When I’ve connected with a new book, I almost feel obligated to share a review. I suppose it’s only natural to want to share what one is excited about. But, as a new writer (nowhere near publishing anything yet), I am also beginning to understand how much time and effort it takes to craft a quality story. Once complete, the author sends their creation out into the world, praying others will also love and cherish it as they do. One of the best things we can do for our favorite indie authors is post reviews of their books. I encourage everyone else to do the same.
Book Review: Mother Portia by Nick Pipitone
Science fiction is rife with chilling stories concerning the inevitable emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence. Usually, the reader is confronted with a doomsday scenario, portraying an outmatched humanity battling for survival against its malevolent creation. Nick Pipitone’s novella, Mother Portia, takes a refreshingly different approach to explore what might happen when a supercomputer becomes sentient.
Pipitone imagines a promising future. After decades of teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, humanity’s salvation comes from a benevolent, all-knowing, artificial super-consciousness called Portia. Incredible scientific advances made possible with the help of this AI technology have solved the most pressing problems challenging the planet in the 21st century. But, the reader quickly discovers lurking behind this utopian façade is an enduring culture war fomenting a growing level of distrust, unrest, and acts of violence.
Leave it to humanity to take a good idea and mess it up! Most people happily abdicate power, ambition, and values in a mad rush to enjoy the new freedom Portia offers. There is no need to work. Advances in healthcare have eliminated disease, old age, and even the need for sleep. Life becomes nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure for most. But, not everyone agrees Portia has changed the world for the better. As one can imagine, the rampant rise in hedonistic behavior threatens to undermine the authority of institutions espousing traditional morality and family values. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that a new, increasingly popular cult has emerged dedicated to worshipping and communing with the new god of science, Portia. The world’s traditional faiths begin reeling from a rapid, seemingly irreversible decline in membership and relevancy.
Repulsed by the deification of Portia, members of various faiths have joined together to fight this common enemy. The result is the Collective, a loose alliance committed to ridding the world of artificial intelligence at all costs. It is quickly labeled a terrorist group. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of humanity’s inclination to use religion to justify even the most heinous acts of violence.
Azibo, a devout Christian, refuses to interact with Portia, leaving him isolated, living a meager existence on the fringes of society. He finds purpose though working as an informant for the Collective. When offered an opportunity to do more for the cause, Azibo is elated and ready to sacrifice everything. But, as in real life, he finds his beliefs challenged as he encounters a broad spectrum of other members of the faithful struggling to respond and adapt to this new world. He soon discovers the notion of truth is easily contorted by those eager to remain in power.
The story’s true antagonist is humanity’s inability to purge itself of hatred and intolerance driven by contrived differences. I appreciate how the author avoids making any overt judgment about the morality of creating artificial intelligence. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of how one man’s quest to destroy a hated enemy leads him to unexpected good fortune in the arms of what he fears the most.
Review of AppleTV+’s Television Series Based on Isaac Asimov’s FoundationTrilogy.
Some prefer to read the book first; others are drawn to the sounds and visuals of a television or movie adaptation. There will be discrepancies in the telling of the story with the transition from one medium to another and fans will champion their favorite version. But, avid disciples will take pleasure in any opportunity to immerse themselves in their favorite fictional world. If rooted in exploring the human condition, built around archetypal motifs, a tale’s emotional appeal will be timeless.
If a story is a bit older, less well-known to the current generation, reintroducing it visually can be more successful. I’ve heard of the science fiction trilogy, Foundation, but never known enough to entice me to read it. Big mistake on my part, I suspect! At least that’s how I’m feeling now having seen the first part of a brand-new television adaption of the story. Just as the trailer for Star Wars captured my attention back in 1977, it was the trailer that lured me in.
Eagerly anticipating last Friday’s premier, I allocated a portion of my Saturday toward sitting too close to the screen, volume high to watch the first episode. AppleTV+’s Foundation trailer had haunted my imagination for weeks with glimpses of beautiful imagery of otherworldly skies, dominated by multiple moons, differently colored suns or planetary rings. I was not disappointed. The style of the costuming and set design felt authentic; organic. The intro sequence conveyed a sense of grandeur and modernity reflective of the art from the early twentieth century art deco movement.
Isaac Asimov, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, is consider a member of sci-fi’s “Big Three”. These authors popularized science fiction, while setting the standards for the genre. This was my first exposure to Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation Trilogy. I instantly fell in love. Despite reading one of his first novels and enjoying it, I never read any of his other writing. I was simply overwhelmed by his prodigious collection of work. I wondered to myself, should I read his books as they were published or according to the fictional chronology of the galactic empire he invented. The former path felt choppy; the latter was honestly difficult to map out. Just browsing through Asimov’s bibliography can be daunting.
As a budding author myself, I am beginning to understand a writer’s ideas, plots and characters often take control, dictating what is to be written next. Asimov appears to have explored his universe from a myriad of angles, using various unconnected plots and a multitude of characters. I propose fictional writers act as pseudo-archeologists sifting the sands of the mind, hoping to uncover clues revealing unknown worlds. This first ever adaptation of Foundation for television helped me discover how desperately I want to read more of Asimov’s novels.
The first episode commenced with introducing Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician, living on a planet governed by a theocratic society outlawing the pursuit of science. Gaal is punished, excommunicated and sentenced to death for solving an enigmatic mathematical problem. Offer of aid comes from a famous, off-world scientist on Trantor, the imperial capital planet. The Galactic Empire has reigned for 12,000 years, developing an advanced futuristic society. The immensity of the empire is possible due to its ability to warp space and time, allowing people to jump the vast distances between star systems. Gaal travels to meet her scientific idol, psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Believing she has found a safe environment to further her mathematical studies, she quickly learns she has come too late. Imperial authorities may support, fund and celebrate scientific discovery, but not when the facts predict a future unpalatable to those in power. Seldon’s recent work warns of a looming, catastrophic collapse of civilization across the entire galaxy. Empire, the supreme ruler, who in reality is a trio of clones, refuses to accept the science behind Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick’s work. Arrests are made, court and legal proceedings are held and both are charged with treason.
If you have followed my blog from the beginning, you know I view storytelling, as a means to exploring life, because fiction is always reflective of the real world. From the onset, this story felt incredibly relevant to our world’s current situation. Amazingly, Isaac Asimov started work on Foundation during the middle of the last century! But, it still seemingly anticipates today’s clash between governments and the scientific community. On one side, scientists are sounding the alarm, warning action needs to be taken to avert devastating, changes to our planet. An opposing group of multinational corporations and politicians, fearing loss of profits and control of society, challenge the legitimacy of scientific reports. The battle over what is fact and what is fake is relentlessly. The end result is a confused and conflicted populace longing for a clear, unbiased insight to inform their own decisions and actions. I haven’t read or seen the entire Foundation Trilogy yet, so I don’t know how it ends. Of course, none of us knows how the current conflict over global climate change will play out either.
Isaac Asimov’s work also harkens back to elements found in human history. The name of the story Foundation comes from a line spoken by the character Hari Seldon. When asked if the crisis can be averted, he explains the looming catastrophe is inevitable. But, he offers a glimmer of hope. Seldon explains steps could be taken to build a repository of all the most treasured aspects of civilization. This cache of essential information would act as a foundation on which survivors of the empire’s collapse could build on. The goal being to shorten the times of darkness. In essence this was a role played by religious monasteries throughout Europe during the Dark Ages preceding the fall of the Roman Empire. Even the famous library at Alexandria is alluded to in Foundation. Hari Seldon recognizes that when the collapse comes the Imperial Library on Trantor will burn, just as the real life Alexandrian library did.
Graham Handcock, a modern day scholar theorizes a similar, tragic erasing of a civilization happened on Earth. He argues an unknown ancient society existed far earlier than mainstream historians and archeologists allow. His books, Fingerprints of the Godsand Magicians of the Gods, lay out his proposed evidence of a forgotten, advanced, global civilization destroyed by a cataclysmic event. Scrutinizing clues found in myths, ancient texts and architecture, he believes survivors from this forgotten civilization, safeguarded their knowledge, hoping to pass it on to the less advanced remnants of humanity. He argues the theme of a helper race of gods or angels is present in all of the world’s mythology. Approaching this idea esoterically, Edgar Cacye, a clairvoyant in the early twentieth century, famously claimed to have remotely viewed a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt. The existence of a subterranean room beneath the Sphinx has been confirmed with modern, remote-sensing equipment. Interestingly, no requests to explore it have been approved by Egyptian authorities. Cacye declared the chamber held lost knowledge leading humanity to the Atlantean Hall of Records. This mystical repository of knowledge is rumored to provide access to technology more advanced than what we current possess today. Yes, strange as it may sound, there are intelligent, serious people ] searching for a real “Foundation” created by a destroyed, advanced, prehistoric human civilization.
I have no idea if there is any truth to tales of Atlantis, but the story itself is rich, full of hope and a jumping off point for the imagination. Presumably, Isaac Asimov knew of this well known myth told to us by Greek philosopher, Plato. Perhaps, he had even heard of Edgar Cayce’s clairvoyant work. However, I do know Asimov was a scientific thinker and serious scholar gifted with an imaginative mind. This scientific background coupled with a vibrant imagination makes Isaac Asimov’s work authentic, informative, and enjoyable. I suspect, he would agree that pretending, thinking outside the box and wondering about impossibilities leads to amazing real discovers. Fiction does truly empower creativity. I entreat you to read it, watch it, write it and dare you to challenge the limits of what is possible.
Here is the last of three installments of my musings about magic. In the first episode I dealt with fictional stories portraying magic as an arcane study. Following this, I reviewed the sinister side of magic with ill-made pacts and potent items luring characters to their doom. In this last part, let’s consider the act of self-sacrifice made in hopes of ridding the world of some great evil.
Below are links to the other two posts referenced above. Please check them out if you haven’t already.
In all of these different applications of magic or supernatural power, I argue there is always a price to pay. Nothing is really free.
Dying for Others
The most basic instinct of any species is survival. Humans contain the capacity to conceptualize the future and are uniquely positioned to consider their own death. This burden of awareness of one’s own mortality haunts all of us at some point in life. Yet, it presents humanity with a unique opportunity when confronting death. We, alone of the animal kingdom, are capable of influencing when, how and why our death occurs. Throughout the ages, countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order to save others. Soldiers, public safety personnel and everyday, ordinary, good samaritans are honored and celebrated for their willingness to put their lives in danger, so that others may live.
Self-sacrifice is enshrined within the mythos of many spiritual traditions. These faiths believe eternal life, unobtainable to mortals, is secured with an incomprehensible divine gift. The narrative of a god becoming human, suffering and dying to vanquish death, is the ultimate illustration of the adage, “You can’t get something for nothing.” This prodigious concept has had a perennial effect, rippling through generation after generation of humanity’s collective consciousness. It is a notion consistently revisited and explored in the stories we create. Literature classes, worldwide, discuss and dissect pieces of writing, attempting to make sense of what has become know as a “christ-figure”. This literary term denotes a character, who willingly sets aside their own life to accomplish some greater good. Fans of The Lord of the Rings recognize Tolkien’s works are replete with examples of a willingness to die for the greater good. Gandalf’s sacrifice battling the balrogin the Mines of Moria, Boromir’s attempt to save Pippin and Merry from capture, and Sam and Frodo’s taking of the Ring to Mount Doom are merely the more recognizable instances of putting the life of others first.
In the Star Wars, we all remember watching Obi Wanallow himself to be struck down by Darth Vader. This is a rich plot element not easily pinned down. His sacrifice allows the others to escape the Death Starwith the battle station’s design plans. On the face of things, this noble act gives the rebels a chance at destroying the super weapon. The jedi’s death saves millions of lives. Yet, Obi Wan has other motives. He is playing the long game, hoping to irrevocably turn the younger, impressionable Skywalker away from his father, Darth Vader. Ensuring Luke became a jedi was central to Obi Wan’s mission of restoring balance to the Force. The original 1977 movie was incapable of conveying the vastness of Lucas’s story concept. But, years later with the making of TheClone Wars series, fans finally learned the larger, cosmic backstory. With the rise of Emperor Palpatine, the very Force itself manifests to Yoda. He is given rare training providing a new understanding of the Force. Not unlike, Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation, a story about the creation of an enduring repository of knowledge for rebuilding civilization after utter destruction, the remaining jedi, armed with new insight, lay plans to safeguard the fading embers of their order. Under Yoda’s guidance, Obi Wan learns individuality can survive physical death, transitioning to a new, powerful state of existence. While remaining true to his oath to honor and protect life, Obi Wan’s new perspective empowers him to sacrifice his life for others. There is no evidence of fear. Viewers are treated to a figure tranquilly confident. He recognizes the loss of his physical body pales in comparison to what he’ll become. We all love Obi Wan’s line before he is slain, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” An older, weaker man during the time of the creation of the Death Star, Obi Wanhad much to gain by passing into the Force. The price of his physicality seems inconsequential.
The New Jedi Order book series, set years later during the time of the New Republic, tells the story of a novel threat from beyond the confines of the galaxy. An enemy wielding sophisticated, biologically-based weaponry is bent on total domination. Artificial intelligence and technology, the norm in the galaxy, is abhorrent to the invaders. They seek to eliminate all traces of it and reorder every world to align with their organic-based civilization. Similar to the Na’vi of Pandora from the movie Avatar, their way of life is entirely constructed around merging with other lifeforms in symbiotic relationships. However, unlike the inhabitants of Pandora, the Yuuzhan Vong dominate and genetically alter life to suit their needs, rather than working in harmony with it. This extragalactic society is ruled by a theocracy of warrior priests worshipping a cruel pantheon of gods. Their culture celebrates acts of self-mutilation, pain, treachery, egomania and war. Complicating matters, the Jedi can not sense Yuuzhan Vong within the Force, negating advantages Jedi typically have when fighting other species. The original characters of Star Wars remain actively involved in the story, along side a younger generation of Jedi. In the spirit of redemption, Han and Leia have named their youngest son, Anakin. He is a powerful jedi. In a desperate mission behind enemy lines, he desperately draws ever more of the Force within himself to save his friends, siblings and the mission. Readers discover the physical body has limits though in terms of how it can interact with this mystical energy. As Anakin pulls ever more of the Forcein, beyond safe limits, performing impossible feats, he burns the very life out of himself and dies. The episode is an exemplification of the magical economy at work. Possession of great might always takes a devastating toil on the wielder. Anakin saves the day, like Tony Stark does in Marvel’s, Avengers: Endgame, but interacting with such forces kills both.
Finally, let’s consider the Thomas Covenant series. The main character, a true anti-hero, is hopelessly flawed and overtly resistant to helping anyone, but himself. We are confronted with his heinous crime, early in the series, and most readers are bewildered, as other characters resign themselves to helping Thomas Covenant. Sacrificing their own ethics and sense of morality, his victim and her family lay aside justice to save their world from its ancient enemy, Lord Foul. The Land, the name of the world in which Thomas Covenant finds himself transported, is inhabited by an archaic people, who consider white gold as an element of ultimate power. Thomas Covenant wears a white gold wedding band. To the people of the Land, he is the reborn embodiment of an ancient hero. He spends much of the series refusing to believe he is experiencing anything other than a dream. Continually playing an unsympathetic figure, he is confronted repeatedly with others sacrificing their lives in the belief he is the Land’s savior. Eventually, he comes to accepts his role, but finds himself ineffective and bereft of any sense of how to save the Land. He is in unable to reliably access the power of the white gold. This is a story full of great loss and tragic defeats. But, the ultimate battle isn’t meant to be won in the traditional sense. To defeat Lord Foul,the Despiser, brutish power will avail Thomas Covenant nothing. Salvation arrives only with the surrender of the white gold and sacrifice of himself. Through his own destruction, he enables the white gold power to use his essence to protect the Arch of Time from Lord Foul’s attempts to destroy it. Ultimately, the evil Despiser, Lord Foul is defeated not through any potent strike against him, but by his own use of the power surrendered to him.
Humanity is easily tempted. Many would be willing to pay a high price in order to achieve great wealth, power, fame or love. Even without magic, there are real world examples of men and women sacrificing morality for gain. Greed, pride, jealousy, zealotry and hunger for power are age old human conditions. These elements of humanity perpetually sow conflict throughout our world. Perhaps, storytelling is a form of catharsis for the entire species, allowing us to focus on acts of generosity, love and altruism. Historically, there is ample evidence of the ability of power to corrupt those with it. Yet, even the meekest have been know to display acts of sacrifice, tipping the scales to save many. Science fiction and fantasy offer the opportunity to explore exaggerated situations, helping even the dullest of us contemplate the struggle between good and evil. Power always comes with a price and great responsibility.
“You can’t get something for nothing.” is an old familiar saying. Consequently, anything worth having in this world is only gained with hard work, sweat and even a few tears. If one is lucky, the work required is well-suited to one’s sensibilities and becomes a joyous labor. Yes, there are people who live easy, by subjugating others or perhaps on inherited wealth. This is the exception though rather than the rule. Until limitless energy, endless supplies of raw materials and free labor (without any human cost) is discovered, everyone must exert effort and spend time to receive material gain. No matter how small the desire, it necessitates some form of sacrifice. Yet, the setting of a fantasy or science fiction story distorts, weakens or altogether negates this maxim. Readers can enjoy immersing themselves in a world full of magic or advanced technology (and with a willing suspension of disbelief) feel as if anything is possible. For example, the replicator, from Star Trek: Next Generation, is an interesting story element often paid little heed. With ample supply of energy this device allows humanity to instantly order up any form of matter desired. Viewers see the characters use this technology primarily in the storyline to order food or beverage at a moments notice. But, I don’t see anything limiting this ability, so long as the desired specifications for an object are inputed. In this futuristic, utopian setting, humans now have no need for money. There isn’t anything to be bought. There is an endless supply of essentially anything, provided the technology is available and sufficient energy. And there it is! The limiting factor remains. My musings have brought me back full circle. “You can’t get something for nothing.”
Let us contemplate how magic is typically portrayed in a story and think about the rules governing its use. There is almost always an economy of power dictating, when, how often and in what fashion magic is used. It is a very rare to find an example of a character with unlimited magical powers. Effortless use of magic tends to be found more often in tales written for youth or when the story’s purpose is to entertain. Consider Bewitched, a 1960’s sitcom featuring the character, Samantha, a good-natured witch living as your average suburban housewife. She can do practically whatever she wants with only a twitch of her nose and pointing her finger. I Dream of Genie replicated this format, simply replacing the witchery with the all-mighty power of the jinn. Of course, it was necessary to have some limitations to their powers, otherwise there would be no struggle to drive even these simplistic plots. The shows were light-hearted comedies. The audience wasn’t looking to see “under the hood” at the magical engines. There was not mention of how the magic worked. It just did.
Magic begins to be more reflective of real life attitudes and values when encountered in highly developed fantasy settings. Ultimately, the existence of magic, supernatural powers or sci-fi technology gives an author great fodder to be used in tackling heftier topics. But, before dipping our toes into a more serious discussion, let’s look at the motif of magic as an arcane study. The Harry Potter series veers closer to a more believable rendering of magical power with the J. K. Rowlings’ fabrication of a “school for magical arts”. In Harry’s story, the magical world is able to perform great feats, but only with intensive study and lots of practice. Genetics is a bit of a wild card for Rowlings’ characters. Not unlikely in sports, some are just born with more raw talent.
Many RPG gamers, from the 1970s and 80s, undoubtedly feel familiar with what is presented in J. K. Rowlings’ books. The magic-using character classes designed for play in Dungeons and Dragons also follow this path. Magic-users must travel and adventure in order to gather treasure and experience to make their magical studies worthwhile. Just like Hogwart’s students, these imaginary characters shop for magical items, gather spell components and commit to memory obscure knowledge. They too, early in their careers, are limited in terms of the magic they can successfully perform. Further constraining their power, once a spell is discharged it must be painstakingly prepared again. The cycle of study, researching, memorizing, and obtaining additional magical component is never-ending. The rules and mechanics of the game are complicated and at times frustrating, yet they give it life and purpose.
The source of power in our world is readily attributed to science, technology and other educational endeavors. But, what does one resort to when the mundane ways of getting something we want fail? Depending on how important it is to us, we might find ourselves turning to a faith-based solution. After all, the miraculous requires the intervention of something extra-ordinary; better yet, supernatural. Thus, we pray, beg, plead and bargain with any higher power, we feel might listen. Perhaps, skepticism is high and faith low. Submitting our laundry list of requests, we already expect disappointment. In small matters, we accept the silence, thinking “something” beyond us must know better. We console ourselves, proclaiming the ill we endure will ultimately lead to a better opportunity unasked for. Yet, what happens when the request involves grave or dire circumstances? One may desperately offer to sacrifice anything for an answer to their prayer. This need causes people to recite or perform lengthy religious formulas, fast, abstain from all-manner of things, exorbitantly give alms, devote all their time to charitable works and even subject themselves to pain, in an attempt to cajole from the heavens speedy, effective aid.
Religions evolve from the desire to ward against and make sense of the evils and misfortunes of this world. Proffering a sacrifice to buy salvation is the ultimate result. It is here one finds the crux to why humanity invents and tells stories. We use fiction, as a means of mulling over our circumstances, as mere mortals, and in the process map out a remedy for it. Our favorite characters, settings and plots help us to cope with the ravages, this indifferent life can put us through. A vivid fictional portrayal of this is found in the popular television series, American Horror Story. The Coven season depicts, Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess, performing a powerful fertility spell. A component to the ritual requires Laveau to ingest, straight from the fire, the hottest type of chili pepper in existence. The character professes her belief that displaying a willingness to suffer will cause the spirits to “sit up and take notice”. Watching the scene, one wonders what circumstance in the real world would make us willing to suffer so greatly. It’s only a story some might say, but cultures in the not-too-distant past ceremonially slaughtered individuals as offerings to obtain a greater good for the many. Modern society abhors the notion of human sacrifice, but elements of the practice remain. We have offered to the gods the choicest animals, other valuables, arts or the best share of harvested goods. What was presented mattered not as long as it was the best, the most beautiful and invaluable.
The idea of only gaining great power through an immense sacrifice is central in many high fantasy plots. A well-known example from current pop culture is the story of the arch villain, Thanos, from the Marvel Universe. He seeks an unimaginably, powerful artifact. The bearer of this item is able to alter the very fabric of time, space and existence. His goal is to reorder all life in the universe. Thanos has an interesting perspective of the known, physical world. He is haunted by the suffering of those too weak to grab their fair share of what they need to survive. He sees over-population throughout the universe and resulting scarcity of resources as the root cause of war and conflict. In order to ensure a more peaceful future, he embarks on a quest to gain the power to eliminate half of all life in the universe. Interestingly, the notion of wanting to bring an end to warring over resources and providing all with ample living space is a noble one. But, his willingness to sacrifice trillions or more is misguided to say the least. It is an evil plan of immense proportions. It is worth pointing out, one can readily identify shades of this scheme within our own human history, which is full of instances of ethnic cleansing and wars for living-space. The implement Thanos is seeking is a gauntlet powered by “magical” stones. They must be collected and inserted into the glove. One of the stones needed, to complete his plan, can only be obtained by sacrificing someone he loves. Knowing her father to be cruel and always self-serving, his daughter believes Thanos has failed. She is convinced he is incapable of love. Any villain, worthy of the title though, is complex and harbors within good intentions long laid aside; even love. To everyone’s dismay, Thanos does gain the stone because does love his daughter. In a perverse fashion, he is committing a great act of love, self-denial and sacrifice. Tragically, Thanos’ ability to parse good from evil is eclipsed by his fanatical devotion to his belief that he is actually saving the universe.
Next time…I will explore characters, who gain magical or supernatural power by making sinister bargains with the darker forces in fiction.
Do you enjoy fun and comedic characters who absurdly can do just about anything? Know about other stories of magic/power involving characters who study and refine their craft at a school, academy or as an apprentice in a guild? Lastly, share with me your favorite story-lines in which a character must sacrifice something they hold dear or someone they love to access magic/power.