CSFF Blog Tour: The Very Antithesis of a Mechanism [Spoilers]

Not wanting to build a mere clocklike mechanism, you inadvertently – in your own punctilious way – created that which was possible, logical and inevitable, that which became the very antithesis of a mechanism …”

“Please, no more!”

– Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Three stories.

“The universe is infinite yet bounded.” So begins the Seventh Sally, the story of how Trurl’s perfection led to no good. The great constructor-benefactor once came upon a king exiled alone on an asteroid. The king insisted that the renowned constructor restore him to his kingdom, “and his iron fingers clutched the air, as if already closing around the throats of his beloved subjects.”

Naturally Trurl rejected the request. Yet he wanted to console the king, and so he built a tiny replica of a kingdom, contained in a box. Trurl perfected it so that the great Excelsius accepted it in the stead of his throne.

Trurl returned home in triumph, and told his friend Klapaucius how he had indulged the despot and protected his erstwhile subjects at the same time. And Klapaucius rebuked him: “Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality! Trurl, you took an untold number of creatures capable of suffering and abandoned them forever to the rule of a wicked tyrant. … Trurl, you have committed a terrible crime!”

They rushed to save Excelsius’s small subjects, only to discover that they had saved themselves.

There is also the story of Aule. Impatient for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men, he made children of his own. He made the Dwarves beneath the mountains of Middle Earth. And when he finished, he heard the voice of Iluvatar: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more.”

And Aule, weeping, lifted up a hammer to destroy the Dwarves. But they shrank from him and begged for mercy, and again he heard Iluvatar, “Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.”

Iluvatar had made the Dwarves the children of his adoption; he made them living beings.

Finally, there is the story of Travis and Nicholas Mackenzie. They have a world of “artificial intelligence. AI. Emotions, pattern recognition, free will, the ability to hold contradictory views … [H]uman consciousness. The whole enchilada.” It was difficult to create a digital world whose inhabitants think and act freely; preserving it may be more difficult yet.

The linchpin of The God-Hater is that a group of people managed to create beings with independent wills. The linchpin of Tolkien’s story is that only God can do that. Of course, in Bill Myers’ story the method was one Tolkien could not have imagined: computer programming. Bits and bytes, Travis calls his creations. Pixels and teraflops. But if they’re not real to him, they are very real to themselves – and each other.

My question here is not whether it is possible to make a computer program that becomes, like Adam, a living being. My question is whether that is what happened in The God-Hater. Emotionally, the book tugs strongly in that direction. But Myers never explicitly settled the question.

So let’s apply Klapaucius’ test. Remember his words to Trurl: When the imitation is perfect, the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality. Travis stressed the perfection of his imitation, and his pretense of real, free beings became a reality.

Later in his argument with Trurl, Klapaucius gave an even more convincing test: “You say there’s no way of knowing whether Excelsius’ subjects groan, when beaten, purely because of the electrons hopping about inside – like wheels grinding out the mimicry of a voice – or whether they really groan, that is, because they honestly experience the pain? A pretty distinction, this! No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer!”

He might as well have said that a sufferer is one who suffers. And the one thing none of us can doubt, since we saw Alpha make his trip to the Killing Wall, is that they really do suffer.

Now here’s where things get dicey. When the whole thing ceases to be an elaborate computer game, role-playing God becomes a much more doubtful enterprise. Did anyone notice that when Alpha built a temple, he built it to Nicholas? And when he prayed, who was he praying to but Nicholas? In the end, these mimicries of humanity who became, by virtue of their ability to suffer and choose, really human – they have, as their God and Savior, Nicholas Mackenzie.

There’s something just not right about that.

It’s odd that Rebekah and Nicholas made such a big deal out of giving the – what can we call them, electronic humans? – the truth, because they never got close to it. The created-to-sell-soap thing isn’t even the biggest part of it. The greatest truth, the ultimate Reality, is God. Any existence blind to Him is necessarily starved.

I think this is a legitimate issue. I also think it’s beyond The God-Hater. Maybe Myers doesn’t really consider the digital world to be real. Or – and I lean toward this – maybe these questions are simply outside the scope of his book. Maybe it wasn’t mere oversight that Myers never resolved his AI beings’ relationship to the universe; then he’d have to resolve their relationship to the God of the universe. Make it clear that Alpha is a rational creature on the order of humans and angels, and you’ve jumped clear over Nicholas Mackenize’s head.

The intent of The God-Hater was to “justify God’s ways to man” by putting man in (analogically) God’s place. To transcend the man-made computer world to the world God made, to move the question to a much higher court – that may have derailed Myers’ purpose entirely. It would have made a different book, and not necessarily a better one.

Still, it would have been nice if, to Alpha and his choosing, suffering world, God could have been God.

The story of Aule and the Dwarves can be found in The Silmarillion. The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good, is in The Cyberiad. I once posted a review of it.

4 thoughts on “CSFF Blog Tour: The Very Antithesis of a Mechanism [Spoilers]

  1. Thoughtful post, Sarah. At one point, Travis, I think it was, said, We have to tell him the truth, the whole truth. Meaning, they had to tell Alpha 11 about his being a creature made in the image of his creator-uncle. At that point, I thought, yeah, but that isn’t actually the Whole Truth. Yet I realized Travis apparently, and Nicholas definitely, didn’t believe they themselves were created in the image of their Creator, so of course, they couldn’t reveal what they didn’t believe to Alpha 11.

    To have gone that direction in the end would have been interesting, but I first wanted Nicholas to go there instead of dying.


  2. You’re right: Nicholas and Travis couldn’t reveal what they didn’t believe. And explaining to the AI world their real origins and purpose would have ruined Travis’ experiment anyway.

    I see your point about Nicholas, too. Poor Nicholas – I guess we have to assume he learned along with his digital counterpart.

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