Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Bad Place Is Always Present

Apropos of last week's post concerning language and definitions, and also to some extent my continued immersement in Asimov's ouevre (currently making the acquaintance of one Dr Hari Seldon), I've been thinking of dystopian fiction, and in particular science fiction where the concept of dystopia has deep roots. Not because Asimov's work reads as dystopian (though one could argue that the whole concept of Asimov's Foundation seems to fluctuate between notions of dystopia and utopia, never fully landing in the one or the other), but more because his visions of the future have made me think of other such visions which I have enjoyed. Many of which undeniably are dystopian in nature. One needs only consider H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, all of whom I rate highly, or films like Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix.

It is interesting to note that the latter film (which I personally would count as the first truly succesful film to adapt the cyberpunk genre fully from literature to film) contains a quote which has always fascinated me from the time when I first saw the movie back in the late 90s. Agent Smith, while interrogating Morpheus, says the following:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. There was a disaster. No one would except the program, entire crops were lost. Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world were a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the matrix was redesigned to this. The peak of your civilisation. (transcription mine)
The quote, to my mind, describes not only something within the context of the movie itself, but also to some extent a general human fascination with dystopian fiction.

Why is that so, you might wonder. After all, the concept of utopia is not absent from fiction in general, or science fiction in particular for that matter (where it too has deep roots; the world of classic Star Trek perhaps being one of the most clear cut and well-known examples to leap to mind). The answer is simple. It all comes down to etymology and definitions (yet again). After all, the term utopia first made its entrance on the scene, as it were, in Thomas Moore's Utopia from 1516. There it referred to the eponymous country Moore presented to his readers, a country both imaginary and ideal, and while the word has since come to mean such an ideal place in a more general sense, it is still firmly based in its Greek roots. That is, in the Greek words topos, meaning place, and ou, meaning not or no; literally giving us the meaning ”no-place”. In short, the concept of perfect world is revealed to be perceived, much as Agent Smith tells Morpheus, as a place of dreams and unreality; a place always and ever distant in time and place. And it is the very roots of the word used to describe the concept which reveals this to us.

By contrast, the word dystopia, while much younger as a word (Merriam-Webster dates it at about 1950) though not necessarily a younger concept as such, is a word set up as to be the antonym of utopia, its opposing principle as it were. But the roots of the word dystopia in contrast to the roots of utopia do not easily generate a logical set of antonyms. Dystopia in a literal sense, simply means ”bad place”. Yet the imperfect, nightmarish world of a dystopia (or ”bad place”, if you will) is not a good place (with would presumably be something along the line of agathostopos) but rather a utopia or ”no-place”.

Put differently this means that the perfect world can only ever be out of reach, even in the terms in which we imagine it, whereas the bad place is always (at least imaginatively and linguistically speaking) present.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Relativity of Language, Absolute Reality and the Three Laws of Robotics

While currently reading Robots and Empire, Isaac Asimov's fourth robot novel, I was reminded of how fickle languages really are and how they contribute to relativize our perception and understanding of the world.

I think we often like to believe in the existence of absolutes, whether they be moral or otherwise, even when we make a point of saying that everything isn't black and white. I believe that's the case because there is a certain amount of comfort in the notion of the absolute. Not to mention the fact that relativism can get pretty scary, pretty fast. Besides, we interact with things out in the world every day that resemble some form of absolutes, don't we?

Surely the latter, in and of itself, hints at the problem I am trying to touch upon (and I'll get back to that, don't worry), but even so, what does all of this have to do with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?

Let's start from the top, shall I? First, for the benefit of the uninitiated, let's recite the Three Laws as formulated by Asimov (and within his fiction imprinted on the positronic brains of all robots as a form of natural fail safe):
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 the 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.

Asimov's Three Laws are clearly hierarchical and seemingly absolute. His robot short stories (found in I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots) function, more or less, as small mathematical and logical riddles, testing the practical applications of these robotic imperatives within a fictional framework. Similarly, these imperatives are also an important part of his robot novels (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire), though they are not the focus of these longer narratives in quite the same way. Through most of these stories, while the limits are continuously tested, the Three Laws have nevertheless seemed to be absolute imperatives (in an almost Kantian fashion). That is, up until my current reading of Robots and Empire, where Asimov suddenly throws me a very interesting curve ball. The Three Laws cannot be absolute in the strictest sense, simply because language itself is not absolute.

In the case of the Three Laws of Robotics, the most important question becomes "What is a human being?" Without a definition of that key term, the Laws themselves become nullified for all their logic and hierarchical structure. And language hinges on definitions.

I am reminded of the following quote: "I've been told I love to debate semantics, and this is true: depending on what you mean by love" (my apologies for not having a proper source for it).

This is why I wrote above that my statement that "we interact with things out in the world every day that resemble some form of absolutes", in and of itself, points to this very problem. Because how do we define what an absolute is? And can such a definition possibly be done in an absolute fashion?

Monday, 18 May 2009

So... I'll try my hand at this then, shall I?

As I am someone who enjoys texts and narratives immensely (whether I'm reading, writing or analysing them), it might seem somewhat strange that it's taken me this long to get to blogging. But the truth is that I've simply been reluctant to take this extra bit of textual production upon myself previously. I am of the opinion that a good blog, like any type of good publication (electronic or otherwise) needs to be maintained continuously. I mean, who would want follow a magazine or journal only coming out on rare, occasional intervals?

So, now that I've made the leap, it is my intention to start out slowly, but nevertheless steadily, with at least one post a week (which certainly doesn't preclude the possibility of more posts, if I happen to get into a flow). This is simply because I think that the notion of regular publication is of importance. But also because I don't want to "spam you", gentle (and, at the moment of typing this, somewhat imaginary) reader. I'll willingly shed intellectual pretension and the like, but I've no wish to waste your time, or mine.

So, I'll try to muse on things that may be of interest, or at least somewhat entertaining; to ramble on, but not without some sort of direction; to share with you some of my thoughts, ideas and opinions on life, literature, film, music and comics (though by no means necessarily in that order).

And above all, I hope it'll be fun. Both for you to read and me to write.