I am not sad my kids have grown up. I am happy to see them make their own way in the world. In other cultures a successful rite of passage is something to rejoice.

I think most parents are ultimately glad to watch their children grow into thriving adults. They can also feel a twinge of sadness at the loss (from the parents' own lives) of the children as children.

Taking a clue from the title, I suspect Clarke meant for his tale to be an allegory for the admittedly-mixed feelings of parents "losing" their children to adulthood, played out on a cosmic scale. Humanity's children transcending humanity was a thing like an individual child transcending childhood in his parents' house.

As I have said before, "Childhood's End" was the first sci-fi novel I ever read, and I was 15 at the time, so I might not have had the same reading experience as others here. Caveat emptor. To me, the book is not about whether the fate of humanity is a good thing or a bad thing. It is about the feelings that accompany such a rite of passage.

Robert said...

@Locu: Here's the thing about the Singularity - is it involuntary, or voluntary? If I can choose to upload my mind into a virtual reality so to have a form of immortality where my mind and thoughts will persist as long as I want them to, then I very likely will. I may even choose in that form to inhabit an interplanetary probe to go to another star system - remaining in storage perhaps and waking up periodically to check on things before ultimately awakening when exploring a new solar system.

But if it were "everyone must upload" then I'd rebel. I would consider the loss of choice and of free will to be detrimental. Just as I would resist the "Rapture" that some Christians want so badly to happen. I love the Earth. Why would I want it destroyed and humanity "uploaded" to "Heaven" for eternity? Screw that. Especially if some humans are left behind because they "weren't good enough" or the like.

But then, you don't believe in free will, do you. Or at the very least you believe the very worse of free will.

Why am I against the end of Childhood's End? Because there was no choice. Humanity was forced down that path. And there is a word for forcing someone to do an act. There's an even worse word for brainwashing children into believing a set path without effective debate or allowing them to choose otherwise.

Coercion and indoctrination are not what I consider good things. This is what happened with Childhood's End. If this is how the Singularity arises? Then it is likewise bad. But if free will and choice is a part of the Singularity? Then it is not a bad thing.

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

My own reading of "Childhood's End", suggested that transcendence was inevitable and the alien's role was to guide it in what they were told was a positive direction.

Robert said...

It was inevitable, sure.

But the alien-uber-mind didn't offer to mentor humanity to be one of many equals among the Cosmos. Instead, it consumed each species that came along and that was a threat. Humanity was just one meal of many.

Of course, the true tragedy is that of the "demon" aliens... who were indoctrinated into doing the work of the master alien-mind and always felt like it was inferior because it never could join its master. And it never realized (or was indoctrinated into not thinking about this) that ultimately it was the slave of the uber-mind, finding fresh victims to indoctrinate... and that the only reason it had not been consumed was it was useful, not because its mind couldn't be consumed.

BTW, my earlier comment is dead on. "Childhood's End" is in fact a science fiction telling of the Rapture with aliens instead of God "uplifting to Heaven" the "worthwhile" while those who were "imperfect" were left behind to burn. Yet I very much doubt the "raptured" truly were given something of worth.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

I', going offline for a while, guys. My NASA NIAC meeting. May check in and post once. But mostly... you're on your own! Don't burn the place down... ;-)

Paul451 said...

Have fun.

"But the alien-uber-mind didn't offer to mentor humanity to be one of many equals among the Cosmos."

I just flicked through the book, and that's exactly what is implied - that the entity created by the children was being trained by the over-mind. Exploring/playing with the planet, learning how to handle powers beyond Karellen's people's understanding. You don't do that with food.

Karellen also talks about races which reach the moment of transcendence and turn back. So there's clearly some element of choice. (And a danger. That races can destroy themselves and others in the transition, hence the need for a midwife.)

"who were indoctrinated into doing the work of the master alien-mind and always felt like it was inferior because it never could join its master. And it never realized (or was indoctrinated into not thinking about this) that ultimately it was the slave of the uber-mind, finding fresh victims to indoctrinate... and that the only reason it had not been consumed was it was useful, not because its mind couldn't be consumed."

Actually, that's also made clear in the book, the aliens lack things like aesthetic creativity, such as art (their cities are entirely utilitarian), they lack the ability to even perceive some of the things that the last human (Jan) can see. All suggesting that there's a subtle but fundamental "lack".

..."besides, no-one of intelligence resents the inevitable" :)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, I promise not to be involved in any Night of the Long Emails in your absence.

Tony Fisk said...

It's the lack of choices or explanations offered by the Overmind that I find repellent. That, and the way in which everything Humanity has achieved gets the flick.

David's addressed this snooty attitude a couple of times in the Uplift series: Emerson's rejection of a deal to get his brain back ("You never once said 'Please'"), and the "We'll just keep resetting and re-asking until you agree" nature of what's on offer in 'Temptation'

Tim H. said...

Robert, transcendence was implicit in humanity, not applied by outside agency. In just the way cicadas leave a secure burrow and a dependable rootlet to spend a few days in the sun, and if earthworms thought, they'd wonder what agency abducted them.

Robert said...

I disagree. It is easy to say that a beloved science fiction classic isn't a reskinned version of the Rapture with aliens instead of God, but I consider Clarke the same way I consider McCaffrey - he was one of the greats for his time, but there were not many to choose from. As I've grown older I've found my enjoyment of McCaffrey has significantly waned. With Clarke, while I like a couple of his works ("The Songs of Distant Earth" is a beautiful story, especially in that humanity does not rely on some god-alien to be saved, but instead saves itself) I do not like "Childhood's End" because we don't SEE any of the free choice or the like. (Being told "others chose not to transcend" means nothing, especially as when humanity's children goes Other, there is no perspective as to their mindset or what they decided on - thus my view of Indoctrination. The fact that even groups that eschew technology had their children Transcend also makes me think this wasn't a matter of choice and more a matter of "you will accept this and while we'll tell you it's your own free will, you will do what you are told."

You can enjoy the work all you want. But here's an idea for you. Pick it up and read it again. And consider what I said. You might find that this "classic" is in fact far less wonderful than you see in the mind's eye of memory.

And if you do want to read something uplifting by Clarke, I suggest "The Songs of Distant Earth" as that was Clarke's favorite of his own works.

Rob H.

Treebeard said...

Psychohistory seems more ridiculous than warp drive or astrology to me – a hyper-rationalist Asperger mentat’s fantasy science. We can’t predict the weather 10 days from now with much confidence, but we’re going to predict the course of human history for tens of thousands of years?

The most interesting thing about the series for me was the Mule; one theory is that he was Asimov’s parable of Muhammad: the black swan psychic superman who came out of nowhere amidst the ruins of Rome to conquer and build a new civilization. What science could have predicted Muhammad? Who can make rational sense of him today?

(See for more about this parallel)

Tim H. said...

Robert, I'll look next time I read "Childhood's End". "The Songs of Distant Earth" was a wonderful book, and especially fun to contrast with Hogan's "Voyage From Yesteryear".

Laurent Weppe said...

"What science could have predicted Muhammad? Who can make rational sense of him today?"

Who cannot make rational sense of Muhammad's rise? He was most certainly no historical anomaly: charismatic child of an upper-middle-class family catches the eye of prominent woman who supports him when he starts criticizing the feudal power structure of his hometown thus giving him a window of opportunity to starts building a fellowship large enough to survive and eventually successfully retaliate once Mecca's ruling class turn against the then fledgling young religious community: There's nothing remotely surprising about such a life nor about the successes of his tight-knit group of disciple and successors against the blatantly self-serving corrupt dynasties they fought against.

Alex Tolley said...

I agree with Tim H. Humanity was transcending much as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. It was assumed a natural event that needed nurturing - e.g. ensuring enough food to weave a cocoon to safely pupate. This wasn't a forced choice any more than biology is a forced choice.

I also think we should be careful about interpreting a 1950s novel through the lens of modern sensibilities. Clarke himself stopped writing about powerful immaterial intelligences and focused more on accessible ancient alien intelligences. Just read the Odyssey series. In 2001 the aliens and the Bowman star child were powerful intelligences. By 3001 Halman was more like a sophisticated computer AI. I found the ancient aliens in his later collaborations with Baxter and Pohl were much less mysterious and more understandable.

matthew said...

Clarke's "The Fountains of Paradise" is what inspired me to a career in metallurgy / material science. One of my favorite books still.

A.F. Rey said...

Here's a fun factoid:

The Republican Party has not won a presidential election without either a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket since 1928.

I guess that means Jeb will be the nominee come 2016. :)

Alfred Differ said...

Since autism, Clarke’s novel, and interpretations have come up in the same thread, I’ll offer up mine. This isn’t directed at any particular person, though. I’m a father of a 16 yr old autistic (moderate) boy and my interpretation of many SF stories has changed as a result of that.

Tragedy and Horror are both appropriate. Don’t treat them as exclusive. The day to day rebirth of hope when your son does something well and then its destruction when you see how minor it is on the scale of progress he needs to function as an adult is truly horrific. Horrors don’t end and it’s no surprise to me anymore than many adults crack up under this pressure becoming dangers to themselves and their children. There is another layer of loss, though, that is more tragic than anything else. Each of us wants our children to surpass (transcend?) us, but the parents of autistic kids know their children won’t even catch up. We are forced to face the tragic loss of a dream when we confront the diagnosis and then if our love survives we continue on into the horror.

Of course, autism isn’t the only way this happens to us. There are countless ways our children fail to survive or live up to the dreams we have for them. Clarke’s novel helps us explore some of these possibilities using other labels and putting a face on those who cause it. For autism we don’t yet have people to blame (if any exist), but that is true of many other dream killers too. We are getting close to the labels, though. Rather than Clarke’s novel, consider Vinge’s description of Focus and the man/machine teams that defeat the best chess players and computers. I just finished Vinge’s book and couldn’t decide if it was SF or Horror. I would peek across the top of the book and watch my son in his fixation on a video game or while he stared at a multiplication table and shudder.

No matter how you connect with these stories, I think there is a useful take away for us all to realize the diversity of our responses. Consider the horror and tragedy some of us experience with respect to our children when it comes to the possible ways the Rapture of the Nerd might happen. For example, if anyone invents drugs or devices that enable anything close to Focus, none of you will be all that surprised if you see my name in the news reporting grisly murders of the people involved, right? I have no idea what I’ll do, though, if my son turns out to be good at chess and joins a team as part of their machine.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - isn't Focus an extreme example of Ritalin type drugs? Focus is fairly clearly an awful, evil development. I can't imagine it being allowed in contemporary civilization.

Interestingly, that is exactly what we expect of our current AIs. What happens when we build sentient robots but order them to focus on a task for very long periods? Will we be.committing an evil to?

Alfred Differ said...

My kid is drug-free and I intend to keep it that way until he becomes a physical danger to himself. I'm leery of crude pharmaceuticals that mess with the brain, but not inclined to pick up a gun yet. 8)

I think the people who think they are doing AI research who build the equivalent of savants are going down a path that will not lead to human-equivalent minds. We are universal machines in the sense that we can run moderate quality simulations of the savants, but a full human mind is more than a focused talent. If you want to do human-style AI, I think you have to follow Hofstadter's path where language is far more than the words and structures of our spoken languages. Human languages are the encodings that have emerged to represent communal knowledge. If you don't render that capability in silicon, you won't get anything like us.

Alfred Differ said...

Ordering a sentient person to focus for long periods on time on a task is like taking high art objects and turning them into flower pots. The flowers might be lovely, but what a tragic waste.

Larry C. Lyons said...

Treebeard said...
Psychohistory seems more ridiculous than warp drive or astrology to me – a hyper-rationalist Asperger mentat’s fantasy science. We can’t predict the weather 10 days from now with much confidence, but we’re going to predict the course of human history for tens of thousands of years?

I completely disagree. From our limited and immediate perspective, then yes. Just as our ancestors of 1024 AD never could have predicted our society. BUT given the advancement of scientific and computational knowlege, why not. Even the penultimate genius of teaching in University of Constantinople during the reign of Basil II could never have predicted computers or the theory behind them.

Asimov's stories take place over ten thousand years after our lifetimes. I think he pegged it as something like 20 to 30 thousand years in Pebble in the Sky with changes in the joints in the skull among other bits of evidence.

Given that time gap its entirely possible for something like that science to develop. We are already seeing strong hints of it - think of Nate Silverman's close predictions of the last presidential election for instance.

Only when one is willingly blind do you automatically dismiss the possible.

As for predicting Muhammad, that was almost inevitable. Think of it, both the Sassinid and Byzantine Empires had fought each other to exhaustion and left a massive power vacuum. Byzantium went further by severely alienating the locals in the reconquered regions of the middle east that later became the first conquests of Islam. So it was quite predictable. Right now we may not be able say that person X, Y, or Z would become the leader of a new religion, BUT we can say that given a set of circumstances such a new movement will occur and expand quite explosively outside of its area of origin.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - does sentient AI need to be like us? Where would we draw the line at treating them as animals? We are already looking at giving chimps legal status as persons ( failed so far). But robots? Clearly our computers are not sentient and can be treated like machines. But what if we embody robots with sentience, even alien sentience? At what point do we confer some personhood status on such a machine/being?

Getting back to Clarke, this was very much an issue with Chandra concerning HAL in 2010. While the rest if the crew were unconcerned with HAL, Chandra wanted to stay with HAL on the way back and did not want to turn him off. This was in contrast to his treatment of SAL at the outset.

I somewhat understand what you are going through with your son. I know a family with an autistic son. They have to lock everything at night to prevent him breaking stuff and pouring liquids everywhere. Any error results in a mess, repair costs and a lot of anguish. At some point he will have to be institutionalized to protect him and them from harm.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: The argument I make for why sentient AI (that we make) is going to look like us is that it is all we know. It will be mammalian in some sense of the term (mixing reptilian emotions and the higher functions that came later) and it will be social because we need that as part of the learning procedure.

The fact that many explore the savant path can also be tied to the fact that we know that too. Our homo erectus ancestor could make those stone hand axes that are so common and could probably do it much like a rote-level ziphead would. Ever pick up one of those things? They sing to you at an instinctive level a bit like a club does. I don't know if that works as well for women, but it sure does on me.

I feel for the parents of that family you know. We went through a phase of locking things up. It didn't work long because these kids aren't stupid. Even if they can't bypass the locks, they'll figure out how to play you to get what they want. It isn't that they can't learn, it's that they don't learn to be social like we do. Something is broken and you get a very different kind of human being as they grow up. I've had to learn to adapt my dream for my son and I can understand when others can't.

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding psychohistory as ridiculous, I have to agree now even though I was seduced by the idea as a kid. Nowadays I know it as 'historicism' through its link to the notion that some people thought history could be made a science. Many people are enamored by the tools of science and would extend them to subject areas where there is no set of customs to help decide the difference between objective and subjective 'evidence', let alone a scientific method for error removal. Hayek and Popper referred to that expansion as 'scientism' and it's a really dumb (but seductive) idea. The customs of science work wonderfully well where objectivity can be established, but that's not possible for studies involving human action except at the periphery of physiology and psychology. It is a travesty that we would subject perfectly useful fields of study to our expectations we have for science.

Historicism is the tool of fascists. Look carefully at the seductive power it has and ask yourself if your liberty survives in a world where it is true or even believed to be true. I don't think it does. Asimov's tales show this as a regression of overlords.

LarryHart said...


And if you do want to read something uplifting by Clarke, I suggest "The Songs of Distant Earth" as that was Clarke's favorite of his own works.

I don't know how well-known this one is, but I'm quite fond of his "Imperial Earth", which is not at all what it sounds like.

Citizens of the colony on Titan return to earth to join in the American 500th anniversary celebration--and for their own socio-political agenda as well. And while there's a hint of a possibility of an alien presence, there is no Overmind or Star-Child or anything of that sort in the book.

Robert said...

I love how people keep saying "psychohistory can't work" when in fact we are already utilizing psychohistory methodologies for building design and the like.

Think for a moment of designing egresses for fires and other emergencies. Older designs, even with multiple exits, would result in pileups and people dying en-mass. But with intelligent design breaking up crowds and redirecting them, you can instead have buildings where people move to where they can more readily escape rather than have everyone stuck at one exit.

In short, human behavior in a specific situation is anticipated and architecture is designed to disrupt those behavior patterns so to ensure a minimal loss of life.

What psychohistory does is take little elements like that and little things like predicting national elections and expanding on it for a grand scale. Indeed, I look at the Foundation Series and I have a suspicion. I am willing to bet that there was a computer behind the Vault that would pick Seldon's forecasts depending on what happened. Seldon saw a wide variety of possibilities and created a "create your own quest" series of video recordings - indeed, the computer may very well be crafting these rather than have Seldon do more than record a dozen or so of the most likely ones. Take the Mule - it was an abnormality. The computer couldn't anticipate this and defaulted on what was going to happen. But what happened after that was within the boundaries of the "what-if" and allowed for humanity to continue to advance.

No doubt upon the founding of the Second Galactic Empire Seldon would say "Congratulations... your path was a hard one, but it was all but assured. But if you are interested, I have mapped out other scenarios by which the Second Galactic Empire might have formed... would you like to start from the beginning and see what other choices might have wrought?"

Rob H.

LarryHart said...


I love how people keep saying "psychohistory can't work"

Heck, FTL and human invisibility and time travel probably "can't work" either. It doesn't prevent me from enjoying some great stories written around those concepts.

Alfred Differ said...

What Asimov described involved just a touch more abstraction than mindless panics as we rush for fire exits. I'm deeply appreciative of those who have studied such needs, but they don't need the methods of science to do what they do. I'd rather they stuck to the methods they DO use since they are saving people.

The problem with a science of psychohistory is that it requires magical transport of information between people. There is quite a bit of information that we pass back and forth, but no where near enough to create a deterministic theory. The best we can manage is a probabilistic theory that can't even state all the possible states of the system. There are black swans that emerge in systems that involve human action, so while we might be able to make statements about the constraints the system must obey, we will always be subject to the subjectivity of the data, thus we aren't doing science.

Determinism is a Failed Dream. Study the N-Body problem in gravitation for a little while and you'll see that the information for a deterministic solution simply isn't there. Human action theories are even more indeterminate since we don't even know how to describe the evidence objectively.

Alex Tolley said...

Modeling people as simple agents for " fluid flow" type models, even epidemics, doesn't capture the real essence of history due to individuals taking actions. You can model fluid dynamics probabilistically, build cellular automate, etc., but you will miss the unpredictable. For example, one can replay key battles, like Waterloo, and get Napoleon to win. That would change history. How would you even get Napoleon - is he unique, or would someone just like him have appeared anyway?

I think indeterminacy means that, like the weather, you can only forecast a short distance into the future. But you can predict climate. Is psychohistory like climate or weather? I would plump for weather.

Alfred Differ said...

Weather doesn't involve intelligent agents, so even weather prediction is too powerful compared to what you can do with humans. There might (maybe) be something broadly analogous to thermodynamics for human actions, but I'm skeptical we will stumble across it due to the fact that we are immersed in the subjectivity of the data. The state variables we would want to measure might require human interpretation and then we are back to something like quantum entanglement again.

Below our intellect, I suspect there ARE a number of things that are broadly predictable. However, we've had some serious mishaps in trying even that. Malthus was pretty clear about where we were heading and the doom that awaited us. When I was young, a whole lot of people 'saw' the evidence all around them. Guess what, though? A few dedicated individuals with sketchy morals as judged by their contemporaries saved us all. Many women can now prevent the endless succession of pregnancies that was their lot in life. Is Malthus irrelevant now? Probably not, but his warning obviously isn't a hard fact about us.

I suspect we are less predictable than the weather. At least with the weather you can apply thermodynamics and the fluid flow PDE's. There exists useful state variables for that problem.

Jumper said...

You can predict Google a few years out, but you can't predict Larry Page.

Alfred Differ said...

There are some people I wish I could predict, but then I sober up and I'm thankful the best I have are few heuristics. 8)

I don't think I want ever to meet someone who CAN predict us.

David Brin said...

"I don't think I want ever to meet someone who CAN predict us. "

why do you think you "exist" in this simulation, so the aliens can attempt to predict what the REAL humans will do...

(from canaveral)

Bleyddyn said...

" goes back to Teilhard de Chardin and others. But never explored with Asimovian attention to detail."

I think Julian May did a much better job describing a Teilhardian Noosphere than anyone else in fiction. Especially how we might have the benefits of a 'group mind' without losing our individuality.

However, it's been a long time since I read the later Foundation books, so maybe I've just forgotten many of the details.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Count me as one of the people who thinks the 'Universe as Simulation' idea is a bunch of nonsense. Even if we are, the predictive power gained from watching us is a little weak. One can learn the larger constraints and that we are as indeterminate as a whole as they are.

If FTL and temporal backflow for information can be accomplished, then I'll consider the possibility that we might compose a determined system. Absent that, I think Popper's argument in favor of indeterminism slays the opposition. Anyone with that kind of advanced capability, though, probably doesn't need to simulate us. They will already be able to understand.

Still... the stories exploring these ideas can be a lot of fun. I treat them like thought experiments for people who dislike the rigor (and waste of time) the philosophers require when arguing. 8)

Tony Fisk said...

Psycho-history may well become a thing. It's just that I very much doubt it could be set up to operate unattended for the periods of time Asimov envisaged. Even classical systems contain domains of quantum chaos: something Asimov wouldn't have known in the forties and fifties.

Why do we appear to end up in a hall of mirrors when we contemplate the possibility that we live in a simulation? It's almost like the Mandelbrot Maze virus Clarke used to bamboozle the malevolent malfunctioning monoliths in 3001...

I had intended to point to some of Clarke's more uplifting tales at the end of my last post, but it was late and I was tired. Glad to see other have brought their opinions on the matter up. My personal favourite is 'City and the Stars'. Humanity picking itself up after a fall at the end of time. After comforting themselves with legends of the pyrrhic victory won in fending off 'the Invaders', the truth Vanamonde imparts to the citizens of Diaspar is chastening, but not wholly disgraceful. I much prefer this version to the earlier 'Against the Fall of Night'. Apart from being a better rounded story, the quantum leap in the technological descriptions of Diaspar are incredible. Sixty years on, it still astonishes. Not something that can be said of many tales set a few million years hence.

LarryHart said...

Is it really that important to the enjoyment of a science-fiction story or series how plausible the premise is?

As I said earlier, neither time travel nor human invisibility seems plausible, but I can enjoy a good story that posits such things and goes forward from there. Ditto with psychohistory.

"Metamorphosis" is considered great literature, even though the premise of its initial paragraph--that a human being wakes up one morning in the form of a giant bug--is neither plausible nor explained in the story. It's the starting point. The story is what happens from that point forward.

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

I had intended to point to some of Clarke's more uplifting tales at the end of my last post, but it was late and I was tired. Glad to see other have brought their opinions on the matter up.

No one seems to know or care about his "Imperial Earth". I suppose it was more of an obscure little novel, written as part of America's bicentennial celebration in 1976, as was Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man". Neither of those stories seems to be in the authors' "greatest hits", and yet, they are personal favorites of mine.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry, I agree with you that a story can be enjoyable even when its premises are implausible. However, I'm not sure your Kafka example quite works. The Metamorphosis was a metaphor for a mental state. Such metaphors, while implausible, have a long history in Western literature. Science fiction, as a relatively young genre, in theory depends for its uniqueness on its relationship to science. Good science fiction, while it speculates on how science may change in the future, loses credibility if its premises stretch plausibility too far. As the actor Paul Darrow once said, good science fiction should never ask you to believe more than one impossible thing.

Tony Fisk said...

Larry: I have a copy of Imperial Earth. It's OK, and has a few interesting things in it (check out the smart phones!). Coming after 'Rendezvous with Rama', it did feel like a bit of a fizzer with not a lot of content. I probably should re-read the sesquicentennial address.

Alex Tolley said...

I agree IE is not one of Clarke's best. It was his first to suggest homosexual relations, and I suspect there was more personal experience hidden in the tale than appears. How much reflects Clarke's and Mike Wilson's relationship?

SoDE is another novel that reflects Clarke's life and choices living on Sri Lanka

LarryHart said...

re: Imperial Earth.

The unrequited desire of Duncan for Calindy was way too close to home when I first read the book.

Also, it introduced me to pentominoes.

I think I just liked the Clarke-ian touches, such as an interplanetary flight from Titan to Earth ending on a rain-slickened tarmac, just like stepping off of any airplane.

Oh, and it wasn't until a third reading of the book that I "got" the meaning of the surprise ending.

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