Monday, December 19, 2016

The World According to Stanislaw Lem

[ed. I read Lem when I was fresh out of college working in a bookstore (His Master's Voice). Back then employees would trade secret recommendations on favorite books, which is how I heard about him (now you can find those same recommendations on the shelves of any bookstore, titled "Employee Favorites", which seems kind of sad for some reason). Anyway, I thought he was a genius, along the lines of David Foster Wallace. Glad to see him finally getting some recognition. I'll have to revist him again soon.]

There's a paradox at the heart of science fiction. The most basic aspiration of the genre — its very essence, really — is to transcend time and place. Not just to predict the future, but to imagine things that are totally foreign to human experience. How would an alien life form have evolved, compared with those on Earth? What will human society look like 10,000 years from now? What is artificial intelligence, anyway? SF tries to imagine the unimaginable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe the indescribable, and to do it all in entertaining, accessible prose.

But SF, like everything else, is also a product of its time. Jules Verne’s tales of trips around the globe and voyages to the center of the Earth reflected the scientific optimism of the late 19th century, before World War I blew open technology’s dark side. During its midcentury golden age in the United States, the pulpy genre cheered on the rising economic and military dominance of the United States, forecasting an American empire that stretched to the stars. Not long after, New Wave authors like Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrestled with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, from Cold War paranoia to the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and the drug culture. What kind of stories the Trump era might inspire is still unknown, but they probably won’t be cheerful.

Stanisław Lem, the Polish novelist, futurologist, literary theorist, satirist, and philosophical gadfly, tried mightily to free his work from the shackles of the present. In dozens of novels, short stories, essays, metaliterary experiments, and futurological treatises, he attempted to imagine everything from a living ocean that could read human minds (Solaris) to a swarm of nonbiological mechanical insects (The Invincible) to a supercomputer many times more intelligent than its human creators (Golem XIV). In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae, Lem mocked writers whose works were merely historical fiction recast in the future — “corsairs and pirates of the thirtieth century.” It’s easy to find targets for Lem’s criticism; most SF movies are exercises in wish fulfillment, projections of a space-age Columbus in search of a final frontier. For Lem, science fiction meant thinking harder and imagining more.

But even Lem could not transcend his own history. Born in 1921 in Lviv (then called Lwów as part of the Second Polish Republic), he survived World War II, served in the Polish resistance, and lived for most of his life under Polish Communism. In his work, he turned repeatedly to themes reflecting those experiences, including the role of chance in determining fate, the oppressive bureaucracy of authoritarian regimes, and the possibility of a runaway arms race that escapes human control. Ironically, Lem’s effort to think outside of history often provides the best descriptions of the period he lived through.

Lem died in 2006, having lived to see many of his ideas come true. Yet today he has fallen into quasi-obscurity, at least in the English-speaking world. Not even in his heyday did he have the cachet in the United States of writers like Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein. But Lem was phenomenally popular in Eastern and Central Europe. According to a recent estimate, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold almost 40 million copies, and he was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize. By all measures he was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century.(...)

Compared to most science fiction writers, Lem’s thinking was both disinterested and far-reaching. In works like the nonfictional Summa Technologiae, he explored the possibilities of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genetic engineering, comparing technological advancement to biological evolution. Just as evolution had no moral agenda, he argued, technological developments were neither inherently good nor bad, but followed their own internal logic. Unlike most would-be prophets, who predict the future with warnings of dystopia or promises of a better tomorrow, Lem approached the subject without a moralizing tone.

But in his fiction Lem did explore the pitfalls that the future might hold. His experience living under German occupation impressed on him the role of chance in life and the ease with which that life could be snuffed out. The absurdities of authoritarian communism and the perils of the Cold War further illustrated the danger humanity posed to itself. Worst of all, the construction of oppressive ideological systems seemed to occur through processes that its participants were unable to prevent, or even fully understand. (...)

These ideas evoke comparisons to Orwell, and to the British novelist’s famous depiction of Stalinism in 1984 (1949). But in his letters to Kandel, Lem claimed that Orwell had gotten Stalinism wrong. Whereas Orwell described his dystopian regime as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” Lem argued that communist oppression was not a sadistic evil pursued for its own sake but a natural result of turning state ideology into dogma. Similarly, Lem critiqued Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, writing that “she made out these systems to be fruit of strictly intentional evil.” Rather, he writes, “Stalin’s times concocted a myth, never concretely or cogently expressed, of the state as a machine that was not only perfect, but also omniscient and omnipotent.” For Lem, the tragic consequences weren’t the result of premeditated cruelty, but the logical outcome of turning politics into faith.

Lem may have been critical of the Soviet Union, but that didn’t mean he had a positive view of the West. “Say, one country permits eating little children right before the eyes of crazed mothers,” he wrote to Kandel in 1977, “and another permits eating absolutely anything, whereupon it turns out that the majority of people in that country eat shit. So what does the fact that most people eat shit demonstrate […] ?” In other words, just because life behind the Iron Curtain was bad, that didn’t make the United States good. For Lem the world wasn’t divided between good and evil, but between bad and even worse.

Starting in the late 1960s, Lem turned away from conventional SF in favor of experimental works of literary and cultural criticism. These included books like The Philosophy of Chance (1968), in which he attempted to produce an empirical form of literary theory, and the Borgesian A Perfect Vacuum (1971) and One Human Minute (1986), in which he reviewed nonexistent books. While Lem’s literary experiments displayed a playful dexterity, his cultural criticisms were often clichéd, focusing on the West’s supposed vulgarity, tastelessness, and excess. In a 1992 interview with Swirski, he commented on the exploding number of TV channels, calling them “simply appalling. It is like having two thousand shirts or pairs of shoes.” While Lem’s main argument was about the unmanageable explosion of media, neither TV channels nor an excessive wardrobe seems like humanity’s greatest crime.

If Lem didn’t think much of American popular culture, neither did he have much esteem for its literature. (...)

Lem’s criticisms may have been curmudgeonly and, as Swirksi suggests, rooted in his frustrated desire for greater American recognition. But to Lem the country also represented dangers that we are only now beginning to appreciate. He foresaw dystopia not only in resource-starved wastelands, but also in technological prisons of pleasure and excess. “The idea would be to expand the gamut of pleasurable sensations to the maximum, and perhaps even to bring into being […] other, as yet unknown, kinds of sensual stimulation and gratification,” he wrote in His Master’s Voice. This possibility became the premise for The Futurological Congress, in which humanity becomes trapped in a pharmacologically induced paradise, unaware of its own looming extinction.

Most presciently, Lem understood that even mundane varieties of information could be disastrous in overwhelming quantities. What happens, he asked in His Master’s Voice, when “the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?” Or, as he wrote in the same novel, “freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors […] ?” Facebook and the deluge of fake news sites didn’t exist when Lem wrote this, but their creation wouldn’t have surprised him. The future of the United States, he wrote to Kandel, is “dark, most likely.” (...)

Lem considered any effort to make accurate predictions a fool’s errand — “Nothing ages as fast as the future,” he once wrote — but he did try to think rigorously about the paths our civilization might take. At first technology is applied toward our environment, he argued, as we enter the Anthropocene era on Earth. But eventually it is turned toward the human organism itself, leading to a stage of existence that is as yet unpredictable. “Man remains the last relic of Nature, the last ‘authentic product of Nature’ for an indefinite period of time,” he writes. But “the invasion of technology created by man into his body is inevitable.”

Most importantly, Lem viewed biological evolution and technological development as part of the same process. Following Norbert Wiener’s formulation that there exist in the universe “islands of locally decreasing entropy” — that is, areas of space-time that tend naturally toward greater complexity and organization — Lem posited that evolution was not just a biological process guiding life on Earth but a phenomenon that could include any form of matter or energy. While these islands might sometimes result in biological life, they might also result in other kinds of complex systems, including our own creations. “Who causes whom?” he asked in Summa Technologiae. “Does technology cause us, or do we cause it?” Or, as he put it more pointedly in His Master’s Voice, “The roles are now reversed: humanity becomes, for technology, a means, an instrument for achieving a goal unknown and unknowable.”

by Ezra Glinter, LARB |  Read more:
Image: Goodreads