Lesson 3: The Human Condition

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss proposed definitions of science fiction and explain what is meant by the claim that science fiction is the “literature of change.”
  • Identify how The Caves of Steel and Dune explore different sets of characters dealing with major societal changes.

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Optional Readings
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov
Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov


Defining science fiction is like measuring the properties of an electron: you may think you’re measuring a solid object, but it’s really a wispy cloud. Even its name leads to disputes. Jules Verne called what he wrote “voyages extraordinaires”, and H. G. Wells called it “scientific romance.” When Hugo Gernsback created the first true science fiction magazine in 1926, he called what he intended to publish “scientifiction,” and he came up with the phrase “science fiction” only after he lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929 and created Science Wonder Stories. Robert A. Heinlein suggested that “speculative fiction” was a more appropriate designation. Abbreviations such as “sci-fi” (liked by the media but not by most fans, who use it to describe bad science-fiction movies) and “SF” (preferred by most readers) further complicate the issue. Science fiction’s beginnings in the pulp magazines added to the confusion. But whatever the chosen label, what exactly were writers writing, what were publishers publishing, and what were readers reading?

Some students of the genre, such as Samuel R. Delany, insist that, like poetry, science fiction is impossible to define. Others have pointed out that genre titles are booksellers’ conveniences, telling them where to put books when they arrive —and equally, of course, book buyers’ conveniences, telling them where to look for the books they want when they go shopping. But what are they looking for when they look for science fiction? Different people have offered different definitions. Brian W. Aldiss: hubris clobbered by nemesis. John W. Campbell: science fiction is what science-fiction editors publish. The fall-back position, epitomized by Damon Knight when he said, “Science fiction is what we mean when we point at it,” is that we know it when we see it.

For the purposes of this course, perhaps the most satisfying definition of science fiction is “the literature of change.” That is, science fiction deals with the human condition experiencing change.

Isaac Asimov’s signature Foundation series, a predecessor to his later novel The Caves of Steel, shows humanity attempting to cope with the fall of the Galactic Empire by a science of prediction called psychohistory.

Asimov’s fiction seemed to be aimed at explication and codification, almost like the popularizations of science to which he turned in 1958, with such success that he was called the most able science writer, and by all odds the most prolific, in his generation. Originally a university professor of biochemistry, Asimov had a witty, retentive mind, and his writing exhibited his logical ability to clarify and his imaginative ability to invent—in nonfiction, through example and simile; in fiction, via plot and metaphor. His stories were skillful, though his prose occasionally betrayed its professorial origin.

In 1942, impressed by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov began to shape a future to his own logic. With a novelette entitled Foundation, Asimov launched a series of novelettes and novels in which he traced a future history of man’s empire in space and the development of a science called “psychohistory,” by which man could make reasonable forecasts of the future. H. G. Wells had said forty years earlier that a science of sociology was impossible because sociologists could not deal with people in sufficiently large numbers to make predictions feasible. Asimov projected his history into a future in which mankind colonized his galaxy. His psychohistory, therefore, could work on vast numbers—but only under the condition, as Asimov described it, that “the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random.”

In the three novelettes later published in book form as Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953), Asimov explored the logical consequences of psychohistory, with its ability to foretell the future if almost no one knows about it. Two “foundations” are set up by Hari Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, to speed the rebuilding of the human galactic empire after its collapse and shorten the dark ages to follow from 30,000 years to a millennium. The proposed solution was, ostensibly, an "Encyclopedia Galactica," containing the sum of all human knowledge that could serve as the basis for the eventual rebuilding of galactic society. But in actuality Seldon’s foundations—a group of scholars freed from the general disintegration around them, called the First Foundation, and a secret group of psychologists called the Second Foundation—were created to keep Seldon's Plan on track.

The historic parallels to his novels are clear; what Asimov added was a scientific consideration of them and a multiplication of the impact of events which made the consequences of stupidity staggering. For those who recognized the parallels, moreover, it was as if Asimov were saying, “What if the Romans had prepared and distributed broadly across their empire volumes containing all their knowledge and that of the Greeks and Egyptians and all previous civilizations? And what if the monasteries had acted as reservoirs of initiative rather than copiers of classical manuscripts (although they did seed the Renaissance by creating the circumstances for the first universities)? Would the Dark Ages have lasted for a thousand years?”

By 1954, Asimov’s skills had developed into an ability to write a novel about the conflict between human and robot that revolved around a classic locked-room detective story. In the process, he refuted editor John W. Campbell’s claim that an science fiction locked-room puzzle story was impossible because science fiction has too many ways to get out of a locked room.

More importantly, the novel uses its setting—the roofed-over city (the “caves of steel” of the title)—to explore and comment on the adaptability of the human species. Here the novel gains its Darwinian aspect: its remarks on humanity’s agoraphobia. In the process of touring this far-future world and commenting on human evolution, Asimov’s characters solve the murder mystery and resolve the human-robot conflict.

Frank Herbert published his first science fiction novel, Under Pressure (later published in book form as The Dragon in the Sea) in Astounding in 1956 and Dune World (Dune) and The Prophet of Dune (Dune Messiah) in 1963-64 and 1965. Herbert called Dune his response to Asimov’s Foundation stories; in some ways it is also a response to The Caves of Steel.

In Dune, Herbert’s characters have reverted to living under ancient political structures. Its hierarchical system—including royalties and liege nobility, a figurehead emperor, and powerful barons— seems modeled after the Holy Roman Empire. And its Fremen, with their tribal loyalties and myths, seem modeled after even earlier Arab cultures. The novel has an atmosphere of palace intrigue and uses classical plot structures, such as the royal heir who, driven into the wilderness by his father’s assassins, returns to win back his throne.

And yet this novel, too, concerns itself with the human condition experiencing change. In this case, the theme is embodied in the Emperor’s Sarducar troops, who meet their match in the desert-conditioned Fremen. The desert world of Arrakis shapes the Fremen into a force powerful enough to conquer the galaxy. Their control of the geriatric Spice, with its hallucinatory properties that enable interstellar navigation, also shapes humanity, in some cases as a drug and in other cases like any valuable commodity—whether gold, oil, or technology.

The great variety of storytelling tools and techniques on display in Foundation, The Caves of Steel, and Dune demonstrate the difficulties of defining science fiction. As a genre, science fiction has no recognizable action, like the murder mystery, or recognizable milieu, like the western, or recognizable relationship, like the romance. It is about the future— except when it is about the past or the present. It can incorporate all the other genres: one can have a science-fiction detective story, a science-fiction western, a science-fiction romance, and, most commonly, a science-fiction adventure story. It is best characterized by an attitude, and even that is hard to define.

It is the literature of change, the literature of anticipation, the literature of the human species, the literature of speculation, and more. And because it is the literature of change it is continually changing; if it remained constant, it would no longer be science fiction.

All that, of course, is what makes science fiction fascinating to read and to discuss.
Writing Assignment 3
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

• The subtext of The Caves of Steel is the interest of the Spacers in the dirty, short-lived Earthers. What do they hope to persuade the Earthers to do? Why don’t they do it themselves? Why does it seem like an impossible task?

• How has the covered metropolis shaped the human species, and how does it set up the circumstances that make the murder a plausible “locked- room puzzle”? How does Asimov provide convincing details of humanity’s adaptation to life in the caves of steel? As a reader, are you convinced that people would react in these ways?

  • Why do Earthers hate robots, and why are they afraid of them? In what way can The Caves of Steel be considered a “buddy story”? How do Lije Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw eventually resolve their differences, and how is this symbolized in the resolution? What is the meaning of the symbol “C/Fe” and how does this represent a desirable outcome for humanity and for Asimov?
  • How is Dune a response to the Foundation stories? How does it respond to the ideas in The Caves of Steel? How are both concerned with issues of evolution? What role is played by the Bene Gesserit?
  • Many forces interact in Dune. Can you identify them and their roles in the novel? How do all of them go awry? Is this Herbert’s theme? He said that his Dune novels were an attack on the messiah principle. How did the image of Arrakis undercut that or distract from it (note that Dune was published in hardcover only after a long search, and then by a publisher specializing in automobile manuals; it became a best-seller in paperback during the counter-culture environmental movement of the 1960s)?
  • Does the death of Duke Leto seem arbitrary? Would Dune have been better as two novels, the first about Duke Leto, ending with his death and Paul’s escape?
  • Why does Herbert get rid of robots and computers, and how? What does he replace them with, and why? Why does he invent personal force-shields? How does this affect the tone of the novel and its events?
  • How does the film of Dune—the first one—depart from the novel? Why? At a science-fiction convention in Anaheim, Herbert said that the upcoming film would omit the banquet scene and that he understood why. Was this a good idea? The later film keeps it in. Why?
  • Paul’s actions in the novel are controlled by his overpowering desire to avenge his father and take back his rightful place, but he also is conflicted. Why? How is the ending a mixed success? Why is Ali called an “abomination”?
  • If you know any sequels, how do these influence your attitude toward Dune? Does the existence of sequels diminish the impact of the original?

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