Sunday, January 16, 2011

Insanity and Happy Frankensteins

Things are ticking along pretty well over at the Locus Blog. We've had some good posts and comments already, and there's even more interesting stuff developing behind the scenes. So I thought I'd come up for air and toss off some impressions about more stories from the SFWA Hall of Fame Volume I, edited by Robert Silverberg. I talked about the first two stories back in November, "A Martian Odyssey" and "Twilight."

The next two are "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey and "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon (skipping "The Roads Must Roll" by Heinlein since I had read it several times before). "Helen O'Loy" is a story I had read about but never read before. It's usually mentioned, as in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, as "One very obvious example of early sf's masculinist orientation..." Can't really argue with that. This guy builds the 'perfect woman' robot. He eventually falls in love with her, runs away with her, and lives out his life happily with her. At the end of his life, she kills herself so that no one will ever know she wasn't real. To say that this hasn't aged well is an understatement. A woman who literally exists for no other reason than to love and care for a man, where this is presented (mostly) as a positive, is just really creepy. Also, there's an aspect of what I'll call 'easy insanity' in this story as in many others from this period. The narrator suspects that towards the end, Helen's husband had simply forgotten that she wasn't human, and the narrator helps her keep up the illusion of aging. I might add that lots of people go conveniently and interestingly insane in these stories--I feel like that trope isn't quite so common these days.

"Microcosmic God" (1941) is one of the stories that will really stick with me from this anthology. When contrasted with Greg Egan's "Crystal Nights" (2008) it is especially chilling. The protagonist of Sturgeon's story is James Kidder, a self-made multi-millionaire who is good at everything he does. He goes to live on a private island to develop whatever sci-tech niftiness he sees fit. Eventually his banker (and only connection to the rest of the world) gets greedy and goes gunning for the golden goose. Kidder has been evolving a species of intelligent beings. He keeps them contained and forces them to evolve by presenting them with threats. He occasionally kills off some of them randomly to keep them from getting complacent. He makes sure that they can never survive in Earth's normal environment. When he gets attacked by the banker's forces (let's not think about that too closely), he directs the colony to invent an impenetrable force field, which they do. He is able to live out his life entirely in isolation after that.

I kept waiting for the colony to tell him to shove it and use their epic problem solving skills to escape and leave him hanging out to dry. Because that's pretty much what the beings did in Egan's story. Egan also has a self-made billionaire creating artificial life, only these are in a computer simulation. He also is using them to solve problems, although he wants them to investigate more about the nature of the universe. He also tortures them to get them to evolve: especially when he realizes that pain makes them evolve faster. In the end, hearkening back to sf's gothic roots (Frankenstein), they turn on him in a very satisfying way. To have Sturgeon's Kidder and Helen O'Loy's creator avoid the fate of all those other Dr. Frankensteins was jarring and quite disturbing. It seemed like some sort of ultra-colonialist hubris. Perhaps it's an indication of just how cocky and confident the Golden Age writers were that they thought that heroes could do things like this and not suffer any consequences for it. No wonder some people got all huffy when the New Wave came along and reminded them that the world isn't usually quite so accommodating.

That's not to say that the Sturgeon story isn't well written, I should mention. I'd put it in the top tier of stories here when judged by writing style (a tier in which I'd also include Heinlein, Blish, Keyes, and Cordwainer Smith). I also thought that this story was thoroughly thought-out and coherently executed in a way that "Baby is Three," the Sturgeon story in Volume IIa of the same series, wasn't.


Ted said...

I'm not sure that it's a sign of the hubris of Golden Age writers that the characters in these stories aren't punished. As noted in the Wikipedia entry on the Three Laws of Robotics, the idea of a scientist being destroyed by his creation was already a cliche by 1940; Asimov wrote his robot stories in direct reaction to that. So when "Microcosmic God" was first published, it might have seemed refreshingly innovative that Kidder wins in the end.

This doesn't excuse the creepiness of "Helen O'Loy," though.

Karen Burnham said...

Ted - that's a good point. Thinking about it that way, I could read "Microcosmic God" as subverting the monster-kills-creator trope in such a way to make us question religion. Kidder (a telling name) creates these beings and tortures the hell out of them, cheerfully killing bunches of them randomly to keep them from getting out of hand. Yet they act to defend him in his time of need. If you take that as an answer to the religious question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" (ans: because God is an egotistical git out to oppress His creations for His own ends), it definitely makes you think twice about the relationship between God and creation.

Although I've never thought about Asimov's robots in that context. Maybe because they're industrially mass produced instead of being the product of lone genius; maybe because while they are exploited they are rarely abused; maybe because Susan Calvin sincerely cares about them and their issues. I never connected them with the Frankenstein trope, but you're right--those stories are a nice rejection of that default. I guess it's a bit analogous to Weinbaum's "Martian Odyssey" as an antidote to the pervasive "ZOMG IT'S AN ALIEN KILL IT!!!" trope of much 20's/30's pulp fiction.