Thursday, 12 February 2015

"The Last Evolution" by John W. Campbell

Hey, guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

This one is under John W. Campbell on the Gutenberg SF listing, but the note says it's from a 1932 issue of Amazing Stories.

This is not a good story. It's not the subject matter, or even any of Campbell's well-noted obstreperous politics. It's just not very well written. It's jumpy, which is weird, given his stature as an editor in the field. From paragraph to paragraph, I had trouble following what was going on. The subject kept changing without notice, and things would happen in sentences that in no way actually explained what was going on.

It's also weirdly nihilistic.

Humans have evolved. They have created robots. Then, one day, an intruder comes into the solar system and seems to want to take over the planets there, and the best way to do that, it seems, is by sterilizing them of life. Not getting rid of the dominant species, eradicating all life. That seems to me to be the hard way to do any kind of terraforming, but whatever.

They can't touch robots, though. In fact, they seem to have no concept of robots. So the robots try valiantly to save the humans that they quite readily admit are pretty much obsolete. They manage to save two. I think they're both male, but gender is never mentioned in the story, and the names are no help. (Trest and Roal.) Watching the complete destruction of not only the human race and all the individual humans they've ever known, plus all other life on earth, the two humans' reaction can best be summed up as "Well, it's probably for the best. Men were parasites anyway."

Which begs the question, what about everything else? Is everything a parasite? Everything has to draw energy in some way from some other source, so other than plants (and plants use water), are we all just horrible because we need to get that energy from somewhere? In this particular story, possibly to be a shit-disturber, Campbell answers yes.

It's far worse to be a parasite than something that eradicates all life? I'm a little fuzzy on the morality here. At any rate, the surviving humans are blase about this. (Also, don't robots need to draw power too? What makes them less a parasite?)

And then the robots go on inventing, and invent another robot that uses some magical Ultimate Energy and so is not a parasite? I guess? And he will maybe go hunt down the creatures that destroyed all life in the solar system? Maybe? (The writing here is extremely opaque.)

It's all machines yay, and humans and life, boo, and it's very weird. There are no women (I don't think), and no mention of race, which is probably a good thing, given some of what Campbell was known to have said during his lifetime. Scientists are okay, I guess, but they're humans, and humans are pretty much bad because of how biology works, and this is a weird story.

But mostly, it's badly written. Too bad. I like way out and crazy. I don't like not being able to tell what the fuck is going on.

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