Chaos and Science Fiction

on August 2, 2011

The brief period between 1926, when Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” and 1928, when it appeared in Weird Tales, was marked by a revolutionary change in the scientific worldview, as the explosive development of quantum mechanics substituted randomness for certainty and chaos for dogmatism.

Modern science fiction was born of this same shift in attitudes. Hugo Gernsback may have hoped when he launched Amazing Stories in 1926 that it would serve as a vehicle for sober scientific anticipations in fictional form, but both the title he chose for it and the original fiction he began to publish by 1928 revealed the untamed magic at its heart.

Amazing and its imitators were generally inhospitable to occult themes, but weird science was their bread and butter. It might be fair to say that the primary agenda of 1930’s and early 40’s SF was to bring weird science under human control and use it to establish domination over the vast, indifferent cosmos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

But although aspects of the chaos vision contributed to the new understanding of science which made that agenda possible, the physical universe as conceived by the cosmic engineers of the 30’s afforded little room for higher knowledge.

The shamans of prehistory had regarded their hallucinatory experiences and intuitive flashes as manifestations of contact with spirit beings or visits to a spirit realm. The prophets of two thousand years ago accepted them as inspired visions of heavenly beings and domains. The mages of the Renaissance interpreted them as the human mind encountering its own inner divinity, which was believed to be a direct reflection of the Absolute.

But the science vision was committed to a belief that the material universe was the totality of existence, and that left no easy way to recognize higher knowledge as providing a door, a window, or even a peephole into a transcendent reality. Lovecraft had managed the trick by inventing a vast underground network of deranged cultists and Great Old Ones to trouble the sleep of poets and madmen, but that was hardly a general solution.

The one aspect of old-fashioned occultism that retained some credibility in the 1930’s was a belief in psychic powers, since it seemed possible that unknown forms of energy might provide non-sensory means of obtaining information or influencing events. Professor J. B. Rhine of Duke University spent many years conducting experiments in card-guessing and dice-rolling, and his book Extrasensory Perception became wildly popular upon its publication in 1934.

Rhine’s “parapsychology,” however, was limited by his desire to found a respectable academic discipline, and the non-ordinary knowledge and powers he hypothesized had at most trivial effects on the familiar material world.

That was one reason why Lovecraft’s stories remained popular and influential even after his death in 1937. His unique ability to convey a view of existence in which every anomalous event, every unaccountable emotion, and every strange trick of perception hints at inconceivable spheres of being had a continuing impact even on mainstream science fiction.

The degree of Lovecraft’s influence, along with a persistent urge to push against the limits of higher knowledge, can be seen in two stories by Isaac Asimov that were published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, when he was a 21-year-old whiz kid.

“Liar!” was one of Asimov’s earliest positronic robot stories. It begins with the top brass of U.S. Robot & Mechanical Men, Inc. trying to figure out just what “extraneous factor” might have disrupted the robot assembly line and “produced a positronic brain of supposedly ordinary vintage that’s got the remarkable property of being able to tune in on thought waves.”

It seems that a touch of chaos has unexpectedly popped up out of nowhere in their well-regulated factory, giving rise to a telepathic robot who proceeds to sow further chaos among the engineers by telling each one the lies he believes will make them happy.

But although chaos is at the root of the problem, it is not allowed to run wild, because Asimov’s First Law of Robotics also makes its initial appearance in this story. The injunction against causing harm to a human is what causes Herbie to lie, and when the scientists convince the robot that he will be a source of pain whether he lies or tells the truth, the First Law causes him to short out and go catatonic. Problem solved.

Chaos was not that easily dismissed, however, and just a few months later Asimov returned to the theme in “Nightfall,” which even today is often cited as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. The really peculiar thing about “Nightfall,” however, is the extent to which it is a direct translation of “The Call of Cthulhu” into the terms of classic science fiction.

Just as in Lovecraft’s story, “Nightfall” begins with “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge” that “open[s] up … terrifying vistas of reality.” And at its conclusion, with those vistas fully apparent, the characters promptly “go mad … or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” — exactly as Lovecraft’s narrator would have anticipated.

But in every other respect, the values of “Nightfall” have been radically transformed. The revelation that Asimov’s scientists painstakingly assemble from scattered clues is not one of cosmic horror but is an indication that the world they have taken to be an all-in-all is merely one small planet within a vast stellar universe. And the synthesis of scientific, archaeological, and religious data that predicts an eclipse during which the stars will appear for the first time in thousands of years represents a not-quite-successful attempt to prepare their world to receive that truth without flinching.

The ultimate message of “Nightfall” — intended for its readers as much as for its characters — might be stated as, “The true size and nature of the universe are beyond your knowledge or even your imagination. But there are clues available that properly considered will give you a glimpse of that larger world and prepare you to encounter it.”

That was a powerful statement — but it was also merely metaphorical. “Nightfall” presented people living in a situation so special and isolated that the discovery of things we ourselves already know and take for granted strikes them as an overwhelming dose of higher truth. However, the story did not offer any hint as to where folks of the mid-twentieth century might find an equivalent challenge to their own reality.

In that sense, “Nightfall” was a dead end. But oddly enough, Asimov’s wacky little robot story “Liar!” turned out to offer a more effective path for the exploration of higher possibility.

Four months after “Nightfall” appeared in print, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and in the course of World War II, science fiction became distinctly less scientific and more romantic and mysterious. Even Astounding was able for a time to accommodate writers who came out of the Lovecraftian tradition, most notably the husband-wife duo of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

Moore’s ground-breaking first story, published in Weird Tales in 1933, had involved a hard-bitten space adventurer who is seduced and almost destroyed by a tentacled vampire-like being from “an older race than man, spawned from ancient seed in times before ours, perhaps on planets that have gone to dust.” Kuttner had begun his own career in Weird Tales in 1936 with a gruesome little narrative involving giant rats and “a moribund, inhuman life that was said to exist in forgotten burrows in the earth.”

In the more rational climate of Astounding, Kuttner and Moore, by then married and often writing as a couple, had no choice but to set aside the element of Lovecraftian horror. They continued, however, to pursue every possible suggestion of higher knowledge, shamelessly swiping any story device that pointed even slightly in that direction.

In 1942-43, they turned out a succession of stories of wacky — and occasionally menacing — robots, clearly inspired by Asimov’s but without the restraining influence of the Three Laws. The most memorable of these was “The Proud Robot,” in which a drunken inventor named Gallegher builds an insubordinate robot who initially seems to have no other purpose than to make his life miserable.

Gallegher and Joe the robot are both masters of higher knowledge, but in very different ways. Joe possesses X-ray vision, super-sensitive hearing, a variety of “other enigmatic senses” — such as vastening and sagrazi — and the ability to laugh at things that haven’t yet happened. “I’m afraid of that robot,” Gallegher admits at one point. “He’s vastened me into quite a spot.”

Gallegher, on the other hand, may not have any superpowers, but he is an intuitive genius who explains that “‘If I’d really studied, I’d have been another Einstein. … As it is, my subconscious picked up a first-class scientific training somewhere. … When I’m drunk or sufficiently absent-minded, I can work out the damnedest problems.”

Gallegher’s subconscious, it seems, is not only inventive but also functions like an amoral demigod, devising a ruthlessly logical solution to whatever problem it is handed. Eventually, he gets drunk again and tricks Joe into revealing the true purpose for which he was created — namely to serve as a superior beer can opener. And with that revelation, Joe is forced to obey and assist Gallegher in resolving his problems.

In its understated way, this seemingly trivial story had provided a viable solution to the question of locating higher knowledge within a universe of materiality. It had managed this by rejecting the “purposelessness, and automatic action of creation” in which Lovecraft believed and substituting a realm of relationship and purposeful creation lying just beyond the limits of ordinary consciousness. And that realization would be the key to unlocking the full potential of the chaos vision.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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