Free men are not equal, equal men are not free.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Asimov and the Tyranny of the Smart Kids

Several posts recently, at Castalia and elsewhere, have dug into why Isaac Asimov is a petty, poisonous, jealous, snake. A lot of it centers around a quote in the forward to the third book in a fantasy series that his name plastered on the front. Once you start digging, the jealousy and hatred are pretty obvious, as well as the utter irrationality at work.

For those, go read the original Castalia article on Cosmic Knights - where it's almost like he's trying to keep people from buying the book with his name on it - and the excellent analysis at Seagull Rising.
And that, my friends, is the critical point that Asimov misses.  He can't see past his own ego.  He thinks that readers burn for vengeance on the grade school bully, and that what readers really want is a smart hero who uses complicated plans built on layers of deceit and obfuscation to thwart the plans of simpler and more forthright villains.

Normal people don't think that way.  Normal people just want to grab the lady behind the counter at the DMV who smugly announces that they don't have the right safety check form and that they'll have to take the Form 88A-Pre-Owned back to the car dealership and get the Form 88A-Used and shake that helmet haired old prune until their registration falls out.  They want to grab their kid's vice-principal and explain to him WITH THEIR FISTS that biting a Pop-Tart into a pistol shape in no way violates a Zero Tolerance policy.  They want simple and honest solutions to the complex and inscrutable rules and regulations of modern life.


But a guy like Asimov - so desperate to be the smartest man in the room - has to announce that the vague longing people have for simplicity and virtue is actually a very bad thing, and if you'll just hear him out, he can explain why honesty is stupid.  That Asimov sees himself as allied with the schemers and deceivers tells you everything you need to know about him.  How much trust to put into the words of a man who sympathizes with the liars and connivers is up to you.

A falsehood to the point of lying is the end result of the absence of these facts. The fact that the title was intrinsically intertwined with European Christianity is probably the reason for Asimov’s hostility. Isaac Asimov should not have been associated with a fantasy anthology series. I have never been in awe of Asimov finding his fiction to be boring in the extreme. This is the guy who invented the galactic empire and managed to make it boring.
I will add one point - it's not just that we long for a simple answer, it's that we are often constrained from simple truth by petty tyrants and liars. Though bureaucracy may come with civilization, and some degree of it is a necessary evil, it is, in fact, an evil. The stupid principal who suspended a kid for chewing a pop tart into a gun-like shape? They didn't act alone, but bullied a kid and his parents in the full certitude that they were right, and no-one in the damn school looked at them and said "that's nuts."

When it comes to forms at the DMV, most of those rules are in place because someone did something stupid, and instead of giving the DMV initiative and guidance to handle the problems itself, decided to sluff it off on the people with more regulations, more forms, more documentation. I will say that the DMV where I live, compared to others I've seen, and especially where I grew up, actually has a fairly readable site that reasonably clearly lays out the requirements (compared to when I was looking up emissions and inspections requirements for CA), and has someone at the front door checking to make sure you have everything so you don't wait an hour to find out you're missing paperwork.

We want honest answers because we're given bullshit, obfuscation, and lies.

That said, the post at seagull rising covers those better than I want to here, go read it.

Let's get to the "desperate to be the smartest man in the room". If his own quote - misguided as it was - didn't convince you, let's look at his stories. I understand that the "Silver Age" (nomenclature courtesy of Daddy Warpig) Campbellian era fiction often had overarching, and when you look under the covers, totalitarian governments that pushed entire planetary populations around "for their own good," but Asimov took this to an extreme.

Let's look at one of his short stories featured in the anthology Nine Tomorrows, called Profession. This is a story that struck me as wrong even as a child, though I had not yet enough experience to understand why. In the future, everyone is tested for their suitability for a profession, and then taught from tapes. Our protagonist isn't chosen for a profession - and instead has to learn by reading, experimenting, and thus has no profession, and thus, no status. Or so he thinks. He eventually figures out the weakness of the tape systems - people taught by them have a very difficult time learning new things, adjusting to advancing or updated technology.

But, you see, it turns out the ones taught by rote, not to think, are the failures, and the "creative" ones, the one in ten thousand, are the successes.
"And those who don't? The ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine that don't? We can't have all those people considering themselves failures. They aim at the professions and one way or another they all make it. Everyone cane place after his or her name: Registered something-or-other. In one fashion or another every individual has his or her place in society and this is necessary.
For a story that earlier pointed out that laborers are needed and have specialized skill sets, this is condescending as hell. We really want the world run by the few, creative elites, but must fool the entire population that isn't into believing they're something special. The speaker goes on to explain why they must also fool the "creative" types at first.

And this is not an exception. A later story in the same anthology, All the Troubles of the World, the economy, everything, is run by a computer called Multivac, with a Central Board of Corrections to do its bidding and fix problems. It's not the only story of his with a massive computer running everything.

Let's turn to Foundation. As was quoted above - he managed to make intergalactic empire boring. But the premise goes along with "things should be run by us smart people". The entire point of the book is that there is a foundation, off in the odd corner. It starts - who could've guessed - as a subterfuge, an "encyclopedia" to preserve knowledge, but is secretly monitoring things to confirm that they go along with the expectations and long term predictions of Hari Seldon, and to become the core of a new empire.

From infogalactic:
Once on Terminus, the inhabitants find themselves at a loss. With four powerful planets surrounding their own, the Encyclopedists have no defenses but their own intelligence. The Mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, proposes to play the planets against each other. His plan is a success; the Foundation remains untouched, and he is promoted to Mayor of Terminus (the planet). Meanwhile, the minds of the Foundation continue to develop newer and greater technologies which are smaller and more powerful than the Empire's equivalents. Using its scientific advantage, Terminus develops trade routes with nearby planets, eventually taking them over when its technology becomes a much-needed commodity.
They also, as things happen that cannot be predicted, and are resolved, figure out there must be a second Foundation, running even further undercover, managing things to keep them on track, and to "correct" the unexpected.
As the Mule comes closer to finding it, the mysterious Second Foundation comes briefly out of hiding to face the threat directly. It is revealed to be a collection of the most intelligent humans in the galaxy, the descendants of Seldon's psychohistorians. While the first Foundation has developed the physical sciences, the Second Foundation has been developing the mental sciences. Using the might of its strongest minds, the Second Foundation ultimately wears down the Mule. His destructive attitude is adjusted to a benevolent one. He returns to rule over his kingdom peacefully for the rest of his life, without any further thought of conquering the Second Foundation.

The first Foundation, learning of the implications of the Second, who will be the true inheritor of Seldon's promised future Empire, greatly resents it—and seeks to find and destroy it, believing it can manage without it. After many attempts to unravel the only clue Seldon had given as to the Second Foundation's whereabouts ("at Star's End"), the Foundation is led to believe the Second Foundation is located on Terminus. By developing a technology which causes great pain to telepaths, the Foundation uncover a group of 50 of them, and destroys them, believing it has thereby won. However, the Second Foundation has planned for this eventuality, and has sent 50 of its members to their deaths as martyrs to preserve its anonymity.
Note the emphasized lines. The real secret kings masters are the smartest. They make their enemy think the "right" way. They are willing to throw away lives as pawns.  And yes, I'm aware of the issues related to hacking enigma, the lives that couldn't be saved to preserve the secret of the code being broken. By itself it would be one issue, but it's part of a pattern of the smartest telling everyone else what to do or else.

These themes come up in later books:
Olivaw explains that he has been guiding human history for thousands of years, and this is the reason the Seldon plan had remained on course, despite the interventions by the Mule. Olivaw also states he is at the end of his run-time and, despite replacement parts and more advanced brains (which contain 20,000 years of memories), he is going to die shortly. He explains that no robotic brain can be developed to replace his current one, and to continue assisting with the benefit of humanity—which may come under attack by beings from beyond our Galaxy—he must meld his mind with an organic intellect.
Yes, that's Olivaw from Caves of Steel. At this point Asimov has bridged in his robot stories, and had the robots decide, for humanity's own good, to manage them.

And to him it's a good thing..

At this point I really wonder if The Martian Way was actually his, given how it completely refutes so many of his common themes. Men of action getting ice to replenish Mars and break them free from Earth's central control?


  1. Wright's Count to the Eschaton is a better take on Foundation's ideas, assuming that there will be competing groups of secret kings - and that they'll both screw up royally.

  2. The Martian Way is my favorite Asimov story. It's from 1952. I've noticed the ones of his I like are all from the 1950s, before he descended into his own ass by connecting the Robot and Foundation series.

  3. In the vein of speaking about advanced intelligence who run and govern I'd like to point out how genius Vernon Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is. Not only do extremely advanced AI's occur and attempt to control humanity they are planned for. They have a life cycle were they essentially fade out as what does a god do when they can simulate everything. There is no pretension in it. It's based on the advance of tech and how it will destroy itself again and again.

    It cannot overcome 'godhood'. Though occasionally some do. Well, they have a plan for them too. Which makes the book f'ing great. It never throws humanity under the bus of just being 'Normal'. We clearly are not. Anyone with even a basic understanding of evolutionary psychology knows this. Anyways, great post. *Drops two coppers*

  4. Thanks for the comments guys, and especially reminding me of the Vinge books. I fully agree, it's possible to have "smarter than us" without the petty tyrant I want to control you stupid people for your own good you fucking jock simpletons attitude that came across very often with Asimov.

    And yes, he did have some good stories, and better science articles, but he was a real-life version of "Brainy" fucking smurf.

  5. I'll echo my comment from Morgan's post on Castalia House:

    H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human Future History was Galactic Empire done smartly and was not at all boring. He is the Anti-Asimov in many ways, in his writing and his life.

    Asimov infuriated me a young reader. Parts of the first Foundation series were interesting, but his arrogance forever was showing through, and most especially his hatred of Men of Action. I found the attitude unreal and at times vile.