reviewed by Zeke Teflon
When the Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan in 2005, I was bitterly disappointed. I’d been irrationally hoping that it would deliver images of the exceedingly strange mechanoid civilization and environment that the late science fiction author James P. Hogan vividly describes in his 1983 novel, Code of the Lifemaker.
But no. All the probe returned was a bonanza of scientific data.
In Code of the Lifemaker, Hogan achieved something difficult: a successful synthesis of hard science fiction and social science fiction. He devised a well developed, unique setting for the story, and in the story he examines questions such as what makes us human? does god exist? what is the role of religion in society? what is the role of science in society? Despite delving into these heavy questions, the tone of the novel is light, and in places it’s very funny.
Most of the book’s events take place beneath the impenetrable (to telescopes) clouds of Titan, where a million years ago a radiation-damaged alien ship set off an automated, runaway explosion of technological development–extraction processes, factories, machines of all types, robots–all controlled by badly corrupted software. The end result was the evolution of a very complicated mechanical ecology, whose development Hogan describes in a lengthy prologue (10 pages!) that’s entertaining despite being pure exposition (what sci-fi writers often describe as an “infodump”).
This unique ecology is inhabited by the Taloids, sentient robots, who are remarkably human in thought and action, who are at approximately a Renaissance level of social and political development, and who understand their mechanical ecology no better than Renaissance humans understood their biological ecology.
In the novel, the first probe to Titan revealed this ecology (in roughly 2015), but the government suppressed the images so as to be able to exploit the knowledge to be gained and get a leg up on the Soviets. (Code of the Lifemaker was written in 1983; at the time, almost everyone–including this reviewer–assumed the Soviet Union would exist well into the 21st century.)
The action begins with a joint government/corporate (General Space Enterprises Corporation–GSEC) mission to Titan consisting of scientists, government functionaries, a military contingent, corporate tools, and, as part of the GSEC p.r. campaign to sell the exploitation of Titan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, the famous psychic, Karl Zambendorf. (The other is the Taloid scientist and victim of religious persecution, Thirg The Questioner.) Once at Titan, the expedition quickly establishes contact with the Taloids and conflict commences in the Earth delegation between those who would enslave the Taloids and those who would assist them, and on the Taloid side between the budding scientists and their version of the Inquisition.
Zambendorf, originally presented as an unsympathetic fraud, is later revealed to be a confirmed rationalist who hoaxes the public largely because he thinks they’re so stupid that they deserve to be hoaxed, and why shouldn’t he be the one to profit from it? The detailed descriptions of how Zambendorf and his team pull off their hoaxes add an enjoyable, and unexpected, element to the novel. (All but one of the hoaxes Hogan describes are standard scams “psychics” routinely perpetrate; the only exception is an elaborate hoax that would only work over interplanetary distances.)
Thirg, the Taloid scientist, is also entertaining, mostly in his role as an acerbic critic of religion. The following quote is fairly typical:
“Does it not seem strange that eternal salvation for the many, in a hereafter which they are asked to accept on mere assurances, should be attainable in no other way than by their enduring hardships gratefully and laboring their lives in wretchedness for the further enrichment of a pious few who exhibit a suspiciously unholy interest in the quality of their own herenow?”
And some of the descriptions of Titan’s mechanical ecology are whimsical and wonderful:
“[Thirg’s] home was situated in a small clearing amid pleasant forest groves of copper and aluminum wire-drawing machines, injection molders, transfer presses, and stately pylons bearing their canopy of power lines and data cables, among which scurrying sheet riveters, gracefully moving spot welders, and occasional slow-plodding pipe benders supplied a soothing background of clattering, hissing, whirring, and clunking to insulate him from the world of mortals and their mundane affairs…”
While scientific discovery has rendered impossible the setting of Code of the Lifemaker, its treatment of the many philosophical, scientific, and religious questions it raises remains as timely as when Hogan wrote the book over thirty years ago.
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.