Jan 15, 2017


Image credits. Click image to enlarge.
When I search the interwebs for Jack Vance and Asimov, the first webpage listed is an essay called "Nightfall and Night Lamp". In that essay, John C. Wright attempts to explore the differing views of human nature that he imagines to be on display in the published stories of Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance. (some earlier comments on Wright and Asimov)

The first two words of Wright's essay are "science fiction". Jack Vance was reluctant to refer to himself as a science fiction story writer. In contrast, Asimov embraced the idea that he was a science fiction writer even though he also wrote much non-fiction and some fiction in other genres of fiction in addition to all of his science fiction.

Human Nature
In the Ekcolir Reality.
Original cover art by Frank Freas
and Lawrence Stevens.
Asimov believed that we humans are trapped in a dangerous vortex of our own making. As curious primates, we survive by exploring and learning about the world. As tool using social mammals, we have the power to alter our environment. One dramatic example of this power is how our addiction to burning fossil fuels is altering the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Asimov believed that our only hope for continued survival as a species is for us to make use of science and our technological skills to solve the problems that are created by our technologies. Further, Asimov believed that science fiction as a literary genre can play an important role in our survival by helping people realize the inevitability of technological and cultural change that unavoidably arises from our human nature.

In the Ekcolir Reality.
Original cover art by Frank Paul.
Many science fiction writers have made the point that science fiction is a literary genre that deals quite emphatically with change. One of the ancient literary issues is whether human nature can change. Human nature arises from two sources: 1) the genetic endowment of the human species and 2) the complex interactions of our physical bodies with our environment. Certainly our environment changes and we are on the verge of having technology that will allow us to surgically alter our genes. Science fiction story writers with scientific training understand that human nature does change; for them the science fiction genre is a vast playground for exploring how science and technology can change human nature.

The evolution of the human species.
In contrast, there is a vast alternative literature set in opposition to science fiction and its appreciation for change: a literature that glorifies the fixed belief that human nature is constant, no matter what. John C. Wright, as someone without scientific and technical training and who adopted Christianity in middle age, tells us that the "realistic" view of human nature is that it can not be changed by science and technology.

I suppose some people prefer to define "human nature" as constant (and having been created by God). If so, you can rule out by definition any changes due to environmental influences. Further, you can say that any genetic modifications that change "human nature" would change us from humans into some other creature. I think it is silly to adopt such essentialistic thinking, however, ever since Plato, many people have learned to adopt such precise categorizations.
What people are saying... mentions of Shelly, Wells, Asimov and Vance in published books.

wikifiction blog labels
Asimov vs Vance
How did Asimov and Vance differ in their view of human nature?

For me, as a science fiction fan, Vance and Asimov are a dynamic duo, like two oppositely charged electrical leads that power my love of science fiction. For my blog posts about Vance, I usually remember to use the label "Jack Vance" because most people have never heard of a science fiction author named Vance.

Certainly more people have read a story by Asimov than one written by Vance. Asimov had a huge omnivorous ego and was a tireless promoter of himself and an he was an important influence on the science fiction genre. Vance tried to go down a similar path as had Asimov, but he gave up on that and became something of a craftsman of his own literary style who did not care if his writing appealed to the masses or fit into a defined literary genre.

There was one brief time around 1980 when Asimov's name was just as likely to appear in a published book as was the name Mary Shelly. However, if you asked people to name a writer of science fiction, I suspect you would be more likely to hear people mention Shelly and H. G. Wells than Asimov.
Popularity contests: Asimov vs Vance   and   "War of the Worlds" vs "Laws of Robotics".

robots in time
Mr. Wright describes Asimov's view as a "... mechanical view of human nature... Change the environment, and human nature changes." What does Mr. Wright mean by "mechanical"?

"It has always struck me that Isaac Asimov is portraying a view of man so mechanically puppet-like and so unrealistic as to be little more than an intellectual exercise. His human beings operate according to simple and unbreakable laws, as obvious and mechanical as his famous Three Laws of Robotics." source

Certainly science fiction story tellers often play a "what if?" game that can be aptly described as an intellectual exercise. In his story "Nightfall", Asimov creates a thought experiment. The story takes place, not on Earth, but on an imagined planet where a human-like creature similar to we humans evolved in a different environment. Asimov asks his readers to imagine humanoids who evolved on a world where it is always day and the stars cannot be seen.

Nightfall. Cover art by Hubert Rogers.
In "Nightfall", Asimov explores the idea that the imagined humanoids might be susceptible to holding a religious belief that history is cyclical and once every few thousand years the stars appear in the sky and civilization collapses. Interestingly, in Asimov's story, there is archeological evidence for past civilizations that did collapse. Also, these humanoids have created a scientific means of predicting the orbital dynamics of their world. Calculations suggest that there will soon be an eclipse that will plunge them into darkness. Among the religious fanatics of this imaginary world, should such a scientific finding be met with hostility and called blasphemous or welcomed as confirmation of religious dogma?

Asimov's editor
To create a dramatic ending (THE specific ending that had been requested by Asimov's editor) Asimov ends "Nightfall" by showing the people of this imaginary world going on a rampage when the stars appear in the darkened sky. The residents of this unfortunate world set fire to their cities, once again destroying civilization and starting another cycle. I agree with Mr. Wright that it seems unlikely that humans would behave in this way, but that misses the point of the story. I doubt if Asimov believed that his story was a realistic "prediction" of how humans or humanoids would actually behave if they only saw the stars only once every two thousand years. Still, Mr. Wright uses this and other examples from Asimov's writing as a basis for condemning and dismissing Asimov's view of human nature as "mechanical".

In the Ekcolir Reality (source)
Original photo by Karen Elise
In "Nightfall", I think Asimov was making the point that humans can fall into behavioral traps (such as adopting religious beliefs) that make them behave as if they were mechanical robots. In contrast, Asimov suggested how scientific investigation of the world and rational thinking can set people free and allow them to avoid repeating the errors of the past. In my view, this is an important statement about human nature: it is through science that we can escape from behaving like robots.

Asimov believed that his greatest literary invention, the one thing that he would be most remembered for, was his Three Laws of Robotics. Sadly, in our society where most people have no training in science or engineering, Asimov's Laws of Robotics have had very little impact outside of the ranks of geeky nerdom.

invasion fiction
Among most of the human population, exactly as Asimov depicted in "Nightfall", people too often react to the idea of change with irrational fear. Thus the Frankenstein monster (as imagined by Shelly) and hostile alien invasions (such as imagined by Wells in The War of the Worlds) are always going to be more popular literary topics than Asimov's Laws of Robotics. Face it: the practical means by which engineers actually engineer safe and useful robotic devices are not of any interest to most people who write and publish books. This is also a strong statement about human nature. 

A Feek of New Concept
What does Mr. Wright say about Vance's view of human nature? Here is how Wright sums up his {own} beliefs: "Despite the changes of technology and environment and culture, human nature will not change." Wright tries to make us believe that Vance shared this view of human nature. Sadly, Vance is not here to prevent any of us from putting words into his mouth. There are many examples from Vance's stories that contradict Wright's claims about Vance's view of human nature; one which I've previously mentioned, is that Vance wrote stories about how humans in a new environment could be altered: they would evolve into new subspecies (such as the Feeks) with different "human natures".

But more fundamentally, I must ask: are the "science fiction" stories of Jack Vance the place to look for evidence that human nature is not changed by science and technological advances? Vance went out of the way to imagine a future for Earth and the human species in which there was very little technological change. Vance depicts humans spreading outward into the galaxy for thousands of years, but beyond a cheap technology for interstellar space travel, there is very little technological change. The transgalactic travelers of 10,000 years in our future don't even use cell phone technology and they still carry around slide rules. Vance wanted to write stories set on other worlds where human nature, as known to he and his readers, would remain unchanged. Vance knew perfectly well that human nature can change.

I believe that Asimov and Vance shared very similar views of human nature, but they had quite different literary interests. The philosophical views of Asimov and Vance are of concern to me because I intend to write a fictional account of Asimov and Vance working together on a shared project.

Asimov and Vance
In A Search Beyond, the story begins with the replicoid of Isaac Asimov returning to Earth. Sadly, this artificial "copy" of Asimov has been altered. Asimov's replicoid has most of the memories from the original Asimov, but not all of them. The replicoid laments that he is still inflicted with some inconvenient features of the biological Asimov's mind, but he does not even notice that he has been relieved of the original Asimov's obsession to write.

In the Exode Saga, there are multiple "copies" of both Asimov and Vance. Copies of people can be made by cloning, using teleporter technology to make duplicates of people and there are also replicoids, artificial life forms that contain memories from people and there are also "analogues" of Vance and Asimov who existed in Deep Time.

In the Ekcolir Reality.
The C laser.
Image credits.
In Chapter 8 of A Search Beyond, two "copies", one of Asimov and one of Vance, walk on stage. These are replicoids of Asimov and Vance, but they are quite distinctive and not very easy to confuse with the other copies of Asimov and Vance who appear in the story. Most distinctive is their small size. These particular copies of Asimov and Vance are femtobots and they are too small to be seen. In fact, they are nanoscopic and would be hard to detect with any technology available to we Earthlings.

The nanoscopic copies of Asimov and Vance find themselves inside the Writers Block where they can begin to "haunt" the other characters in A Search Beyond. The idea that Asimov and Vance would haunt the Dead Widowers is a joke: they actually turn out to be very useful nanoscopic librarians.

Next: investigating the use of hierions for interstellar travel

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