Novel-tea: The Truth of the Golem

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Science fiction is one of the strangest and broadest genres to describe. To some, especially those who categorize books, sci-fi novels fall under the umbrella of fantasy. Many of Anne McCaffrey’s works, featuring dragons and other fantastical creatures, are considered to be science fiction, and McCaffrey herself has been recognized as one of the most prolific and seminal authors of science fiction history. On the flip side, Andy Weir's "The Martian" is the hardest of hard sci-fi, full of chemistry and physics, with only a thin veneer of fiction.

It makes sci-fi a strange and wonderful genre to browse. It often speaks to possible futures, while making theories about our own. Satellites, space travel, and the voyage to the moon itself were all dreamt off by novelists and storytellers long before the mathematics or the science needed to make those happen were even considered. But it’s not just space and technology. Isaac Asimov’s "Foundation" struggles with the issue of psychology taken to its extreme. Imagine a society in which everything, given sufficient numbers of people and time, could be predicted, down to the year. Imagine someone willing to create a long and complex plan, using those principles, to guide a galaxy. And then, imagine if that plan were to be disrupted by a single, unpredictable actor.

Or perhaps, the robot. Now a reality, it began as a concept, mere speculative fiction, that had profound ethical dilemmas attached to their very existence. Compare that to the moral quandary of Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein." Frankenstein’s Monster was a being of flesh and blood, not of wiring and machinery, but it held the same meaning and ethical dilemmas of the modern robot. It was a being created that gained consciousness. And when it gained consciousness, the monster was not content to do our bidding.

It felt as a subversion of the golem, an anthromorphic being of Jewish legend. In one retelling, the golem was a creature created from clay and earth by a rabbi, to protect the Jewish people from rumors of blood libel. The golem became a symbol of the Jewish community, but when the townsfolk realized what it was, they stormed the ghetto. The golem was used to protect that ghetto, only for the rabbi to negotiate with the city officials. The golem would sleep, as long as the people he was tasked to protect were safe. While the golem was a created automaton with consciousness, Frankenstein’s Monster was the golem’s fall to darkness.

That story was echoed in the writings of Karel Čapek, in his play "Rossum's Universal Robots" (R.U.R). The play, too, was a deconstruction, this time of serfdom. Here, the robots represented the consequences of creating someone simply to work – in fact, the word itself came into our language from this work. The robots revolt, and wipe out the human race.

The Frankenstein Complex became a foundational part of our discussion of artificial intelligence. What if artificial intelligence decides to turn against its creators? In recent years, with the innovation of ChatGPT, it seems that the question is more relevant than ever. It was in response to R.U.R. that Asimov rewrote the laws of robots, this time focusing on what a world would look like with metallic servants incapable of harming humanity. It was a new distinction, and instead of robots becoming the doom of the human race, they became our salvation.

Robots are just one part of the tapestry that is science fiction. Even after Asimov’s work in the 40s and 50s, robots remained part of Frankenstein’s Complex. Artificial intelligence, as a concept, alternated between a companion to humanity and the last creation that humanity would ever create. In some works, like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," robots exacted a brutal revenge on humanity. In others, they were neutral, like Dan Simmons "Ilium."

The golem was brought to life when the word "emet," meaning "truth," was inscribed on its forehead. It was one of the early beings, created from earth, to have some semblance of a soul. And as humanity continues to explore new types of artificial intelligence, the robots that were inspired by the golem will come closer and closer to reality. The things that were once considered to be everything from a tool, a servant, a cautionary tale, or an inciter of revolution, could become everyday; another of science fiction’s predictions, come to fruition.