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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/09/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 2
Table of Contents
An Induction Cooker (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The store had something called an "induction cooker." I told Evelyn that it was a cook stove that came with a starter and a guarantee that if it heated for n minutes, it will heat for n+1 minutes. [-mrl]
Comments on I, ROBOT and Harlan Ellison's Script(comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about robot stories and about adaptations of Asimov's I, ROBOT. Of course, the three laws are:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
And what are we really talking about here with the three laws? It is not really about robots. It is anachronistically about what makes for the ideal human slave. Robots are really just machines that are slave-surrogates. A machine is a slave that is totally selfless and does not object to being a slave or object to anything else for that matter. (Of course, you can posit the possibility of giving them emotions and then having to respect those emotions. What you have then is A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.) Robots are mechanical slaves. Slavery is, of course, a very great immorality when we talk about human slaves. But suppose it wasn't. Enslaving a machine is not, after all, immoral. I remember waking up one morning and as I walked in the kitchen at 5 AM I heard my bread machine kneading dough for fresh bread for my breakfast. That was the sort of thing that the slave-owners wanted, except when they wanted it, a human had to get up at 4:30 to do it. It isn't the slavery that is immoral, it is enslaving a human or animal that objects.
So when we discuss robots we can talk about what we would want in an ideal slave without feeling racist. In fact, hatred of or prejudice against the computer and the robot is the current acceptable form of racism. The plantation owners, if they had an unsuccessful year could tell their friends that it was the fault of the slaves. "You just can't get good slaves these days." That attitude is still with us, but it is in blaming things on the computer. We see banks claim that their computer made a mistake. That can happen, of course, but it is very, very rare. And most educated people seem to know it. But banks feel just fine blaming their problems on their computer. I just heard a waiter tell a complaining customer that the computer spit out the wrong order for this person.
Asimov's stories are partially about what makes a perfect slave and also about human racism against robots. I guess the point there is that hatred actually hurts the racist, because it cannot hurt a machine. Also the stories are also about program debugging. Several of the Asimov stories are about debugging computer software. The problems one sees debugging a program are typically what you see in Asimov's stories. It is a task that many of us did for a living, but Asimov is making computer software a romantic (or at least science fictional) profession. Typically a story is that a robot's program is making it do something unexpected. An investigator goes in to see why this particular behavior is just what the programming is telling the robot to do. Someone studies the software and figures out why it is giving rise to this unexpected behavior. I have done the same sort of work myself. It is a tribute to the genius of Asimov that he could take a story about the dull profession of debugging software and make it even marginally intriguing.
I guess I find it interesting, though not unexpected, that the upcoming film is not being made from the famous Harlan Ellison script. His script for I, ROBOT has been a sort of cause celebre in science fiction fandom. His publisher gives it the nickname "the greatest science fiction film never made." (A phrase that sounds suspiciously like one Harlan would have modestly authored himself.) I have read the screenplay and do not find it particularly impressive. He took a handful of the Asimov stories and retold each of them, using a framing sequence that is a variant on a story Rod Serling did on "Twilight Zone." (Being fair, a lot of stories from different authors seem to borrow ideas from "Twilight Zone". It may have been done earlier than "Twilight Zone", for all I know. I will tell which story on request, but I will not spoil the Ellison screenplay here.)
Digressing a bit, I must say that Harlan Ellison may be a good writer, but every time I try to read him he writes about an image he describes such as someone pouring Drano down somebody else's throat. At that point I decide I have better things I could be reading.
I will give an example. In the original Asimov I, ROBOT story "Liar!", the robot Herbie, faced with a dilemma uncharacteristically screamed. Asimov describes it, "It was like a piccolo many times magnified--shrill and shriller till it keened with the terror of a lost soul and filled the room with the piercingness of itself." That is fairly strong language for Asimov. But Ellison's description of the same scene in his film script is "And Herbie screams! A sound we've never heard on this Earth before. A SOUND THAT CHILLS US, that contains in it all the pain of inarticulate creatures senselessly murdered, small things crushed underfoot, seals bashed with ball bats, whales punctured by exploding harpoons, cows having their throats slit, millions going to the furnaces, memories of the rack and the boot and the Inquisition. A SOUND OF HORROR and ABOLSUTE UTTER AGONY!" Jeez, pity the soundman who would be told to create it somehow. In the story, robot psychologist Susan Calvin looks at the malfunctioning Herbie and in frustration just says the accusing word "Liar!" Ellison has her kicking the head of the robot (!) and then crying "Liar... liar... liar... liar..." and then we hear the word repeated in an echo chamber. Wow! What writing! I doubt that Asimov would recognize this Susan Calvin.
Ellison's writing is, I guess, an acquired taste. I admit I have not acquired it. In fact, I can tolerate his writing style for about as long as a robin can survive after it has accidentally landed on a needle stuck in the ground that has pierced into its stomach and the robin is now flying its last mournful flight as it internally bleeds to a painful death. When I have to read one of his stories I quietly whimper to myself like a formerly-loved pet dog who has been left tied to a tree, who is now seeing the sun going down, who cannot free himself to get food, who knows now that he must slowly and painfully die a lonely death for the simple crime of becoming inconvenient.
I may be the one voice saying this, but I don't think Ellison's I, ROBOT script would make a very good film. In any case Ellison need not feel alone in that his script did not sell. There are lots of better scripts that never became movies. His may or may not be better than the I, ROBOT script that did sell, but it would not have made a very good movie to at least match his script. Still, when his fans first heard that I, ROBOT was to be made into a movie, the first question that was asked was would it be the Ellison script. He has a marvelous talent for rabble-rousing and getting other people to be indignant over so-called injustices to Ellison. I am told he suggests in the introduction to the book publication of the screenplay that the reader should write to Warner Brothers and tell them that they should be making a film of his script. However, they may be disinclined to deal with Ellison, perhaps in part because he told the head of the studio that he (the executive) had "the intellectual capacity of an artichoke."
On the subject of Ellison, he is famous for finding innovative ways to be inconsiderate and/or selfish for his own profit. He edited an anthology to be called LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS and then put it away for decades, it has been suggested until it increases sufficiently in value. It by then it will not do much good for its authors, some of whom are already deceased. So there are a bunch of fans out there angry that Ellison's script is not the one that is used and by a strange coincidence they mostly have picked up on this phrase that it is "the best science fiction film never made." It is almost an iron-clad cinch that when the film comes out either Ellison or some of his fans will be indignant that they made this poor film when they could have filmed Harlan Ellison's script. But Ellison has another chance. He can always adapt Asimov's "Foundation" books. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Moving right along, the Hugo-nominated novelettes and short stories:
On the whole, I was disappointed in the novelettes; I ranked only two of the six nominees above "no award". The best of the six was "The Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford, about a man with synesthaesia (as in the punch line of "The Man with English",the classic science fiction story by Horace L. Gold: "What smells purple?"). There seems to be an increase in the number of stories about diseases, or more specifically, mental conditions. Recently, for example, there has been Elizabeth Moon's THE SPEED OF DARK and Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME about autism, and now this. And, yes, this is in fact science fiction, although that doesn't become obvious until the end.
"Hexagons" by Robert Reed is an alternate history set in "New Rome" and suffers only from having too much of a similarity to our own world in setting and in some of the characters. (Robert Silverberg gets this right in his "Roma Eterna" stories, by the way.) This is probably why "Hexagons" didn't make the short list of finalists for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, but I still like it quite a bit.
And then we have the rest: "Legions in Time" by Michael Swanwick (a time travel story without much point that I could see), "Bernardo's House" by James Patrick Kelly (about an intelligent house), "Nightfall" by Charles Stross (whose work I have always found hard to read, and this was no exception), and "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" by Jay Lake (which, if anything, was less comprehensible to me than the Stross). None of these seemed of Hugo quality, and a couple I couldn't even manage to finish.
The short stories are more to my tastes--I voted only two of them below "no award".
With "A Study in Emerald", Neil Gaiman looks likely to make it three years in a row as a Hugo winner. Yes, I like Sherlock Holmes, but most Holmes stories these days are pale imitations of the Doyle. Gaiman's is new and fresh and different, and not just because it includes Lovecraft's "Old Ones" (though of course that helps). And this is an alternate history as well, in which the Old Ones rule England (shades of Kim Newman!). This story is so far ahead of the others that I recommend it even more strongly than usual.
"Four Short Novels" by Joe Haldeman is really four connected riffs on immortality, each linked with a classic title from literature. (I have forgiven F&SF for describing this in the previous issue as being "four short novels by Joe Haldeman", implying a rather thicker issue than either usual or delivered.) You could think of them as short-shorts, but they do relate to each other such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
I agree with others that "Robots Don't Cry" by Mike Resnick verges on the overly sentimental, but Resnick manages to carry it off.
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine (about a brain in a spaceship) is another story that left me cold. (Reviewers have compared both this and Jay Lakes's "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" to Cordwainer Smith's writing. I don't particularly like Smith's writing, so I guess it's no surprise I didn't like these two stories either.)
And "Paying it Forward" by Michael A. Burstein doesn't just verge on the overly sentimental; it crosses the line. A touching tale of a budding author who gets advice from the spirit of a well- established, but recently deceased, author via the Internet, it seems designed to appeal to writers more than the general audience, and to some extent plays on the feeling of loss we have for dead authors.
So there you have it--a few good stories (especially the Gaiman), but on the whole, for me, a disappointing selection. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves. --Dorothy Parker
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