WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 3)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read the first week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about religion and technology.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I wrote: “Researching religions both contemporary and historical is a worthy pursuit for any author, though if you’re writing the farthest of far-future science fiction you may imagine a post-religious society.” I then went on to use Dune as an example of a far-future SF novel in which religion is a pivotal force. Now here we have The City and the Stars, set some millions of years in the future and it does precisely what I touched on myself: it imagines a post-religious world:

Deluded though these creatures might have been, their long vigil had at last brought its reward. As if by a miracle, they had saved from the past knowledge that else might have been lost forever. Now they could rest at last, and their creed could go the way of a million other faiths that had once thought themselves eternal.

It’s not surprising coming from “hard” science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that the assumption is that technology will eventually free us from the shackles of superstition. This is actually a fairly common theme in SF, even if only tacitly. I’ve been reading SF all my life and rarely is religion even mentioned at all. Most far-future characters simply don’t talk about it either way.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

But at the same time, here’s Clarke describing a post-religious world that is a utopia on the outside but he goes back time and again to remind us that the city of Diaspar is a sort of intellectual prison. These people are living lives of abject luxury but have been suppressed in their growth as a culture, and have lived in this kind of happy status quo for millennia.

Though Clarke doesn’t spend many words bemoaning the loss of a spiritual life, we start to see some hints of weakness around the edges of the techno-utopia in passages like this, which reveals the characters’’ grave mistrust of the natural world:

This planet was nearer the sun, and even from space it I looked hot. It was partly covered with low clouds, indicating that water was plentiful, but there were no signs of any oceans. Nor was there any sign of intelligence; they circled the planet twice without glimpsing a single artifact of any kind. The entire globe, from poles down to the equator, was clothed with a blanket of virulent green.

“I think we should be very careful here,” said Hilvar. “This world is alive—and I don’t like the color of that vegetation. It would be best to stay in the ship, and not to open the air lock at all.”

“Not even to send out the robot?”

“No, not even that. You have forgotten what disease is, and though my people know how to deal with it, we are a long way from home and there may be dangers here which we cannot see. I think this is a world that has run amok. Once it may have been all one great garden or park, but when it was abandoned Nature took over again. It could never have been like this while the system was inhabited.”

Alvin did not doubt that Hilvar was right. There was something evil, something hostile to all the order and regularity on which Lys and Diaspar were based, in the biological anarchy below. Here a ceaseless battle had raged for a billion years; it would be well to be wary of the survivors.

I had to go back and check that I had the word “virulent” correct in the first paragraph and it wasn’t supposed to be “verdant.” The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) defines virulent as: “(of a disease or poison) extremely severe or harmful in its effects / highly infective / bitterly hostile,” whereas verdant is: “green with grass or other rich vegetation.”

God forbid that a planet be allowed to take care if itself. The assumption on the part of both characters here is that for a world to be at all survivable it must be entirely under human control. Evolution is seen as a force of evil, resulting in dangerous organisms “it would be well to be wary of.”

This starts to show us the philosophy behind The City and the Stars, which from my reading clearly says: Technology will save us from all the bad things including superstition, war, poverty, and unbridled nature, but it’s only worth it if we continue to grow as a technological species.

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

The tragedy at the heart of The City and the Stars is that these societies, both Diaspar and Lys, have reached a technological singularity then stopped, progressing no farther, and that only after humanity experienced a draw-back and a sort of Dark Ages.

On to technology, then . . .

Clarke imagines his technological utopia not several decades into humanity’s future but hundreds of millions, even billions of years later. He should have known if only from the exercise of revising his own imagined technology over the decade immediately following World War II that we’d get to a lot of the things his protagonist takes for granted rather a lot sooner than millions of years form now.

Check out this description of a 3D version of Google Maps:

He rose to his feet and walked over to the image of the city which almost filled the chamber. It was hard not to think of it as an actual model, though he knew that in reality it was no more than an optical projection of the pattern in the memory cells he had been exploring. When he altered the monitor control and set his viewpoint moving through Diaspar, a spot of light would travel over the surface of this replica, so that he could see exactly where he was going. It had been a useful guide in the early days, but he soon had grown so skillful at setting the coordinates that he had not needed this aid.

The city lay spread out beneath him; he looked down upon it like a god.

And though I’ve time and again reminded SF authors that it isn’t our job to accurately predict the future, Arthur C. Clarke is one of those authors who’s been cited just as often for being right, as we’ll see in the next excerpt, as he was wrong (famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

“Your order involves two problems,” replied the Computer. “One is moral, one technical. This robot was designed to obey the orders of a certain man. What right have I to override them, even if I can?’’

It was a question which Alvin had anticipated and for which he had prepared several answers.

“We do not know what exact form the Master’s prohibition took,” he replied. “If you can talk to the robot, you may be able to persuade it that the circumstances in which the block was imposed have now changed.”

It was, of course, the obvious approach. Alvin had attempted it himself, without success, but he hoped that the Central Computer, with its infinitely greater mental resources, might accomplish what he had failed to do.

“That depends entirely upon the nature of the block,” came the reply. “It is possible to set up a block which, if tampered with, will cause the contents of the memory cells to be erased. However, I think it unlikely that the Master possessed sufficient skill to do that; it requires somewhat specialized techniques. I will ask your machine if an erasing circuit has been set up in its memory units.”

“But suppose,” said Alvin in sudden alarm, “it causes erasure of memory merely to ask if an erasing circuit exists?”

“There is a standard procedure for such cases, which I shall follow. I shall set up secondary instructions, telling the machine to ignore my question if such a situation exists. It is then simple to insure that it will become involved in a logical paradox, so that whether it answers me or whether it says nothing it will be forced to disobey its instructions. In such an event all robots act in the same manner, for their own protection. They clear their input circuits and act as if no question has been asked.”

Alvin felt rather sorry that he had raised the point, and after a moment’s mental struggle decided that he too would adopt the same tactics and pretend that he had never been asked the question. At least he was reassured on one point—the Central Computer was fully prepared to deal with any booby traps that might exist in the robot’s memory units. Alvin had no wish to see the machine reduced to a pile of junk; rather than that, he would willingly return it to Shalmirane with its secrets still intact.

Here’s Clarke describing computer viruses and firewalls, though in antiquated terms (input circuits). And this in the mid 1950s. According to the article “History of Computer Viruses,” mathematician John Neumann described what would later become known as the computer virus as early as 1949. This tells us that Clarke, not surprisingly, was keeping up on the literature back then. Still, computer viruses and data security really didn’t become “a thing” until the mid 1980s, thirty years after The City and the Stars was written. Think about that the next time you read an “unrealistic” SF novel about self-replicating nano-robots.

But what I found really the most interesting thing about The City and the Stars, at least in terms of technology, was that Clarke had really thought through not just the various gadgets and gizmos that might be available to his future characters, but thought through the philosophy of technology that got them there . . .

Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man’s. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind—all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached—that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality:

No machine may contain any moving parts.

Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him.

That begs a question to the science fiction authors out there: Do you have a philosophy behind the technology in your SF world? Is that a part of your worldbuilding?

I think it should be.

We’ll leave it at that for The City and the Stars, but there are thousands of great SF and fantasy books still left for me to read, so let’s see what other examples, positive and negative, will come from my accelerated reading program for 2015.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 3)

  1. Scot Hanson says:

    Thanks for modeling this kind of analysis / learning method. I’ve been feeling that I ought to improve my writing craft, so I ought to be reading attentively. But at that point I was left with the question, attending to what exactly. Your posts have been helpful for getting a vantage point for reading that’s more than just entertainment. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: WorldBuilding – Your Sterile Population | Dog's Breakfast

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