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The concept of the novum is a central theme to science fiction as a whole. It represents something new and different from the world as we know it. The novum usually functions as the impetus to the science fiction story, guiding the motivations of main characters or, in some cases, existing as the protagonist itself. Obvious novums include the title subjects of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Avram Davidson’s “The Golem,” as well as the various artificial beings presented in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. In some instances, it is not so distinct. In Wells’s work, for instance, the future environments that he sculpts for his protagonists to explore, representing as they do something equally unfamiliar to contemporary humanity, serve as further paradigms of the science fiction novum. In this case, then, the story’s very setting can serve as a novum. By assessing the consequences of the technological novums of Wells, Davidson, and Asimov, as well as the explanations for and conditions of Wells’s dystopian take on futurity, the current study will present the stories as cautionary tales which reveal to the reader the irresponsibility of the human species’ fixation on technological and economic advancement.
In Wells’s The Time Machine, the protagonist finds himself in the year 802,701, whereupon humankind has apparently split into two subspecies: the Eloi, who seem to represent a humanity that had reached its technological limits and consequently surrendered most of its strength and intellect, and the stern, bestial Morlocks, counter-evolved from lower working classes. In many works of science fiction, the novum is concerned with a plausible futurity. Here, Wells’s quasi-Darwinian concept of the distant future puts to use the commonplace strife of socioeconomic division in order to account for a degeneration of the human race. The class divide is extrapolated to the extreme in the two subspecies, and both the setting and its occupants become a novum. That population genetics could lead to such utter devolution is speculative at best, yet reasonable enough to serve as stern warning against, as Colin Manlove puts it, “the brutal division of capitalist from laborer that to Wells had increased throughout the nineteenth century” (228). Wells’s predictive awareness — a principal component in the development of the novum — introduces these desolate portrayals of futurity by means of the text’s foremost invention, in turn creating additional novums meant to both captivate and caution the reader.
Manlove goes on to propose an interesting theory that considers Wells’s time machine itself as a sort of creator of its traveller’s visited future. Not only does the invention allow the future to be seen, Manlove claims that “[its] movements … become assimilated to those of future history itself” as the protagonist witnesses the rise and fall of many trees and buildings (229). Eventually, many millions of years into the future, his journey through time is accompanied by the slowing of the sun which, pursuant to Darwin’s theories on thermodynamics, eventually burns out and looms dead in the sky. While contemporary science has since found this to be untrue, Wells’s forecast of the distant future is again not to be discounted, especially considering the primitiveness of nineteenth-century technology by today’s standards (Manlove 229). Accepting Manlove’s aforementioned theory, the time machine can be labelled “transgressive technology” that serves to “deracinate the future as it traverses it” (230). He elucidates one of the purposes of Wells’s invention: “[Wells] wants to throw ironic light on our own technological pride by imagining infinitely superior technology” (228). While this can be said of almost any scientific novum, the dark imagery Wells utilizes to describe extraordinarily devolved humanity and the end of the earth — rather bleak concepts in themselves — also serve as warnings that our obsession with scientific progression may ultimately spell our end. As the Time Traveller encounters the world in its final stages, Wells presents readers with a sense of despair and hopelessness by imparting the scene with overtly gloomy language: words such as “dark,” “cold,” “still,” and “silent” each appear multiple times throughout the chapter (144-8).
Wells’s envisioning of the time machine is perhaps an excessive extrapolation of modern science. Still, it is a novum for obvious reasons: it drives the narrative, was previously unheard of, and, though open to potential logical and technical objections, is feasible either through future scientific developments or the sheer vastness and mystery of the universe. It also illuminates human beings’ scientific pride while offering something fantastic to strive for. In this sense, The Time Machine simultaneously glorifies and cautions against technological advancement. As Manlove indicates, “when mind has done all it can to subdue matter, it atrophies for want of material, and stasis and then decline result” (230).
There is a potential upside, however. Because the protagonist did become a physical part of these far-off future environments, one can assume that he must rematerialize — sometime in the year 802,701, for example — in order for that segment of the story to become actual historical reality. It is his invention of the time machine that justifies his transcending the known limits of time-space; yet despite his link to these moments in time, the notion of him reappearing so long after he dies is not at all substantiated. It signifies a perceptible lack of a novum. His presumed inability to relive that part of his “past” allows one to further interpret the travels as mere warning. In this sense, then, the biological deterioration of humankind is not inevitable, and the future not necessarily fixed, so long as “the dangers [of social stratification] exposed in present conditions can be corrected” (Manlove 228).
The inherent fascination of human beings with the advancement of science and technology is perhaps most evident in Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of short stories that revolve around the creation and development of artificial intelligence. While the historical timeline falls slightly behind Asimov’s speculative predictions, it is particularly intriguing today as the increase in quality of humanoid robots — certainly the prevalent novum throughout the text — seems to be experiencing a more rapid growth and advancement than ever before. This alone can provoke the “Frankenstein complex,” a term coined by Asimov to explain the public’s fear of artificial beings, especially those that most resemble humans. The humanoid tends to evoke this fear for its being much faster, stronger, more intelligent, and altogether more capable than humankind. The paranoia is especially evident in “Robbie,” a story in which the mother’s doubts prove to be unfounded, and “Little Lost Robot,” where a slight modification of Asimov’s First Law of Robotics justifies public concern. Asimov realized that fear would be the greatest barrier to the success of the novum, and to combat this he introduced the Three Laws.
First outlined in his story “Runaround” and subsequently referred to in many texts by both Asimov himself and fellow science fiction writers, the Three Laws form what many enthusiasts accept as the basis for a reliable and safe interaction between humans and artificially intelligent beings. They are in place to preserve humankind’s safety as well as ensure their dominance over artificial beings and erase the presumably paranoid fears around artificial intelligence. Indeed, as Lee McCauley explains, “it was the explicit nature of the Three Laws that made the existence of robots possible by directly countering the Frankenstein Complex” (158).
Eventually, however, inhibiting the autonomy of such otherwise highly-advanced beings will necessarily become impractical. All conscious life resents domination. Androids instilled with the Three Laws can still only let their resentment grow through sustained inferior dominance. Davidson’s android in “The Golem” pays no mind to the Three Laws or the Frankenstein complex. In the story, the creature attempts to frighten a Jewish couple. It explains that it was built from clay by Professor Allardyce, who by infusing it with life “made… all [humankind] superfluous” (306). Despite the story’s comical tone, the android — the blatant novum in the concise tale — offers a strong message for readers, warning of the predestined hatred between human and artificial being: “All mankind has an instinctive antipathy towards androids and there will be an inevitable struggle between them” (306). As mentioned in the introduction to “The Golem” in the Wesleyan Anthology, “Davidson clearly dissents from Asimov’s hard-sf, high-tech approach to the portrayal of robots,” yet he does reference Asimov as well as Shelley’s work in the story (304).
I, Robot acts as an artificial evolutionary tale. As in the evolution of The Time Machine, the reader finds the end result to be a dystopian account of humanity. Where Wells’s subtext concerns humanity’s biological devolution through social stratification, however, Asimov presents the development of social utopia gone awry through the use of technology. The androids, once servants to the will of humankind, evolve throughout the text of I, Robot. Their evolution seems complete in the final story of I, Robot, titled “The Evitable Conflict.” In this story, humanity’s technological development has reached an end, realized in artificial life advanced enough to act as sole guardians of humankind and control all the forces that influence the fate of humankind. Stephen Byerley, the Co-ordinator, calls in Susan Calvin to discuss the “small unbalances” in the supposedly flawless system (199). Out of fear, he chronicles the inevitable conflicts that have shaped human history (200-1). His contentions are legitimate: every period of human development has been defined by a particular type of human conflict. The peaking of Asimov’s novum marks an evolutionary transition for humanity from dominant to inferior species. Progressing as they have beyond any hope for human control, the android assumes authority over all natural lifeforms. As in much of the science fiction literature, the fully realized potential of technological novums coincides with the degeneration of humanity. Byerley is challenged on the grounds that prior civilizations fell at the hands of barbarians, of whom there are none remaining. His response — “we can be our own barbarians” — indicates this supposed technological triumph of humankind may gradually come to denote the end of their existence (214).
This evolution of artificial intelligence to the point where it overrides its intrinsic subjugation is a notion not exclusive to the author. In an interview with Stephen Platt, Hans Moravec, the scientist and Robotics Institute faculty member, claims that by 2040, artificial intelligence will reach that of our own. Sometime not long after that, he asserts, “the machines will begin their own process of evolution and render us extinct in our present form.” Such is the danger of the technological novum. In a manner not dissimilar to the Morlock versus Eloi dynamic, the android has obtained for itself absolute control of not only humankind’s economy, but of their fate as well. The narrative concludes with Susan Calvin’s warning that “you will see what comes next,” leaving one to imagine the dystopia from its onset and marvel at the natural limitations of human beings’ foresight.
The novum is a fundamental aspect of a work of science fiction. Without something wholly unique to life as we know it, the story will not fit the genre. Each example explored in the preceding article fulfills its role as a novum by driving the science fiction narrative and providing readers with the authors’ personal awareness and possible expectations regarding futurity. The technological novums in Wells’s The Time Machine and Asimov’s I, Robot collection were, like most highly advanced mechanical projects, born of good intentions and are concerned in some way with the improvement of human life through science. In some ways, they fulfill this role: the protagonist’s invention in the former helps to illuminate potentially harrowing consequences of sustained socioeconomic division, while the positronic brains of the androids in the latter prompt an ethical discussion around the morality of building precise limitations (the Three Laws) into an otherwise conscious and free-willed creation. Nevertheless, these cautionary tales make clear the fact that the human species’ potential for scientific achievement is not boundless. Each story successfully intertwines Western technological optimism and anxiety in their novums, suggesting that the peak of what contemporary society considers progress can only result in the displacement of humankind as the dominant form of life on Earth. Colin Manlove’s interpretation applies perfectly: “It is the very success of future technology that destroys man” (230).
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. 4th ed. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. Print.
Davidson, Avram. “The Golem.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 303-8. Print.
Manlove, Colin. “Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 48.2 (1993): 212-39. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2011.
McCauley, Lee. “AI Armageddon and the Three Laws of Robotics.” Ethics and Information Technology 9.2 (2007): 153-64. Scholars Portal. Web. 7 Mar. 2011.
Platt, Charles. “Superhumanism.” Primitivism. n.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2011.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Canada: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.
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