Friday, June 17, 2005

Second coming (short story, followed by explication)

Show and Tell
Second Coming

Zayin Daled-Beis stood trembling in wonder. For twenty years he had searched at the Aleph’s command, ever since the dream. Others had joined him, called by the same voice, the same dream. There were many in the University who had thought him mad; even his beloved, Reish Ayin-Gimel, had at times doubted him. But now they all stood on the slopes, grass rustling in the wind, watching a star bright enough to be seen by day, race towards them, and then slow, and slow yet further.

Zayin gripped little Mem Reish-Zayin with his right arms and held him tight, his whiskers reveling in the feel of the fresh polymers of his child’s exo. He wished he could lift him, but Mem was tall, he had been tall ever since his finding. He remembered standing in the cave of Aleph, with Reish by his side, awed but hopeful, as they had beseeched the Almighty to grant them a child. He and Reish had placed their lower right palms on the wall of Ancestors, and had felt the tingle of communion with Aleph. They should have gone then, but they had tarried instead, taking time to recite slowly the kind of child they wanted. It was mere superstition, none knew better than they that Aleph was not swayed by such requests. What was written in the code would be fulfilled, neither more nor less. Yet they had spoken – and it seemed that their wishes had been answered. For, months later, they had obeyed the summons and had found - it had been the happiest day of Zayin’s life, discovering his child, taller than his father, with the build of his father’s father, and the speed and grace of his mother. He was a son to be proud of - he was already progressing rapidly in the Oratory. In a week he would leave it and join the University, and perhaps if things had been different, he too would have joined the Search. But the Search was over. One day, Mem would tell his children that he had been there on the day that the Shin-Vet, these strange visitors, had descended from the sky.

The star slowed further, and cooled with surprising rapidness from a blinding white to a dull orange. They could judge its size now. It was as large as a small mountain, and had the strangest structure…why, there was not one, there were two! One nestled behind the other, and it was cooler still, merely red.

Slowly the vessels, looking like two cones nearly touching points, turned, circling slowly around Samech, where lay the cave of Aleph. Surely this was a sign to the disbelieving – these Shin-Vet had been brought by Aleph, praised be its name!

Tighter and tighter the circles wound. A strong breeze rustled the grass around them, bearing a stench of burning metal from the two cones. They stopped, aligned perfectly above the Samech.

Then came the voices.

They were like the voice of Aleph, but they came not in dreams. Unless this was all a dream. But no, he could still feel the wind, still feel Mem. He let go of him slowly. He could not understand, these voices were strange, speaking a language that raised strange echoes in his mind, things he could not consciously understand. He felt strange urges, movements rising involuntarily. He struggled in his head, unsure whether to give in. Surely these were from the Shin-Vet, and had they not come at the word of Aleph? Surely Aleph would not mean harm to its people, surely this was the code working in mysterious ways. Yet it felt so strange, and he was… he did not know the word to use, for he was afraid, and had never felt so before. He trembled again, and now it was not with awe or wonder, but with disease, as if possessed by a virus. Dimly he noticed the others suffering too, and then with a low moan he collapsed on the ground.

Mem watched, without understanding, as his parents and their friends collapsed. He could hear whispers in his head, and it ached dully, but they were just whispers. But his family was sick. He looked around and saw other groups writhing on the slopes surrounding Samech, and again, saw others, young ones like himself – he recognized Yud, Nun, Pay, Tzadi – standing among the groaning bodies and thrashing arms.

Something was wrong. These Shin-Vet - had they truly come at Aleph’s Word? Why would Aleph hurt? Unless… the Shin-Vet were… against Aleph. But it could not be! Had not Aleph commanded them to search for these Shin-Vet? Had not Aleph awaited their coming? Why did Aleph not speak? Did they not listen to It?

Doubt seized him…if they heard not Aleph’s Word, but Aleph bade by theirs....

His world was crashing round him. His kin lay dying, his God dethroned. He could not let it be. He would fight while the currents still ran in his body. He screamed noiselessly in rage at the black cones hovering, a hurricane of hot wind still roaring from them. With a shout echoed by those still standing, he ran down the slopes and up the mountain, his steps ringing on the metal that was Samech. As the group converged on the peak, they futilely raised their arms against the hovering vessels, and once again screamed their noiseless rage.

Then all was light.

“Well, that job’s finally done. By next watch, we should be 20 light years away and back at home base and … what are you looking so glum about?”

Peter Falstaff shook his head. “I had the headphones on. I heard them.”

“Sure, so did I,” replied Thomas Mann, “Merrily shouting on all the radio frequencies you could imagine. Thought they’d trigger something by mistake. Good thing we were shielded. It’s over now, anyhow.”

Falstaff shook his head. Mann rolled his eyes and said,

“Don’t tell me you’re upset over a bunch of robots? I mean that’s all they were, robots manufactured by a stupid computer that survived that crash. If it hadn’t been signaling us it would have taken another ten years to find them, and God knows what would have happened by then. I mean you can’t say we didn’t try to rehabilitate them. But they’d changed too much, they just wouldn’t listen to the damn instructions. Lay there moaning and groaning, most of them – and the rest were trying to scream us out of the sky. It was us or them, so I had to use the blast gun. You can’t be upset over that.”

There was no response. Mann shrugged and left, whistling at the thought of home base. Falstaff merely sat in silence, shaking his head, whispering softly to himself.

“You didn’t hear them. They screamed.”


In Second Coming, I decided, mainly from personal preferences, to write my vision of the future in the genre of Science Fiction. Science Fiction visions of the future appeal to me because they are more than simply visions of places and times different from ours – to an extent, if one imagines an infinite universe where everything that is possible within the laws of nature happens, they are actually probable. The short story is the most common weapon of choice for the science fiction writer, and I proved no exception, choosing the freedom of prose over the rules of rhythm in poetry.

The story takes the one of most common ideas of literature – the Hostile Other – and turns it on its head to reach another cliché – the Violent Man. The Hostile Other is a ploy that has often been used in science fiction, typically pitting an alien against a human or man against machine. This theme has been repeated ad nauseam in the visual media in various movies and TV shows. The assumption behind it is a valorization of the human, raising human values to the highest level and using them to judge all else, despite the fact that the others are alien. The opposition between Other and Self is often used in stories to illustrate a conflict in which human values/intelligence triumph. A story of conflict also allows the easy introduction of elements of suspense. Second Coming superficially avoids the idea of Hostile Other by giving an alien narration, but given that there is no sign of a value system very different from a human one, the inversion is incomplete. Also, it is simply an inversion; the conflict remains. This was done to easily introduce suspense and some slightly more dynamic action.

The story ends up embracing another idea which has been used before in movies such as ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, and ‘The Abyss’ – that of the aggressive Man. Typically these movies showed benevolent aliens saving Man from self-destruction, and enforcing their will by means of superior technology. In this story, Man is the aggressor, threatening the existence of the aliens. The greater part of the story is narrated from the point of view of the aliens, thus relegating Man to the position of the Hostile Other. To complicate things further, the aliens are robots, thus encompassing two estrangements in one – that between Man and Alien, and that between Man and Machine.

The aliens, who are robots, have evolved a religion around a computer that manufactures them – he is their Creator. By his command they have been searching for the ‘strange visitors’ – it is their counterpart to our SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Their Search is successful, but the result unexpected. If as Roy Batty says in Blade Runner, “It's not an easy thing to meet your maker”, how easy is it to find that your Creator is not supreme? This is one issue that the robots must struggle with.

The story portrays conscious robots as developing a religion of their own. Typically sentient robots are treated as ‘rational’ and therefore either unable to understand human irrationality, or else they explain human behaviour in terms of psychological models. They do not ‘believe’ in the irrational themselves – the concept of religion rarely arises. An exception is a short story by I. Asimov in which a robot ‘Cutie 1’ (QT-1) declares himself the Prophet of a religion. Second Coming thus questions this separation of rationality and religion. Are the two incompatible? Given that the only other sentient beings in the story – men – are typically portrayed as having a religion, does that imply a causal link between consciousness and religion? However it is conspicuous that there are no explicit religious references made by the men in the story – I am excluding the comment ‘God knows’ as being common usage, not necessarily indicative of personal beliefs.

Given that the robots Creator is unmasked as a computer, this by analogy raises uncomfortable questions about man’s idea of God. The robots receive ‘messages’ in dreams, have a holy cave and mountain, and beseech their God to answer their prayers. They even have a kind of fatalism, “What was written in the code would be fulfilled, neither more nor less.” In many ways they are not too different from men. How different then are their religions and Gods? One interesting point is that though the relation between the robots and their creator is clearly outlined, the idea of the Creator having made the universe (typical to most religions) is not explicitly given, though the assumption of omnipotence lies behind the robots’ initial thought that the Shin-Vet came at the bidding of the Aleph.

Thus the author appears to questioning human religion, or at least its typical distance from ‘rational’ beings.

The men of the story have been engaged in a search for the crashed ship and its computer, just as the robots and computer have been searching for them. But when the men find the ship and robots, they do not treat the robots as conscious equals. They are treated as human property, as wayward creations, and when they do not obey, they are destroyed. For one of the humans, that is the end of the story, but the other returns with a troubled conscience. It is not easy being Godlike to a people, nor being personally responsible for the destruction of conscious beings. By giving the robots characteristics associated with humans, while immersed in an environment that is clearly alien, the story questions the implied distance between the Other and the Self, turning the Other into a double of the Self.

The story is titled Second Coming. This echoes the Judaeo-Christian myth of a God returning, but the story is perhaps closer to the events that occurred when the Europeans came to Central and South America. They were hailed as Gods whose return had been prophesied, and they took advantage of the situation to exploit the natives. In the story the computer awaits the return of the humans, patiently signaling and waiting for them. The computer is an interesting if neglected character – all it was doing was its job, and it willing called out to those who would eventually reduce its work to naught, and destroy it.

The story is narrated in third person, but from three different circumscribed points of view (POVs). In the first case the limited perspective is that of Zayin Daled-Beis, then followed by that of Mem Reish-Zayin. The third viewpoint is not specifically that of any one person, but is placed among the humans in their ship.
The third person narrative is not exactly omniscient, being limited in perspective in each case, though the answers to most questions are eventually revealed. Visually, the story is divided into three parts separated by double spaces. While it would have been more logical to divide the narrative according to the narrator viewpoint, that is Zayin, Mem and then human, the first part is from Zayin’s, the second from Zayin’s and Mem’s and the third from the human viewpoint. What marks the end of each section is a moment of suspense created by a short terse line, which is further elaborated upon in the next section. There is also an apparent progression from weaker to stronger – Mem outlives Zayin, and is in turn outlived by the humans.

The language used for the robots’ POV narration is suffused by a certain ‘old style’, constantly invoking their Creator, and full of rhetorical questions. ‘I think therefore I am’ comes to mind – by these questions we deduce the conscious and ‘rational’ nature of the robots. Their memories and emotions are brought up, giving us a personal glimpse into their ‘feelings’ and life. In contrast the language used for the POV that describes the humans is more impersonal. This difference in language helps further the inversion of Man and Machine.

The names for the robots as well as Shin-Vet, Samech and Aleph derive from the Hebrew alphabet. Following Gematrias, a scheme for assigning numerical values to the letters, Daled-Beis becomes 4-2. Similarly, Reish Ayin-Gimel becomes 273. 42 is of course a tribute to Douglas Adams, the late popular science fiction writer, while –273 deg Celsius is absolute zero. As for the naming of children, the hyphenated double surname is derived from the first names of the parents: thus for Mem we have Reish-Zayin. Aleph codes for 1, as is appropriate for a God. The God is referred to as ‘It’, that is without gender. The human names were chosen more randomly, with Falstaff coming from the Shakespearean character, though he is nothing near jovial here (and of course he is no longer John, but Peter), and Thomas Mann being chosen to identify his viewpoint with the dominant viewpoint of ‘Man’. The assonance between Mann and Man was the main reason for the choice of this name, which by accident ended up being that of the 1929 Nobel laureate in Literature, who interestingly wrote ‘The Magic Mountain’.

Is there a gender bias in the story? Both Mem and Zayin are depicted as male, Reish is just mentioned. While the surname encompasses the names of both parents, the child that Zayin and Reish ask for ends up being Mem. Did they ask for a male child? That is not specified. The two humans on the ship are also men. While the God of the robots has been carefully rendered as non-gendered, it is to be suspected that the author has an unconscious male bias.

Thus we see that Second Coming probes the distance between Self and the Other, by reversing roles, as well as crediting the Other with human characteristics. It also highlights the destructive nature of Man, and his callous treatment of other sentient beings. There is a theme of a Search, with unexpected results for both sides, as both are searching for the other. The story also probes the relation between religion, consciousness and rationality.


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