This review is available here by kind courtesy of the author. Originally published in "Foundation 9", in November 1975. Copyright Brian Stableford, 1975-1999.SOUL OF THE ROBOT by Barrington J. Bayley. Doubleday, $5.95.
Alfred Jarry, a man a long way ahead of his time, was once asked why everything that he wrote was absurd. Jarry explained that if he wrote things which were ordinary, mundane and thoroughly sensible then his audience might as well be asleep, because he would merely be confirming the boring illusions to which they were already over-committed. He preferred to try and open their minds, making them receptive to new ideas by making them expect the unexpected. His contemporary, H. G. Wells (whose novel The Time Machine stimulated Jarry to write his brilliant essay "How to Construct a Time Machine" in 1899) followed quite a different policy in his literary work. Wells introduced one ideative element into a story, and tried to help his audience accept it, at least on a hypothetical basis, by being logical and realistic about the development of that idea.
Wells became popular, Jarry didn't. Much of Wells' SF has remained in print for 70-80 years, while one of Jarry's major SF novels (Doctor Faustroll) was only published after the author's death, and both of them (the other is The Supermale) had to wait until the nineteen-sixties for an English translation. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the modern science fiction establishment very much aware of Wells and the Wellsian method, while remaining quite oblivious of Jarry. Nevertheless, if one looks at science fiction as a collective phenomenon, we can discover an astonishing richness of absurdity, and one cannot help but think that many SF writers have entertained Jarryesque methods unawares ever since The Skylark of Space.
Soul of the Robot is an absurd book, and I mean that as a compliment. It is light-hearted and ironic in tone, and casually melodramatic in content. Ideas are simply thrown into it and considered with uniform mock-seriousness - and, thus disguised, might easily slip through the portal of an open mind, there to remain available as food for thought. I really see no reason why food for thought shouldn't have the texture of angel cake instead of a rare rump steak. There is a lot to be said in favour of rump steak, and it is very nutritious, but it does take some chewing.
The hero of Soul of the Robot is Jasperodus, a robot who begins life believing - according to the principle of cogito, ergo sum - that he has a real identity, and is therefore a fully-qualified person. Various humans, however, do not agree, and they take merciless advantage of his robotic susceptibility to logic in convincing him that he only thinks he thinks, and that his self-consciousness is illusory. He accepts this verdict, but notes that by the same logic there is no way that human beings can know that their own self-consciousness is not a similar illusion. In between masterminding a couple of coup d'etats and getting killed once now and again, he ponders the enigma of consciousness. In the course of his search for a satisfactory answer he discovers such intellectual delights as the hypothetical totalitron (a Jarryesque idea if ever there was one). I believe that the author of this book has read Jarry, and that his method is therefore self-conscious. Most SF writers have not, and their literary method is their own. It doesn't really matter, either way.
Soul of the Robot is an amiable book, and I find it thoroughly likeable. It is possible, I suppose, that serious-minded readers may not find likeability the highest recommendation of a book, and maybe man does not live by angel-cake alone, and if your mind is slimming perhaps you'd better pass it by. But nobody enjoys dieting, so why not treat yourself?