Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Do Androids Dream of Electric Popes?
Such, at least, is the premise of Clifford Simak's 1981 science fiction novel, Project Pope. We picked it up recently at the bookstore Ken Cuccinelli wants to close, and read it through, flabbergasted by its combination of old-fashionedness and postmodernity.
Long ago, it seems, Earth's robots desired to join the Christian church, but were denied that opportunity on the grounds that, being machines, they lacked souls. Insulted but undeterred, the robots struck out on their own, finding a far-distant planet upon which to found, or rather discern, their own universal religion. Being machines, they are immensely patient; it has taken thousands of years, and their spiritual research project is still in its very earliest stages.
The chief goal of their faith is to create an artificial intelligence with perfect judgment and near-complete knowledge -- a genuinely infallible pope. The chief danger to their project, counterintuitively, is that some of their psychic operatives seem to have stumbled upon the actual location of Heaven.
Simak's robots have a curious relationship with human beings, quite a few of whom live on the planet End of Nothing with them, most as collaborators in their spiritual quest. Humans created robots, and so the robots (who are now both independent and quite capable of improving their own "species") have an affection, even a reverence for human beings.
This reverent affection the main reason that their robot religion has such obviously human trappings. The robots seem especially attracted to the external forms of Roman Catholicism, with its hierarchy, logic and generally mechanistic operating system. Nonetheless, despite the presence of "cardinals," "monks" and a "pope," not to mention a headquarters called "Vatican," their religion is not Catholicism, nor any other kind of Christianity. (Indeed, the only times that the name of Jesus occurs in this book, it is used as an expletive).
Into this strange and largely secret project stumble a couple of human beings -- a square-jawed doctor on the run, accused of crimes he did not commit, and an intrepid reporter, seeking the story that will make her career. They fall in love, both with each other and, gradually, with the inhabitants of End of Nothing. They are excruciatingly dull, throwbacks to the sci-fi convention of the 1940s and 50s.
And yet these cardboard characters are thrust up against some truly hallucinatory plot devices. For example, they spend a lot of time on a world whose creatures are composed, more or less entirely, of mathematical equations. In one stunning sequence, a visitor to the gates of Heaven is greeted by a diabolical figure who emerges, waving a finger, and saying, "Naughty, naughty, naughty."
The storyline, it must be said, is a disaster. The plot lurches and twists and ultimately makes little sense at all. This would be forgiveable if Simak were truly committed to exploring the ideas that he throws out -- a robot religion! An equation-world! We would especially have enjoyed some depiction of robot rituals, or insight into the bands of alien pilgrims whose journey to Vatican, and apparently help fund its operations. Sadly, Simak shows no real interest in the religious or philosophical aspects of his story.
Still, the book is a kooky and sometimes provocative read. It marks a transitional period in science fiction history. By 1981, Simak was an old pro, a veteran whose credits went back to the Gernsback era. But the genre's conventions had already been re-shaped by things like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the truly subversive work of writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Here is one of the men who created the genre and its conventions, trying to catch up with the young Turks. He fails, but it is an interesting failure.