Lem at Amazon

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ALL books by this Polish master of intellectual science fiction should come with a label on the cover warning: "Handle With Care." Mr. Lem is a moralist, an ironist, a man of wide erudition (in both science and literature) who has little patience with the shortcomings of his fellow man.

His latest volume contains three short essays masquerading as reviews of books that have not yet been written. The first is of a book called "One Human Minute," issued, according to Mr. Lem, in 1988 by a publisher with offices in London, New York and on the moon. This book purports to give the reader, through reams of computer-compiled statistical tables, a picture of "what all the people in the world are doing, at the same time, in the course of one minute." As reviewer, Mr. Lem dutifully points out the flaws inherent in such a project while confessing his fascination with the material at hand.

He remarks that "only those who still cherish illusions on the subject of Man" will be surprised to find far more statistical evidence of human evil (murders, rapes, starving children) than of human decency. But in the interest of fairness, he notes -or, rather, refers to those "indignant critics of 'One Human Minute' " who note - that manifestations of decency may simply be harder to quantify: "There cannot be, nor ever will be . . . any sort of 'meters' to . . . measure filial or maternal love; no thermometers to gauge the heat of lovers' passions." Nor can there by any register "of those acts of kindness whose authors wished to remain anonymous."

The second "review" is a witty and occasionally hilarious disquisition on "the military evolution of civilization" from the viewpoint of the 21st century. Mr. Lem explains in mathematical terms why very large, very complex weapons systems are inherently unreliable - and describes how arms builders overcame this problem once they realized that no more was needed to fight a modern war than "the skill and enterprise of a bee or a hornet." Un-fortunately, the replacement of conventional armies with swarms of lethally programmed "synsects" made it impossible to tell friend from foe or war from peace. But this was, the reviewer suggests, a problem for the twenty-second century.

If Mr. Lem were using these reviews of nonexistent books merely to explode human inanities and malignities, his performance, however brilliant, would soon grow tiresome, since the immediate targets are, after all, decoys of his own careful fashioning. But there is a deeper purpose at work here, one well served by Catherine Leach's lucid translation. While expounding on the limitations of the statistical method in the first review, Mr. Lem takes care to inform the reader that precisely this method lies at the core of modern science. "That flimsy determinism of the nineteenth-century rationalists has collapsed and will rise no more," he tells us; "it was replaced, with unexpected success, by probability theory and statistics." A grasp of these same subjects turns out to be necessary if we are to understand why synsects make better weapons than supercomputers and superbombs. IN the last review, of a book titled "The World as Cataclysm," Mr. Lem drops the mask of the ironist to offer a dazzling summary of the latest theories of the scientific cosmologists. Readers whose world views were shaped by the physics they learned even a few years ago in high school or college may find this updated cosmology shocking. The universe seems to have evolved through a process that Mr. Lem calls "creation through destruction." A series of almost unimaginably violent events created our sun, our planet and perhaps intelligent life itself; any search for purpose or order in the location and timing of these events is bound to be frustrated. The universe, according to Mr. Lem, is governed by chance - a statement that he defends in a brilliant passage of detailed scientific explication that ranges from the roulette tables of Monte Carlo to the "corotational circle" of our galaxy, the Milky Way.