Feb 25, 2017


The Perfect Host
cover art by Michael Dashow
I've been honoring the 25th anniversary of Isaac Asimov's death by catching up on my reading of some Asimov stories and essays.

August 1985
In the August 1985 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, there was an essay called "Plagiarism". I've never held a science fiction magazine in my hands, but I've read that essay on plagiarism, reprinted in Gold.

One of the stories mentioned in that essay is Asimov's robot story "Galley Slave". Apparently Asimov was not fond of the drudgery of correcting pre-publication galley proofs. "Galley Slave" is about a proof-reading robot who gets accused of altering the text of a book just before publication.

genes in fiction (source)
Asimov is probably best known for his stories about fictional positronic robots, but as a trained scientist (biochemistry), he was best prepared to write insightfully about biological topics. Asimov started writing full-time right when the secrets of DNA and the molecular coding of information in biological systems began to be revealed.

Mind Viruses
Biological evolution by means of propagating genes through organisms was one of the great discoveries of previous millennium. In 1976, Dawkins coined the term "meme" to refer to units of cultural information transmission that can evolve by propagation through minds.

The analogy between propagating genes that control the physical structure of organisms and propagating ideas shared by human brains was already recognized back in the 1800s when biological evolution was first recognized as a foundational concept in biology.

Normal growth and reproduction of biological organisms has always fascinated humans. Similarly, pathological processes such as infectious diseases and tumor growth have always attracted much attention. Part of the human life style is the innate assumption that other people have minds similar to the mind that we each experience subjectively. What Dan Dennett has called the "intentional stance" is a powerful survival strategy for we humans. By assuming that other people have minds like our own, complete with desires and intentions, we can successfully predict the behavior of other people.

Rule of Three
For most of human existence, the physical basis of minds was mysterious and people often imagined that there could be some sort of ghostly non-physical "soul" that might "infect" a human body and then depart, perhaps moving on to a new body. Science fiction story writers have often explored how future technology or alien life forms might allow for controlled "mind transfer".

The November 1948 issue of Weird Tales included a story called The Perfect Host , a novella by Theodore Sturgeon. (PDF) The narrative structure of 'The Perfect Host' is unusual. Parts of the story are told by a series of narrators, culminating in one section of the story labelled "Theodore Sturgeon".

in the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Don Sibley
When he enters into the story, Sturgeon complains that he does not like the way the story is trending, then he reports on his discovery that a part of the narrative describes the efforts of some sort of wandering consciousness to find a perfect host.

The first time I was ever exposed to this kind of "jumping consciousness" plot in a science fiction story was in a Star Trek episodes such as "Wolf in the Fold" and "Day of the Dove", two episodes that I immediately despised. Even when I was just 10 years old I was dismayed: how could a mind become disembodied?

Special thanks to Miranda Hedman for the DeviantArt stock photograph "Black Cat 9 - stock" that I used to create the white haired "sedronite" who is in the image to the left.

in the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Edward Valigursky
Asimov was very conscious of using ideas that he had found in stories written by other authors. He believed that the science fiction genre was powered by a shared pool of story ideas that could be used and expanded upon by all writers. In the case of his story "Hostess", Asimov had to make some modifications so that his story was not too similar to Sturgeon's "Rule of Three", published just a few months earlier in the same magazine.

Sturgeon's short story 'Rule of Three' was published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951 (download). Science fiction was far enough off the literary focus of attention that authors had special freedom to explore "forbidden" ideas. Sturgeon could question why it is that people are condemned for not building their lives around conventional social structures like one man-one woman marriage.

"Hostess" interior art by Edmund Emshwiller
Imagine poor Asimov writing his story 'Hostess' (download) and then discovering its odd similarities to Sturgeon's 'Rule of Three'.

The editor of Galaxy wanted to publish 'Hostess', but first Asimov had to re-write his story so as to make it seem more clearly distinct from Sturgeon's story before it could be published in Galaxy Science Fiction in May 1951 (see this review.)

"Hostess" interior art by Edmund Emshwiller
Protein in Fiction
We must wonder to what extent Asimov's "3 in 1" aliens in his novel The Gods Themselves might owe their existence to Sturgeon's aliens in 'Rule of Three'. I suppose the idea of "three spirits in one" has been explored many times in Western literature, if for no other reason than the strong influence of Christian doctrines.

Where Sturgeon could only write into his stories biological nonsense (such as "energy virus"), Asimov's story "Hostess" is full of wonderful biological concepts. Firstly, Asimov posits that all the intelligent species of the galaxy are made of the same sorts of molecules, in particular, proteins coded for by nucleic acid sequences. The alien visitor to Earth, Dr. Tholan, is shown enjoying food such as Earthly tomatoes.

alien DNA
Writing in 1951, before the structure of DNA was known, Asimov could only go as far as to write about the "fine structure" of nucleic acids. After Watson and Crick recognized the double helix, the key "fine structure" became known as gene sequences, with triplets of sequential DNA bases coding for each amino acid in proteins.

Asimov's idea was that an infection could spread from humans to aliens, causing death. Rather than attribute this infectious disease to either bacteria or viruses, Asimov proposed a new type of disease agent, a "parasite" residing within chromosomes, hidden among the genes. Eventually, science caught up with Asimov's imagination. The enzyme reverse transcriptase was found which allows retroviral gene sequences to be inserted into chromosomes.

Interestingly, Asimov included mention of cancer in "Hostess". Some rare types of cancer are now known to be caused by retroviruses. And, more well known, AIDS is caused by a retrovirus. Asimov imagined that it was because of a chromosomal parasite that humans were infectious and a danger to the alien Hawkinsites.

Asimov could not be satisfied with just conceiving the existence of retroviruses. For "Hostess" he went on to imagine that the mysterious infectious agents residing in our chromosomes were endosymbionts, able to control human behavior. This was an audacious idea, truly "selfish DNA".

In the Exode Saga, the unseen endosymbionts within us are imagined to be composed of invisibly small sedrons.
Related Reading: more Sci Fi from Sturgeon.
Next: Asimov's Neanderthal
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