For the past several years I have blogged about using wiki software to support collaboration at the Wiki Fiction blog.
Inside Asimov. “The Start of Eternity” is fan fiction set in the imaginary future world that Isaac Asimov created for his robot and Foundation stories. I want to get inside Asimov’s head and find an answer to this question: why were Giskard and Daneel male?
Alternatively, why didn’t Asimov have gender neutral robots? Why was Dors Venabili the only female robot in the Foundation saga? Dors, along with the female Solarian robot in Robots and Empire, were late arrivals in Asimov’s fictional universe: why did female robots only appear late in Asimov’s work?
Asimov wrote that when he was young he was not knowledgeable about women and not comfortable creating female characters. After his heart surgery in 1983 (during which he was infected by HIV) Asimov began to introduce female robots into his fictional robots/Foundation universe.
For decades I was puzzled over Asimov’s insistence that humans and robots were fundamentally not compatible. During the “Spacer Conflict”, humans on Earth were depicted as being opposed to robots and not wanting robots as part of human society. In contrast, the Spacers (humans already living on exoplanets) did make heavy use of robots, but reliance on robots was depicted as contributing to the failure of the Spacers to continue spreading humanity into the galaxy. About that time, Daneel saw the fate of Jander, a male humaniform robot that had to be destroyed in order to block Amadiro‘s plans to use humaniform robots to colonize the galaxy. Daneel then went into hiding while developing his long-range plans for humanity’s future, a plan that would bring into being Galaxia, a trans-galactic community of telepathically-linked humans.
Part of those plans involved erasing humanity’s memory of robots. By the time of Hari Seldon, robots were the stuff of myth and legend. The presumption in Asimov’s saga is that Daneel was doing what is best for humanity according to the dictates of the “zeroth law” of robotics. Daneel was forced by his programming to create conditions in the galaxy that would minimize harm to humans.
I suspect than when Asimov started developing his robot stories, he was caught up with the enthusiasms of others (including Turing) who imagined that it would not be too many decades before there were machines with human-like minds. Now, more than 70 years later, it is easier for us to imagine a long and gradual adaptation of humans to increasingly sophisticated computerized systems, with human-like artificial intelligence still off stage in the indefinite future. Here in the real world we have already arrived in the future times that within Asimov’s fictional universe were to include human-like artificial intelligences.
These considerations (above) lead me to wonder if, were Asimov with us today, would he be open to a re-imagining of his fictional universe along the lines of The Start of Eternity? Asimov ended the development of the Foundation Series at the point of having Daneel ready to transfer his mind into a human brain. In The Start of Eternity, I imagine that the origin of the first “positronic brain” with human-like thought processes involved transfer of a human mind into a robotic body. Asimov’s wife wrote a story called Mind Transfer, and I’ve previously speculated about the extent to which Isaac Asimov might have been inhibited from “following in his wife’s foot steps” and using human-to-robot mind transfer in his fictional universe.
they, thon thou
When I started writing about the genderless characters in The Start of Eternity I started using “thon” as a gender-neutral personal pronoun. However, nobody likes the various invented pronouns, including “thon”. I agree with the suggestion here that a singular “they” is probably becoming the most popular pronoun to use for genderless individuals. Another option that I have thought about is “thou”.
Among the ancient and truly genderless characters in the Exodemic Fictional Universe are the Huaoshy. The Huaoshy are a type of artificial lifeform that has no need for sexual reproduction or genders. Given the advanced technology of the Huaoshy, they can appear to other lifeforms as having magical abilities or god-like powers (such as being able to take on any convenient physical form by re-organizing their nanite components). It was natural for me to imagine that Genesaunts might start referring to their creators with language such as “thou art my creator”.
As depicted in The Start of Eternity, many Genesaunt lifeforms, encouraged by the Huaoshy) go through a stage during which they genetically modify their own species so as to eliminate genders and move towards asexual reproduction. Within the intergalactic Genesaunt society that has been formed by the Huaoshy, lifeforms with sexual reproduction are a small minority.
Within the Exodemic Fictional Universe there is a process by which the genderless Huaoshy direct the evolution of species such as humans along a path similar to that taken by the biological lifeforms that long ago produced the Huaoshy. However, the Huaoshy have existed for hundreds of millions of years without having their own genders or sexual reproduction. The Huaoshy and most Genesaunts only understand sexuality from a theoretical perspective.
While domesticating species such as humans, it is common practice for the Huaoshy to favor diversity in brain structures with the goal of promoting behavioral diversity. At any given time during human evolution, the Huaoshy have had a preference for either the human male brain/behavior pattern or the female. I imagine that when attempts are made to genetically modify the human species towards genderlessness, the female brain/behavior pattern might be preferred. In some “exodemic stories” the Overseers are already moving down this path, and I often imagine the Overseers as having (primitive) nanite prosthetics and always taking on a female body form.
In The End of Eternity Asimov never really explained why humanity became extinct in the far future. About all we know is that Noÿs Lambent was a female from the far future. Maybe human society in the time when Noÿs was born only had females. If so, the fact that Noÿs could fall in love with Andrew might have been important in the choice to use Noÿs as the agent from the future who would destroy Eternity.
Why male robots?
I started this rather meandering thread wondering why Asimov depicted Daneel and Giskard as male. I like the idea that there could be a male-positronic brain derived from Nahan and a female positronic brain pattern that originated with Gohrlay. A human female, Vasilia, was the presumed source of the “programming” that gave Giskard telepathic ability. According to Asimov, Vasilia, as a young woman, felt genuine affection for Giskard and she had perceived him as being affectionate towards her.
I assume that part of Daneel’s plan for creating Galaxia involved genetic alterations in humans so as to make human telepathy possible. Asimov seemed to have a preference for depicting the earliest humans who had significant “mentalic” abilities as female (Marlene and Wanda). I imagine that Vasilia was used as a tool by R. Gohrlay to accomplish the creation of a telepathic robot (Giskard) because of Vasilia’s own higher than average mentalic ability. Vasalia could tune Giskard’s circuits until there was a detectable mentalic resonance between herself and Giskard. So, it was beneficial for Giskard to be a male robot that Vasilia could be attracted to and find an object of fascination, ultimately leading to Giskard being programmed with telepathic abilities.
The challenge for R. Gohrlay was to produce a telepathic robot (Giskard) who would believe that he was the first telepathic robot and that his telepathic ability had been created by a human. I imagine that Giskard’s familiarity with Vasilia’s mind would make him doubt that she could have magically stumbled upon the correct programming for creating a telepathic robot, but Giskard was able to pass the secret of telepathic robots to Daneel before Giscard was destroyed. Daneel then lived for tens of thousands of years, working towards Galaxia, without revealing the existence of R. Gohrlay who hoped to avoid the Huaoshy until an adequate defense for humanity (Galaxia) could be achieved.
The Start of Eternity is a sequel for Asimov’s time travel novel The End of Eternity, but it also depicts new events in the Foundation saga after the story elements that were explored by Asimov in Foundation and Earth.
The Start of Eternity is still under development and collaborating authors are welcome.