THE STEEL EYE
Space And Time publications
THE STEEL EYE is a beautifully crafted book which seeks to amuse and edify with its explorations of machine psychology and imperial competition in the industrial world. Sentence by sentence, the writing is beautiful, with its own singular quiet music. From the blurb, which I presume the author himself wrote, we learn the author has consciously written a novel modeled in part on Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op about the "nameless amoral hero." He has published stories about this character in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine. There is a wonderful flat quality to the narrative underneath the perpetual carnage; with machines nothing matters all that much. They feel no pain. They do not love. They survive, it seems, only because they are programmed to finish some job. If the plot is a pastiche of the international thriller with overtones of Hammett's Red Harvest, Gottfried's tale is transparently not about the unimaginable vision and politics one might expect machines to have, but about human power in a world of clones, robots, corporations and Empire.
The history of literature about robots is one of the central if unacknowledged venues of literary exploration of social revolution. Frankenstein, written by the daughter of one revolutionary and the wife of another, warns that artificial human beings must be isolated from family, social system and love. Wells suggests the machine-like creatures of The War of the Worlds and The First Men on the Moon are in their efficiency and coldness terrifying alternatives to humanity, The Mad Scientist with his archetypal, magical use of machines to overpower men is the bogey-man of the 19th and 20th century. The 1930s, reacting to the decadence and chaos of the immediate Past, created sympathetic myths of efficiency in everything from Communism to Fascism, the New Deal, hardcore Science-Fiction and the Model-T Ford. Asimov, a graduate of the 30s and Campbellite aesthetics, was one of many scientist authors who picked up the hints in Capek and Weinbaum, respectively, that robots and aliens might be sympathetic and even superior life-forms: this is the core theme of Asimov's Foundation tetrology. From the 1960s to the Present, born in a Socialist culture which stressed communal reality over personal diversity, Stanislaw Lem has made machines comic, ignorant, boobs, and the fools of large metaphysical meditations. If Lewis Mumford in books like The Myth of the Machine has given us the most detailed and profound analysis of the machine archetype in human life and in history, Lem is the master of robotics in its comedic and horrific aspects as Asimov is the king of its sublime elements. THE STEEL EYE is very close to Lem. It is literary, Alexandrine, eclectic, intelligent, ironic, detached, and in the nature of a jeu d'esprit. It is also written with an eye to the market. It has not the audacity of a Lem, who does not care where his Muse leads him; indeed, given Gottfried's excellent clean style and clever ideas, more chances taken in THE STEEL EYE would have given it more of the brio he wants.
Since THE STEEL EYE is clearly conceived, written and even packaged with both eyes on the market, a few words must be said about a market that has so much power to shape publishing. Lem surfaced in the 60s, no major SF writer has been offered to the public since about 1968. Those who have established their ability to make money continue in print of course. But the great age of SF seems to have ended about twenty years ago. It began with the rise of authors of upwardly mobile classes and engineer-scientist-writers like Asimov, Hubbard, Heinlein, Pratt, and of course, John Campbell; it seems to have ended with Lem, who is a doctor. It was a kind of a priestly symposium during a fantastical social revolution wedded to robotic technology, whose mythic uses in processing new realities seem to have ended. It is not hard to speculate on the reason for this. Science was for the 1930s a source of power, of freedom from Class, an equalizer in an imminent meritocracy that had to honor all who were efficient and capable, a fresh and messianic transformer of poverty and misery, bad government, superstition and disease into a World-To-Come. By the late 60s and the heyday of the New Wave writers like Ballard, Dick, Zelasny, and Ellison it was clear that Science was not the Messiah. THE STEEL EYE with its emotionally flattened world of industrial trash is a wonderful terminal image of the souls disenchanted with Science. It is a dissent in the late stages of the Materialistic cult: a novel drowning in technological garbage.