Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Normally I don’t write “reviews” of works I dislike. Why waste time on bad art, huh? I prefer to promote creative work I admire. However, in trying to understand why I disliked Blade Runner 2049 I asked myself, “What did I love about the original?” It came to me instantly – the voiceover. In that moment I realized Harrison’s Ford narration in the original film was the heart of the story. That insight also explained why Ridley Scott detested the voiceover. The narration must come from a human, and Scott wanted Deckard to be a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049-2

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner (final cut) with a friend. I explained the history of all the versions to her and offered to show her whichever one she wanted. She picked the final cut. Normally, I always rewatch the theatrical version, which is how I first saw the film back in 1982. Whenever I see one of the director’s cuts the viewing is always a letdown. They have the same sterile quality Blade Runner 2049 has.

Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the story by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. However, it feels like a Ridley Scott baby. Scott has always argued that Rick Deckard was a replicant and Blade Runner 2049 vindicates that idea to the point that I think of this film as an expression of his ideas.

Back in 2008, I wrote “Is It Time To Remake Blade Runner?” which was really a plea to film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the story was written by Philip K. Dick. I believe the book deserves a truer conversion to film than Blade Runner. I can’t document this, but I believe Ridley Scott bragged that he hadn’t even read the novel when making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, but I don’t consider it very PKD.

When the screenwriters changed androids to replicants something else got changed. In the book, androids are soulless creatures who look like humans but completely lack empathy. They are self-aware but are also psychopathic sociopaths. I believe PKD intended them to be symbolic of inhuman humans. Blade Runner is about artificial creatures that were meant to be soulless slaves that have accidentally evolved empathy. We’re supposed to feel for them. And I did with the Harrison Ford voiceover.

Without the voiceover, both films are just action flicks of heartless machines killing heartless machines. Why has Riddley Scott never understood the Romeo and Juliet beauty of having a love story between lovers from two opposing houses? In Blade Runner 2049 we are taken on a meaningless thrill ride where it’s impossible to tell human from replicant – and I really didn’t give a shit either. There are a few touching scenes in Blade Runner 2049, but they are so artificial as to cause existential angst. At times we feel for K, our replicant protagonist, but the scenes are so obviously manipulating us that it’s hard to genuinely care.

In Blade Runner 2049 it becomes obvious the real problem is our lack of understanding of replicants. They are called skin jobs. That implies they are machines covered in skin. But that’s not true. In both movies, they bleed. In Blade Runner 2049 they seem to be artificially produced biological creatures that can’t reproduce on their own, and the goal of the mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is to create a Nexus model that is self-replicating. But what’s the fucking point of that? Humans are self-replicating, and we have plenty of them.

Wallace wants a new process to produce less costly slaves. The government obviously backs him as long as replicants don’t act like real humans. However, we also learn replicants have secretly organized into a slave rebellion. But why secret? What good is a secret mass-movement? Isn’t it obvious that replicants aren’t soulless machines?  Do any moviegoers feel the replicants aren’t equal to people? That makes the whole point of the film a straw man argument. Truly pointless. It’s funny, but Jared Leto’s character is the most inhuman character in the film and he’s supposed to be human. Or will Ridley Scott pull another juvenile joke and claim everyone in this film was a replicant.

Our world is full of robotic slaves now. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t look human. They lack any kind of consciousness. A major theme of science fiction has always been about when robots become conscious. Generally, these science fictional robots are shown as looking human. I guess SF writers assume we can’t empathize with them if they don’t look like us. By the way, the film Her did a fantastic job of overcoming this problem.

We’ve always wanted to build robots that look like us, and that’s a problem. We want them to do our work, but we worry about robots becoming self-aware as us. If they do, we can’t keep them as slaves, and we fear they may become better than us. The TV show Humans is exploring this same topic. The trouble is Blade Runner 2049 adds absolutely nothing to this topic. The film only confuses the issues in its razzle-dazzle. It lacks both a heart and a brain. Almost every character is violent and action-oriented.

Blade Runner 2049

PKD’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t about action. His androids are conscious, self-aware beings that lack empathy. Rachel is alluring and beautiful, but a cold-blooded killer. Dick’s theme wasn’t robot suffrage. PKD believed the androids in his story deserved to be destroyed because without empathy they are evil, and in doing so infers that humans without empathy are evil too. PKD’s story wasn’t about killing androids but identifying inhuman humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is vastly more complicated than Blade Runner. If I could film it I would give it the look of 1959 films, because I believe PKD formative decades were the 1940s and 1950s. Its future setting would be very retro-future. It would have the Penfield mood organs and Mercerism. And the story would focus on philosophy and psychology rather than fights and shooting. The film must keep Iran, Deckard’s wife. And it needs the fake police station, having Deckard doubt himself, and eventually proving he’s human. And it needs the artificial religion of Mercerism.

Blade Runner leaves so many fascinating concepts out from the original novel. First off, Rick Deckard isn’t a tough-guy like Harrison Ford, but a married man trying to save his marriage. Their livelihood depended on the bounty from killing androids. The novel opens with their marital squabbling, and the use of mood organs. Mood organs are personal devices for controlling psychological states. People in this future use them to subtly control how they interact with other people, cope at home and work, and explore hundreds of emotional states. PKD uses this imaginary device to dissect human nature. The book is stuffed with observations about what it means to be human. Blade Runner uses none of that. PKD was obsessed with psychiatry, psychology and philosophy and his stories constantly explore those subjects. The Blade Runner movies only faintly hint at the issues PKD brought up in endless ways.

Blade Runner 2049 does not define humans or replicants. We can’t tell them apart. In fact, the evil scientist who creates the replicants acts like a heartless AI, and K, the Ryan Gossling character, who we know is a replicant, when left alone is humanly hung up on an AI girlfriend (who may be a future descendant of Alexa).

Blade Runner 2049 fails horribly if you need a human story. For moviegoers who love eye candy, violence, and a rollercoaster plot, you’ll probably be happy enough.

What’s evil is trying to make millions by making a movie that lacks heart, based on a novel that struggles to define our hearts. Seems kind of heartless, don’t you think?

Blade Runner 2049 is chock full of touchstone analogs from the original Blade Runner. That felt manipulative like Ridley Scott wanted to push our emotional buttons as if we were replicants. Did he expect us to emotionally resonate with air hoses being pulled out, yucky eyeballs, pianos, giant billboards animated with Japanese women, microscopic photo scanning machines, bicyclists riding in parallel formation, machines that measure artificial minds, old abandoned apartment buildings, drinking whiskey from squarish glasses, women dressed like 1970s hookers, giant pyramid-shaped buildings, flying cars, sentimental photographs, umbrellas and rain, and so on.

Everything in Blade Runner 2049 seems set-up for additional sequels, but like his Alien franchise, they will probably continue to abuse the original. I’ve gotten so I hate sequels to books and films. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, sequels feel like they are conning me for my money.

JWH

 

To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents

Faith

Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life

JWH

Is it Science Fiction Yet?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 29, 2017

I’ve been a science fiction fan my whole life. For sixty years I’ve waited for various science fictional concepts to come true. One of my favorites is intelligent robots. Around the time I discovered science fiction watching old movies on my family’s black and white TV scientists were inventing the concept of artificial intelligence. Back then, the 1950s, they had great hopes and made bold predictions. Over the years some of their predictions have come true, but not the technological singularity when machines become smarter than us. They could still become self-aware, but what if they don’t have to, what if they become much smarter than us even without sentience?

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah HarariYesterday I was reading about David Cope and his computer program Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI) in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari described a challenge to Cope from Steve Larson, a professor of music. He proposed playing before an audience a real Johan Sebastian Bach piece, a piece composed by EMI imitating Bach, and a piece composed by himself. After the performance, they’d ask the audience to identify the composer of each. The audience thought the EMI piece was Bach, the Bach piece by Larson, and the Larson’s piece by EMI. You can read Harari’s “The Mozart in the Machine” for more of what he has to say, but I think it’s far more illustrative to listen to EMI.

This is rather beautiful – but is it art or creative? EMI is just a computer program that analyzes music styles and then imitates those styles. On one hand, it says our creative works have set patterns. Was Bach aware of those patterns, or was his composition a work of his unconscious? Obviously, EMI is an unconscious machine that composes.

In the 1950s when AI was new, scientists claimed if a computer could play chess it must have the special qualities of being human because playing chess is such a complex human activity. When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997 humans decided that chess playing wasn’t that special.

Here is a piece by EMI in the style of Vivaldi. Doesn’t it feel like EMI has captured something special?

I imagine, but I am not sure, that brilliant human composers could imitate other composers in the same way. Harari’s point is EMI composes music that moves human listeners emotionally. That somehow the computer program can capture the sublime. Of course, we like to assume our sublime experiences are the most complex and deepest of our lives. Isn’t EMI, maybe with the aid of deep learning, just figuring out how to push our buttons? How simple was it?

Homo Deus is an impressive book, but also disturbing. On one hand, it could be a handbook for a masterclass in science fiction writing. On the other hand, some could feel it’s like Biblical prophecy predicting the end of humanism. We live in a time after the Enlightenment where a large part of the world still accepts Old Testament thinking. So when Harari says liberal philosophy and humanism will be supplanted by techno-humanism it’s hard to believe. Won’t the world be 70% Old Testament thinkers, 20% humanists, and 10% techno-humanists?

What happens when we have true AI? What will the world be like with 90% unconscious machines, and 10% conscious? As Harari points out, humanism is based on the idea that all people are equal and they all deserve equal rights. But will biologically/genetically enhanced people feel that way? Will Human 1.0 accept Human 2.0? Will both of them accept AI 1.0? What will AI 1.0 think of Humans 1.0 and 2.0?

Corporations are backing robots over people. Capital is shifting to very few humans, and they want to eliminate all labor. Futurists talk of guaranteed minimum incomes, but capital doesn’t even want to pay for universal healthcare, so why would it support tax money going to completely support humans who can’t find work in a cyber economy?

Although I loved reading science fiction all my life, I’m not sure I’ll like actually living it. I thought my science fictional future would involve me traveling to Mars. Or owning a robot that did housework. But it looks like robots will colonize space, and take over all our jobs on Earth.

What are we suppose to do? Go to live in a virtual reality? Meditate and find our inner selves? Become artists? As Harari points out with EMI, robots will outdo us as artists too.

It will be fascinating to read science fiction stories read by writers studying Harari. If you belong to a species third down from the top how do you redefine existentialism or religion?

JWH

More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 20, 2017

Origami-NOVA-3

For the first two-thirds of my life sense of wonder mostly came from science fiction, but in the last third science is supplying more wonder. I have theories as to why. First, aging is making me more fascinated with reality. Second, I’ve lived long enough to feel the real world is science fictional. For example, my science fiction book club is reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, a 1962 novel about the discovery of cute creatures on a distant planet that might be sapient. As a kid in the 1960s, that was an exciting idea. But in 2017 we know animals are far more intelligent than we thought and in ways far more exciting than an old science fiction novel. Learning how and why has a great sense of wonder.

The dimensions of sapient behavior have become far more fantastic than fiction, including old stories about robots. For example, The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1957, and first read by me in 1964. Heinlein’s character Dan Davis built household robots – which dazzled me back then. But today I could build my own robot with a Raspberry Pi kit, producing a completely different kind of sense of wonder. I could also download open source machine learning toolkits. This era of Makers and DIY produces a different kind of wonder. Science fiction is great, but I believe I would now give a kid a subscription to Make Magazine before telling her to read science fiction.

More and more when I watch a great documentary I want to know the details about how things are actually done. I don’t want to just be an observer. Last night I watched a wonderful episode of NOVA on PBS that has more sense of wonder than any science fiction novel I can remember reading in a very long time.

It was about origami.

Origami?

Yes, origami. You know, paper cranes…

It was titled “The Origami Revolution” – about how the art of folding paper has inspired scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The producers completely blew me away. Origami is a fascinating craft, even an art form, but not one I ever paid much attention to. The program began by reporting the latest developments in the art, which go way beyond making simple paper cranes. Using a single sheet of paper, it’s possible to make very elaborate 3D shapes by just folding paper (and without cutting).

Origami-NOVA-2

Cranes are simple, requiring about thirty folds. Modern advanced origami art like above requires hundreds of folds involving very complex geometry. This is where the excitement started for me – because they brought in mathematics. The program introduced Erik Demaine, showing him working on a 60-page mathematical algorithm with Tomohiro Tachi for computerized origami folding. Can you imagine the mathematics of creating the above work of origami? I can’t, but I wish I could. Tachi has developed a software program Origamizer that the two of them hope will eventually be able to create any 3D figure from a 2D piece of paper. Their theorem should prove it’s possible.

Origami-NOVA-5

“The Origami Revolution” then goes on to survey wide-ranging work in biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy that have been influenced by what we’re learning from folding. This has been happening for decades, so I feel a little left behind. The program generated a tremendous sense of wonder in me, probably because this new research offers so much far-out potential, including building robots and spacecraft, and even claiming that dark matter theoretically reveals folded shapes in the structure of the universe.

Here’s a 2008 TED Talks by Robert Lang which give more details than the episode of NOVA, including some examples that are more impressive than shown in the TV show. Follow the link in his name to his website for even more information.

Understanding how modeling 3D structures from a 2D source teaches us about nature, because once the mathematics of folding were revealed scientists began seeing folding in nature, including plants, insects, and even the cosmos. From there it goes into applied engineered structures.

(This isn’t folding per se, but I think it’s related. See SmartFlower Solar.)

If you watch “The Origami Revolution” count all the far out bits of technology. You’ll realize that many of them were never discussed in science fiction. When I was young, I thought science fiction explored ahead of science, but after all these decades I’ve learned something different. Science fiction trails science. This show could inspire countless science fiction stories. Even while watching the TV show I imagined other folks seeing it and thinking up science fiction stories as they watched. They will magnify the demonstrated concepts, extrapolate, speculate, imagine, and come up with possible future scenarios to dramatize. I’m sure they will create far-out tales.

But I think getting older is making me both more patient and less patient. I’m becoming impatient with fiction. It’s easier to skim over the drama, and just zero in on the current science. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to fool around with tech toys. I spend less time reading about imaginary futures, and more time trying to figure the details of now.

You can also watch the full episode of “The Origami Revolution” on YouTube.

JWH

Should Manufacturing Robots Be Banned?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 19, 2016

alberteinsteinBecause my friends have been depressed since November 8th, I’ve been wondering what it would take to make both liberals and conservatives happy – and solve all our environmental problems. Once again, the election has shown, “It’s the economy stupid.” Without widespread economic security, the population will be unstably polarized. As long as such unrest exists, no other major problem can be solved. To solve the problems of sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, inequality, mass extinctions, pollution, will first require solving the problem with the economy.

Is that possible? Can we create an economy where most people find security? Corporations are at war with workers, either by moving jobs overseas, or by buying robots. Donald Trump promised he’d stop corporations from moving jobs. Would that help? No, the problem requires a global solution. Would banning robots help? Maybe. If capital was willing to accept higher production costs, employing more people, it should. However, robotics creates jobs too. And we have to decide if billions of people working like machines is a good thing. People want is a job they love. People want to feel creative, productive, worthwhile, and independent. Does a Foxconn assembly job provides that? Could we create enough jobs without banning robots? I doubt it.

If robots were regulated, and cars for example, had to be made by human hands, could they be made at affordable prices? Let’s bring in the environment now. What if we designed a sustainable transportation system, one that’s a blend of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Such a system needs to create jobs and protect the environment. Would building things like cars only by human hands create enough jobs, and still be profitable for corporations?

If we don’t outlaw robots, what would be the next solution? It’s obvious that free-market capitalism fails many workers and the environment. Capital ranks wealth over labor. The next solution would be a minimum income for people without jobs. This would be a tax on capital, something it also hates. Since capital hates both labor and taxes, it might need to decide which it hates more.

Conservatives claim if they had free reign their economic solutions would create more jobs. That claim is probably false. If their economic theories were true, they still want to ignore the environment. Ignoring the environment ultimately means economic self-destruction, so it can’t be a solution. Remember, any real solution must be economically and environmentally sustainable.

Capital’s current path is towards fewer workers and greater inequality. Since we originally stated that the base problem is economic security for workers, that brings us back to where we started. Liberals believe a growing economy/population can be designed to protect the environment. Conservatives believe a healthy economy can be built by ignoring the environment and population growth. Neither are realistic.

I’m not sure a solution is possible, which is more depressing than the Republicans winning all the branches of the government.

JWH

Should We Give Our Jobs to Robots?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If you use the self-service checkout machines at grocery stores, you have effectively voted to give jobs to robots rather than people. We’ve been slowly passing our livelihoods to machines for decades. Guys used to pump our gas. Computers used to be women working at desks doing calculations. We poke ATM machines rather than chat with bank tellers. Taxes were prepared by accountants and bookkeepers, not programs. We bought music and books from clerks in stores. We used to have repairmen heal our gadgets, now we toss them as soon as they break, and just buy cheaper replacements. We purchase the mass produced rather than the hand-crafted. Our factories used to employ millions, but capital moves manufacturing anywhere in the world where labor is cheapest. Their next step is to automate those factories and get rid of the cheapest workers. Even the fast food worker, the starter job for kids and the fallback for the unemployed, are about to be taken over by robots. Robots have begun to do the work of professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and they are getting smarter every day.

Most of us ignore all these trends because we focus on our personal lives. It would be wise if you are planning your career, or living off retirement savings, to read Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Automation is a disruptive technology that will impact jobs and savings. The book careful details what’s been happening in the past, and warns of what will happen in the near future.

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

Every day we decide to hire robots through our purchases. Every day we choose robots over people when we buy the cheapest products. Every day we side with capital over workers when we attack unions. Real wages have been dropping since the 1970s. Average household income has only keep par with falling middle-class earnings by having two incomes. Many individuals work two jobs to keep up. The biggest employment sector is the service economy, which generally pays close to the minimum wage. There are two movements to watch. One, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which benefits labor. The other, is to create robots to do those jobs, that benefits capital. Who will get those jobs in the future: humans or robots? If capital gets its way, it will be machines because you want the cheapest hamburger and fries you can get.

Even though most people in the U.S. are labor, the vast majority sides with capital. For centuries there’s been two forces at play where humans make their living: labor and capital. To understand this read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very readable history. Anyone who wants to understand money and savings should read this book. There’s always been a balance between workers and investors. Investors can’t create industries without labor, so labor had a leverage in getting a fair share of the wealth. That leverage has weakened since automation. Capital is about to eliminate most labor costs by buying robots. And we’re letting them. Almost all wealth comes from consumers, and that’s a kind of voting block.

We accept automation and robots buy buying goods and services made by machines. We do this because we want everything on the cheap. To understand where our natural drive for cheapness is leading us, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. We’ve been voting to eliminate people from their jobs since the development of the self-service grocery store.

Like climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, wealth inequality and all the other major problems we face, we are the cause, and have chosen our path even though we refuse to look where we’re going. We are giving our jobs to C-3PO. It’s a decision we’re making, although most people don’t know it.

To better understand what I’m saying, read these three books. All are easy to read, and entertaining in their presentation of history and facts. We need to stop wasting so much time in escapist entertainment and look around to what’s coming. I’m a lifelong science fiction, and was a computer programmer. I love robots and artificial intelligence. I want us to invent far-out robots that do things humans can’t do, but I don’t want robots taking jobs that humans can do, and need to do.

Civilization is breaking down in countries around the world where young people have no jobs and few prospects. It’s the cause of terrorism. A stable society needs to have most people working, even at jobs a machine could do.

Essay #988 –  Table of Contents

Our Fantasy For Interstellar Travel is Dying

For over 50 years I’ve been reading science fiction hoping humanity will someday travel to the stars and settle other planets. Obvious other people do too, just witness the frenzy behind the new Star Wars movie, which opens on the 18th. Galactic empire stories are the new locale for big sword and sorcery epics. (Isn’t it bizarre that both are enamored with aristocracy?) What deep rooted drive makes us want to colonize distant lands? Why are we enchanted by alien landscapes, strange superior beings and their surreal cultures?

Of course, the film Avatar probably reveals our true intentions. We’d do to other worlds, what we’ve done to ours.

A Heritage of Stars - Clifford Simakavatar

I just finished A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak, which questioned our desire for interstellar travel. It was published back in 1977. A Heritage of Stars is a quaint little book, not particularly good, unless you relish 1950s style science fiction, where Simak, in his seventies, questions many of the tropes of our genre. This same questioning was evident in Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel. Both Simak and Robinson wonder at the wisdom of traveling to the stars. The distances are beyond fantastic, almost beyond comprehension. Characters in Star Wars zoom between planetary systems quicker than we travel between cities on Earth in our jet airliners. The absurdity of that strains the boundaries of absurdity. It’s only slightly less delusional than thinking we can travel to other worlds by dying.

Aurora KSMCity - Clifford Simak

Simak covers many of the most famous themes of science fiction in A Heritage of Stars. The setting is in the far future Earth, a thousand years after the collapse of a great technological civilization that went to the stars, and built intelligent robots. In some ways, it’s a variation of Simak’s classic City. America is now a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving tribes who collect the heads of robots for ceremonial voodoo. They are primitive people who can’t conceive of space travel or intelligent machines. The story is about a young man named Cushing who takes shelter in a closed-wall town, built around a former university. Cushing learns to read, discovering that humans used to be great. Cushing eventually finds mysterious references to “Place of Going to the Stars” and sets out on a quest to find it. Much like a L. Frank Baum Oz book, Cushing gathers along the way a motley assortment of strange characters to take up his quest too. A witch, a surviving robot, a horse, a man who talks to trees and a autistic like girl who can commune with the transcendental.

Along the way, Simak’s characters discover what happened to mankind, and allows Simak to philosophize about why we wanted to go to the stars. Simak also wonders if mankind is smart enough to survive his addiction to technology. Even forty year ago Simak realized that interstellar travel isn’t very practical, questioning his science fictional roots. Had Simak given up on the Final Frontier dream because he was getting old? He was in his mid-seventies at the time. I’m in a my mid-sixties and I too have given up on colonizing distant worlds. Does getting older make us realize our childhood fantasies have no foundation in reality?

Earth Abides - George R. StewartThe World Without Us - Alan Weisman

Science fiction is mostly high tech fantasy that reveals the same impulses humans have always shown. This world and life doesn’t seem to be enough for us. We want more. But the reality appears that this life and planet is all we’ll ever have. Like many other science fiction stories Simak wonders if the future of humanity will be one where we give up technology and live nomadic lives much like how Homo sapiens lived its first two hundred thousand years of existence. I can’t help but believe Simak was greatly influenced by Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. And I believe Simak would have been blown away by Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a philosophical thought experiment that wonders what Earth would be like if humans just disappeared.

Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why science fictions two strongest themes are space travel and the post-apocalypse? Why are galactic empires always suffering collapse and revolutions? Isn’t it rather telling that our favorite fantasies feature feudal governments and primitive weapons? The heroes of Star Wars fight with swords made of light. Is the reason why conservatives want smaller governments is because they don’t have the genes to imagine large ones?

Childhoods End - Arthur C ClarkeMore Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon

Strangely, Simak reveals a problem that NASA wouldn’t discover until years later. Mainly, we can collect the data, even store the data, but we won’t always be able to access the data. One of the conundrums that Cushing and his crew face is humans went to the stars but what they discovered is locked up in technology that their post-apocalyptic world can’t access. I felt let down by Simak’s solution. Let’s just say that Simak’s hope for humanities failures is to discover supernatural powers. That was a common theme in 1950s science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and its 1960s retelling, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon was never much of a technological science fiction writer, and went right for the ESP solution in More Than Human. Even the hard science Heinlein had hopes humans would discover magical powers. I guess they all grew up reading Oz books.

I feel let down by Simak, although I enjoyed A Heritage of Stars well enough. I believe he ends his story with false hope. Simak believes humanity can keep trying until it gets it right. Yet, he doesn’t attempt to describe what is getting it right might be. Not long ago I read a passage about Neanderthals that shook me up. It stated for the entire length of its long species’ lifetime, Neanderthals never showed any progress after achieving a certain level of development with their stone tools. For hundreds of thousands of years they made the same tools. We Homo sapiens feel superior because we’re quite dazzling with our technological innovation. However, I’m not sure we’re not like the Neanderthals in that we’ve continued to follow the same emotional and psychological patterns that we have for the last two hundred thousand years. We can’t get away from our Old Testament mindset, and without technology, we’d all live pretty much like North American tribal people before the advent of Western invaders, or the people who lived on the Russian Steppes and spoke the language that inspired all the Indo-European languages.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a much more sophisticated lesson about why we won’t be colonizing planets orbiting distant suns in his book Aurora. We are adapted to our biosphere. It’s extremely complex and interrelated. It’s extremely doubtful. even if we could travel the distance to another stellar system, we could integrate into another biosphere. Humans were made for this planet and biological landscape. We could probably export our biosphere to other barren planets if the conditions were right, but even that is doubtful.

Simak doesn’t give much focus to the intelligent machines of his story, but I’m guessing artificial intelligence has more potential validity than any other theme that science fiction explores. Simak points out that robots are the true species for interstellar travel. If Star Wars was realistic, galactic empires would be governed and populated by C3POs and R2D2s. Biological creatures would always stay on the planet of their origins, comfortably bound to their biospheres.

Simak wrote A Heritage of Stars near the end of his life, probably speculating about what will happen to humanity after his death, and revealing a certain level of age related pessimism about the future. I don’t know if he was aware of environmental catastrophes—he seemed to fear our mishandling of technology. Forty years later, our race doesn’t seem any wiser, but it does seem more suicidal.

More and more, I’m becoming an atheist to the religion I grew up with, science fiction. It’s not that I’m going to stop reading science fiction, but I no longer believe it. I study science fiction like many former believers still study The Bible. Both The Bible and science fiction reveal our deepest inner hopes. For some reason humans want to go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri. We need to understand why, and also need to understand why we’re turning our own biosphere into Hell.

Essay #984 – Table of Contents