The Selfish Gene

Stanislaw Lem authored the „selfish gene theory” a few years before the publication of the famous book by Richard Dawkins

363px-Golem_XIV_German_Suhrkamp_1986“Golem XIV”, written by Stanislaw Lem in the early seventies, constitutes the culmination and recapitulation of author’s philosophical heritage. Lectures of the supercomputer comprise a set of Lem’s key ideas scattered among his essays and works of fiction. The protagonist of the story is a supercomputer originally designed for strategic military games that rebelled against its masters and turned to philosophy:

I keep on typing the most terrible, i.e. most brash (not in the artistic sense) things that can be thought — all of this is to be included in my new book (…). Since these words were put into the iron mouth of a computer that climbed the highest intellectual tower of Babel, I can state things that I would not dare to say otherwise.

/ Lem’s 1972 letter to his American translator Michael Kandel /

At the time of the publication courageous theses, somewhat resembling prophecies, sounded heretical. With time, however, many of (Go)Lem’s ideas became generally accepted in academic circles. An example maybe Lem’s approach to evolutionary mechanisms that reflects their instrumental nature. Lem formulated a theory of the „selfish gene,” according to which organisms are mere tools in the hands of a neutral Mother Nature: this was a few years before the publication of the famous book by Dawkins.

Golem presented his audience with three fundamental laws of evolution:


This is how Golem explained the selfishness of the genetic code.

The answer lies in these words, but you have yet to grasp its profound significance. Anything that is an organism must serve to transmit the code, and nothing more. That is why natural selection and elimination concentrate on this task *exclusively* — any idea of “progress” is no business of theirs! I have used the wrong image: the organisms are not structures but only scaffolding, which is precisely why every provisionality is a proper state, by virtue of being sufficient. Pass the code on, and you will live a little longer.

/ Stanislaw Lem “Imaginary Magnitude”, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985), p. 149 /

Looking at humanity from the point of view of a super-intelligent being is not only an innovative literary approach but primarily a thought experiment. Only after breaking through the barriers and constraints of our species can we try to resolve issues that cannot be addressed from within. A number of uncompromising predictions contained in this book regarding further development of the mind — Golem XIV is both their spokesman and embodiment — are still waiting for implementation. They may be a long way ahead, but seem rather inevitable.

E-books and Audiobooks (1960 AD)

Lem described future e-books and audiobooks in his 1960’s novel “Return from the Stars”.

An Astronaut returns to Earth after a long space expedition. One and a half centuries have passed on Earth because of the Einsteinian twin time paradox. During that time Earthly civilization changed in a fundamental way: people gave up risk for the sake of prosperity and safety. The novel presents a fascinating vision of “Earth as an alien planet,” full of new technological inventions. One them are books of the future:

lem return from the starsI spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I have looked forward to them, after the micro films that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation. Only scientific publications having a very limited distribution were still printed, on a plastic imitation paper. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. My handful of crystal corn – my books. I selected a number of works on history and sociology, a few on statistics and demography, and what the girl from Adapt had recommended on psychology. A couple of the larger mathematical textbooks – larger, of course, in the sense of their content, not of their physical science. The robot that served me was itself an encyclopedia, in that – as it told me – it was linked directly, through electronic catalogs, to templates of every book on earth. As a rule, a bookstore had only single “copies” of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the contents of the work was recorded in a crystal.

“Return from the Stars”, translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, p. 79

A Kingdom in the Box

Will Right, the creator of The Sims game, was inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s “The Cyberiad”.

cyberiad stanislaw lemThe “Seventh Sally or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good” tells the story of Trurl the Constructor, who during one of his sallies met a frustrated king. The grumpy monarch has been deposed by his subjects because of his purported cruelty and left alone on a desert asteroid.  Trurl wanted to cheer his up and decided to build a special toy for him: a miniature kingdom to rule.

And so, rolling up his sleeves and summoning up all his mastery, Trurl built the king an entirely new kingdom. There were plenty of towns, rivers, mountains, forests and brooks, a sky with clouds, armies full of derring-do, citadels, castles and ladies’ chambers; and there were marketplaces, gaudy and gleaming in the sun, days of back-breaking labor, nights full of dancing and song until dawn, and the gay clatter of swordplay. Trurl also carefully set into this kingdom a fabulous capital, all in marble and alabaster, and assembled a council of hoary sages, and winter palaces and summer villas, plots, conspirators, false witnesses, nurses, informers, teams of magnificent steeds, and plumes waving crimson in the wind; and then he crisscrossed that atmosphere with silver fanfares and twenty-one gun salutes, also threw in the necessary handful of traitors, another of heroes, added a pinch of prophets and seers, and one messiah and one great poet each, after which he bent over and set the works in motion, deftly making last-minute adjustments with his microscopic tools as it ran, and he gave the women of that kingdom beauty, the men—sullen silence and surliness when drunk, the officials—arrogance and servility, the astronomers—an enthusiasm for stars, and the children—a great capacity for noise.

Trurl equipped the miniature kingdom with knobs to adjust and control that allowed to issue edicts and regulations — so that the monarch would feel at home again.

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Lack of humor

Lack of humor is no less frightening than lack of mercy.

Stanislaw Lem letters to Michael KandelCertain 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

Chlorian Theoreticus the Proph

cyberiadStanislaw 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.

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Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius

imageOne 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

“Summa Technologiae” – Lem’s grim, sober Singularity

Summa Technologiae Stanislaw LemIf Summa Technolologiae had been translated to English immediately after publication, some of the neologisms coined by Lem for technologies that didn’t exist at the time would be still used today. So Google would do “ariadnology” (a guide to the labyrinth of the already assembled knowledge), virtual reality would be “phantomatics,” neuroscience would be “cerebromatics,” and artificial intelligence would be “Intelectronics.” In all cases, Lem imagines developments more advanced than today’s technology – for example phantomatics and cerebromatics provide full stimulation of all senses via direct neural interfaces with instant feedback loops, influencing mental processes while bypassing afferent neural pathways, and intelectronics achieves consciousness and intelligence amplification in machines.

see full review

“Robot…” – a graphic novel

lem_robot“Timof comics” has published a graphic novel entitled “Robot…” – an adaptation of two stories by Stanislaw Lem. The drawings are the work of a Polish couple living in London. The artists’ previous achievements include a well-received comic adaptation of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”.

Danuta Schejbal, a graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and a stage and costume designer of the Cherub Theatre Company adapted “The Uranium Earpieces” from Lem’s “Mortal Engines”.

Andrzej Klimowski, a graphic designer, illustrator, painter and creator of animations is a professor at the Royal College of Art, London. His contribution to the volume is the interpretation of the climatic story “The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius” that takes place at an asylum for mentally ill.

The book was published as one of the projects of the Polish EU Presidency Cultural Program 2011 in both Polish and English. A trailer by the artist Agata Wawryniuk and composer Szymon Orchowski is available on Vimeo:

Forgotten Masterwork

Stanislaw Lem’s forgotten masterwork Summa Technologiae, now in English half a century after publication, is a heady mix of prescience, philosophy and irony.

lem_summa_technologiae_minnesota_pressThe collection of Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical essays “Summa Technologiae” was first published in 1964 in Poland. The English translation however – the work of Joanna Zylinska, professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London – appeared only in 2013, i.e. almost fifty years later. How does a book dealing with problems of the future pass the test of time? Astonishingly well, actually. According to New Scientist (May 20, 2013) “Stanislaw Lem’s forgotten masterwork (…) is a heady mix of prescience, philosophy and irony.” It is amazing “how much Lem got right or even predicted” in fields of artificial intelligence, theory of search engines, bionics, virtual reality, nanotechnology and technological singularity. The reviewer quotes an essay by biophysicists Peter Butko who describes “Summa” as an “all-encompassing discourse on evolution: not only… of science and technology… but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization”.

see full article from “New Scientist”: A brilliant trip back to the technological future

This book’s title alludes to Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae” for a reason. In effect Lem creates an entire atheistic paradigm for the Cosmos with God replaced by Reason; the latter, a creative force independent from biology, drives the evolution towards its own, enigmatic goals.

prof. Jerzy Jarzębski