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Lem on our side: Reviews of Stanislaw Lem's The truth and other stories and Dialogues by Edward J. Valauskas

 

The truth and other stories Dialogues
Stanisław Lem.
The truth and other stories.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021.
paper, 326 pp., ISBN 9978–0–262–04608–4, $US39.95.
MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu
Stanisław Lem.
Dialogues.
Translated by Peter Butko.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021.
paper, 348 pp., ISBN 978–0–262–54293–7, $US39.95.
MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu

 


 

The truth and other stories is a remarkable collection of tales by one of the great masters of imaginative science fiction of all time, Stanisław Lem. Consisting of a dozen excellent, exquisite stories created over three and half decades, they provide an excellent introduction to Lem’s style and thinking. Lem is no ordinary writer, and these works prove his ability to take stock science fiction themes and create quite new approaches, testing the reader’s imagination.

What do I mean by stock themes? Looking at the contents chronologically, three of the six offerings from the 1950s deal with alien invasions. Given the fascination some seventy years ago with flying saucers and otherworldly intelligent creatures visiting Earth, it is no wonder that Lem wrote about visitors in exotic spacecraft. Lem does not take a traditional approach to this theme; there is no hint of H.G. Wells’ War of the worlds (1898) with savage Martians wielding superior weaponry. Wells’ visitors to Earth were eventually defeated by pathogens, to which they had no natural resistance.

How does Lem defeat the incredibly disdainful and astute Aldebaranians? In “Invasion from Aldebaran” (originally “Inwazja z Aldebarana”), created in 1959, NGTRX and PWGDRK — the Aldebaranians — and their wondrous technology, are overcome primarily by their own hubris, but also an alcohol-filled Earthling. In “Rat in the labyrinth” (originally “Szczur w labyrincie”, 1956), Lem allows Earth’s environment, that is, the atmosphere, coupled with a crash landing in a remote lake, unexpectedly, defeating an alien and its enormous intergalactic device. As one of the characters in the story, Professor Gadshill, notes:

“We imagine space creatures as triumphant victors landing on our planet — we think of them as all-foreseeing, infinitely wise conquerors of the cosmic void, and yet they are living, fallible creatures, just like us; like us, too, they possess the art of dying.” [1]

In Lem’s “The invasion”, pear-like objects fall to Earth in a number of different locales. After much deliberation, both scientific and militaristic, it was decided that the creatures were neither plant or animal but

“a creature adapted for space travel, and moreover for cosmic catastrophes, so that only one generation of pears could develop on the planet onto which it fell, and the embryos had to wait, possibly for billions of years, until this planet disintegrated because of some sort of cataclysm, and then, mixed into the meteorite cluster of its remains, they made an onward journey to another corner of the galaxy.” [2]

Creatures that could not be explained in earthly, ordinary science fiction classification are not what a reader expects. As Dr. Haines explains to the press (a.k.a. mere mortal aficionados of science fiction, unaccustomed to Lem’s creativity):

“You gentlemen want to hear the truth from me — but there are two truths. The first is for the weeklies that have room for longer articles with graphic illustrations. The glass pears are specimens from the botanical gardens of highly developed space creatures. These creatures cultivated them to realize their aesthetic aims. The pears are their sculptors and portraitists. The second truth, just as good, is suitable for the daily press, especially the evening papers. The pears are monsters from outer space, who delight in acts of destruction that are simultaneously acts of their individual conception.” [3]

Lem is essentially commenting on all of alien invasive fiction — writers and their readers expect a binary relationship with visitors from other worlds, one being benign even helpful, the other destructive and chaotic. Lem challenges these notions, with aliens oblivious of Earth and its creatures, where this planet is just another stage in a much longer cosmic cycle of growth and development.

The other main theme of Lem’s stories in this volume is the evolving interface between humans and artificial intelligence. The range of these tales is enormous, from robot stalking in the first essay in this volume, “The hunt”, to a debate between robots Father Tynkan and Father Chlorian in “An enigma” on the origins of robots by “the so-called Aspicians, who in days of yore allegedly created us out of wire and screws” [4].

Lem is certainly concerned about the consequences of human-computer interfacing. In “The hammer” (1959), an exploration of deep space is largely dependent on a device that collects “rarefied cosmic gas — atoms of hydrogen, calcium, and oxygen” [5] as well as a large collection of pre-HAL-9000 computers. In the end, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, there is a nervous, uncomfortable conversational relationship between computer and human aboard this amazing space ship, eventually resolved disastrously with, sadly, a hammer.

Much of Lem’s dark perspectives on computing and humans evolved from his own meditations on cybernetics, made explicit in his Dialogues, most welcomed in a new translation by MIT Press. In some ways, Dialogues explains a great deal of Lem’s pessimistic explanations of the failures of humans and their mechanical electronic inventions. Lem’s stories — “The friend” (1959), “Lymphater’s formula” (1961), and “The journal” (1962) — all describe, in some fashion, computing madness.

“The journal”, for example, describes the cybernetic ravings of a computer that consumed an entire moon, the results of “‘cybernetic spermatozoon’ left it to its own devices&edquo; [6]. “Lymphater’s formula” analyzes the dangerous results of an apparatus that “fulfilled the mathematical conditions of a universal Turing machine, and also, understandably, of Gödel’s theorem” [7]. “The friend” provides a horrific perspective on a literal human-computer interface, where a machine uses two humans, Harden and Egger, as peripherals. This fiendish device was prepared to conquer the universe:

“I was capable of anything, anything — how monstrous! I turned my thoughts to the Cosmos, I entered it, I considered plans for transforming the planets, then for multiplying personalities like mine ...” [8]

Two stories in this collection stood out sheerly for their prescience. In “One hundred and thirty-seven seconds” (1976), Lem describes exactly and quite terrifyingly what we might call today ‘network intelligence’. Given that Lem created this particular story only seven years after the birth of the Internet, at a time when large-scale computer interconnectivity was primitive, the details were incredibly Jules Verne-like in their accuracy. In Lem’s description, networked computers went one step further:

“The computer could predict the future, and it did so infallibly. It made no difference to it if the information being issued concerned events that had already occurred, or ones that were yet to happen — as long as they fit within the limits of two minutes and seventeen seconds.” [9]

Lem’s “Darkness and mildew” (“Ciemnosc i plesn”, 1959) presents “Whisteria cosmolytica ... a microorganism that destroys matter and gains vital energy from the process.” [10] The title is derived from the fact that this pathogen is activated by darkness, with mildew acting as “some sort of organic catalyst” [11]. This tale was particularly gruesome and familiar, in this COVID-19 era.

The contents of The truth and other stories were provided context with the other Lem release this month by MIT Press, entitled Dialogues. Originally published in 1957, this work initially takes the form of a socratic conversation between Philonous and Hylas on the nature of artificial intelligence and its true interconnectivity to humans. There are eight detailed debates between Philonous and Hylas that literally cover the entire range of optimistic cybernetic thinking in those heady days during the middle of the last century.

Hylas starts the conversation wondering about the possibility of immortality via mechanical means, through mapping of an individual’s creative features to computers. This leads to an incredible discussion over the possibilities of digital interfacing. It makes complete sense that MIT Press released this work, in light of its earlier history as a disseminator of the ideas of Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), most notably in works such as Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1961) and God & Golem, Inc. (1964).

Perhaps MIT Press should consider bundling Lem and Wiener together. For Lem, in his supplements to to the dialogues of Philonous and Hylas, explains the many shortcomings of cybernetics over time. As Lem notes in “Lymphater’s formula” (1961):

“ ... in cybernetics at the time a fierce, holy war was being waged, and the spiritual children of the wonderful Norbert were flying at each other’s throats.” [12]

Indeed, cyberneticists, or cyberneticians if you prefer, possessed the zeal of missionaries ready to convert the heathen (non-mathematical, non-computerized) masses with their fervor. All could be solved by just the right equation applied to appropriately acquired data. Lem, revisiting Philonous and Hylas 16 years later, critically points out that:

“ ... the ‘fathers’ of cybernetics — Wiener, Shannon, and von Neumann — at the very beginning warned against the excessive optimism of treating cybernetics as a universal key to knowledge. But they themselves could not always avoid slipping into just such optimism.” [13]

Lem’s apologies for his own cybernetic enthusiasm reminded me of a dark comedy, Desk set (1957). In that film, a computer called EMERAC (Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) is wheeled into a corporate research library by its inventor, Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). EMERAC fails completely in face of a savvy group of quick-witted librarians, led by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) [14]. In the end, EMERAC is reduced to a smoldering heap. In Lem’s appraisal, cybernetics is equivalent to that wreck of EMERAC.

In line with EMERAC’s predictable failure, Lem remarked that:

“Yet using just the theories of probability and algorithms was insufficient for developing cybernetics, and it was expected that pure mathematics would provide a helping hand; among others, von Neumann expressed such a hope, seeing the inadequacy of the solid but not sufficiently powerful combinatorial procedures stemming from Boolean algebra, which had been resurrected and was suddenly fashionable. Unfortunately, help did not come.” [15]

Critically, Lem points out how even the high priests of cybernetics misused certain notions with ruinous consequences. Take the whole notion of entropy. Lem pulverizes this misguided cybernetic use of entropy:

“The greatest joy, almost as if at the discovery of a modern philosopher’s stone, was elicited by the equating of the communications information with thermodynamic entropy, which, as the ‘fathers’ (e.g., von Neumann) claimed, built a bridge between logic and physics — for the first time in the history of knowledge.” [16]

Of course, Lem’s destruction of entropic notions in cybernetics is due to his own acceptance of these ideas as noted in the third conversation of Philonous and Hylas:

“Hylas: Strange. What, then, is information?
Philonous: The importance of cybernetics lies in its answer to this question. Metaphorically, information is a child of thermodynamics turned upside down, as it is the opposite of entropy. Entropy is a physical measure of disorganization, disorder, or chaos in material systems.” [17]

Dialogues sets the stage for much of Lem’s writing on computers, computer-human interfaces, and especially robots. Lem’s particularly excellent robotic engineers, Trurl and Klapaucius, from The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1965) make particular sense in light of Lem’s ultimate loss of faith in all things cybernetic.

Congratulations are due to MIT Press for making these important works available again, in superb translations and in quite readable and accessible formats. I look forward to more Lem imprints released by MIT Press in the near future. Certainly his statistical fiction (The Investigation, originally Sledztwo) is worthy of release in a new translation as well as Summa Technologiae (1964) and Memoirs Found In a Bathtub (Pamietnik znaleziony w wannie, 1971).

The truth and other stories and Dialogues are highly recommended for anyone with an interest in science fiction and the history of science and mathematics. Lem remains one of the most stimulating inventors of transcendental fiction, igniting neural circuitry unlike anything else printed on paper. — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

 

Notes

1. The truth and other stories (hereafter Truth), p. 59.

2 Truth, p. 154.

3 Truth, pp. 157–158.

4 Truth, p. 324.

5 Truth, p. 202.

6 Truth, p. 269.

7 Truth, p. 243.

8 Truth, p. 117.

9 Truth, p. 306.

10 Truth, p. 162–163.

11 Truth, p. 164.

12 Truth, p. 223.

13 Dialogues, p. 193.

14 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desk_Set.

15 Dialogues, p. 194.

16 Dialogues, p. 196.

17 Dialogues, p. 38.

Copyright © 2021, Edward J. Valauskas. All Rights Reserved.

Lem on our side: Reviews of Stanisław Lem’s The truth and other stories and Dialogues
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 9 - 6 September 2021
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/12286/10222
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i9.12286