Bewildering Stories

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Science, Fiction, and Soul

Two reviews by Thomas R.

Barrington J. Bayley, The Soul of the Robot
Guy Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer

First off, these books have nothing in common. In fact, the second is not science fiction so will receive only brief mention. However, one concerns a being’s quest to discover whether it has a soul and the other is by a Jesuit. So putting them in combo seemed oddly appropriate.

The Soul of the Robot is in many ways not the kind of book I tend to like. It has a basically New Wave feel with psychedelic drugs at one point and some sexual musings. It implies that mass production and private land ownership bring poverty, which I find implausible. In fairness, though, capital-C Communism seems to be treated fairly negatively. In many respects the characters are also to varying degrees unpleasant. The world described seems a confusing mixture of different eras. You have aliens and ramjets along with train robberies and medieval kings. Further, the book ends with some things unresolved, and indeed there has been a sequel.

Yet I liked it. Maybe I was in the right mood or I’m just a sucker for any competent story about robots. In any event, the world described was intriguing, with a vast intriguing backdrop that, considering the book’s short length, is explored fairly well. The main character himself is also interesting.

The title robot character is named Jasperodus. In the book he seeks to prove himself equal to a man and tries to find if he has a soul. However, he is very different than most robot characters I have seen like that. His first acts are to abandon his parents, and kill a guy for annoying him. He is ambitious, ruthless, controlling, and in many ways contemptuous of most of those around him. His effort to be “a real man” is largely so he can be better than them in every respect.

This description is not entirely fair. His quest for improvement at times is quite admirable. As are his struggles with the issue of the soul. Also, as the story progresses he does learn, to a degree, to seek value in improving the lives of others. Still his efforts to be noble remain largely self-serving and in a strange way end up almost more unpleasant.

The book does have a few problems. The writing style occasionally lapses into an annoying level of pompousness. The other characters, while sometimes fairly interesting, generally have brief roles. Therefore this is mostly the story of one character. Also, looking back on it, it has an element that seems rather odd for the ’70s. That is, it almost completely lacked female characters. In fact most appearances of women are just brief scenes where they service the men sexually. It implied robots can be feminine, but I recall none that are. Someday I might check if the sequel deviates from that.

Brother Astronomer is a book by a Jesuit scientist. I enjoyed it a fair amount. For some reason, the writing style reminded me of Analog. Although, as I have not read Analog for years, I can’t tell if that means anything. Some things about it I related to, and I liked that the author criticized himself a good deal. It made some of his statements about the pettiness of the scientific community more palatable, as he seems to admit he is the same in many ways.

However, in some respects, the book is a bit disappointing. Despite the title, the science in the book concerns the study of rocks and minerals. Rocks and minerals from space sure, but there is little in science less interesting for me than the study of rocks. If I had known that would be the subject, I might have skipped it. Also, occasionally, he puts down the contributions of non-Christians in science in a way that seems unfair.

One thing that I did not mind much but likely should be mentioned: since the author is a member of a Catholic religious order it likely is not surprising that the religion and science issues are specifically Roman Catholic. However, to a degree I am a little surprised how specifically he makes it. This is very much about the relationship between Catholicism and science, not the issue of being just a general man of faith in science. Much or most of it has very little applicability to a general “faith and science” or even “Christianity and science” discussion. That should be somewhat expected, but it deserves mention just in case.

Thus concludes the reviews.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.