Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
“The Internet is the great masterpiece of civilization,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book Magic and Loss, and whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard to deny its importance. It touches every aspect of our lives, at least in the parts of the world where it’s possible for you to read these words now, and any attempt to write about how we live today has to take it into account. For those who like to define science fiction as a predictive literature, its failure to collectively foresee the Internet in a meaningful way—in the sense that it devoted so much energy to such subjects as space travel—is perhaps the genre’s greatest cause for regret. You could say, fairly enough, that it’s easy to point out such shortcomings in hindsight, or even that science fiction’s true strength doesn’t lie in prediction, but in preparing its readers for developments that none of us can see coming. But there’s no denying that the absence of anything like the Internet in the vast majority of science fiction has enormous practical consequences. It means that most visions of the future are inevitably dated, and that we need to continuously suspend disbelief to read stories about galactic empires in which computers or information technology don’t play any part at all. (In some ways, the internal logic of Dune, in which thinking machines have been outlawed, has allowed it to hold up in respects that Frank Herbert himself probably never anticipated.)
Of course, in a literature that constantly spun out wild notions in all directions, there were a few stories that were bound to seem prescient, if only by the law of truly large numbers. The idea of a worldwide machine that runs civilization—and the problems that an ordinary mortal would have in dealing with it—was central to R. DeWitt Miller’s “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in 1938. Eight years later, A.E. van Vogt’s visionary novel Slan showed its hero interacting through a computer with a Bureau of Statistics that put “a quadrillion facts” at his disposal. Most impressive of all is Will Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe,” which appeared a short time earlier: Jenkins, better known under the pen name Murray Leinster, built the story around an interlinked computer network that can answer any conceivable question, and which has already replaced most of the world’s filing clerks, secretaries, and messenger services. When one of the computers accidentally develops “ambition,” it gleefully provides users with advice on how to murder their wives, shows dirty videos to children, and makes suggestions for other illegal queries they might want to ask. (When faced with the prospect of simply turning the system off, a character objects: “If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!”) It not only looks forward with eerie accuracy to the Internet, but speculates about what might come next. And yet the clues it provided went mostly unexplored.
But the story that fills me with the most awe is “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which was published in the May 1951 issue of Astounding. Miller is best known today as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but he was also a prolific author of short fiction, and in a single novelette, he manages to lay out most of the concerns of the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s about an American cyberneticist who has developed an innovative synaptic relay system—a neural network, in other words—that can be used to build a gigantic computer. After being kidnapped by the Russians, who break his will by showing him faked footage of his wife having an affair, he agrees to build a machine for them, called Izzard, that can analyze itself and suggest improvements to its own architecture. Izzard is designed to oversee the coming invasion of the United States, but it also becomes self-aware and develops a method, not just for reproducing attributes of consciousness, but of uploading an existing brain into its data banks. The hero uses it to replicate his wife, who has died, along with himself, so that his soul merges with its image in the machine. Once inside, he gradually becomes aware of another presence, who turns out to be a member of a race that has achieved transcendence already, and which is closely monitoring his work. In the end, he uses his newfound powers to foil the invasion, and he’s reunited with his wife in a virtual simulation, via a portal called the membrane, that allows him to start a new life in the universe inside his own mind.
The result is one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time, and not simply because it predicts a dazzling array of issues—the singularity, mind uploading, simulated reality—that seem to have entered the mainstream conversation only in the last decade or so. It’s also an exciting read, full of action and ingenious plot twists, that takes more than one reading to appreciate. Yet like “A Logic Named Joe,” it was an outlier: it doesn’t seem to have inspired other writers to take up its themes in any significant way. To some extent, that’s because it carries its premise about as far as it could possibly go, and if any story can be truthfully described as ahead of its time, it’s this one. But it’s intriguing to think about an alternative direction that science fiction might have taken if “Izzard and the Membrane” had served as the starting point for a line of speculation that the authors of the time had collaborated in developing, with some of the enthusiasm that the editor John W. Campbell devoted instead to channeling the energies of his writers into psionics. It might not have affected the future directly: in some ways, we’re still catching up to the vision that Miller provides here. But we might be better prepared to confront the coming challenges if we had absorbed them as part of the common language of science fiction over the last sixty years. “The future,” William Gibson famously observed, “is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true of science fiction, too.