Jul 28, 2012

Samson Smash

In The End of Eternity, Asimov depicted a strange social group, the Eternals.

Noÿs Lambent calls the Eternals psychopaths. Here is how an Eternal, Andrew Harlan, the protagonist of the novel, sums up: "he saw Eternity with great clarity as a sink of deepening psychoses, a writhing pit of abnormal motivations, a mass of desperate lives torn brutally out of context."

What is the typical life of an Eternal? Almost exclusively the Eternals are boys who begin their careers when they are taken away from their homewhen at age 15, taken into Eternity and told the truth about Reality, a truth that cannot be shared with people living in Time. The truth about Reality is that from within the protected temporospatial enclave of Eternity, the Eternals watch over humanity and alter the course of Time so as to eliminate unhealthy social extremes.

Harlan becomes a Technician, one of the select few Eternals who actually steps into the flow of Time in order to initiate Reality Changes, alterations to the course of history. Technicians are shunned by the other Eternals because of the guilt and self-doubt that the Eternals feel arising from their handling of Reality Changes.

When Andrew first meets Noÿs he won't even look at her. He has no experience with women and thinks of them as a disruptive influence within Eternity. But then he falls in love and because of that love he breaks the rules of Eternity and he is willing to threaten the destruction of Eternity. And when when he thinks that Noÿs has been taken from him, he lashes out and attempts to destroy Eternity. His "Samson smash".

It is hard to know how Asimov conceptualized a "psychopath". In modern technical jargon a person with "psychopathy" is distinct from someone suffering from "psychosis". Currently, schizophrenia is a relatively commonly diagnosed type of psychosis in Western countries. Asimov wrote The End of Eternity in the 1950s and he might not have made much of a distinction between concepts such as "criminal psychosis" and antisocial behaviors, including criminal behavior, which at that time was was often falling under the umbrella term "psychopathic", at least among non-psychiatric specialists. During the past 70 years there has been a major effort to clarify and emphasize the distinction between non-violent people with mental illness and the much rarer violent criminals who suffer from some identifiable form of unusual brain function. Research on possible links between schizophrenia and homicide has been extensive and illustrates the difficulty of identifying and understanding epidemiological relationships between groups of patients who receive particular psychiatric diagnoses and the incidence of criminal behavior in those groups.

The Eternals constitute something like a monastic order, existing in an artificial social environment where they must set aside the joys and comforts of an ordinary human existence in order to focus on performing their task of watching over humanity by making use of time travel technology. The Eternals each have a job to do and they are expected to do it well and not be distracted by ordinary human concerns and emotions. When he is still trying to resist falling in love with Noÿs, Harlan wants to shout at her: "There's no fun in Eternity, Lady. We work!"

After years of trying to conform to the restrictive behavioral rules of Eternity, Harlen finally discovers the joy of something that gives emotional meaning to his life (a loving relationship with Noÿs). To maintain his happiness, he is willing to break the rules of Eternity, and he feels little guilt. Harlan is initially surprised that Twissell, the leading Eternal, admits to past criminal activity, but he comes to realize that the artificial social structure of Eternity makes it difficult for "model Eternals" to be anything but abnormal, petty, scheming, and environmentally predisposed to psychopathy. Any Eternal who acts on a natural human impulse and falls in love with a person in Time is likely to violate the rules of Eternity (as is the case for both Twissell and Harlan). Asimov tells us that only a select few individuals able to be extracted from Time and made into Eternals. Why? Maybe the entire process by which Eternity is staffed depends on identifying strange, antisocial individuals who, if left in Time, would never make a significant contribution to humanity. If there is selection of sociopaths to populate Eternity, we must wonder: what kind of behaviors will these antisocial people display when they are thrown together and made to live in Eternity?

For Harlen, his personally satisfying but unlawful love affair with Noÿs quickly becomes more important than his life as an Eternal. In the end, from the reader's perspective, Harlan can be viewed as a hero who destroys Eternity, and we come to see Eternity as a misguided system that must inevitably lead to the extinction of humanity. However, when Harlan delivers his "Samson smash" against Eternity, his motivation is very personal, selfish and does not really seem heroic....possibly romantic and gallant, but mostly just a desperate act of revenge, striking out against anything that frustrates his attempt to live happily ever after with Noÿs.

Readers of fiction intuitively understand characters who struggle against the world when they feel that they are frustrated by a crazy social system that treats them unfairly. Characters who are guided along a story line by a motive of revenge are a fairly common type of fictional hero (example).

Before reaching the happy ending of The End of Eternity, Asimov drags us through some plot twists. Harlan even comes close to murdering Noÿs. When he realizes that she is from the far future and has been using him like a puppet to make possible the destruction of Eternity, Harlan feels betrayed and, for a time, he is desperate to thwart Noÿs in her plan to destroy Eternity.

Along the way, Harlan brutally threatens Computer Finge with torture after Finge reveals how he tricked  Harlan. Harlan, wallowing in his hatred for Finge, goes from feeling that Finge is a pathetic figure to feeling humiliated by Finge and his cruel gloating about how Harlan was used by both Noÿs and Finge.

Is Harlan a psychopath?

Noÿs does not think so: she loves him. What gets Harlan into trouble as an Eternal is his capacity for love. Psychopaths often are abnormal in their ability to empathize with other people and maintain normal loving human relationships. Harlan ultimately shows his humanity and capacity for love and helps Noÿs destroy the pathological society of Eternity.

If you find yourself as a member of a dysfunctional society and you strike out against a dehumanizing aspect of life that is defended by your social group then are you a criminal or are you a heroic figure?

What about someone living in our society who, possibly due to an abnormal brain circuit, is unable achieve normal empathy and satisfying social relationships? The majority of psychopaths are able to navigate through life without becoming violent criminals. Harlan might have gone through life as a typical Eternal, staying faithful to his Eternals Oath, but Noÿs was able to trigger his emotional "Samson smash" by subjecting Harlan to a dramatic and provocative source of frustration. And more importantly, Noÿs made Harlan aware of a secret vulnerability of Eternity that he could brood about and scheme to use as a way to satisfy his own desires, illegal though they were. When Noÿs is taken away and upon deciding that all is lost, Harlan strikes out in the only way he can: the "Samson smash".

Would it be possible, for most people, to find a way to provoke them into a violent act? Stress someone over an extended period of time, repeatedly show them examples of how to strike out violently, then suddenly deprive them of something precious, perhaps the only thing that they value in life, then what do we expect to happen? Far too many people in our society, upon feeling hopeless pain and desperation, quietly destroy themselves. Even in the depths of hopeless agony, such people retain their empathy for others. But what about a person who is neurobiologically unable to feel normal empathy? One of the things that can go wrong in human brain development is disruption, sometimes with rather sudden onset, of the normal sense of self. Might such a person, rather than quietly end their own life, perform a more dramatic exit along the lines of Harlan's "Samson smash" through which he expected to obliterate the entire existence of Eternity?

Do some people suffer from Reality Assignment Disorder? Might fantasy worlds from video games and movies become "real" for some people? Various forms of disrupted brain function (example) might result in our loss of ability to maintain a coherent mental model of reality. Did James Holmes come to see himself as the Joker, an individual who exists in an alternative reality where normal human standards of social behavior do not apply?

Game not over. Was James Holmes ready to die? Was his plan to attract police to his apartment, giving him time to leave the movie theater before police could respond to the shooting?  When Andrew Harlan delivered his "Samson smash" he had no choice but to strike out at all of Eternity... Noÿs had maneuvered him to that fate. At that time, he was not aware of the reasons Noÿs had for wanting to destroy Eternity. Given any other less world shattering option, he would have taken it.

I generally prefer to write science fiction stories that do not contain "evil" characters. In the Space Opera The Search for Kalid we created two "evil" characters, Ketar and Aristark. Ketar and Aristark are two high-functioning psychopaths who will do anything to make sure that the Galactic Antiquist Party remains in power. Ketar is the head of a family that has struggled to maintain control over a planet and his fantasy is to rule an interplanetary empire. If humans have a form of neurodiversity that supports a social pecking order, is it possible for members of powerful families to have a strong predisposition towards callous and ruthless behavior?

Ketar and Aristark remind me of Mathor Borph and Sir Lonas, two Patrunes of the planet Natrice, in Jack Vance's novel Araminta Station. Sir Mathor is not a megalomaniac like Ketar; he and Lonas "merely want to live out their lives in placid self-indulgence", but they have been forced to take harsh measures against their foes, the Senart Scientists. When the story's protagonist, Glawen, shows up and presses an inconvenient police investigation, Mathor and Lonas show no remorse about murdering both Glawen and sergeant Kirdy Wook. Perhaps the callous attitude of Sir Mathor and Sir Lonas traces back to their ancestors, "retired pirates, slavers, fugitives and desperados of every type, along with a leavening of ordinary criminals".

While Sir Mathor and Sir Lonas might have had both a genetic predisposition for psychopathic behavior and a stressful environment that forced them to take callous and murderous action, the case of Aristark in The Search for Kalid included and additional twist. Aristark was a trained assassin and tool of the "evil" mastermind, Ketar. Aristark has been behaviorally programmed to defend Ketar's interests. When Kalid begins to realize the horrific consequences of Ketar's evil actions, and is simultaneously broadcasting the revelations to a courtroom audience, Aristark launches a murderous attack against Kalid.

To what extend can our experiences program us to take violent action under certain circumstances? Why is a murderer who strikes out in jealous rage treated differently than a murderer who has a motive other than jealousy? Can we all be "temporarily insane", can you be temporarily "out of your mind"? Can someone like James Holmes slip into an altered frame of mind, play a fantasy role like the Joker, and then have no memory of having committed mass murder?

When is it sane to defy your society's rules and become a criminal? For several decades Mutually Assured Destruction was the policy of the United States. The MAD doctrine was explored in Level 7 and the protagonist's calm participation in the extermination of humanity remains one of the most horrifying examples of non-heroic behavior that I have read.

Our species is in the middle of figuring out the world we live in. In the past, millions were mysteriously struck down by infectious diseases and it was all too easy to adopt an attitude of desperation and helplessness when we had no tools for observing microbes. Now the science of microbiology routinely makes it possible for us to understand, treat and prevent microbial diseases.

Each human brain is a tangle of circuits shaped by genes and experiences arising within a complex and changing social environment. Even if we are initially baffled by small pox, polio, AIDS, schizophrenia and a hundred other brain disorders, our species will not rest until we map that tangle and learn much more about how genetic predispositions towards mental illness can be amplified by certain experiences.

With study, we will learn how to more efficiently recognize and prevent lethal combinations of "wiring problems" and social experiences. Already we can sometimes prevent tragedy by actively providing mental health services for young people who abandon healthy patterns of behavior. In the future we should be able to increasingly prevent mental health problems rather than simply hope to be able to efficiently react to them.

Imagine a story about a boy who idealistically wants to understand the brain and mental illness. He grows up in a culture where "recreation" involving video games, movies, drugs and paintball becomes more real than his studies of neuroscience and the brain. His academic performance falters and he becomes increasing obsessed with "fantasy violence". The psychiatric safety net fails. You write the story; how does it end? With a Samson smash?
Related Reading:


Unusual Sleep Experiences, Dissociation, and Schizotypy: Evidence for a Common Domain

The Dark $ide of Hollywood

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