The Human Equation

[Repost from May 7, 2004]

Just for fun I’ve started reading Asimov’s robot novels again, after letting them sit on a shelf untouched for a few years. I’ve started with Caves of Steel, and am nearly done with it now. If I remember right, chronologically speaking The Naked Sun is next, then The Robots of Dawn, and then Robots and Empire.

I’ve noticed some things this time through Caves of Steel that I never noticed before. For one thing, given that this series takes place a thousand years from now, there is Asimov’s frequent use of the interesting temporal device of putting everything that we today consider Modern into the category of Medieval. A lot could be said about this device, but I’ll just say that this time through, having studied a great deal of material about what we call Medieval and Modern times since the last time I read these books, Asimov’s device helps highlight a number of critical and very long-running (for the West, anyway) questions about the nature, meaning, and goals of “society”. In a world of eight billion people (I guess that was considered a lot when this book was written in 1954; today it doesn’t seem so much) crowded into capital-c Cities (“New York” covers most of the Eastern seaboard of the United States), Asimov’s “Medievalists” are little more than quaint idealists longing for a mythical past a thousand years prior when men supposedly lived much simpler lives and were more in tune with Nature.

This Medievalist program is hampered, interestingly, by its prejudicial acceptance of the Modern (storial time) notion that the Earthman must be entirely self-reliant and withdrawn from the rest of the universe–particularly the Spacers (descendants of the first waves of colonization a thousand years prior) and their odious, omnipresent robots. So strong is the antipathy for robots and the Spacers that Caves of Steel is, in fact, premised on the murder of a Spacer scientist who is involved in a clandestine Spacer attempt to get Earthmen out of their steel caves, the Cities, and back out to the stars, so that the influx of their dynamic energy and creativity prompted by their very short (by Spacer standards) lives will hopefully reinvigorate the culturally stagnant Spacer worlds. The Medievalists, considered to be fringe liberal kooks by the rest of society perceive themselves as the true conservatives, for all they want is to get back to the original program. And yet, interestingly, the “middle way” plan of the Spacers, which comes to be adopted by Asimov’s hero Elijah Baley, is considered sheer lunacy by both the Medievalists and the City folk. For all its brevity, Caves of Steel is a pretty thought-provoking look at society, imagined through a lens that is a thousand years older than our own.

But that’s another thing that has impressed me this time through: Asimov is quite clearly a dyed-in-the-wool Secularist, but Caves of Steel has a great deal of biblical imagery in its pages. Intriguingly, Elijah Baley (gradually converted prophet of the gospel message that Earth must get back into space) is married to a woman who goes by “Jessie” but whose full name is Jezebel (and she will eventually hold him back on Earth when the new wave of colonization begins, keeping the old ways and more or less “persecuting” the prophet, just like her biblical namesake). The Bible is often quoted throughout Caves of Steel, both directly and indirectly, though Jesus is presented, in the typical bland secularist manner, as just a great and enlightened ancient wise man who said some really neat things about the ideal human society. However, at one point while expounding the critical difference between humans and robots for the benefit of a thoroughly prejudiced Medievalist, Baley emotionally declaims:

We can’t ever build a robot that will be even as good as a human being in anything that counts, let alone better. We can’t create a robot with a sense of beauty or a sense of ethics or a sense of religion. There’s no way we can raise a positronic brain one inch above the level of perfect materialism.

We can’t, damn it, we can’t. Not as long as we don’t understand what makes our own brains tick. Not as long as things exist that science can’t measure. What is beauty, or goodness, or art, or love, or God? We’re forever teetering on the brink of the unknowable, and trying to understand what can’t be understood. It’s what makes us men. (pg. 221)

And yet, by the time Asimov himself gets to his Foundation novels, which he brilliantly managed to harmonize with the Robot novels, he will increasingly expound the secularist notion that ultimately Science will conquer all mysteries–the mystery of what makes men tick will ultimately be codified by the exquisite collectivist abstractions of the mathematics of “psychohistory”, predicted by the roboticist Han Fastolfe in Baley’s era, but only perfected some 20,000 years later by Hari Seldon. Men of Baley’s era believe the human equation is utterly unsolveable; men of Seldon’s era–or at least, of the era that comes after the thousand year Interregnum between the old and new Galactic Empires, which contains the brief, unpredictable eruption of the Mule–will dramatically prove this wrong. And in so doing, to apply my initial observation above from Caves of Steel, Baley’s era will become the “Medieval” era, or perhaps worse still, “the Dark Ages”.

For, to draw in materials from the remainder of the Robot and Foundation novels, including the most recent, post-Asimov contributions by Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin, it will turn out that man’s sense of religion is ultimately useless, after all. For the ultimate message of all of these novels is that the driving force of all of human history, the autonomy of man, will have manifested itself finally in the preservation of man’s life and culture by the self-effacing efforts of his own highest creation, the robots. It was from the robots that the innovation of the hyperdrive came, it was the robots who made the Spacer worlds possible, and, when the second wave from Earth began, the Settlers, it was the robots who, unbeknownst to the men, swept ahead of the Settler wave, eliminating all alien lifeforms and remains of their cultures for the sole purpose of the robot’s most fundamental First Law imperative to preserve mankind from all harm.

And at the very last, on the very cusp of the establishment of the Second Empire on the foundation of psychohistory, it will be revealed that the previous twenty millennia of human history has been guided from behind the scenes by a robot–the same utterly selfless R. Daneel Olivaw whom we first meet in Caves of Steel helping Elijah Baley solve something as mundane as a murder case. The eschaton will at last arrive and sovereign Reason will rule all things in a Utopia of pure, perfected Humanity. Ironically, given Baley’s remark that what makes us men is precisely our inability to sum ourselves up mechanistically, this very thing is the ultimate result of Asimov’s philosophy. The phraseology now so current in science fiction, “the human equation”, is the best description for this vision of life.

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