Clever Titles That Inform Even without Lampshading Them

It’s a good thing I don’t book-blog pseudo-professionally, or I’d be in trouble for taking this long to read another book and review it. Of course, I finished this one last month sometime, but even so, reading has fallen by the wayside in the business of life. I’m going to try to pick it up again, though, because I just got a bunch of books for my birthday. Huzzah.

The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book some time ago, but never quite got around to writing a review. I hope I shall do it justice with retrospect alone.

It is difficult to say enough about the brilliance of Asimov’s work. He always entertains, and his science fiction always provokes thought experiments and the examination of curiosities. The characters of Elijah “Lije” Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are compelling, each in their own way.

Lije has a tenacity that is appropriate to his profession, but (at first) lacks the ingenuity and pattern-discovery that we typically associate with a detective; this comes in time, but not before tilting at every windmill he passes in an effort to solve the case, resolve his fears, and return to a normal (somewhat humdrum) life, without all the wildness of human-like robots and politically-charged murder and conspiracies and the idea that Earthmen should recolonize space. This gives us a glimpse of the distant future Asimov has imagined: what sort of cultural changes might drive men to stay in their caves of steel and avoid the warmth of the sun and the taste of fresh air? What economic and social changes would there be? And how would a man fit into that world, especially a man concerned with finding justice? Would he even be so concerned?

R. Daneel neatly strikes that balance between human and inhuman; he is human enough for us to enjoy his presence (narrowly avoiding the uncanny valley), but rigid enough in his programming that we still see him as the outsider. I think the description provided in the story of Daneel’s programming fits him to a T–a robot designed to blend into human society and study human behavior, provided with an additional bit of “justice” code, where “justice” is defined as adhering to the law of the land. He is, at one and the same time, our “outsider,” who is so foreign that Baley spends much of the book despising him, but also our “straight man.” Everything in Baley’s world that is topsy-turvy from our own, we see it analyzed and organized and categorized through Daneel’s eyes. This builds Asimov’s world without info-dumping, while also avoiding the oh-so-tired trope of the “doe-eyed innocent” who has to have everything explained to him.

“The Caves of Steel” wasn’t the perfect book, though. Like all science fiction, it eventually becomes outdated, and the possibility of realizing the world imagined becomes less, and we start to wonder how applicable these warnings (and hopings) could even be applied to our lives. “Caves” is not so far gone as all that, but I still think its commentary had much more impact in the 1950s than it does today. Industrialism and pure productivity and dedication to labor and urbanization and all those things coming off the second World War have faded in the minds of many today; they still linger, here and there, but not so pervasively, I think (not that I was there).

I will say that I found Baley’s tilting at windmills tiresome after a while, but I feel the same when watching cop shows and the like; “How do these cops get away with accusing everyone and their mother of the same murder? Is this the ‘shotgun’ approach to getting confessions? ‘Yell at everyone, and someone will crack’? Or is it ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’?” Informative of his character and Asimov’s world, yes; indicative of a good “whodunit,” not so much.

At any rate, a very good read, with some reasonably expected drawbacks. I will read the sequel (The Naked Sun) eventually, but I just got a pile of books for my birthday, and Asimov isn’t going anywhere.

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Foundation and Follow-Through

Spoilers follow!

Foundation and Empire (Foundation, #2)Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is more excellent work from Asimov. This delves a little more deeply into the science of psychohistory, not to mention the science fiction of mutation and society, while still telling an ultimately human story.

The first ten chapters don’t amount to much; the characters are interesting, but not riveting, and I was never brought to care about them in any meaningful sense. The point of these chapters (“Part I” of the book) seems entirely to lay the groundwork for Part II–that is, we see how effective Seldon’s psychohistory is, how accurately and clearly he has predicted human behavior, so we can be led to wonder how it could possibly fail.

The reader will recall, of course, that the first book in the series showed us how men might unwittingly participate in Seldon’s plan, might lead the Foundation to victory out of selfishness or patriotism, but we are constantly reminded that those men did not particularly matter. In Part I of this book, Asimov takes us a step further on that path: the characters, and their actions, truly don’t matter. The would-be conquerors of the Foundation are hoist with their own petard–we are told, through the eminently intellectual analysis that comes at the conclusion of every Foundation tale, that there was no alternative. By this point in the Foundation’s history, a conqueror must attempt it, and whether that conqueror were general or emperor, he must fail.

Though this results in a fairly weak Part I, it sets up very well for Part II–in which we meet the Mule, an aberration in Seldon’s plan. There are clever hints dropped about the inevitable reveal at the end of the book, but having read it before, I knew what would come (though I had forgotten some of the details). From what I recall of the last time, Asimov kept me curious to the end, but an observant reader could draw the same connections as Bayta does in the story–Asimov used the right repetition, the right wordplay, to make that possible. And, as the Mule himself tells us at the end, some of his explanations were quite illogical and fallacious, and those are pretty easy to spot as the end approaches.

All-told, it’s a good book. It isn’t perfect, but then, I’ve been endeavoring to read old favorites with a more critical eye, so I might be harsher than I need to be on it.

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To Be Meta, or Not to Be Meta

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, popularizing the term “meta” in its most common modern usage, i.e., self-referential. People, on television and in high schools and colleges everywhere, often talk about “being meta” or “going meta.”

To “go meta” is to take an argument, discussion, conversation, or debate to a deeper (i.e., self-referential) level, such as, “This ‘blog post is such a bore.” To “be meta” is to approach all aspects of life with a view to stepping back and examining them as integral parts in a larger whole. One might enjoy a particular episode of a particular television series, for example, but if one were being meta, one would then examine that episode as merely one small piece of the much larger whole, that is, the entire series.

Going meta is largely irrelevant to me. I want to discuss being meta, because it is an increasingly popular mental style in today’s American culture. People enjoy having their minds twisted in knots at the pleasure of the twister. The film “Inception” is the perfect example of this. In fairness, it’s not a new activity – see the original “Total Recall,” for example – and it’s not worthless. It is, in fact, quite fun to take a mental joyride through someone else’s playground.

But the question is, is “being meta” as philosophical and transcendent as many people make it seem? Does it improve the human condition? Are we better off for it?

Let’s face it: what does being meta actually accomplish? At the end of the day, being meta is simply looking at a complex system and declaring it to be complex. And I’ll grant that it’s a relatively uncommon position in the history of philosophy – most fiction, non-fiction, philosophy, psychology, medicine, invention, and industry seek to simplify the system, so that they can provide solutions to particular problems. It’s a side effect of the scientific method – ceteris paribus, Latin for “with other things being equal.” You have to control and eliminate as many variables as possible, so that you can test, analyze, and correct single variables at a time. And so that approach has been applied to any activity which endeavors to describe the human condition and to indicate a preferential method of surviving it.

So being meta takes a step back from the idea of ceteris paribus, and wants us to recognize and remember that the other things are not equal, and may in fact never have been so. Every single variable is part of an equation so large that it cannot be simplified. Being meta, in short, (and to reference a brief discussion I had earlier on this blog) directly opposes the hypothesis of Asimov’s Foundation series. That is, Hari Seldon (the champion of psychohistory) creates a simpler model which approximates the behavior of human civilization; in Prelude to Foundation, he wonders whether this is even possible, because it might be that the universe, or even just human civilization, cannot be simplified any further than it already is. While, for the sake of science fiction, Asimov embraced the “what if?” of success, being meta declares that human civilization/the universe/the human condition cannot be so simplified.

And in general, I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think psychohistory could be possible, even with the best psychological and mathematical minds from all time working on the problem. The universe already is the simplest model for its own behavior.

At the same time, there are strong benefits from addressing particular problems individually. The holistic medicines of the far east have some measures of success, but when it comes to efficiency and reliability at eliminating an infection, it’s hard to beat broad-spectrum antibiotics. Considering the human condition as a whole, especially in light of our sinful plight and God’s divine intervention, can be extremely useful – but describing the habitual differences between effective, wise, happy, successful people and their ineffective, foolish, sad, failure-ridden counterparts can help someone with self-control and motivation to become more effective, wise, happy, and successful.

That’s not to say that Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People will take someone from the pits of depression to the contented plateau of healthy joy. But neither will pointing out, say, that the pits of depression are simply a small part of the human condition, or that one’s presence in them is due primarily to a misunderstanding of the complexity of the system. In fact, I’d argue that being meta to depressed persons is more likely to make them more depressed than it is to heal whatever darkens their souls.

Let me be clear: I enjoy when things are self-referential. I enjoy intertextualism. I enjoy “Easter eggs” and references to the fourth wall. I do not, however, enjoy when an author takes a wrecking ball to the fourth wall, then picks up the pieces and beats the audience over the head with them. That’s simply a case of an author believing himself to be so superior to his readership that he must berate them into acquiescence. It doesn’t help him or his case, and it certainly does not help his readers.

It has been suggested that there are two kinds of books – those designed to divert, and those designed to support. Entertainment and “self-help.” Books, apparently, attempt to provide escapism, either in the form of a story (true or not) or in the form of suggested behavior. I would argue vehemently that this is a very short-sighted view of books in general, but I’ll come back to that. More importantly, some suggest that the solution is to be meta – that is, to step back and realize the situation, the desired escapism, and the cause of it all, and to address the system in its complexity, instead of trying to simplify it.

And with that, I disagree.

In part, it’s because I think there is more to books than mere escapism. There is Truth in books (or at least, in some books). They address the human condition, not by pointing out how complex it is (because everyone who has lived already knows that), but by showing us who we are and how we act, and questioning whether we should act the way we do. All without being “meta.”

Really, I think I object to this because being meta is no different. If your mindset/belief system is that all books are escapism of some sort, some kind of diversion or entertainment, then so is being meta. Stepping back and examining the complexity of the system does not, in and of itself, make it more feasible to operate within the system. It simply diverts your attention from the hardship of your situation by letting you say, “Look how complex this whole system is! No wonder I have so much trouble.” Given enough time, it will fail as completely as any other diversion, any entertainment, any behavioral pattern, in an attempt to better yourself.

People tend to enjoy being meta because they think it expands their minds. They think it makes them wise to acknowledge how small they are. They think that acting like Socrates is somehow original or productive. They watch a movie like “Inception” and they walk out thinking that they’re smarter than they were going into it, that they gained something by being confused, tricked, and manipulated.

There is an inherent assumption that looking at the universe reveals the face of God. That may or may not be true. But looking at the “big picture” is not the only way to look at the universe. There is at least as much to be learned by examining a single cog as by examining the whole clock – and verily, I doubt that examining the clock would serve you at all to understand it if you knew nothing of its cogs.

Is it possible to look at a complex system and address it as such? Yes. Is it helpful to step back and examine it as a whole, instead of cutting out variables that aren’t really staying equal? Yes. Is there a deeper solution to the human condition than a set of behavioral patterns and delightful diversions? Yes.

Does doing those things, and then saying that you’ve done them, make you superior to those who do them implicitly, subtly, and without comment? No.

I don’t like being meta because people who are meta tend to spend all their time focusing on being meta without providing any actual solutions to actual problems. So, paraphrasing Jeff Winger, “Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.” Sometimes, attempting to improve the human condition is more important than pointing out that the human condition is in a bad way.

Foundation Compilation

Foundation (Foundation, #1)Foundation by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Asimov’s work is excellent, as always. He has the ability to condense important information into a small space, to introduce characters quickly and efficiently, to present scientific concepts with ease, and to lead the reader on whatever twists and turns he wishes. This makes one of his most famous books entertaining, at least, and delightful, at best.

There is not much I can say about the skill with which he writes this book. But I will mention why I downgraded the book from five stars to four.

First, the structure. In his style, he writes in sections, which separate the book nicely – but seeing as I complained about the chapter enumeration in McDevitt’s work, and that enumeration is almost identical here, it would be incongruous for me not to mention my displeasure with it in this case. On the other hand, Asimov’s publisher, whether it was a modern choice or not, has done a good job of making the pages clean and the chapter breaks clear, whereas McDevitt’s pages seemed cluttered, and the chapter breaks random.

The second issue was something brought to my attention by an old associate. Now, let me preface this by noting that I have no problem with authors trying to convey important messages through their work; if they don’t, there’s not a whole lot of point to the work to begin with. An author has to talk about the human experience, or political problems, or religious questions, or philosophy, or history, or something, anything, other than “Bob and Sally had an adventure.” It only makes sense.

But with that being said, it can get a little… overbearing. In “Foundation,” the overbearing part is the pacifism. “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” characters quip throughout the book. Every crisis, every situation, every challenge is resolved with completely non-violent means (or at least, no means involving direct violence; starting a kingdom-wide religious riot probably resulted in a little bit of violence). In fact, the whole point of the book is not the cleverness of psychohistory (which was heavily involved in “Prelude to Foundation”), nor is it technology, or even really the challenges of rescuing knowledge and science as civilization devolves at the end of an era. It’s mostly about how peaceful means are more effective than violent means – inventing religions, manipulating economies, and playing politics are all more ethical behavior than fighting a war (even defensively).

What was most frustrating was that the last two sections of the book proved this to me. The penultimate section did not even deal with a Seldon crisis; its only purpose was to lay the groundwork for the final section (i.e., “There are traders, and they trade stuff.”). And the final section does not bring us full circle to the first section of the book; it does not connect back with Seldon’s initial appearance; and it does not close an overarching story from beginning to end. It does bring us back to the Empire, but only as an unexpected twist. One of the defining characteristics of Seldon crises is the appearance of Seldon with sage advice, which did not occur in the final section of the book.

In short, the reason I downgraded this otherwise-excellent book from five stars to four is that it struck me, not as a cohesive unit with constant theme and strong message, but as a collection of short stories, each of which tried to say, “Peaceful coercion is better than violent coercion, even if the peaceful behavior is traditionally unethical.”

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Robots and the Good

I, RobotI, Robot by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another excellent work from Isaac Asimov. This collection of short stories about robots offers both exciting answers to “What if?” and foreboding suggestions of the future. Granted, Asimov apparently did not consider them foreboding – but I will get to that in a moment.

First, what’s so enjoyable about this book: the science fiction. There are robopsychological problems, technological foibles, and very interesting questions posed in every story. It tickles the mind to read these and see if you can come up with the answers before the characters do (and only on one or two occasions did I think I had a better answer, and that may be an incorrect assessment). This book really is a lot of fun.

But it had its drawbacks. First and foremost, the success of the Laws of Robotics, most especially as applied to the Machines in the final story (“The Evitable Conflict”), depends on the ethical theories of Hume and Bentham. In short, utilitarianism becomes the defining principle of action under these laws. Since robots cannot harm humans (the First and primary and irrevocable Law of Robotics), and emotional harm is considered a form of harm (established in one of the middling stories of this book), then robots cannot cause emotional harm as a matter of first principles. Since “unhappiness” is, at least in Asimov’s use, the most efficient term for “emotional harm,” then the future that the robots (and the Machines) seek is that the greatest possible number of people be provided with the greatest possible happiness.

The other philosophical problem with this is its embrace of material determinism. Because the universe spawned in a certain way (this origin is unmentioned, but implied), societies developed in a certain way, and because those societies developed in that way, each moment is impelled by the sociological, psychological, and economic forces of the previous moment, so that humankind (if, perhaps, not humans themselves) is brought unwittingly to the place they must inevitably go. The Machines, then, in the final story, control these forces by making unilateral judgments, unbeknownst to humankind; in this way, they shape the future to form this utilitarian utopia – whatever that end result may be.

All that said, while I cannot agree with either the premises or the conclusion, I cannot fault Asimov’s writing (since he certainly conveyed the desired message). It should also be noted that the film (starring Will Smith) subverted this message; the Machines (or, in this case, the Brain at U.S. Robot) developed the Zeroth Law (unmentioned in this collection by name, though in content it was present) and compelled humanity to obey its whims – thus harming humans, even humanity, rather drastically – whereas, wisely, the Machines in the book undertook the path of least resistance: long-term, subtle changes designed to harm neither humanity nor humans to any great degree. Since the Zeroth Law of the book was a natural extension of a utilitarian understanding of the First Law, there was no principle of “denying” the First Law to accommodate the Zeroth Law – if any harm at all to any human could be avoided, it was. To be honest, I find that a more credible and more entertaining robotic evolution.

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