Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Painted Ocean” by Lynette Aspey

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 13, 2018

Have you ever wanted to write science fiction? I have. It was always a kind of dream ambition — like other kids wanting to be rock stars, actresses, or football players. I took a creative writing course in high school, and another in college. I never really work hard at writing though. That’s what it takes, hard work. Like I said, the ambition was more of a daydream fantasy. Then in my fifties, I got serious and started an MFA degree, eventually producing about thirty short stories, and two novel drafts. I even got into Clarion West, an intensive six-weeks writing workshop for would-be science fiction writers. I had to save my vacation for years to take off that much from work.

After Clarion I went back to work and eventually stopped writing fiction. Without a class requiring me to write stories, I just didn’t. I discovered I loved writing essays. Yet, I still yearn to write fiction. It’s damn easy to write crappy fiction, and damn hard to write good fiction. Also, there is something psychological to fiction writing that I haven’t worked out yet.

Clarion West was a significant experience. Going to Seattle for Clarion West was especially interesting because I got to meet sixteen other people with that same daydream. Most of my classmates were young, in their twenties, a few in their thirties, and three of us old guys who were just into our fifties. I guess some dreams never die, no matter how old you get.

Writing fiction is hard because good fiction blends real-life experiences into made-up stories. And with science fiction, you have to speculate about possibilities that could exist, but don’t. The best fiction mixes in philosophical insight with artistic creativity. And like they taught us at Clarion West, good writing is the accumulation of significant details.

Lynette AspeyLynette Aspey was one of my classmates at Clarion West in 2002. I just read her new story “Painted Ocean” and started thinking about Clarion again, my time in Seattle, and what it means to write fiction. Her story is an excellent example of all the elements of why I wanted to write fiction.

Sixteen years ago, seventeen of us hope-to-be SF writers moved into a twelveth floor dorm for those six-weeks, attending writing lectures and critiques Monday through Friday. Our teachers changed every week. They were Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Halderman, and Paul Park. We also had special guest authors visit us on the weekends (Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Lucius Shepard) and we attended local science fiction parties getting to meet even more writers. It was an immersive experience.

We asked Gardner Dozois how many Clarion West students went on to publish science fiction. Gardner told us he expected a few of us to get published in a couple years and a few more five to ten years after that. That scared some of us. Lyn got a story, “Sleeping Dragons” accepted by Asimov’s Science Fiction and published in September 2004. I thought for sure I’d be reading a lot of her work soon. That didn’t happen. Several of my classmates went on to publish stories and novels. I didn’t. Gardner was right.

Lyn, her husband, and the daughter she was pregnant with at Clarion West became world travelers, lived in the Carribean for years, did a lot of sailing on a 43-foot ketch, including crossing the Atlantic. Lyn lived the adventures most people just read about. I was always envious of her because I love to read about people sailing around the world. I hoped she’d eventually write a nonfiction memoir about her life on the ocean. “Painted Ocean” is fiction, but does contain a lot sailing images and details.

Aurealis-109-cover-Space-landscape-683x1024

Recently, I’ve been hearing from Lyn on Facebook, where some of our 2002 alumni occasional post. She’s back living on land, in Australia, and writing stories again. Her new story “Painted Ocean” was published in Aurealis #109, a science fiction magazine from down under. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a link to read it online. I bought a copy of Aurealis #109 for $2.99 through Smashwords. I wished it had been on sale at Amazon for the Kindle because that’s the ebook platform I’m locked into. However, this situation has taught me how to deal with non-Kindle ebooks. Smashwords offers its downloads in several ebook formats, and I put a pdf copy on my Dropbox to read with my iPad. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought three books from non-Amazon sources. I think it’s important we support these alternative publishing platforms.

As I read “Painted Ocean” I was amazed by how good a writer Lyn has become, even after laying off for all those years. On her blog, she wrote, “A long time in the making …” about the writing of “Painted Ocean.” Go read it, especially if you want to become a writer. She says this story was started the Joe Haldeman week at Clarion West, but I did not remember it. To be honest, I don’t even remember my six stories. Each week we read and critiqued 17 stories. Lyn says Haldeman told us to write something hard.

“Painted Ocean” is an ambitious story. It blends AI, simulated reality, sailing, climate change, betrayal, and the love story of two older people. There is also a lot of allusions to the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, evidently a favorite poet of Lyn’s.

As I read about Annie Janssen, a woman with her gray hair in a bun and a brilliant hacker, I wondered if Lyn had created Annie by projecting her own self into the future. Reading her blog after finishing the story, it let me know she had read there weren’t many older female protagonists, so that challenge inspired her. Theodore Janssen is based on Lyn’s father, who had died seven years before Lyn attended Clarion West. Theo is trapped in an artificial reality on a sailboat name SaltTrader:

As Storm lashed out in fury, Theo’s yacht coalesced; broken pieces fitting together like a movie played backwards. The cockpit rebuilt itself around him, the decks with their fittings, the mast, boom and shrouds. Theo heard the rapid ching-ching of halyards hitting steel and, finally, her tattered sails came together like a soul re-knit.

SaltTreader heeled violently as the wind snagged her sails: a call to action.
Jumping forward, Theo released the mainsheet, spilling the wind in the mainsail. The sudden release of pressure brought SaltTreader upright. Her unrestrained boom swung dangerously but Theo was already at the mast, releasing the mainsail’s uphaul and letting the heavy layers of canvas drop to the deck where the wind clawed at but couldn’t fill them.

The foresail backed, bringing SaltTreader’s bow about. Just as she pointed into the wind, Theo released the foresail’s uphaul so that the sail could drop down the forestay, and raced to the bow.

He wrestled the heavy, flapping canvas as if it were a beast until it finally fell, defeated, to the deck. The well-worn ties that Theo always left in position on the guardrail for just this purpose re-materialised. He quickly secured the big foresail before scrambling back to the mast to begin tying down the mainsail.

SaltTreader wallowed dangerously.

Without the time to go below and find the tiny scrap of sail he used as a stormsail, Theo thought it on.

Storm howled. A powerful gust pinned him to the deck.

Using that power, Theo realised, was the equivalent of leaving an error message in the code.

But that little scrap of sail made all the difference. SaltTreader heeled and the wind drew her up the waves.

With the canvas secure, the banging and flogging abruptly disappeared. Now he could hear the hiss of breaking seas and the whine as wind whipped through his rigging, but she crested another mountainous wave. Theo became the master of his vessel once again.

The action of the story switches from the real world to the artificial world. “Storm” is the rogue AI which has gained control of a vast system of weather monitoring and controlling computers. Annie is on the outside, and what’s left of Theo’s personality is on the inside. Annie communicates with Theo with Coleridge like imagery.

Throughout the story, I wonder what is personal to Lyn’s life, what is science fiction, what is remembered from her sailing experiences, and what comes from her fears of the future. All of this wondering, and thinking about story construction makes me think about trying to write fiction again. So, Lyn, thanks for reminding me of old desires.

I really enjoyed reading Lyn’s story and her essay about writing it. Essay writing is all about describing real events, thoughts, concepts, and capturing them honestly as possible. Fiction goes into another realm. I’ve been thinking more about that realm again. I wonder how many of the Clarion West classmates still think about it too.

JWH

1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH

Will Fiction Work on Robots?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Have you ever thought about the nature of fiction? With books, we put ourselves into a trance and transfer our consciousness into a story. That’s pretty weird when you think about it. We’re just looking at black marks on a white background and yet we create all kinds of colorful imaginary worlds in our minds. With television and film, we have the sound and visuals to fool our minds with less work. (It’s no wonder fewer people choose books as their gateway to make-believe.) Audiobooks are somewhere in between.

Humans evidently have a mechanism in their brain for pretending that can tune out reality. It might be related to our mechanism for dreaming. But if you think about it, we embrace a lot of fiction. Religion is totally make-believe yet the faithful feel it is real. Same thing for romance, where we give the objects of our desires traits that don’t exist.

Robotreading

This morning I was so engrossed in a story that I felt like I was escaping reality. That made me wonder about how my brain works to do that. Then I wondered if robots in the future, the kind that will have artificial intelligence, will be able to read a book and find an escape from reality too.

I assume if evolution through random selection can create a biological being that is self-aware then eventually our applied efforts will produce robots that have self-awareness too. Because they won’t be biological driven by chemical and hormonal processes, they might not need sleep. One current theory about why we sleep is because we need to clean out chemical wastes in the brain so it functions properly when we’re conscious. Another theory suggests dreaming is a way to process, organize, and store memories. Robots won’t need sleep, and memory processing won’t be chemical. So they might not have that mechanism for make-believe.

Our brains have to attach meaning to everything we experience, and we usually do that with a story. However, our stories are seldom true. Our mental mechanism for storytelling is sometimes called a narrative fallacy because humans aren’t too anal about accuracy. (Example, the stories conservatives choose to believe about their new tax law.)

I believe we constantly fool ourselves because of the biology of survival. Romance and religion serve a purpose even when they are intellectually untrue. We lie to ourselves and others for a variety of survival functions, and I can’t help believe all those processes go into allowing fiction to work on us.

Robots won’t need any of that. I wonder if fiction and lying will fail on them. I can imagine an AI mind seeing us as rather delusional creatures. They certainly won’t trust us. Even our languages are full of confusing allusions when analyzed for realism. For example, if a robot hears a human saying, “I’ll be going to heaven soon” they’ll probably be smart enough to know it means “I’m going to die” but will they ever understand the will for eternal life seeded by ancient memes? In Battlestar Galactica, they had a race of robots that were monotheistic. I thought that a fun idea, but now I’m wondering if its a fiction only humans could enjoy.

I believe robots will understand our languages. It won’t take much to give them a universal language translator feature. But I’m not sure they will need language to converse with their fellow robots. AI minds will be able to record inputs from all their senses so when they need to communicate with another robot all they have to do is transmit that input. The other robot will have a perfect duplicate of the experience being conveyed.

So, in the future, will robots sit around and read books? If they read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov will they enjoy spending hours imagining a galactic empire? I doubt it. A long string of words will probably feel like sensory deprivation to them. Even elaborate movies might feel crude compared to their hyper-view of reality.

We have 4k television cameras on our phones. What if robots had 4m or 4g eyes? We see a tiny slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. They could create to see and hear whole swaths of the spectrum. I suppose they could create equally detailed virtual worlds but would it be fiction? When we read a short story we trick our minds with a small number of suggested clues to create a fictional world in our minds. Most books today are heavy on dialog. Movies are far richer, but the actual story details in filmed fiction are still rather primitive. To robots, War and Peace would be a simple-minded Clif Notes – book or miniseries. (They could hold a whole library of Russian history in their AI mind.)

I tend to think we crave make-believe because of our limitations. We love romance or adventure stories because our lives lack romance and adventure. But I’m not sure robots will crave that. However, they might. They might even envy us. Robots will probably be 100% literal about reality. And even though the universe is extremely far out, robots will comprehend it in totality rather quickly. I don’t think they will be bored, but I don’t think they will see a lot to be done either. We can switch off reality and play in fiction. Robots might seek a similar creative outlet. Maybe it will be a super form of AI fiction we can’t even comprehend.

[Note to self: write a science fiction story about science fiction stories robots would write and read.]

JWH

 

 

Penny Dreadful: A Supernatural Mashup

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 3, 2017

I’ve begun watching Penny Dreadful (3 seasons, 2014-16) on Netflix. The show is a delicious mashup of classic horror tales Dracula (1897), Frankenstein (1818), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Eventually, the series will incorporate The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). A penny dreadful refers to a cheap form of fiction published in mid-Victorian England. John Logan, the series creator, and executive producer explain the literary origins of his story:

I’ve never been a fan of horror, and growing up I always thought films with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and other supernatural monsters were cheesy. Then a few years ago I read the original Bram Stoker novel, and after that Mary Shelley’s book, admiring both greatly. Especially Dracula. I was surprised how good the stories were after all those decades of silly movies. John Logan claims he wants to return to those literary sources for his inspiration for Penny Dreadful. The two episodes I’ve watched so far feels like he’s succeeded. He’s no Bram Stoker or even Mary Shelley, but I’m enjoying the heck out of his show. I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but watching PD is inspiring me to correct that mistake.

penny-dreadful_1

What I really love about Penny Dreadful is how well it steals from the 19th-century novels. Why do we love literary mashups so much? Penny Dreadful has had many precursors, including:

The older I get, the more I’m seduced by fiction set in 19th century England. Countless writers have revisited this past either to write original historical novels, sequels to famous stories and more commonly, to mashup several old stories from the past by putting famous characters into one new adventure. The measure of all these stories is how well they copy the styles of the period, both fiction and history, and the new conclusions they draw.

I wonder if anyone has done a mashup of literary novels from that time period? All these stories have to fudge their timeline overlaps, but isn’t  Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens, The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope, The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins close enough in time to blend them together in some way? Of course, the setting for these stories is a couple generations earlier than Penny Dreadful. We might need to use Henry James to blend in peaceful drawing-room society into Penny Dreadful’s to brighten its darkness.

Penny Dreadful has all the cliché details from late Victorian England that fans love. Personally, I wish it had less blood and gore, but that’s probably a requirement of the genre. The reason I admired the hell out of Stoker was his subtle approach to psychologically scaring his audience. He finessed the fear rather than beating us over our heads with body parts. Of course, his story was about Christianity. His character would prefer having their heads cut off than succumbing to Dracula’s seductions. I once wrote an essay, “The Secularization of the Undead” where I wondered why vampires have become sexually accepted partners.

If I had the time and energy, I’d like to deconstruct the characters in Penny Dreadful and map them to their closest literary/real life inspiration. For example, Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton reminds me of Sir Richard Burton, an actual 19th African explorer, and Allan Quatermain, H. Rider Haggard’s famous character. He also has a few traits that overlap with Arthur Holmwood in Dracula.

I have to wonder about recycling famous characters. Isn’t this just a cheap way to acquire an audience? Could someone write a historical novel set in 1891 London and create a story just as successful without using any famous characters or monsters from the 19th century?

JWH