Apr 26, 2014

City of Asimov

I've never read any of the Robot City or Robots and Aliens stories. As a nerdling who grew up in the 1960s, the words "aliens and robots" offer up intriguing possibilities and remind me of a fun Star Trek episode "What are little girls made of?".

I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that Asimov could not write a sequel to Foundation and Earth in which he would bring aliens from beyond our galaxy into his Foundation Saga. I like to imagine that Daneel had spent 20,000 years preparing for a confrontation with aliens from beyond our galaxy. Out of frustration, I've been forced to create The Exode Trilogy which involves a confrontation between Asimovian positronic robots and aliens.

City of Asimov
Anyhow....this blog post is not about Asimov's Robot City nor even New York City, where Asimov discovered "the pulps" and began writing science fiction and, ultimately, died before his time.

Nor am I concerned here with Asimov's visions of a future that would include Earthly caves of steel and his great world-spanning city, Trantor.

De Civitate Dei contra Paganos
The late 1930s must have been a strange time for Isaac Asimov. I picture a highly intelligent young man trying to break through the quotas and other barriers limited the access of non-WASPs in America to resources like a medical school education. At the same time that Asimov was starting to develop his skills as an author, the Nazi regime was imposing harsher and more restrictive laws against Jews and other "undesirables". Given Asimov's interest in history, I wonder to what extent he was inspired by Augustine's life and work when establishing his Foundation Fictional Universe.

For the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that Asimov lived in the Foundation Reality and it was there that he had a "close encounter" with a positronic robot from the far future. Of course, that "alternate universe" is called "the Foundation Reality" because the Foundations actually existed in it, far in Asimov's future.

Asimov then became caught up in bringing to an end that Reality and initiating the "Asimov Reality", an "alternate universe" in which Earth was devastated by nuclear war and glorious future for humans among the stars was derailed.

Asimov wrote about the challenge of having to collaborate with editors like John Campbell who simultaneously controlled Asimov's fate as a young science fiction author and who annoyingly confounded Asimov's sensibilities with their prejudices and peccadilloes, including editorial insertions of unwanted material into his stories. Eventually, after 20 years, finding his nonfiction writing more rewarding, Asimov all but abandoned trying to publish his own science fiction novels for a period of nearly 25 years.

When Asimov returned to writing a bunch of new science fiction novels in the 1980s, he changed his own approach to the Foundation. In Asimov's re-imagining of Hari Seldon, positronic robots were shown to be at work behind the facade of the "humans only" Galactic Empire.

Secret Science
Asimov's "psychohistory" plot device required that the people of the galaxy be ignorant of the fact that their mass actions could be anticipated. Asimov later developed a similar idea in his time travel novel, The End of Eternity. There, the people of Earth were kept ignorant of Reality Changes, alterations of the shape of history that could wipe a billion personalities out of existence...with nobody else in Time even noticing the difference.

Augustine compared and contrasted an imagined society of God with the mundane society of human civilization, including its struggle against chaotic forces like invaders who could storm in and plunder the urban centers of concentrated wealth and culture. At first, Augustine accepted the popular belief that after 6,000 years of life as we know it there would come a final glorious 1,000 year period before the universe was called a wrap. Why should the faithful worry about man's messy civilization, replete with death and disease, rather than keep their thoughts focused on the glorious days of unity with God that were to come?

map source
In the original Foundation stories of the 1940s, Asimov imagined that psychohistory was a tool that could shorten a period of barbarism between the fall of the First Galactic Empire and the coming of a new Second Empire from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000 years. Where Augustine dualistically divided the world into the society of man and the higher -and more important- society of God, Asimov divided the galaxy into the First Foundation and the Second Foundation.

cover by Stephen Youll
The First Foundation was designed as a bastion of science and materialism while the Second Foundation would specialize in the mind and continuing development of psychohistory. Augustine's City of God was a fantasy domain of faith and miracles.....Asimov's Foundation was a science fiction plot device that allowed him to have fun with an imagined future religion based on technological wonders that had been preserved from the fallen Empire.

Late in life, Asimov knew that complex systems like societies are dominated by chaos. A civilization has no natural boundaries that can function like the walls of a box to constrain a volume of gas molecules. The telepathic robot Daneel was inserted into the Foundation Saga as the mastermind of psychohistory who had always been in the shadows and guided galactic civilization. The Foundation became a"footnote" of galactic history, a convenient way to transition from the Galactic Empire to Galaxia.

cover art by Reginald Rogers
For Augustine, those worthy of the City of God were selected and redeemed...the poor pagans would go to hell.

Asimov's Second Foundationers were mutants, a tentative new human species with "mentalic" powers allowing them to look into minds and control the emotions of other people -particularly First Foundationers. The Second Foundationers imagined that they would be the guiding elite of a new Second Galactic Empire. As Preem Palver put it, the First Foundation was to command the physical sciences but: "...the Second Foundation supplies the...ruling class".

Of course, First and Second Foundationers alike were unaware of the scheming Daneel and his plans for Galaxia.

In Exode, the Prelands are confident that they have been designed and crafted by the Creators as the perfect primate species to transcend their mundane physical existence and merge with the Creators in the Sedronic Domain.

The Prelands have a rather uncomfortable relationship with the Buld Clan. For centuries the Buld have been squatters on the world Hemmal, slowly expanding their population and losing respect for the agreement that originally allowed them on planet.

When Parthney, a "false Buld" appears, the Prelands have little patience for his radical ideas. Parthney's musical celebrations of heterosexuality offend the hermaphroditic Prelands. Parthney is a barbarian who must be exiled from Hemmal lest his crazy ideas lead the Buld into unwanted appreciation for sensual pleasures, distracting them from the service role they play for the Prelands, which is the only reason that the Prelands tolerate the heathen Buld on Hemmal.

"The Hebrew word, translated here as God, is "Elohim" and that is a plural form which would ordinarily (if tradition were defied) be translated "gods"." -Asimov's Guide to the Bible

Ignorance Theology
theological poetry
Like all people, the Prelands have developed a theological perspective that is rooted in their own ignorance of reality. From the cool analytical perspective of the pek, Prelands are little more than an evolutionary experiment, part of a long-term attempt to adapt the primate brain to a particular technological target. The difficulty of the task facing the pek is comparable to turning clay into flesh. That particular act of magical transformation is a kind of gold standard for godhood. Imagined Frankensteins excepted, the creation of life is a job for a deity.

Preland religion holds that the Creators and the Prelands are cooperating partners in perfecting Preland existence. Eventually, the Prelands (or their descendants) will attain that perfection of form and be able to transcend their mundane physical existence, then merging with the Creators to live forever in the Sedronic Domain.

From their position of ignorance, the Prelands cannot understand a "false Buld" like Parthney. Because of pek efficiency, Hemmal has more than one purpose. Originally Hemmal was one of many worlds developed by the pek as a laboratory for exploring primate evolution. After confronting and recognizing the threat posed by Gohrlay and her gang of positronic robots, the pek adapted Hemmal to the task of preparing Interventionists for their missions to Earth.

From the pek perspective, it is convenient that the Prelands cannot tolerate people like Parthney on their world. If Parthney were too comfortable in his life on Hemmal then he'd never want to move on to his mission on Earth.

However, Parthney cannot directly interact with the Prelands. He lacks the gene combinations and brain circuits that constrain Prelands to their instinctive faith in Creator theology. Kach provides the lubrication that prevents Parthney from rubbing the Prelands the wrong way. Having extensively studied the Prelands, Kach knows exactly how to use their ire to quickly and efficiently move Parthney off planet.

From her own position of ignorance, Kach acts so as to facilitate her own continued study of the Prelands. Annoyed by Parthney's own ignorance of how dangerous his heretical behavior is, Kach has no guilt over also making use of Parthney for her own selfish personal needs. In this, the pek are facilitators. Kach's power to achieve a virgin's birth of Boswei has been preordained, calculated and anticipated for the entire 20,000 year existence of the Buld.

Syon and the Pla at Lendhalen
For most of those 20,000 years the Pla have struggled to liberate Humanity from the prison of Earth. The pek have carefully limited the Pla to just a few blunt tools. The pek know the natural rate of development human culture and they constrain the Interventionist zeal so as to assure that Earthly technological progress is stately and measured.

The Institute
The pek are involved in a delicate process of optimization. An analogy is useful here. In the fictional universe of Vance's Gaean Reach, the Institute is constantly engaged in a similar balancing act. In The Book of Dreams, Gersen finally penetrates the upper ranks of the Institute and learns the secret operating code which the Triune, Dwyddion, head of the Institute's ruling Dexad, describes in this way:

"Humanity and the Institute were seen as opposing forces in a state of dynamic equilibrium. The Dexad functioned to maintain the tension, to prevent either side from overwhelming the other."

This matches well with Asimov's formula for good story telling:

"The essence of a story is the struggle...make it possible for the reader to identify with at least one side of the struggle...sides which are both mixtures of good and evil. Both sides must have a fair chance to win... under conditions of maximum entertainment and reader uncertainty."

In the Exodemic Fictional Universe, the pek are careful to establish and maintain a dynamic equilibrium between the conflicting Interventionists and Overseers. By the ethical laws of the god-like alien Huaoshy, primitive creatures such as we Earthlings must remain ignorant of how their fate is being manipulated.

As a species, we humans have arrived at our current understanding of the universe after a long struggle to liberate ourselves from our primordial state of ignorance. It is natural for human brains to apply the Intentional Stance to even inanimate processes. We instinctively interpret impersonal and random processes in terms of imaginary sentient gods and demons. When western science and the telescope swept back the claustrophobic boundary of a geocentric universe centered on man and Earth, for the first time revealing the vastness of space, a new type of human mythology became possible.

Science Fiction is the genre of literature that has taken on the task of inventing new stories in which the gods of old are replaced machines of our own making, our own genetically modified descendants or space aliens from distant worlds.

Under the old regime of geocentric Ignorance Theology, people are able to fall victim to the memetic power of religious myth making and even become homicidally devoted to their religious fantasies. Science fiction pioneers like Clarke and Asimov were able to explore a new domain: science fictional theology in which all of the old topics of religion could be played out across the wider stage of the galaxy. Where do we come from, how should we live, where are we going?

In the City of Asimov, such adventure stories are edifying tales of education and entertainment. With our science fiction tales of genetic mutants, robots and aliens we can liberate ourselves from the prison of Earth and the old destructive influence of Ignorance Theology.

The Evolution of God
Does science fiction "kill god", subtract the very concept of god from the modern universe? According to Clarke, a sufficiently advanced technology wielded by the hands (or tentacles) of a mortal being is indistinguishable from the type of magic that a god can perform. As memetic constructs, our gods will always be part of an evolutionary competition. Humans invent gods and then those gods compete for believers. As described by Matthew Lowe, science fictional theology can be taken as a competitive challenge to geocentric religions such as Christianity.

The Sacred Shin
"Religions are diseases of the human psyche" -Grintholde

Jack Vance made sure to include some religious elements in his descriptions of the planetary cultures that decorate his Demon Prince novels. In The Palace of Love, Vance described Edmonton as the Holy City where pilgrims came to see the Sacred Shin.

The mad poet Navarth takes refuge in Edmonton while trying to hide his ward, Zan Zu, from Viole Falushe. The Demon Prince, Falushe, "played God" and ordained the "virgin birth" of Zan Zu.

In an episode that Vance never clearly described, Navarth's radical ideas and the teasing of Jheral Tinzy provoked a young Vogel Filschner to kidnap the entire Philidor Bohus Choral Society.  Sadly for Vogel, on the day of his evil crime, the object of his romantic infatuation, Jheral, had not attended practice.

With both Jheral and Navarth blamed for Vogel's dastardly deed, they ran off together. With each passing day Navarth fell more deeply in love with the adorable Jheral.

Mother of clones: Jheral Tinzy
After selling the other kidnapped girls into slavery, Vogel changed his name to Viole and allowed himself the luxury of returning to Earth and capturing Jheral. Navarth was distraught, but years later Viole put into his care a child -a clone of Jheral, who grew into the girl "Zan Zu", also known as "Drusilla Wayles" and any other whimsical name that Navarth cared to apply to her.

Viole Falushe had at least two reasons for placing Zan Zu in the care of Navarth. Firstly, Viole imagined that his "ancient companion" Navarth could transform "Zan Zu" into a version of Jheral, "sweet as honey, tart as lime, ardent yet innocent" and receptive to Viole's obsessive need that she return his love. Secondly, Viole knew that if forced to raise Zan Zu then Navarth would constantly be tortured by reminders of his own love for Jheral.

Zan Zu grew into a sullen, quiet girl, always puzzled by Navarth's odd behavior and the mystery of her origins. When Kirth Gersen arrives, intent on hunting down Falushe, he is surprised to find that he is the first man to ever tell Zan Zu that she is a pretty girl. His detective work soon reveals that Zan Zu mysteriously resembles Jheral.

Drusilla III
Gersen, Navarth and Zan Zu accept Viole Falushe's invitation to visit his Palace of Love. Falushe explains to Gersen that Zan Zu is one of several clones of Jheral, made by Falushe with the hope that one of them would return his love.

Another clone of Jheral, who for lack of any better name Gersen calls "Drusilla III", grows up as the designated priestess at the temple of the god Arodin. She must beseech a statue of Arodin to come in the flesh and take her. The statue has the face of Viole Falushe.

Falushe has spent years brooding over the psychology of Jheral Tinzy and her clones and how best to entice, force or trick one of them into returning his love. 

Vance also included "manufactured people" in his Cadwal trilogy. On the planet Tassadero, the perverse Ordene Za struggles to maintain the Zubenites, a people designed to minimize the differences between men and women. The Zubenites were supposed to fulfill the Monomantic creed, the belief that human society might be improved by Unity of the sexes. Not surprisingly, the "lumpish" and almost sexless Zubenites can't maintain a stable population. Za desperately tries sending some of them off to Cadwal for remedial sex education.
by Antioukhin Konstantin

In his Foundation Saga, Asimov imagined that the long-lived "spacers" on the planet Solaria became hermaphrodites. The worldly Trevize of Terminus happily sets about bedding a woman in every port of call. Some of the conservative provincials are disgusted by by the sexually liberated Trevize. When Trevize is forced to transport a hermaphroditic Solarian on his spaceship he gets the willies and can hardly stand to have the creature aboard.

Exode Trilogy
In the Exode Trilogy, there are clones, hermaphrodites and assorted aliens and artificial life forms. I have fun allowing the Prelands to worship their Creators and even the Buld submit to midnight sexual rituals in their temples in order to facilitate their inefficient reproductive physiology. I'm not sure that either Vance or Asimov ever became comfortable with the sexual revolution that swept through the science fiction genre during their life times. 

In Book II of the Exode Trilogy, I allow Asimov's brain to be invaded by the mind of Fengtol, one of the positronic robots that is deployed by R. Gohrlay. In the Foundations of Eternity I imagine that the basic brain circuits inside all positronic robots originated as copies of the neural networks of a Neanderthal woman, Gohrlay. I hope that Asimov would not mind the kinds of mixed gender experiments that have become much more common in this century than they were in his own.

Given the nature of his own works of fiction such as The Gods Themselves, I hope Asimov would be happy to be viewed as the founder of the City of Asimov, a place where we can go beyond both the City of Man and the City of God and where we can freely explore all of the modes of existence for thinking beings.

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