Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Poul Anderson's "Rokuro" (All One Universe, New York, 1997) is a science fiction story in the form of a Japanese No play. I had skipped past it before because of its unfamiliar format and had not realized that it told a story. A technological theme familiar from other works by Anderson is placed in a Japanese Buddhist context.

The title character had copied his consciousness into a computer program in the mistaken belief that such a disembodied mind might more easily realize enlightenment, then teach him. Instead, the program remembers but does not feel and thus is not human enough to transcend humanity but to erase it would be murder since it is aware.

Years later, the preserved program asks a Buddhist priest whether it has a soul or a karma and he replies that he does not know. However, the Buddha taught that no being has a soul and that all beings act - action is karma. The program's first formulation of the question was whether he lives or whether his thinking and suffering merely happen like "...a flame in the wind." (p. 148) What is the difference? He is not biologically alive but his experience and thought do happen. The occurrence of experience is not an illusion even if its content is illusory. "I think, therefore I am..." At this point, the priest correctly replies that we are all flames in the wind. A candle flame is always moving and burning different wax and will burn out even when it seems to be solid and static. The Buddha, analyzing consciousness, found no permanent soul anywhere within it.

The program says, "If I am nothing, then to nothing I return, and shall no more know that I ever happened." (p. 149)

- to which the priest replies, "But if you are real -" (ibid.)

But, if by "real" he means a permanent consciousness retaining its memories and sense of identity indefinitely after physical death - after the candle has burned out-, then nothing is "real" in this sense.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

And "Rokuro" is yet another example of the sheer VERSATILITY of Poul Anderson, of him being willing AND able to try his hand at almost any genre or variety of writing. And of him being willing and able to ponder very different ideas, to see they might lead him in his writing.

I can't think of many, if any, SF writers who were as versatile as Anderson. And even fewer so called "mainstream" writers living now or during his career. Cordwainer Smith, Avram Davidson, S.M. Stirling, they approached him in various ways, but not in ALL the lines of writing Anderson tried.