...................commentary ....see also in: 'BOOKS IN MY LIFE'

..Sci-Fi .&. A S I M O V




Science, Science-Fiction and Me

I only seriously began to read when I was 16 - more than a year after leaving school. When I was 14 (my last full year at school - I played truant for most of the final year), a supercilious teacher proclaimed that science-fiction was trash and that sensible people read Shakespeare and Dickens. Considering the 'education' I'd been landed with, it's not surprising that these authors bored me out of my head; it was a struggle to get past a first page. So, naturally, sci-fi gained top place in my 'lazy' mind. In any case, who wants to be 'sensible'? Better to be crazy and have a good time than be 'sensible' and bored to death, I thought.

I imply that I came to science-fiction by choice. The truth is that I came upon it by accident. One day in Boots in Cambridge, passing a small display of books, my eye was caught by Isaac Asimov's 'The End of Eternity' - the author's name seemed almost as attractive as the title. I was so intrigued that I bought it on the spot. What kid could ignore a title like that - or name? Later, I saw an Asimov book with the word 'Robot' in the title. So 'The End of Eternity' was promptly followed by 'The Rest of the Robots' and 'I, Robot'.

Soon I was hooked on Asimov, and went on to devour his famous 'Foundation' trilogy and many more until over the next ten years I'd covered 30 or so of his books. Then I'd eagerly await new work which he obligingly churned out for a further 27 years until his death in '92.

Much earlier, I developed an interest in what turned out to be 'electronics'. Since the age of about four I'd been intrigued by radio and was keen to solve the great mystery of how it worked. They didn't teach electronics at school so my continuing interest was assured - nor, luckily, did they teach physics (that is, real physics like relativity and quantum mechanics), because soon after discovering Asimov I bought, on another strange impulse, Milton Rothman's little paperback 'The Laws of Physics', and instantly there opened a whole new universe. Oddly enough, I've never been the impulsive type, so these uncharacteristic purchases were truly auspicious.

A few months later - it was the summer of 65 - whilst waiting for a train to go on holiday with a friend and his family who lived opposite (the 'intercom' remember?), I decided to scan the station bookstall. Expecting to find nothing of interest I suddenly noticed a magazine with a futuristic train on the cover. I took it down and when I saw the title my brain seemed to glow. It was just as though a light had been switched on in my head. I had discovered 'Science Journal' - and from that day I collected monthly every issue until it ceased printing (for economic reasons) in the early '70s. In fact, I still have every copy stored in a box under the stairs. After that I turned to 'Scientific American' which was similar in style and presentation but unlike the Journal was often a bit over my head.

All this science-fact served as a perfect complement to Asimov's fiction. Unknown to me at the time Asimov was in fact a scientist with a PhD in biology and had written considerably more fact than fiction. Perhaps that was why his fiction, however farfetched, seemed so realistic; I regarded it as a fair prediction of what might one day come true - which left me feeling curiously optimistic.

Occasionally 'Science Journal' would examine, for instance, the future in space or robots - and this was serious stuff - but for me fact would merge with fiction to create almost limitless scope for the imagination. In addition, the great electronic revolution was beginning: micro-miniaturisation was already underway, and integrated circuits loomed on the horizon. These developments were accompanied by an avalanche of related innovations which seemed to occur by the day.

From '67 to '73 I worked in Cambridge for a scientific instrument company. I spent my last four years there as a technician in a laboratory where scientists worked at the forefront of technology; and at college I met other technicians and engineers who were employed in all kinds of technical industries that were also pushing at the frontiers of science.

In those days, contentment didn't seem to depend on how wealthy you were. Money was scarcely considered or mentioned in the circles I moved in. Even so, I and my peers all hovered close to the breadline; and if anyone owned a car (as I did) it was invariably an old wreck (the Ford, remember?). Alongside this was a growing libertarianism and tolerance in almost every aspect of life: clothes, music, relationships, lifestyle, etc. An altogether liberating experience - as the 60s is famous for.

So to be directly involved with advancing new science and technology, and all taking place amidst a vibrant new social scene, provoked a keen sense of engagement - perhaps akin to Sartre's political engagement of the 40s - and a feeling that the future could only get better and brighter.

I've often since wondered whether this constant 'high' of the late '60s/early '70s, which seemed to be experienced by virtually all those I associated with, was something generally experienced by youth, or - as I'm inclined to believe - was peculiar to that period.

By now I was 19 and studying electronics at college. In addition to various social activities (ie, going down the pub), I often went along to evening lectures at one or other of the universities; these concerned new discoveries and inventions (ie: lasers, holography, fluid logic etc) - so reading science-fiction was already beginning to get displaced, if not by related events then from lack of time.

During the 80s, however, I read several new Asimov sci-fi books which were strangely different from his earlier work - they seemed aimed at a younger readership and contained hints of 'new-age' philosophy which shifted them about as close as they could get to fantasy without actually becoming it; they lacked his former economy and the gripping raw ultra-science and realism of earlier times. In a way, he'd 'gone soft'. Curiously, though, so had I, and I rather enjoyed this new angle on his work, even if it did lack those earlier qualities of sharp logic and invention.

I have occasionally read science-fiction by other authors, though usually it failed to seize my interest like Asimov (perhaps I have a particular affinity for his style and ideas?). The most recent alternative that I found impressive was Carl Sagan's 'Contact', but because Asimov had such an influence during a fairly crucial period in my life, I'll try to explain what it was about his early work that struck me with such force.




ASIMOV (see also)

I'm amused now to think of that time when, amidst the bustle of lunchtime crowds, I lifted 'The End of Eternity' from its rack expecting to learn what lay at the end of time itself. In a flicker of satiric humour I remember wondering if such an important discovery had been announced on the news. I forget why I went into the shop, but clutching this little paperback I hurried to the checkout and a few minutes later in a nearby park (Parker's Piece?) I sat on a bench and read:

Andrew Harlan stepped into the kettle. Its sides were perfectly round and it fitted snugly inside a vertical shaft composed of widely spaced rods that shimmered into an unseeable haze six feet above Harlan's head. Harlan set the controls and moved the smoothly working starting lever.

The kettle did not move.

Harlan did not expect it to. He expected no movement; neither up nor down, left nor right, forth nor back. Yet the spaces between the
rods had melted into a grey blankness which was solid to the touch, though nonetheless immaterial for all that. And there was the little stir in his stomach, the faint touch of dizziness, that told him that all the kettle contained, including himself, was rushing upwhen through Eternity.

He had boarded the kettle in the 575th Century, the base of operations assigned him two years earlier. At the time the 575th had been the furthest upwhen he had ever travelled. Now he was moving
upwhen to the 2456th Century.

Immediately realising I had been deceived by the title, I could still hardly fail to be gripped by this astonishing opening.

Asimov wrote his first story in 1937 at the age of 17 because he thought he could do better than the stories he read in pulp magazines like 'Amazing Stories' and 'Astounding'. That first story was called 'Cosmic Corkscrew' and centred on a time traveller. It wasn't until 1939 and nine rejected stories later that he had his story 'Ad Astra' - 6,900 words about a trip to the moon - accepted as his first for publication. He gained his war-delayed PhD in 1948; eleven years and many stories later 'The End of Eternity' appeared in the bookshops.

There was one enthralling incident in that book which I mulled over for several years. Harlan was a technician in 'Eternity' - the name Asimov gave to a parallel existence whose inhabitants had engineered a method of travelling backwards and forwards in time. In this way they could enter and exit our world at whatever date they chose. On one occasion Harlan leaves something behind in our world by mistake and to prevent someone else from finding it and possibly upsetting the course of history he has to return to the precise moment he was previously in that location to retrieve it - or not quite precisely, because he hadn't met himself before. (Or had he?) So how could he meet himself when he returned - without violating causality and placing the very existence of 'Eternity' at risk?

In fact when he did return he froze in fear when someone opened the door to the room he was in - the implications, of course, were colossal; but before that someone entered, to Harlan's relief, they retreated. After that he quickly recovered the item and returned to 'Eternity'. It was only then, reflecting, that he realised it had been himself who had opened the door when he had first been there, but had sensed that someone else was in the room so had swiftly retreated and closed it again - meeting people was a particular hazard... though there was one special person...

The situation, though, conjures a range of possibilities and ample opportunity for paradox. The obvious question is: What if he had met himself? I remember hoping, at the time, that this would happen, and wondering how Asimov would resolve it. If anyone could handle such an event then Asimov could. So why didn't he?

Over the years I've read several biographies of sci-fi writers, and one characteristic that's emerged is that when they've come across something such as what I've just described, they didn't simply shrug disappointedly, as I did, they would sit down and work it out for themselves and create their own solution - if necessary writing a whole novel. Was Asimov failing to address or confront the problem because it was too difficult, or did he include the incident merely as an aside to jolt the reader awake and maybe into chewing over the implications - as I did?

He was certainly one smart guy. Michael White, in his biography of Asimov, describes the episode when Asimov's IQ was discovered. In November 1945 he was subscripted in the army which he hated and:

A few days after arriving at Fort Meade, the recruits had to undergo a series of psychiatric tests. One of these was an army intelligence test, called the AGCT. Asimov stunned everyone in the barracks by getting the highest score ever recorded by the psychiatrists assigned to the Fort - a rating of 160… The average was a little over 100. 

Much later Asimov became a friend of Carl Sagan. They had much in common, sharing a wholly rational outlook on life, a love of science, space and all it entails, a keen social conscience verging on pacifism (and liberal socialism), and an unquenchable but realistic optimism for the future of humankind. They were men of compassion (what else with an IQ of 160?).

When I opened 'I Robot' and read the page facing the Introduction I felt that I had discovered the ultimate:

The Three Laws of Robotics

1 - A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

2 - A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3 - A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Handbook of Robotics,

56th Edition, 2058 A.D. 

Here was a fiction writer who took real science and logic seriously. It was only a matter of time, I reasoned, before 'U.S. Robots' (as Asimov envisioned it) would become a reality. Even the Introduction was a convincing spoof; like a comedian who can never revert to being serious, Asimov was true to form. Many of the stories in that book scrutinise and fault these seemingly infallible Laws. The robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, became perhaps Asimov's most famous character after Hari Seldon of the early 'Foundation' books. It was she who was called upon to solve the curious mysteries of eccentric robot behaviour caused by ambiguities in the Laws.

The First Law alone generates a possible multitude of odd responses. My first thought was that perhaps this Law should apply equally to human beings. But precisely what, for instance, constitutes harm? And to what lengths should a robot go to adhere to this Law? The scope for dichotomies and conflicts in logic were enormous, and Asimov exploited them thoroughly.

Next came that classic trilogy: 'Foundation', 'Foundation and Empire' and 'Second Foundation'. The story concerns a period in future-history when humankind is in the process of populating the galaxy, finding and settling worlds, establishing administrations and working towards a Galactic Empire. Each of the five parts in the first book, as well as several chapters at the beginning, start with an extract from the 116th Edition of Encyclopedia Galactica which provides a synoptic introduction to key characters and events.

The story begins with mathematician, Gaal Dornick, who has just arrived on Trantor to join 50 other mathematicians working under Hari Seldon, the first and most brilliant psychohistorian.

Psychohistory may well one day become a real science - or so I'd like to believe. By observing an individual over a period of time one might stand a chance of predicting their behaviour in particular circumstances. That's about the most one could say, because there's a strong possibility they may do something out of character. Such is the nature of the individual human psyche. Apply this to a crowd, though, and the accuracy of prediction increases. For a nation it is more accurate still; a whole world, and your probability becomes almost a certainty. But apply it to a galaxy and you can hardly fail - assuming your starting information and calculations are not at fault; ie, from the beginning of chapter 4:

PSYCHOHISTORY - … Gaal Dornick, using non-mathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…

…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment. The necessary size of such a conglomerate may be determined by Seldon's First Theorem which… A further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate be itself unaware of
 psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random…

The basis of all valid psychohistory lies in the development of the Seldon Functions which exhibit properties congruent to those of such social and economic forces as…


Hari Seldon predicted 30,000 years of galactic barbarism, and like any conscientious citizen he set out to see what could be done to eliminate it. All he could do was shorten it to 1,000, which was quite an achievement - but it would only work if he could somehow guide the Foundation at each point of crisis he predicted it would face. To achieve this, Seldon made his calculations and recorded himself giving the appropriate advice as he had calculated. He would use his reputation for genius to forestall political attempts to defeat him by not depending upon personal successors. (He also set up in the secret location of a key planet 'Terminus' the foundation for a new order to replace the old Empire.) After his death, when a so-called 'Seldon Crisis' arose, his recording could be consulted for the most appropriate action. Two problems emerged from this: First, how to recognise a 'Seldon Crisis', and second, whether to adopt his solution when it seemed outrageously misguided - for how, the politicians asked, could he have predicted this unique event?

At the same time Seldon set up the Foundation to create the 'Encyclopedia Galactica' which had to be complete before the onset of decline - calculated to begin five hundred years hence. Copies would be distributed to all parts of the galaxy so that once stability returned the knowledge gained over the previous twelve millennia would not need to be re-discovered, and civilisation could re-emerge and continue from where it left off - though now much fortified like a phoenix risen from the ashes. A whole planet and nearly 100,000 people was commissioned for the project - the creation of the Encyclopedia.

So the 'Foundation' books immediately introduced several remarkable new concepts that I racked my brains over for quite some time. Quite apart from the fabulous backdrop of supercomputers, leaps through hyper-space, planets and galaxies and so on, there were these constant confrontations with logic and probability and how it applied to human populations. It was science, psychology and sociology in a single package, working together for the benefit of humankind.

A further concept that emerged (I'm sure among many others I can't now remember) was of a planet secretly controlled by it's larger neighbour. The method of control, via priests and religion, was an idea that had once occurred to me as actually happening. What can be more rewarding than to read something like that in a book? It is an idea, though, which symbolises reality: The Pope; the Bible… and all the other powerful indoctrinations that take place - and have similar effects of control on its victims. Could these be merely the ambassadors of something much larger or more malevolent?

'Foundation's Edge' - a sequel to the trilogy - contained no special ideas that could compare with its forerunners, but it was one of Asimov's best reads, and it links the Foundation books with his Robot saga. This began with the Elijah Bailey detective novels. Together with his intriguing robot assistant R Daneel, Bailey shuttles back and forth around the galaxy solving crime mysteries - which to me were strictly a pretext for all the special background detail.

The first of these novels was 'The Naked Sun' (1958) which is the story of a planet where the population is maintained so that every individual lives in luxury on a vast estate, with a throng of robots at their command. The fact that Bailey and his fascinating companion were called from Earth to investigate a murder seemed to me beside the point: the story for me resided in the backdrop and how logically Daneel responded to events.

In the 477-page 'The Robots of Dawn' (1983) - what a title! - a much updated Daneel is fully equipped to make love to a sensuous woman named Gladia. But there's nothing sentimental or tacky here. Though more simply written - as became Asimov's work as he aged - it does not deviate from his consistently professional approach. In this novel another even more sophisticated robot, Giskard, is introduced, who, in the final 505-page robot novel 'Robots and Empire' (1985) - whose back cover has the caption: Can two conscience-stricken robots save the galaxy? - Giskard becomes mortal and on the last page dies hand in hand with Daneel:

Daneel kneeled at the side of the seated Giskard and took the unresponsive metal hand in his own. He said, in an agonised whisper, 'Recover, Friend Giskard. Recover. What you did was right by Zeroth Law. You have preserved as much life as possible. You have done well by humanity. Why suffer so, when what you have done saves all?'

Giskard said, in a voice so distorted, the words could barely be made
out, 'Because I am not certain. What if - the other view - is right - after all - and the Spacers will - triumph and then themselves decay so that - the Galaxy - will be - empty. - Good-bye, Friend - Dan -'

And Giskard was silent, never to speak or move again.

Daneel rose.

He was alone - and with a Galaxy to care for.

Even here Asimov tussles with the ambiguities of his Three Laws. But inspired by this extract let me digress briefly:

One of the greatest enigmas to confront science is: What is it that gives rise to consciousness? From where, exactly, does it originate? For me, this is the kind of question these stories of humanoid robots evoked. Would it ever be possible for a machine containing no living material to experience consciousness - or, for that matter, experience anything?

There seemed no doubt that robots, even ones far in advance of those portrayed by Asimov, would one day exist. Nor did I doubt their potential for apparent consciousness - ie, so it would be impossible to show in any practical situation that they didn't actually possess it.

Also, using themselves as a model, robots would some day spontaneously design and build even more advanced offspring - leaving humans far behind, and evolving at a rate that would astonish the most fanciful romantic. No longer would a mere human be capable of intervening (except, presumably, to halt or adjust the direction of progress); the technicalities would be beyond the most brilliant technician.

The conclusion that we, humankind, who has been around for maybe 10 million years, will one day be overtaken by our own creation as masters of at least this sector of the Milky Way seems a fair prediction to me. And it will be they who engineer the vehicles with which to pioneer space, establish settlements and spread through the galaxy.

Not that we are likely to be overtly dominated - after our initial period in charge, I'm sure we could adapt to their pampering. And in the light of such stupendous intelligence we will probably resign contentedly to the role of observers or just playing on beaches and tinkering with trivia. So real evolution, which as a kind of catalyst we will have set in motion, will take place; and for the robots both time and space will essentially have no end.

But the question remains: without a living cell, can a mere machine ever achieve consciousness? Considering levels-of-simulation at the core of synthetic thinking devices, my answer in those days was a resounding, optimistic yes. Now, though, I'm not so sure, and would guess that the likely answer is no. This is because consciousness probably emanates from somewhere within the molecular structure of cells, possibly in the nucleus. Like gravity, a grain in space would measure zero, as would a boulder the size of a house. Only when the cell-mass reaches a certain very large size perhaps does consciousness begin to show.

A living cell is a unit. A computer is a unit. Both can exist alone and function - assuming an external energy supply. But take part of either away, and function will cease. Now supposing we could use nanotechnology to construct millions of powerful computers each of comparable size to a living cell or bunch of cells, and we interconnect them so each can communicate with all the others, and that in their design we have hard-wired programmes (as in DNA) for particular functions… etc, etc… Even then the whole will still not be any more conscious than a pebble on the beach. It makes no difference if the hardware is based on layers of semiconductor (as it is now) or, say, slithers of quartz (optical guides and components have been envisaged for their speed, size, and immunity from interference and energy loss). The fact remains that this sort of hardware consists essentially of blocks: blocks of plastic, blocks of silicon, blocks of quartz - albeit that the scale of thickness is atomic.

And it seems highly improbable to me that blocks, inert in themselves, can, purely on a basis of size or quantity, somehow give rise to consciousness - any more than an old mechanical calculating machine as big as a planet could become somehow conscious merely on the basis of size.

This digression is, at best, wild speculation; but it illustrates the kind of thinking that can be provoked by writers like Asimov. And one doesn't have to fly into realms of fantasy as I have; imagination can operate at any level - for instance, to build a humanoid one requires not just the technology but also the dream. It goes without saying that every human action, every artefact ever made, began as a figment in a human mind. Who would argue that imagination is not the most powerful tool in the universe - so far?

But after that emotional final scene in 'Robots and Empire' it seemed inevitable that 'new-age' sentiment would be a major influence in Asimov's concluding fifth volume of the Foundation saga, 'Foundation and Earth' (1986). I keep this 510-page epic on a shelf where it seems more to belong: with books on spiritual philosophy and Zen. Sufficient to say, it has symbiotic planets and robots, and a general air of pathos throughout. It was an impressive, unique piece of work, but was not vintage Asimov - though I'm certain some readers would prefer it.

If I had read no other author I would not be perturbed, perhaps I would be a lot wiser - because, as well as much else, he even wrote several volumes analysing the bible (scientific angle, of course) - and I'm sure that to this day I wouldn't have exhausted his prolific output.

This brief account of how I interpret a mere fraction of Asimov's magnum opus is unavoidably incomplete. But it would also be one-sided if I didn't include a mention of what is a far greater portion of an astonishing 470 books he produced.

In his non-fiction his tone is always friendly and combines a deeply serious approach with a hint of joviality. He is one of the most articulate authors I've read, and there's little in his non-fiction that an intelligent child wouldn't understand, yet it is certainly not childish. He tackles some difficult scientific issues and makes them both compelling and simple. Such was his genius.

In 'Building Blocks of the Universe' he treats each atom in the atomic table in turn, each with its own chapter, describing it, how it was discovered and named, what its uses are, and so on - all in compelling tones. He has covered, in the few books of his that I have, virtually every aspect of the universe, maths, physics, chemistry… and examined them to beyond the limits of what was known at the time he wrote them: 'Extraterrestrial Civilisations' (1979), 'X Stands for Unknown' (1981), and 'Counting the Eons' (1983), are a sample.

So I wonder, but for that chance discovery in Boots on a sunny lunchtime in Cambridge… I may never have peered into the brilliant mind of what must be one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century - and what direction might my inner mind have taken then?

For a more professional analysis of Asimov and his work click HERE


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