Red Sci-Fi Final Essay 2

Thursday, December 16

Prompt Six

Gennady Gor’s "The Boy," Kir Bulychev’s "Jubilee 200" and Sever Gansovsky’s "Day of Wrath" question the limits of human intelligence and the nature of human evolution in relation to the capabilities of AI and human/animal hybridity. In your essay, provide a brief summary of how these works approach these problems and discuss which approach you see as the most salient and why.

In my first midterm essay I examined the timeless question of human nature; of what makes human nature of human. In this essay I'm going to explore the corollary of human intelligence and how it relates us to our peers in the animal kingdom and hypothetical artificial intelligences. This line of inquiry is as old as mankind, however it's only been in the past two-hundred years that we have gained the tools to solve it. Grounded in the discoveries of the scientific revolution and fueled by the imagination of brilliant thinkers, the largely overlapping genres of science fiction and scientific fantasy, or научная фантастика, have become our preeminent tools for exploring the limits and relations of human intelligence.

One of the oldest tropes in science fiction, dating back at least to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus is a certain degree of techno-skepticism. This science-fiction approach to techno-skepticism differs from the traditionalist approach (seen, eg, in the fascist philosopher Julius Evola's 1934 manifesto Revolt Against the Modern World), in that rather than wholesale rejecting non-traditional ideas on the premise that modern = bad, techno-skeptical science fiction writers seek to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of innovations noumenally. Most "great works" of science fiction are, fundamentally, works of techno-skeptical philosophy, see Mikhail Bulgakov's 1968 novel Heart of a Dog, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke's 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the wildly successful Terminator franchise.

In this essay I will examine how three little-known short works of Soviet science fiction — Sever Gansovsky's Day of Wrath (1964), Gennady Gor's The Boy (1965), and Kir Bulychev's Jubilee 200 (1986) — approach the question of the limits of human intelligence. Like most works of science fiction that address issues of humanity, these texts do so by creating a situation in which the humans and nonhuman intelligences are forced to interact, often resulting in conflict. I believe that while these three stories differ in their aims such that they aren't directly comparable, they each provide salient and uniquely valuable analyses on the question of human and nonhuman intelligence, with Jubilee 200 being the one I find most compelling and down to earth.

In the 1920s Soviet scientist Ilya Ivanov attempted an infamous experiment to produce so-called humanzees; chimpanzee-human hybrids. While his experiment failed, it was one of the first serious looks at the now popular science fiction trope of "uplifting", taking non-human animals (chimpanzees, dogs, and dolphins being of particular interest due to our similar natures as intelligent and social animals), and bestowing upon them by some combination of selective breeding, genetic engineering, or human hybridization, the ability to communicate and reason with abstract concepts at a human or near-human level. The plot of a Day of Wrath focuses on the distant aftermath of such an experiment.

An indeterminate amount of time before the story starts, a team of scientists in an isolated island laboratory — possibly a nod to H. G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau — bred a species of animalistic yet highly intelligent and mathematically inclined hominids referred to as Otarks. Naturally, the Otarks broke out of the laboratory in which they were confined and came to inhabit the surrounding countryside, killing off all the bears and wolves but leaving the local farmers relatively in peace. The story is told from the perspective of a big-city journalist who, accompanied by a gruff and distrustful woodsman, was sent on a mission to survey the locals' opinions of the Otarks in order to determine if the army should be sent in to deal with them. In the end, the Otarks slaughtered and ate our protagonist and his companion, catalyzing the local farmers to take up arms against the creatures whose presence they had thus far grudgingly and distrustfully endured.

I believe that Sever Gansovsky used Day of Wrath — which, incidentally shares a name with the apocalyptic Franciscan chant Dies Irae, possibly in reference to the eventual downfall of the Otarks at the hands of the farmers — to argue two primary points. Firstly that intelligence and the tenuously connected set of behaviors and morals known to us as "humanity" need not go hand in hand, and secondly the oft-present techno-skepticism.

The most notable arc of the story occured when the traveling companions spent the night with a local farmer and had their first direct encounter with a "wild" Otark. While spending the night in the farmer's shed, the woodsman shares his opinion of the Otarks, outlining the first primary argument of the story

It's only in the cities you argue about whether they are animals or men. We people here know they are neither the one nor the other. Before it was all very simple. There were people and there were animals, and that's all. Now another species has appeared. The otarks.

In this discussion we also learn about Fidler, a famously brilliant Otark who, at the age of 13, contributed original refinements to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The Otarks are naturally gifted at higher mathematics — a uniquely human quality — but are also murderous cannibals, something that's vanishingly rare among human societies.

Perhaps inspired by Lev Tolstoy's fondness for asceticism and simple living, throughout Day of Wrath, Gansovsky additionally criticized progress as a moral imperative. The tale is set in an oddly anachronistic and stratified world in which people travel on horseback and farmers tend their fields by hand, not far from a laboratory that produces mathematical geniuses. This can also be seen in how our urbanite protagonist briefly perceives the farmer's life through a romantic and decidedly Tolstoian lense.

For an instant the idea flitted across the journalist's mind that perhaps this was happiness — to rise with the sun, with no knowledge of the bustle and anxieties of city life, to know only the handle of your spade with its lump of brown earth.

By demonstrating a clash between humans and a species of hyper-intelligent and man-made but utterly-inhuman hominids, Sever Gansovsky is cautioning against the promethean worldview that prioritizes knowledge and technological advancement above all else. In the words of the forester; "[The Otarks] have no idea of what real life is like. That's why they have no feelings for peoiple. You've got to be a human being first … and then you can be a scientist".

Structured much like the childrens' adventure stories of my childhood, Gennady Gor's The Boy is a very different tale. Told from the perspective of a schoolboy whose friend is excelling in a creative writing class, it introduces a sub-story about a very lonely boy, the only child on an interstellar voyage. This sub-story is gradually trickled out until it is revealed, in a manner that felt incongruously Lovecraftian, that this very human story is a distillation of the mysteriously preserved memories of a member of an alien expedition that was stranded on Earth some time in the Jurassic era.

With a tale totally devoid of techno-skepticism, Gor approaches the matter of human intelligence very differently than Gansovsky. By showing us a deeply human and profoundly relatable story, then revealing it to be the lived experience of an aeons-old extra-terrestrial entity, Gor argues that intelligent life and the morals and behaviors that charactarize the concept of humanity are one and the same.

Kir Bulychev's Jubilee 200 describes the final arc of The Experiment, a multi-century long breeding and genetic engineering program to uplift chimpanzees. Unlike the experiment in Day of Wrath which produced genius monsters, these intelligent chimps are, by virtue of our shared genetic lineage, basically human. The initial founders of this experiment knew that they would not live to see it to completion, but they could not have imagined just how successful it would be and just how human the chimps would become. It didn't take long for the subjects of this great experiment to realize that it was in their best interests to downplay their intelligence. And so we're introduced to Leader, a socially dominant chimp who guides a hidden society under the noses of the researchers who parade around Johnny, their "great accomplishment" and a pathetic idiot. Jubilee 200 tells of how the subjects broke out of the research facility and fled to the Congo.

One could read Kir Bulychev's tale as a commentary on Day of Wrath. Leader thinks much the same thing about The Experiment as the forester observed about the creation of the Otarks, but the end results are wildly dfferent.

The Experiment seemed modest on the face of it, but beneath the surface, it was pompous and full of human vanity; let's put ourselves in God's place, figure out how to humanize chimps, and call upon radiation genetics to flip every switch towards biological advancement.

Sure, hubris is bad, but if it weren't for the hubris of the Academician Sosnora and his colleagues, Leader wouldn't be able to tell us this; a little bit of hubris is a required ingredient in any ambitious endeavor.

Bulychev's primary disagreement with Gansovsky is in the necessary humanity of uplifted animals. The monstrosity of the Otarks, is, in my opinion, a cautionary tale about playing God, however it is not very realistic. As I mentioned previously, the most common targets of uplifiting in fiction are intelligent and social animals whose minds work very similar to our own (eg, dolphins in David Brin's Uplift Saga or dogs in The Akratic Socratic's The Rememberers). Therefore it makes very little sense to imagine them as monsters outside of what Bulychev may have interpreted as a cautionary tale against playing God.

The optimistic tone of Jubilee 200 contains an undercurrent of tragedy in the lonely existence of Johnny, the scintists' pet talking ape. We are first introduced to him when a pretty young female chimp was brought in to add some genetic diversity; he went bananas trying to woo her. Sadly however, he is no longer able to communicate with baseline chimpanzees and he ends up terrifying her. In what looks to me like a plot-contradiction, Leader, our more intelligent protagonist is able to reassure here with their race's age old language of grunts and grimaces.

Day of Wrath and Jubilee 200 both explore the issue of human and not-quite human intelligences similarly — through way of an uplifting experiment — but where the former takes a darker interpretation to act as more of a warning against the hubris of scientists, the later focuses more on the impact such a successful experiment would have on its now sapient subjects. The Boy is an odd one out in this respect, instead arguing for a certain "universal humanity" amongst intelligent life.

While I don't believe that the conclusions drawn from such different texts can be compared directly, I believe Kir Bulychev's Jubilee 200 has the most salient approach because its interpretation of chimp intelligence as being very human is grounded in reality; after all we've taught gorillas to speak in sign language and they're only slightly less human than chimpanzees. That said I also appreciate how Day of Wrath focused on the impact of an uplifting or cross breeding program on human society, even if the Otarks were more fanciful. Finally, though I didn't find The Boy's approach to be particularly salient, I felt it struck on a very impactful idea; that loneliness is a universal trait amongst sapient beings.

Works Cited

  • Гор, Геннадий. "Мальчик". 1964. Path into the Unknown, edited by Judith Merril. Dell Publishing Company, 1968, pp. 60-90.
  • Гансовский, Север. "День Гнева". 1965. Path into the Unknown, edited by Judith Merril. Dell Publishing Company, 1968, pp. 123-160.
  • Булычёв, Кир. "Юбилей 200". 1986. Red Star Tales, edited by Yvonne Howell, Anne Fisher. Translated by Yvonne Howell. Russian Life Books, 2015, pp. 399-415.

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