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 owe 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.

Next: Asimov's Neanderthal
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Feb 19, 2017

Cave Robot

from the Science Fiction Book Club
I've long resisted the temptation to read the Caves of Steel. The issues of Galaxy magazine that contain the original version (October, November and December 1953) are available at the Internet Archive. I could no longer avoid looking at how Isaac Asimov had first written the positronic robot Daneel into existence.

John Berkey cover art
3 Shocks
The first page of The Caves of Steel delivers three shocks. Firstly, the ghastly line drawings by Edmund Emshwiller. They set the tone: Asimov is dragging me into a dystopic future where the people of Earth all reside in their prison cells.

Secondly, poor Sammy the robot getting shouted at by police detective Baley. Baley is angry that a human lost his job to Sammy who is now employed to do the job of delivering messages. Here in 2017, readers have to wonder: why must a walking messenger -either human or robotic- deliver a message from the police commissioner to a detective? Poor Sammy.

cover art by David Mattingly
Thirdly, Baley's thoughts are occupied by his nicotine addiction. Will his supply of pipe tobacco last until his next ration arrives? It is only page one of the story and already everything about this future Earth feels wrong, twisted, icky.

It is tempting to switch off and start reading the story that David Mattingly was reading in 1987 when he made the book cover art that is shown to the right. Mattingly's atomic rock band is a future I might want to read about! But in the end, Asimov finds a way for Humanity to escape from these horrific caves of steel.

Asimov tells us that in his imagined future of The Caves of Steel, we are in a future age of atomic power, a time when people look back upon the Coal Century with dismay. Still, New York City is not under water... maybe use of atomic power saved Earth from global warming? We are told that Earth's vast oil deposits have been pumped dry and people still use coal as a carbon source for plastics manufacturing. Asimov's future Cities are giant caves, sealed up with no windows and bulging at the seems with unemployed people and unwanted robots.

The Spacer enclave of Earth
In Asimov's future, it is tempting to view detective Baley and all the Earthlings as losers. The winners of this imagined future are the Spacers, those adventurers who long ago left Earth behind and spread to other planets of the galaxy. Well, almost left. There is still a small Spacer enclave on Earth (Spacetown) located ..... where else? In the wild West, across the river from Manhattan.

Human population growth.
8 Billion people. Baley moans about how Earth does not have room for its 8 billion people. "Moaning like that was a built-in facet of human nature." Here in 2017 we are almost to the 8 billion human population of Earth that Asimov imagined.

Daneel's crowd control
Asimov tells us that the entire future of the galaxy hangs in the balance, but more importantly, if the murder case is solved then Baley will get a promotion. So when Baley is forced to work together with a Spacer partner, he is willing to do his best... even if that partner is a robot.

Daneel has been designed and built by his master so as to pass as an Earthling. Daneel was created by Dr. Sarton, a sociologist from the exoplanet Aurora who wanted to use Daneel as a tool to study Earth culture. But now Sarton has been murdered.

For some unexplained reason, rather than start work on the murder case, Baley immediately takes Daneel home for dinner and a visit with his wife and son. On the way, they run into a near riot over robots being employed as shoe salesmen. Daneel pulls out his blaster and threatens to kill anyone who does not disperse and get about their business.

I think Emshwiller missed the point when he drew Daneel's face in the same freaky way as the three shoe-selling robots of Earth (image to the left). On Earth, the robots were made to be easily identifiable as robots. In contrast, Daneel's appearance was human: modeled after that of his creator, Dr. Sarton.

Carbon-iron collaboration.
Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller
Daneel explains to Baley that the Spacers have achieved a viable C/Fe society, successfully mixing together humans (Carbon) and robots (iron, Fe). In contrast, Earthlings resent the introduction of more robots into their miserable over-populated and resource-poor society.

Baley feels that he must solve the murder mystery and not let Daneel figure out the case first. It would be a disaster to let it be demonstrated that a robot could do his job better than a human! Baley might end up back in the miserable barracks of the unemployed, where he started his life. At the end of Part 1, Baley accuses Daneel of being Sarton.

Daneel proves he is a robot
Part 2
Daneel is able to quickly disprove Baley's hypothesis by displaying his internal structure: steel "bones" with a covering of skin.

Another Spacer, Dr. Falstofe explains to Baley why Spacers are on Earth and what they hope to accomplish. Both the 50 Spacer worlds and Earth are dead ends; their people have no interest in colonizing new planets. Earthlings are afraid to leave their caves and the Spacers are too comfortable on their worlds to ever want to settle more new planets. Exploration of the galaxy has stopped. A few people from Aurora hope to stimulate Earthlings to start colonizing new worlds.

inside Spacetown
Along the way in Part 2 of The Caves of Steel we are told why it is that human workers always get replaced by human-like robots. For example, why a human shaped robot should drive a car. Here in our world of 2017, computerized cars don't have a human-shaped robot in the driver's seat.

In Part 2, the false trails required for a murder mystery are raised and dismissed. Baley suspects Daneel of being involved in Sarton's murder. Daneel suspects that Baley's wife is part of a cabal that murdered Sarton.

caves of steel
We are told that Daneel can carry out "cerebroanalysis" on people by measuring their brain waves. Daneel apparently clears the Commissioner, stating that he could not have personally murdered Sarton even though he was in Spacetown at the time of the murder.

The only theory left standing for the death of Sarton is that he was killed by someone who walked through the countryside and secretly entered Spacetown. However, other possibilities such as mistaken identity or the possibility of suicide would seem to remain.

Robophobia: "Keep that thing away from me!"
Part 3
The wife of Baley is not connected to Sarton's murder, but she does provide a clue that leads to the robophobic yeast farmer, Clousarr, A Medievalist who hates that Earthlings are trapped in the caves of the Cities and wants to return Earth to the ways of the past.

Many Earthlings have Medievalist sympathies, including the police Commissioner. Baley himself comes under suspicion.

Finally, After several days of investigating the Death of Sarton, Baley finally looks at film of the crime scene. Duh.

Viewing the scene of Sarton's death. Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller.

cover art by Stephen Youll
You have to read the story to find out all of the false leads and the ultimate solution to the mystery. Baley is able to see a clue at the crime scene that solves the murder case.

Beyond Sarton's death is the larger matter of Humanity's future and continued colonization of the galaxy. During the investigation Baley inadvertently shows Dr. Falstofe that that problem has already been solved. Medievalist sentiment on Earth will provide the needed new generation of exoplanet settlers, including Baley's own son.

In The Caves of Steel, it is interesting to see Daneel equipped with a built-in "cell phone" and able to "read minds" by technology-assisted electroencephalography. Too bad Asimov was not able to envision a future when people would carry around phone/computers and computers would be embedded in machines such as cars. Still, even after 55 years Asimov's story is not made completely irrelevant by technological changes.

Next: "Hostess" by Isaac Asimov, 1951
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Robots in fiction
Rosie the Robot on Twitter

Feb 18, 2017


Previously I posted some comments on Part 1 of Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves and here I want to finish up with the task of gazing back at the first science fiction novel that I ever read. I use the the word "task" because after 40 years I had the same reaction to Part 2 of the story today as I did when I first read it: waiting rather impatiently for Asimov to stop writing about alien orgasms and tell us how the aliens managed to contact Earthlings across the barrier between our universe and the parallel universe of the aliens.

Hard Ones
If the universe of the aliens has a stronger strong nuclear force than that which we experience here in our universe, would that mean that the alien life forms should have "more empty space" in the material of their bodies than we do? Asimov's aliens can "attenuate" and then merge the material structure of their bodies with each-other.

alien orgasm
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov described two types of aliens: 1) the soft ones and
2) the hard ones. The soft ones can merge their bodies. While doing so, they can become pregnant and then generate offspring: new soft ones. After producing one or two "batches" of new soft ones, they merge their bodies one last time and are then transformed into a new life form: a hard one. Part 2 of The Gods Themselves is the story of the origins of the new hard one who discovers how to make contact with humans.

Asimov suspected that many of his own story ideas could be traced back to roots among the pulp magazines he read during the 1930s. In 1932, "The Dimension of Chance" was published in Wonder Stories. Imagine the young Isaac Asimov trying to make sense of such stories in which people would "cross over" into alternative universes where the laws of physics (as known to us) did not apply.

Physicists started talking seriously about parallel universes in the 1950s. Andrei Sakharov's life ran parallel to that of Asimov. After his work developing nuclear bombs, Sakharov did some theoretical work on parallel universes in an attempt to account for the apparent imbalance between matter and antimatter in our universe.

In the mid-1950s Hugh Everett first imagined and published the central idea of what became the "many worlds"  interpretation of the mathematical theory of quantum states. In these interpretations, each quantum state with a non-zero probability is assumed to be equally real, even if not observed.

image source
Mathematicians and physicists have always been susceptible to Platonic thinking. They often don't make a distinction between using mathematics to understand reality and assuming that reality is a mathematical abstraction.

Asimov was mostly a science popularizer during the 1960s. Asimov's big (three volumes) book on physics (Understanding Physics) was written not too long before The Gods Themselves. In the third volume of Understanding Physics, published in 1966, Asimov provided an account of how physicists had discovered particles such as protons, neutrinos and pions. Pions are mediators of the strong force that holds together nucleons. He briefly mentioned that physicists were interested in the possibility of "parallel realities".

In 1968, Larry Niven had published  "All the Myriad ways", a story that assumes the discovery of a technology that allows Earthlings to start visiting other parallel universes that arise spontaneously at each "branch point" of our historical timeline. As a student of mathematics who started writing science fiction in the 1960s, Niven became one of the popularizers of physics and the "many worlds"  interpretation of the wave function.

The Exode Saga
In his science fiction novel Contact, Carl Sagan imagined that aliens might use advanced technology to create new universes with precisely tuned natural laws. For the Exode Saga, I imagine that the Huaoshy are able to alter the physical laws of the universe, but I've never tried to imagine how that might be done.

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov used an imaginary future technology, the "pionizer", to open connections between parallel universes. When the pionizer was used, that allowed leakage and mixing of the physical properties of the connected universes.

In Part 2 of  The Gods Themselves, Asimov imagined that the alien "emotional" named Dua could attenuate and spread out and collect information like an antenna. Was Selena (in Part 3) able to do something similar? Were Dua and Selena telepathically in contact with each other? Once a "pionizer" existed in one universe, was it inevitable that another would be made in our universe?

"Sense from Thought Divide"
Before moving to India in 1974, Rupert Sheldrake began thinking about the idea of "morphic resonance". He was influenced by the book Matter and Memory. In the early 1970s, when Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves, all sorts of strange attempts were being made to link particle physics to various ancient philosophical traditions and religious beliefs such as the widespread belief in non-material souls.

Foundation and Earth
As another example of the "weird" speculative climate in the 1970s, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell helped found the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Mitchell claimed to have had a mystical experience during his flight to the Moon in 1971.

I've long been puzzled by the prominent role that Asimov gave to intuition in some of his stories. Back in 2010 I blogged about the purported intuition of Golan Trevize at the end of Asimov's Foundation saga.

It is a basic fact of human brain physiology that we can know things without understanding how we know them. Still, it is endlessly tempting for science fiction writers to imagine future science that would account for mysteries like telepathy or intuition. Asimov was audacious in suggesting that it might be possible to genetically engineer humans to be "intutionists".

Weibliche Intuition
Related reading: "Feminine Intuition" (1969). Asimov manages to combine his fear of flying, interstellar space travel and his obsession with robots in a Susan Calvin short story. What is the role of randomness in human creativity? Could creative robots be manufactured if an element of random chance were allowed to influence their positronic pathways? Could such "intuition" be super-sized and result in abilities that we might call "genius"? Should we call such a robot "intuitive" even if that is only a "feel good" label meant to disguise the fact that a mechanical genius was made, a thinking device that can out-think humans? Can bumbling humans recognize the difference between clear-headed thinking and reasoning and what people are tempted to call "intuition"?

1985 edition
In 1969, Asimov imagined that there might be a way for astronomers to predict which stars host a habitable planet. As early as 1952 it was realized that in principle exoplanets could be detected by 1) measuring periodic decreases in the amount of light arriving from distant stars (transit method) or 2) by wavelength shifts in a star's light (Doppler spectroscopy) and 3) by direct visualization of light reflecting off an exoplanet (with a giant telescope). Technological limitations delayed exoplanet detection until the 1990s, shortly after Asimov's death.

Did Asimov take seriously his depiction of how to create a "genius" robot by giving it "intuition"? In the 1984 book Machines that Think, Asimov wrote: "If insight, intuition, creativity, the ability to view a problem as a whole and guess the answer by the 'feel' of the situation is a measure of intelligence, computers are very unintelligent indeed. Nor can we see right now how this deficiency in computers can be easily remedied, since human beings cannot program a computer to be intuitive or creative for the very good reason that we do not know what we ourselves do when we exercise these qualities."

Next: Isaac Asimov's novel: The Caves of Steel
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Feb 12, 2017

Against Stupidity

Kirk slips between universes
"Perhaps it is best to leave the cherished experiences of our youth alone"

Galaxy Centaurus A, a "nearby" active core galaxy
with a "feeding" supermassive black hole
Perhaps, but I just read the first part of The Gods Themselves for the first time since I read it back in the 1970s. In his story, Asimov suggested that quasars might be due to a "leak" between two parallel universes. I never understood where the parallel universe of Asimov's imagination is supposed to be, but I suppose we are not meant to ask such questions. I'd first been exposed to the parallel universe idea by Star Trek.

cover art by Carolus Thole
Asimov imagined a parallel universe where the laws of physics are different. Asimov ran with the idea that if (for some unexplained "reason") there was an exchange of matter between two such universes then their physical laws would begin to merge and come to an equilibrium. In the case of our universe merging with a parallel universe where the strong nuclear force had a different strength, there could be dramatic consequences for stellar evolution. In particular, Asimov imagined that the sun might be triggered to explode, providing the dramatic thrust of his story.

cover art by Don Dixon
Sadly for Asimov, quasars are apparently caused by supermassive black holes gobbling up matter in evolving galaxies. The first such giant black hole to be recognized for what it was by humans was the one at the center of our own galaxy, a discovery made just a few years after Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves. This might be called Asimov's law of science fiction: never try to account for a natural phenomenon (such as quasars) by assuming alien creatures are responsible for it.

Anyone who reads Asimov's fiction will come away suspecting that Asimov had to deal with some real annoying colleagues during his time in the military, as a young science fiction writer and in academia. Dr. Fred Hallam, the "father of the Electron Pump" is portrayed as a living scientific legend, a man who has provided Earth with an endless supply of essentially free energy. And he's a dick.

John Campbell
Hallam seems to have been designed by Asimov so as to remind us of John Campbell, the editor of Astounding magazine who Asimov spent years trying to please just so he could get a few science fiction stories published. It was Campbell's narrow-minded views that led Asimov towards having an "all human galaxy" as the setting for his Foundation Saga.

The trigger for writing The Gods Themselves came in January 1971 and then Campbell died on July 11, 1971. I suppose Asimov could not resist putting some Campbell-like words into the mouth of Hallam: "I will not have mankind and its intelligence downgraded and I won't have para-men cast in the role of gods."

Talking to Aliens
do you speak alien?
As I write, many are wondering if the science fiction film Arrival might win an award. Arrival portrays efforts to establish communication between Earthlings and alien "heptapods". Asimov had to tackle the problem of alien-human communications in The Gods Themselves.

In the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by John Gaughan
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov imagined sending written text messages back and forth between two parallel universes. Incredibly, the entire world is depicted as having ignored the messages that were sent to us from the other universe. That is, until the protagonist in Part I of the novel (Lamont) suddenly decides that the messages should be deciphered. Huh? I guess we are supposed to imagine that Hallam was such a manipulative bastard that he could keep the entire population of Earth from studying the first messages ever received from another civilization.

In the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Edmund Emshwiller
In the Exode Saga, I imagine that there are alien forces at work trying to suppress information about alien visitors to Earth. Those aliens are actually trying to prevent we humans from destroying ourselves.

In Part I of The Gods Themselves, Asimov depicted human stupidity as the main foe in the story. But what if there are some technologies, some types of scientific knowledge that are really too dangerous for we primates to have? Maybe we should expect benevolent aliens to try to save us from our own stupidity. In Part II of The Gods Themselves, Asimov finally gives us a close look at his imagined aliens from a parallel universe.

Next: commentary on Part 2 of The Gods Themselves

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