Books: City of Night

If finishing a book quickly is a sign of how much one likes it, I guess I really liked this book. It’s not all that long, so it wasn’t hard to finish in a single day. (And having dropped off my younger son at Boy Scout camp did mean a bit more time to myself in the evening.)

Not surprisingly for a second book in a series, it has a rather unfinished feel to it. A couple of plot lines are tidied up at the end, but the rest remain wide open for resolution in the third book of the series. So far I can say I like Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series better than I initially thought I would, just from seeing the titles in the store. But I’m glad I settled for borrowing them from the library, as I don’t think I’m likely to reread them, as I would some of Koontz’s other novels.

City of Night continues to show how Victor (formerly Frankenstein) Helios’s New Race of beings is deteriorating mentally. The first book showed some of them wanting to die; this book explores why. These people, human in appearance on the outside, and subject to many of the same emotions as human beings, are deprived of free will. They are “born” from tanks, knowing that they exist to serve their maker, Victor Helios, and that they cannot choose otherwise.

Being just as self-aware as human beings, they have as much desire for happiness and meaning to their lives, but are condemned to existence without either. Their bodies, far superior in many ways to those of the “Old Race” (i.e. human beings), will allow them to live for hundreds of years. But in practice, it turns out that about twenty years is the longest they manage to tolerate the fact of their slavery to Victor. Then their “programming” starts to fail in various ways, leading one way or another to the escape they long for (i.e. death).

Free will is at the center of some of the most interesting – and controversial – discussions in philosophy and religion. It is often given, by religious believers, as the explanation for the existence of evil. God wants people to freely love Him, the argument goes, therefore it is necessary that people have free will.

I took a class in Philosophy of Religion at (a fundamentalist Baptist) college, and our professor spent at least one class session lecturing on the subject. The Scriptural view, in his opinion, is that we have free choice, but not free will. If we had free will, he said, it would mean that God was not truly sovereign, because people would be able to thwart His will by exercising their own free will.

We do have free choice, however, meaning that we do what we choose to do, rather than being forced to act against our own desires and inclinations. Obviously we sometimes have to choose to do things we would rather not do, but we do choose to act in that way because we prefer the consequences of that choice rather than the alternative. And obviously, we often regret our choices, sometimes only seconds after making them (particular our choice of words to say), but they were our choices at the time.

I’m not sure whether I agree with that position or not (at the time I took the class, I enthusiastically endorsed all of that professor’s teaching, along with a number of other students who thought he was one of the best professors on campus). But when I wrote a paper (for that same class) on the problem of evil, I came to the conclusion that free will does not explain the problem of evil.

Christian theology also teaches that in heaven we will be sinless, but I have never heard it suggested that we will lack free will. I don’t know quite how that works, but it certainly suggests that God can somehow transform us so that we will both have free will and yet be preserved from ever choosing to sin. Why, I can’t help asking, could He not have made us that way to begin with? (My conclusion, when I wrote the paper, and I still think this today, is that the answer to the problem of evil is a mystery that God does not reveal to us in this life.)

I don’t know how much any of that has to do with Koontz’s City of Night, but I do find it fascinating to think about the topic in light of Koontz’s depiction of these tortured beings, forced to live as slaves to their maker’s will. Human beings who are enslaved often live in horrible conditions, but at least their minds are free. Imagine having a free body, but a mind that is enslaved. A machine cannot care that it is not free, but a being with self-awareness can. Particularly since the “New Race” is surrounded by members of the “Old Race” who have the freedom they crave, they are filled with envy and bitterness.

For some reason Koontz does not explain adequately, Victor chose to make his New Race able to feel negative emotions such as anger, envy, and hatred, but not positive emotions such as happiness, compassion, or hope. (There is at least one exception, as he made the woman he created as his wife capable of shame, because it excites him sexually to humiliate her, but somehow that leads to new emotions in her.)

I know Victor is a utilitarian and materialist, and emotions such as happiness, compassion, and hope would not seem at all useful to him. I can see where anger could be useful, especially when he uses his New Race people to kill Old Race people. But I can’t see how envy would be useful.

Is it harder, I wonder, for him to disable those negative emotions than the positive ones? The novels never explain how he programs the New Race. In the case of Randal, whom he deliberately makes autistic, it says that he examined the electrical impulses in the brains of autistic humans, and tried to duplicate those electrical patterns in Randal – with definite success. But other times, the New Race people speak of lines of programming that are failing – I don’t know if they mean that literally or if it is a metaphor (just as people in IT sometimes joke about needing memory upgrades).

I’d say that none of it really matters, since this is fiction. But will it remain fiction? At this point, creating a being that resembles a human, that is self-aware but subject to the maker’s programming, belongs strictly to science fiction/fantasy. But given the incredible rate of new developments in science these days, I don’t think we can assume that it will not become a reality at some point.

One Response to Books: City of Night

  1. modestypress says:

    Your last paragraph nails one of the big issues that human beings, wickedly clever creatures that we are, will soon have to deal with.

    And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

    I am stretching the analogy a bit, but if you take the worldwide network we call The Internet as a path towards one language (at least a system whereby all the humans of the world are communicating with each other)…then…

    Well, I am thinking of the Bob Dylan song “It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” I just reread the lyrics. Pretty apt to the theme. Get out your umbrella.

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