When my son studied physics at Princeton (…) we exchanged many letters. He complained to his mother that I, instead of writing about my inner life, discuss galaxies, black holes and curved space. My wife responded: your father’s internal life ARE black holes and galaxies.
Stanislaw Lem and Tomasz Fiałkowski, “Świat na krawędzi” (“The World on the Edge”), 2018
The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all the languages of Earth’s cultures, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like—from Latin and Hindustani to the dialects of the Apaches, Eskimos, or the tribe of Dobu. We could even do this, no doubt, with the language of the Mousterian period, if we knew it. The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those that divide like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history, and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.
The example is primitive, because it assumes that the one who receives the message will know which signs in it carry information and which constitute their unessential background. With the letter from the stars our position was different. The recorded rhythm could have represented, for example, only marks of punctuation, while the actual “letters” or ideograms could have failed completely to affect the surface of the tape’s magnetic coating, being impulses to which the machine was not sensitive.
A separate problem is the disparity between the levels of civilization. From the gold death mask of Amenhotep the art historian will read the epoch and its style. From the mask’s ornamentation the student of religions will deduce the beliefs of that time. The chemist will be able to show what method was used then to work the gold. The anthropologist will tell whether the specimen of the species from six thousand years ago differs from modern man; and the physician will offer the diagnosis that Amenhotep suffered from a hormonal imbalance, acromegaly, that gave him his deformed jaw. In this way an object sixty centuries old provides us, in modern times, with far more information than its creators possessed—for what did they know of the chemistry of gold, of acromegaly, of cultural styles? If we turn the procedure around in time and send to an Egyptian of the era of Amenhotep a letter written today, he will not understand it, not only because he does not know our language, but also because he has neither the words nor the concepts to set alongside ours.
Stanisław Lem “His Master’s Voice”, translated by Michael Kandel
even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature
We have to differentiate between possibilities and realistic goals. In science, possibilities have always had their “negative prophets.” The number of such prophets has at times surprised me, as has the passion with which they have been trying to prove the futility of constructing flying, atomic, or thinking machines. The most sensible thing we can do is refrain from arguing with those forecasters of the impossible not because we have to believe in everything coming true one day but rather because, when drawn into heated debates, people can easily lose sight of what the real problems are. “Anti-homunculists” are convinced that in negating the possibility of a synthetic mind, they are defending the superiority of man over his creations creations that, they believe, should never overtake the human genius. This kind of defense would only make sense if someone were really trying to replace man with a machine, not within a particular workplace but rather within civilization as a whole. But nobody intends to do this. The point is not to construct synthetic humanity but rather to open up a new chapter in the Book of Technology: one containing systems of any degree of complexity. As man himself, his body and brain, all belong to such a class of systems, such a new technology will mean a completely new type of control man will gain over himself, that is, over his organism. This will in turn enable the fulfillment of some age-long dreams, such as the desire for immortality, or even perhaps the reversal of processes that are considered irreversible today (biological processes in particular, especially aging). Yet those goals may turn out to be a fantasy, just as the alchemists’ gold was. Even if man is indeed capable of anything, he surely cannot achieve it in just any way. He will eventually achieve every goal if he so desires, but he will understand before that that the price he would have to pay for achieving such a goal would reduce this goal to absurdity.
It is because even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature. We can fly, but not by flapping our arms. We can walk on water, but not in the way it is depicted in the Bible. Perhaps we will eventually gain a kind of longevity that will practically amount to immortality, but to do this, we will have to give up on the bodily form that nature gave us. Perhaps, thanks to hibernation, we will be able to travel freely across millions of years, but those who wake up after their glacial dream will find themselves in an unfamiliar world, since the world and the culture that have shaped them will have disappeared during their reversible death. Thus, when fulfilling our dreams, the material world requires us to undertake actions the realization of which can equally resemble a victory and a defeat.
Stanisław Lem “Summa Technologiae”, translated by Joanna Zylinska, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013, p. 90-71
Whatever positive things we can say about our civilization, we can be sure of one thing: its development has certainly not been harmonious.
… we are talking about Intelligence! Yet it would have been impossible to reach the Atomic Age without the Age of Coal and the Age of Electricity that preceded it. Or a different environment would have at least required a different sequence of discoveries, which would have involved more than just rearranging the calendars of Einsteins and Newtons from other planets. In an environment with a high degree, of disturbance that exceeds the regulatory capacity of a society, Intelligence can manifest itself not in an expansive form, as a desire to take control over the environment, but rather as a desire to subjugate itself to that environment. I am referring here to the emergence of biological technology prior to physical technology: creatures inhabiting such a world transform themselves to function in a given environment, instead of transforming that environment so that it serves them—the way humans do. “But this is not intelligent behavior any more; this is not Intelligence!” we hear in response. “Every biological species behaves in this way in the course of evolution …”
Lack of humor is no less frightening than lack of mercy.
Certain elements of my work inevitably come from the „Zeitgeist”: in our era the baroque seems more appropriate than radical new ideas. In other words things should be more complicated: persiflage, parodistic, ironic and grotesque variations of already present themes, settled for good in art, annexed a long time ago, are required. My rage at science fiction results inter alia from the fact that the same motifs without humor (mit tierischem Ernst) are repeated over and over again, which should (but doesn’t) result in a storm of laughter. For me lack of sense of humor is not less frightening than lack of mercy. The KIND of humor present in SF (if present at all) seems related to — I fear to say — Nazism and its concept of a „sense of humor”. Hence the grotesque in my texts has been simply forced upon me by Genius Temporis. One could write speculative volumes on where this Geist comes from and why, full of hypotheses, since nothing certain is known. (In the introduction to „Imaginary Magnitude” you may find what I think about the subject…)
Fame and Fortune. Stanislaw Lem’s letters to Michael Kandel 1972-1987
Stanislaw Lem’s works can be roughly divided into fiction, essays, apocrypha (texts about non-existent texts) and complains about the literary critique. It may seem strange that a popular writer, whose books have been published all over the world, grieved that reviews did not do him justice. Over time, on both sides of the Iron Curtain enthusiastic, in-depth, competent articles started to appear, such as the extensive texts of „The New York Times Book Review”. However there were few general overviews combining elements shared by a number of works and presenting universal attributes of Lem’s literary output. Most lemologists — usually humanists — were somewhat crestfallen by the spectrum of knowledge and erudition of an author who „like an intellectual bulldozer with astonishing ease dug through all possible fields of human cognition”1. Lem’s reception was also disturbed by the stigmatizing „science fiction” label.
Chlorian Theoreticus the Proph, a character from Lem’s „Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius,” is an ironically bitter self-portrait2 of the author himself — a writer and thinker ignored and underestimated by his contemporaries. The unfortunate Chlorian created works of art „saturated with the absolute,” brilliant masterpieces reaching the very core of the essence of things. After the (self) publication of his first book the philosopher expected to be welcomed by enthusiastic crowds:
As soon as this treatise appeared in print (at my own expense), I rushed out into the street, certain that the people would lift me up on their shoulders, crown me with garlands, shower me with gold, but no one, not even so much as a lame cybernerian, approached with words of praise.
One day king Genius, a monarch with a philosophical bent, commissioned from Trurl the constructor three story-telling machines that were to amuse him. Their multi-layered stories within stories, „One Thousand and One Nights” of the cybernetic age, grotesque and philosophical at the same time, are woven of encrypted clues, allusions, literary references and scientific hypotheses. One of them features Karl Marx, hidden from the censorship of then- communist Poland under the name of Malapusticus Pandemonius. The result of putting Malapusticus’ social utopias into practice results in — quite expectedly — „chaos and carnage, and a devastating decline in the vital voltage, an enervated emf and energy dissipation everywhere.”
For in the Beginning there was naught but Formless Darkness, and in the Darkness, Magneticity, which moved the atoms, and whirling atom struck atom, and Current was thus created, and the First Light… from which the stars were kindled, and then the planets cooled, and in their cores the breath of Sacred Statisticality gave rise to microscopic Protomechanoans, which begat Proteromechanoids, which begat the Primitive Mechanisms. These could not yet calculate, nor scarcely put two and two together, but thanks to Evolution and Natural Subtraction they soon multiplied and produced Omnistats, which gave birth to the Servostat, the Missing Clink, and from it came our progenitor, Automatus Sapiens…
After that there were the cave robots, the nomad robots, and then robot nations. Robots of Antiquity had to manufacture their life-giving electricity by hand, that is by rubbing, which meant great drudgery. Each lord had many knights, each knight many vassals, and the rubbing was feudal hence hierarchical, progressing from the lowly to the higher-up. This manual labor was replaced by machine when Ylem Symphiliac invented the rubberator, and Wolfram of Coulombia, the rubless lightning rod. Thus began the Battery Age, a most difficult time for all who did not possess their own accumulators, since on a clear day, without a cloud to tap, they had to scrimp and scrounge for every precious watt, and rub themselves constantly, else perish from a total loss of charge. And then there appeared a scholar, an infernal intellectrician and efficiency expert, who in his youth, doubtless owing to some diabolical intervention, never had his head staved in, and he began to teach and preach that the traditional method of electrical connection—namely parallel—was worthless, and they all ought to hook themselves up according to a revolutionary new plan of his, that is in series. For in series, if one rubs, the others are immediately supplied with current, even at a great distance, till every robot simply bubbles over with ohms and volts. And he showed his blueprints, and painted paradises of such parameters, that the old circuits, equal and independent, were disconnected and the system of Pandemonius promptly implemented.
from The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel