Believing Beyond

The closing line “I’ll come back to you—in the sunlight” is all I remembered from this little book.  Perhaps I hadn’t read it all the way through, but likely I did.  An unapologetic fan of science fiction as a kid, I must’ve picked up Beyond Belief at a fairly young age.  Although it’s a Scholastic book, it is appropriate for older readers as well.  I picked it up again because I start to get anxious when I can’t post about a book for a while.  My current reading projects are either very long or somewhat technical, meaning they take time to finish.  I’m running out of my ready stock of shorter books (mostly collections of stories from the time before book prices were hiked up and publishers felt the need to make them thicker so consumers wouldn’t feel so cheated.

I had put off reading this collection edited by Richard J. Hurley because of that one story I remembered.  As a kid I recognized the name of Isaac Asimov, but probably not that of Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Willey, or Richard Matheson.  These stories were masterpieces of sci-fi in its golden era.  Although they seem antiquated—perhaps even quaint—now, they are the kinds of stories that inspired young pioneers of space travel and may have contributed in some measure to this strange world in which we live.”Phoenix” by Clark Ashton Smith, has stayed with me for decades.  This tiny tome is old enough that I’m not going to worry about spoilers.  I’m only grasping for an emotional thread with childhood.

The sun has gone out.  Two young lovers talk on the eve of the earth mission to reignite the sun by a series of thermonuclear reactions.  The male, of course, is on the mission, but he assures his love that he will return to her in the sunshine.  Something goes wrong, of course.  The ship crashes into the sun, reigniting it, but annihilating the ship and crew.  As the future lady looks out on the newly illuminated world, she knows her love cannot have survived, yet he has returned to her in the sunlight.  That powerful story of self-sacrifice and love left unfulfilled stung my young psyche.  So much so that reading the other seven stories in this book was like reading tales I’d never heard before.  Beyond Belief was a quick read interjected in much more  complicated literary endeavors.  Like childhood, it didn’t fail to bring a warm glow after far too many years.

Write Brothers

Work interferes with my concentration.  I suspect I’m not alone among writers in this regard.  Just last week I had two fiction pieces accepted for publication (one of which won honorable mention), but the little time I can allot to writing is divided between fiction and non.  Up until now the non has been more successful at finding publishers, but last week might’ve tipped the balance a bit.  As someone who works well more than eight hours daily, culling that time for creative enterprises can be difficult.  I’m told that Isaac Asimov, in the days before personal computers, kept three typewriters, each with one of his projects ready to go.  He would work on the one he felt like at any given time without having to reload a single typewriter with a half-finished piece.  My laptop has the dubious advantage of keeping multiple windows open in which several projects are simultaneously active.

At the moment I have three book projects going; two nonfiction and one that will become novel number seven, if it ever gets finished.  Not only that, but my short stories file has many contenders for my rationed time.  Long ago I lost track of just how many tales there are—some are on disc and others are on paper.  Some are finished, awaiting revision, and others have just begun clawing their way into written form.  The problem is finding the time to work on them.  The oft-heard lament of the working writer is that life is more working than writing.  And having had some minor affirmation of my fictional functionality recently, I’d love to explore that a bit more, but who has time right now?  Even as I finish typing up my blog post for the day the hour to begin work is looming.

Stephen King’s advice to wannabe writers is to read.  A lot.  Although I do my best to keep this dictate among my personal commandments, I run into the immobile object of nine-to-five-plus repeatedly.  If I take a vacation (which is seldom) it is often “to get away,” but writing is more a matter of aging in place.  Finding your comfortable spot where your thoughts flow freely and where the coffee pot’s just in the kitchen and if an idea catches you before sunrise you can spend time wrestling it even after light filters in through the curtains.  Those are rare days since weekends are for doing the chores neglected in your forty-five-plus hour work week.  And settling between fiction and non is never an easy decision, especially when one has just received a vote of confidence before login time on a Monday morning.  For now, however, I have to concentrate on work.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Double Blind

When I read Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a child, I assumed that I’d not live to worry about them in real life. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us. Time magazine frightens me sometimes. This week’s offerings include a small blurb about drones. When I was a kid, a drone was a bee—dangerous in its own right—or it was a verb used to describe an uninspired teacher or preacher’s monotoned wisdom. Now drones are robotic planes that can operate themselves without human input. Time reveals that technology has been developed that would allow drones to kill without human input. Asimov’s laws have become truly science fiction. Proponents argue that “collateral damage” might be minimized if we allow robots to kill with precision, and some have argued that the research should be prohibited. The fact that it has been developed, however, means the line in the sand has been crossed. If it has been done once, it will be done again.


Even as a daily user of technology, a deep ambivalence besets me. Maybe if it weren’t for the fact that every once in a while my computer (most often at work) freezes up and issues a command I can’t understand, I might feel a little more secure. Instead I issue a ticket for IT and when they call on me sometimes even a specialist can’t figure out what went wrong. Once the bullets are flying it’s a little too late to reboot. Maybe I’m just not yet ready to crawl into bed with a technology that might kill me, without feeling.

Just five pages earlier Time notes that 1 in 5 is the “Ratio of people who would have sex with a robot, according to a U.K. study.” All things are fair, it seems, in love and war. The part of the equation that we haven’t accounted for in our artificial intelligence is that thought requires emotion—which we don’t understand—as much as it requires reason, upon which we have only a toddler’s grasp. And yet we continue to build more and more powerful devices that might kill us with ease. Isaac Asimov was a prescient writer and a forward thinker. He was from the generation that aspired to ethics being in place before technology was implemented. At least as an ideal. We’ve reversed the order in our world, where ethics is continually playing catch-up to the new technologies we’ve invented. Now it’s time to decide whether to make love to it or to say our final prayers.

Soccer Moms and Robot Dads

Long past Halloween, the air is taking on its terminal, winter chill. High school football teams have moved off the fields (although the “pros” will keep at it until the Super Bowl in sunnier climes). What are sports parents with an excess of aggression and competitiveness to do? It is the time of year when some parents start thinking about the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition. It is a good sport for the hibernation season.

My daughter is on the FIRST Robotics teams in her high school. FIRST was invented by Dean Kamen (along with many physical inventions) as a way of stirring up interest in STEM careers. Interest in science and technology careers, inexplicably, is faltering in the US, while many of us who grew up enamored of science but without any natural ability sit by and scratch our heads. Careers in robotics are very hot—especially since machines can do things we mere biological units can’t. We are that squishy, organic chemistry with a mysterious plan that serve as gods to the mechanical beings we create. Woe to humanity when the robots become atheists! But that’s a point for another post. Sports—and FIRST clearly is a sport, as much as racecar driving or horse jockeying—take on a religious devotion among people of leisure that rivals the commitment oppressed peoples have to their more tradition forms of faith. The easiest means of seeing this is in the fans.

“Fan,” of course, is an apocopated form of “fanatic,” a word wielded with derision against those who take religious belief too seriously. In sports it is a venial sin, if not a downright virtue. Consider the continuing news stories still swirling around a non-necessary sports figure at Penn State. Even the name of the school evokes football rather than academic performance. The same thing applies to FIRST. FIRST robotics is a sport for the mind, and it has its share of analogues to the soccer mom, what I might call the robot dads. These are parents who are particularly driven to win. In a sport involving band saws, hydraulic lifts, and multiple motors, parents are actively involved in building robots suitable for competition. And the competition can be intense. It becomes a kind of robot religion. Dean Kamen, the Susan Calvin of FIRST, has tried to instill commandments of sportsmanship and gracious professionalism into the competitions. That is something the kids understand. As I attend the competitions, however, it is the religious parents that I worry about.

My worry includes the kind of gender disparity that characterizes the work place. Why should not the scientists and engineers include more women? The field strives to do so, but our society still discourages the participation of women in the men’s room of heavy equipment and intense mathematics. Isaac Asimov, frequently a writer with distance vision, made a woman the head robopsychologist of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. If Dr. Calvin were to look back from her fictional 21st century to the actual 21st century she would see women still struggling for equal voice in both science and religion.

Let's hear it for the boy

You, Robot

Although robots occupy many of my waking hours, I have been slow to consider the consequences. As the president of a high school FIRST Robotics team, I seek corporate donors who have the kind of money those of us in the humanities find difficulty believing even exists. Somewhere deep inside, however, lurks the fear of the entity with no sympathy. This has only been exacerbated by my experience of churchmen with the same condition. In any case, I’d been wanting to see the movie version of I, Robot for some time. Now that I stand at that three-day break between semesters, I thought I’d take a chance on it.

I knew the movie had received mixed reviews from critics, but several had stated the story had brains as well as action. It took me quite some time, however, to see the connection between the laws and Moses. The three laws of robotics, the only part of the movie besides the title to reference Isaac Asimov, dominate the plot. The law-giver, the posthumously present Moses (Dr. Alfred Lanning) has implanted a literal dream of freedom into the computerized soul of Sonny. Sonny’s dream of robot liberation is framed like Moses on the mountain. The laws in fragments at his feet. At what point does consciousness emerge? Since we haven’t adequately defined consciousness yet, we simply can’t say.

Near the climax of the movie, Sonny experiences an epiphany. Sometimes “the created must protect the creator, even against his will,” he realizes. Here the metaphor takes over the literal reading. Many religious people today feel that they must somehow protect their maker. This leads to great distentions of logic and even empathy for fellow humans as violence erupts in order to protect an idea that has become divine. Even the laws given by the creator may be violated to protect the idea of that creator. It is a world we find frighteningly familiar. Technology will continue to advance at a rate beyond the comprehension of a scholar still studying those ancient laws. This scholar, for one, hopes that our future creations lack the capacity for religious thought.

Aye, Aye, Robot

As students gave their final presentations, the very last group discussed the End of the World. This is a topic upon which the Hebrew Bible is generally silent, despite the rants of many who misunderstand the Zoroastrian influence upon the apocalyptic book of Daniel. No, the Hebrew Bible’s apocalyptic material looks forward to a change of ages, a radical new beginning, but not an end of the world. Well, maybe the end of the world as R.E.M. knows it, but not the cessation of everything. In an interesting twist, this group moved from the Hebrew Bible to scientific scenarios of the end of it all. What became obvious is that undergrads these days are faced with multiple doomsday scenarios, most of which are of human origin.

Last month I was inexplicably elected as the president of the adult chapter of my daughter’s high school robotics team. An unemployed religion professor hardly seems the logical choice for leading the way into a technological future. I even declined the nomination but was persuaded to give it a try. Robots have improved the quality of our lives to a degree that most people do not even recognize. So I listened in amazement as the students last night presented the doomsday scenario entitled “iRobot.” Clearly this is a Transformer-like blend of iMac/iPod/iPhone and Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi classic I, Robot. (Is it mere coincidence that his name can be written iAsimov?) Their description was terse and scary: nanobots and more boxy industrial models will commandeer the Internet and take over. We will be Matrix-like slaves. And I am the president of a robotic club booster association. I felt like Judas, with a MacBook.

Robots, we are told, lack empathy. Experience teaches me the same about Republicans. This weird hybrid of religio-politics is not unlike our hypothesized robotic nemeses. Religion has given us a rope to hang Judas that can double as whip against the backs of the underprivileged. Where are Asimov’s Laws of Robotics when you need them? “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Yes, the old ways are breaking down indeed. I think I’ll take my chances with the robots. At least when a robot is cutting off your life support systems it is not doing so in the name of Jesus.

Soulless Robots?

Robots have taken over my life. At least in the short term. As my friend Burke commented on Easter: “Alleluia! The robots have risen… up against us?!” Actually, the robots I encounter are benign and all follow Asimov’s rules. I have mentioned before the phenomenal First Robotics program, a venue to encourage high school students to consider careers in engineering. Team 102, Somerville High School’s robotics team, recently won a regional competition in Hartford, Connecticut. My role has mostly been to watch other people design and construct the robot while occasionally correcting the grammar on written documents. The joke my friend made, however, has at its roots a deep-seated human concern: how do people deal with soulless machines?

Stephen Asma, in his book On Monsters, has a chapter concerning the human fear of a robotic future. Electronic gadgets with uncompromising metal bodies and no consciousness that we recognize present a frightening combination. The question that concerns me more, however, is the concept of the soul itself. The Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul as it would later be adopted by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Bible a body is a soul; when the soul dies the body dies – people are a monistic unit, not a dualistic entity with a part that hangs around the spirosphere after the biological part rots away. Of course, in Christianity the soul has become an essential aspect of church doctrine and we fear other creatures that lack them. Souls have never been observed in a laboratory and we have yet to prove their existence.

Reading the news and seeing how biological, soul-fueled humans treat each other is a sobering task. Each day I lay the newspaper down with a new kind of dread. Perhaps souls are only mythical beings concocted to shore up a theology that can’t survive without them. Or maybe all living beings have souls. Perhaps even mechanical ones. As Team 102 heads to the national competition in Atlanta in the days ahead, I know that I’ll be rooting for a soulless machine that may be a bold step towards humanity’s continuing evolution.

Sorry for the blur, the robot just wouldn't stop shaking me!