Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Madness And Divinity

In Poul Anderson's "Epilogue" (Explorations, New York, 1981), in order to scare away her robotic besiegers, a human being broadcasts by radio at maximum volume the sound of her computer solving a navigational problem. Each robot has a radio transceiver in its brain. Thus, the computer speech, which they recognize as language but regard as madness, hits them like a telepathic shout. Anderson conveys how it must sound to them by presenting over a page of:

binary numbers ("DITditditditDAHdit...");
calculations ("...the vector sum: infinitesimals infinitely added from nul-to-INFINITY...");
threatening language ("...burning suns & moons, burning stars & brains...");
an Upanishad ("...DATTA...DAYADHVAM-DAMYATA...");
words printed without spaces between them ("...nonsphericalshapentropicoordinatetransformationtop&...");
Shakespeare ("...strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world...");
Apocalypse ("...the star called Wormwood...") (pp. 236-238).

The Upanishadic thunder sermon beginning "DA" is quoted in TS Eliot's The Wasteland and is the subject of an amusing exchange between Lucifer Morningstar and Michael Archangel in Mike Carey's series of graphic novels, Lucifer. (Michael mistakenly attributes the hearing of the sermon to the Buddha; Lucifer corrects Michael but also sarcastically applauds his ecumenicism in even mentioning a sermon from another tradition.) I did not expect to find the thunder sermon in Anderson's "Epilogue" and indeed missed it among the rest of the confusing text on first reading but fortunately I went back to reread some parts of the story.

After the madness, when the space boat lands, melting one of the robots, this is described as "...when God descended..." (p. 238) so maybe the robot called Zero "got religion" from that point? Whatever the reason, he "...pray[ed] that they be granted mercy, now and in the hour of their dissolution." (ibid.)


  1. Hi, Paul!

    And Zero might become the founder of the first religion among self aware robots? Or at least start pondering the ultimate questions? Anthony Boucher did something analogous in his classic story "The Quest for St. Aquin."

    And I'm still chagrined over how I missed the allusion to the Ave Maria used by Anderson in Zero's prayer.


  2. One could not understand why Zero prayed. Is this because she does not see any reason for prayer on this occasion or because Zero has just invented the activity of praying so that she does not understand the activity yet?

    1. Hi, Paul!

      I lean to the second alternative on why "One" did not understand the motivation Zero had for praying.