by A.J. Ward
Analog is celebrating its 90th year of publication, an Astounding (sorry) achievement. Analog has invited me as a contributor to the 90th anniversary issue to write a blog post. For a moment I struggled to think of what to write. I wanted to talk about science in science fiction, but my story, “One Lost Spacesuit Way” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now] isn’t about a new discovery, or the application of a theoretical understanding into the practice. It’s not about the careful creation of an alien world, or finding a way around the Incessant Obsolescence Postulate. At its heart, the story is about a robot writing a letter explaining its wanderings. So instead of writing about the science in my science fiction story, I thought I’d write a blog post about the lack of science in my story, and why.
There are two major science fiction elements in my science fiction story without science. The first is robots, and their various laws. The protagonist is a robot, its behavior and decision making process guided by programming. The second is terraforming. As the robot wanders, the planet is transformed into being able to support terrestrial-based life. In my story I do not need to explain robots or terraforming. Both concepts have been known to science fiction fans and the general public for many decades. In fact, the twin concepts of robots governed by rules related to the protection of humans and of terraforming another planet to be like Earth have been consumed in books, magazines, and on the big and small screen for seventy-eight years. In doing my research for writing this blog post, I uncovered an astounding (again, I’m sorry) moment of synchronicity: both concepts first appeared and were named in the pages of two issues of Astounding Magazine (as Analog was then known) in 1942.
In this post I’ll give a brief overview of the history of the two concepts, and the influence that they have had on real life science. But first, about the power of names.
Just as orientating our maps to have north at the top influences how we perceive the world, the names “robot” and “terraforming” shape how we think about those ideas.
Consider this joke from Tiny Revolutions in Russia: Twentieth Century Soviet and Russian History in Anecdotes and Jokes by Bruce Adams. It comes from the time of Stalin, his purges, and the persistent surveillance of the NKVD:
A group of old friends gather. They all know each other’s jokes so well, they have numbered them.
An uninitiated newcomer joins the evening. He doesn’t want to feel left out so he tries, “#35!”
Everyone practically jumps out of their chairs. One points to the wall, another to the ceiling, a third to the telephone.
As the numbers are code for jokes, so are “robot” and “terraforming” code for concepts. Both of these ideas existed before they were codified in 1942 in the pages of Astounding Magazine. But once something has been given a name, you change how people perceive it. Just as orientating our maps to have north at the top influences how we perceive the world, the names “robot” and “terraforming” shape how we think about those ideas.
Ever present in our imaginations and in our homes, the robot has existed before we called it such. Humans have been making complex automata and attempts at self-operating machines for thousands of years. Perhaps the most famous, presented in 1769 to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, was the Mechanical Turk. Invented by mathematician Wolfgang von Kempelen, the automaton could play chess against opponents, and win. Eventually it was revealed to be a hoax: there was enough room inside the device for a chess grant master to sit and direct the hand of the automata. In 1920, Karel Čapek put pen to paper to write about Rostrum’s robots, giving the wider world “robot,” from the Czech word for “worker.” In his play, R.U.R, the robots are made from organic matter, not metal. The film Metropolis, released seven years later, gave us the visual of what a robot could look like.
Then there is Asimov—a frequent contributor to the magazine—and his three laws. His short story “Runaround,” published in Astounding Science Fiction in the March 1942 issue, details how a robot can behave and not cause harm to humanity:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
So we have had about eighty years of thinking about robots as obeying rules, as having programming. Once the concept of robots obeying laws was given a name, it became something people could understand. While it has been applied to fiction, real-life researchers have run with the concepts and developed their own list of rules or ethics that robots and artificial intelligences need to obey (as in the case of the robot ASIMO, made by Honda, named in homage to Asimov). We have seen what happens when that goes wrong, and when it goes right. More often than not, given the dramatic nature of storytelling, we see what happens when robots do not follow rules designed to protect humanity! Robots are symbols of peace, but often terror. They are used to reflect aspects of ourselves, to examine what it is to be human. In my story, the robot is not driven by the three laws of robotics, but programming built around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Incidentally, Maslow published his first work presenting the theory in 1943, so close to the (for the purposes of this blog post) magical year of 1942! My story’s protagonist is a spacesuit; its purpose is to ensure the safety of its occupant, and ensure that its needs are met. How does it do that? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.
Terraforming is in the background of my story, a useful marker to the reader to reveal how much time is passing as the robot writes its letter. The transformation of a landscape to suit the needs of its humans is unconscious and nearly automatic. As with the concept of robots, the idea existed before the concept. The mythologies of all religions start with the creation of something from nothing. The void is transformed into a liveable world. In War of the Worlds, the Martian invaders sought, in their own martial way, of transforming Earth into another Mars. Terraforming is well known, although perhaps not to the same extent as robots, to the general public through films like Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan and its genesis device. I live in Australia, a country that has in undergone over 200 years of terraforming, to varying levels of failure. Rabbits were introduced as food, foxes for sport, and cane toads for pest control. Unfortunately, industrialisation has resulted in unintended terraforming on a global scale. Terror-forming, perhaps.
“Terraforming” is a term that Analog can rightfully lay claim to. July 1942, Jack Williamson coined the term in his story, “Collision Orbit.” Sadly for Williamson, we now use the term “antimatter” rather than “contraterrene,” another term used in “Collision Orbit.” He’ll have to be content with terming just one science-fiction term. By coining the phrase, Williamson gave us the lens through which to perceive of terraforming as a concept. Eventually, the word would be included in the Oxford Dictionary.
Like Asimov’s three laws, the concept of terraforming has also inspired scientists. Sagan argued for the theory to be put in to practice several times, pointing at first Venus and then Mars as targets for transformation into copies of Earth. Speaking of the power of names, what does it say about humanity, that we look to transform love and war into dirt?
Although we can conceive of conquering love and war, we can no longer possibly terraform Jupiter, the sky father, into dirt. Nor can we change time (Saturn), the sky (Uranus), or the sea (Neptune). Although we have (with the exception of a couple of jurisdictions) banished the death—Pluto—from the rank of planets. Consider this: in 1930, when Pluto was first identified, the life expectancy in America was 59.6, in Australia 64.9. In poorer, less industrialised parts of the world, such as Angola, then under Portuguese dominion, life expectancy was 27. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union removed Pluto from its place in the rank of planets, and it became a mere dwarf planet. In 2006, the life expectancy in the America was 77.9, Australia 81.2, and Angola 51.1. Infant mortality had decreased dramatically, but life expectancy had increased at all ages. We added death to the planets after the mass deaths of world war one, and Pluto sailed identified through the heavens during the genocides, horrors and mass graves of the middle of the 20th century. Now we have cowed death, and demoted Pluto from the ranks of planets, into the company of his mother-in-law, Ceres. It’s 2019, so I’ll refrain from the obvious joke here. It’s Joke #41 by the way, from the start of the post. Perhaps astrologers have it backwards, and we have an impact on the destiny of the planets? We now know that while both are impossible tasks, the terraforming of Mars is easier than terraforming Venus. We look up at the sky and feel that we can transform war, but not love. An allegorical meaning may be lurking here.
There are many science fiction ideas that can be inferred from my story. It takes place on another planet. On another planet around another star. So therefore, we have been able to travel between the stars, either slower than light, or faster than light, by warp drive, wormhole, or the dreams of a space dragon. It’s not quite important, for this story at least. The character is important. The robot spacesuit’s journey is the important part of the story, both physical and emotional. That is the real reason I didn’t put any science in my story, to focus on the character.
I started this blog with a joke from Stalinist Russia, where a group of people so familiar with the jokes they tell can simply recite the identifier of the joke to get a laugh. Even though the content of joke #35 is never revealed (perhaps it was this one: “The dream of many Soviet citizens: to see Beria’s widow at Stalin’s funeral”) all the listeners know that the content is so offensive to the regime that even uttering the identifier sets off fear reactions. The same is with the concepts of robots and terraforming, except perhaps not fear. I tell you a robot walked across the room, you see a robot in your mind. Thanks to two issues of Astounding Magazine published in 1942, the core concepts in my story had been defined, and given a name. I could write a story about a robot writing a letter explaining its travels across a terraformed planet without a single dreaded “As you know, Bob . . .” info-dump paragraph.