Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life


The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with “plots of creation”, specifically ones where life is created.

Gunn is no vitalist, so he draws no distinction between “chemical life” and “mechanical life”. The former is based (as far as we know) exclusively on carbon, the former is based on inorganic compounds. Chemical life is “vitalized in the cell; mechanical life is vitalized in the ‘mind’ and power center”.

Of course, the creation of artificial life and seemingly sentient machines has a history before sf. It features in legend and folklore. There’s even a flying brass horse in The Canterbury Tales.

Creating “chemical life” seems more magical, a veritable resurrection of the dead according to Gunn. By doing that, humans assume God-like powers as opposed to creating “mechanical life” which has more the air of supreme artisanship or mechanical skill though, especially when creating machines that seem or are sentient, it can also seem God-like.

Chemical Life

There are two great categories here: androids and everything else.

The main question with androids: why bother creating them? (Sexbots don’t really count. They are physically human but surely the whole point is to produce something mentally unhuman. Besides, this is 1951. No mention of sexbots here.)

Gunn postulates a variety of motives for making androids: creation for creation’s sake, creating beauty, playing at being God, and, to Gunn the most important reason – utility.

Usefulness is also, he says, the most common reason androids get created in modern science fiction. They can do unpleasant jobs and menial work or be specially built for certain jobs. They can, as a famous industrialist said, be “more human than human”.

But building something, even something useful and that works, lacks drama on the printed page. Conflict for drama can be supplied by a struggle over whether the android should be built. But Gunn says the main drama comes from what the androids do after they come into existence.

So, he further divides the android plot branch into two parts: androids that aid mankind and androids that get out of control. (Though a logical extension of the android-out-of-control plot could be the androids creating a world without humans and thereby rendering the question whether they are out of human control irrelevant.)

In the helpful category, Gunn mentions Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future and his sidekick Otho the android and Clifford D. Simak’s (who invented the word “android”) Time and Again. These are stories of humans and androids working together, and Gunn notes that it’s a plot type not exploited to its full potential.

Androids out of control, of course, are a lot more exciting. If you regard Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sf novel, than it’s a plot there from the very beginning of the genre. Shelley’s story is, of course, about an android turning directly on his creator.

The plot form of the android that gets out of control is probably the most pregnant of the plots of creation. It has possibilities of theme, depths of meaning and symbolism, and dramatic opportunities as yet unplumbed; it appeals to the deepest creative impulses of man, and through the working out of this ultimate of creations can be revealed the nature of man in this peculiarly significant activity. That creations should revolt is perhaps inherent in the nature of creation, but why this should be so is a question that might inspire a large number of stories and elicit some fundamental truth of existence.

As to other created life, Gunn divides those plots in the same way: the helpful sort and the unhelpful sort.

Gunn can only think of one plot example involving the creation of non-android life that is helpful: Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King”. It has a biologist using the tissue of an African tribal chief to create all sorts of freakish life. Given the interest in genetic engineering and stories of genetic chimera as in S. Andrew Swann’s Moreau series, use of this plot has greatly expanded since 1951.

And for a story about other forms of created chemical getting out of control, there are the other Moreaus, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. However, there are other examples Gunn mentions: “Children of the ‘Betsy B’” from Malcolm Jameson, in which accidental exposure to a chemical turns a wooden steamship sentient and capable of procreation, and John Christopher’s “Tree of Wrath” about another sentient plant menace.

Gunn doesn’t really think this twig on his plot tree is very useful:

Essentially the plot form has little to say that cannot be said better in some other way. The other forms of life are not nearly as fundamentally appealing, as thematically significant, as psychologically basic as the androids.

Maybe its not a fundamentally appealing, but it sure as a lot of potential surface appeal and romance.

Mechanical Life

Gunn uses a similar approach here as to his “chemical life”. Robots occupy the androids place and, notes Gunn, they have the added benefit and appeal of being more plausible.

He briefly goes through the development of the robot plot with mentioning, of course, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. (Which Asimov said he got from John W. Campbell rattling them off to him.)

Whereas creating chemical life can be a stand-in for queasiness about man playing god, the robot plot can symbolize the conflict between man and machine.

Naturally, there’s the “robots that aid mankind” plot, and Gunn covers that history a bit. But he spends a great deal of time talking about an almost-robot story: C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born”. It has the brain of a woman, once famous and beautiful, put in a robot’s body after she is badly burned. And it’s a very stylish and very functional body in which the woman returns to the stage to sing and dance. But she may be changing, losing the humanity she once had, “the distant taint of metal” creeping into her voice.

Gunn enthusiastically endorses the story as showing the “possibilities implicit” in this plot form, and sf critics still continue to write about Moore’s tale.

It’s no surprise to see the “robots that got out of control” category being epitomized by Jack Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” which has continued, I would argue, to influence Gunn’s own fiction down to at least his Transcendental Machine trilogy. Gunn discusses it at length.

Gunn is justifiably not as fond of the sequel to Williamson’s story, And Searching Mind”, and he uses it to discuss the pitfalls of the sf novel versus the sf short story. A novel often requires, for commercial reasons, a conclusive ending. (Gunn said that before sf trilogies were a big thing, remember.) The problem unresolved in “With Folded Hands” gets an unconvincing solution with humans using psychic powers. John W. Campbell put Williamson up to it, and Campbell seems to have thought “With Folded Hands” was, in Gunn’s words, “only a personal, or small-group tragedy”. There’s nothing to suggest, though, that, when the Humanoids scale up their work, the results will be any better for humans.

Gunn thinks Williamson’s sequel committed a “dramatic sin by trying to convince the reader that, no, really, the Humanoids are here to help us by curing our psychological diseases. Campbell wanted another story where humanity is shown triumphant against a non-human threat.

Other Forms of Mechanical Life

These are what we would now call artificial intelligences without moving bodies (1951, after all, was in the age of the mainframe computer).

Again, they get classified on how nicely they behave with humans.

On the helpful side is Frederic Brown’s “Honeymoon in Hell”. Its plot has the main computers of the US and USSR manipulating humans out of starting a nuclear war. This theme of artificial intelligences manipulating humans behind the scenes shows up in Algis Budry’s Michaelmas and is also a plot element of Gunn’s Transcendental Machine trilogy.

However, Gunn doesn’t really think this plot has as much potential as the robot or android story. The main problem is the machine sits still. The drama of its actions has to be shown by its effects on the emotions and actions of other characters. I’m not sure that is as limiting as Gunn thinks though he was writing before computer networks with their dispersed senses and instrumentalities entered sf. However, the modern iterations of this plot do not usually involve unequivocally helpful AIs, and they seem to straddle the line between this category and the next: “other forms of mechanical life that get out of control”.

Gunn thinks this plot works better than the helpful forms of mechanical life. It’s certainly more popular both before and after Gunn’s thesis. Still, Gunn thinks it lags behind robot plots in interest and thematic potential.

Of course, Gunn’s plot division, like his one with robots and androids, downplays a third option: the created minds deciding to remove themselves from the human realm.

Arguably the areas of science and technology that have advanced most since 1951, the year of Gunn’s thesis, are those touching on the creation of “life” whether it’s genetic engineering or machine intelligence (and there’s a real branch of science devoted to creating “artificial life”. Predictably, that, with the strengths Gunn noticed, make the creating life plot very viable and popular in today’s science fiction.

Next time a look at plots of creation where engineers and scientists get up to something other than creating life.


One thought on “Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life

  1. A great discussion. On the question of androids, I certainly agree, why bother creating them? If they are humans with all the human flaws, we already have a way of creating them much cheaper. Would we start them as babies and raise them? Would they have Oedipal issues, sibling rivalry, go through puberty? Would they get angry, be jealous, lie, steal, cheat to get ahead? What fun. Humans carry many artifacts from our evolution. Should we build those into our creations? If we don’t they won’t be truly human, at least not psychologically.

    Metaphorically, I think all artificial humanoids, including the Frankenstein monster, Pinocchio, Data on Star Trek, I-Robot, Westworld characters, etc.— give us an opportunity to ask what it is to be human—to look at ourselves from the outside. Do we create them because we can? So we have something like ourselves to abuse, including sexbots? What does that tell us about ourselves?

    Many of my blog stories play off these issues: “Artificial Love” (11/16), “Dollbaby 2727” (5/17), “Tobor For President” (6/17), “Zero Tolerance” (2/18), Never Leave Me” (5/18), “AI Gingerbread” (6/18) —just to name a few.

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