Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Long Distance Operator: The Visionary Writing of Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Lem, Kraków, 1971. (Photo: Jakub Grelowsk)

As for me, I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the nineteenth century, which I am trying to reproduce based on the characteristics that it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic. Of course, I first have to build myself this telescope. — Walter Benjamin, letter to Werner Kraft, October 1935.

As for Lem, from about 1956, when many of his most visionary stories and novels began to flow freely from his pen, although not always yet translated from his native Polish tongue into our anxious English, up to 2006, when he shuffled off his mortal coil, he navigated a truly vertiginous course through multiple literary genres at a prodigious rate. The least accurate way to describe him is the one he is best known for, being a science fiction author, while the most accurate characterization, for me at any rate, is as a purveyor of unclassifiable speculative fiction. The only author whom he really can be compared with is Aldous Huxley, creator of the harrowing dystopian opus Brave New World in 1931. Thirty years after Huxley, with the release of the brilliant work for which Lem is best known, Solaris, I believe he entered that pantheon of great forecasters and futurologists who warned us where we were all going by pointing out, poetic telescope in hand, that we were already there.

Ten years before Huxley, however, a spookily visionary Russian author named Yevgeny Zamyatin had already arrived at the locus of raw power and social science with his harrowing novel We and its examination of the heartless harmony of a gruesomely unified totalitarian state, and he too, like Lem, was immediately mistaken for a science fiction writer. What he was, of course, was an anthropologist, just as Lem was, a fellow canny student of human behaviours in extremis. Science fiction has always been a perplexing genre for sure, ever since its inception in the pages of the French author Jules Verne (the most translated writer on earth after Shakespeare, apparently), whose fabulous fables Journey To The Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), captured the imagination of generations of readers.  

Along with H.G. Wells, the British concoctor of equally fabulous fictions such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898), Verne established the narrative conventions of the fantastical genre for pretty much the next century, and both are often referred to as the fathers of science fiction. The later accepted masters of this style of imaginative storytelling are the serious practitioners of its ethos: Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, whose Foundation, Stranger in a Strange Land and Childhood’s End fables capture probably the best stylistic approaches to imagining a future that we ourselves have largely brought upon ourselves.

But adjacent to these fine writers are the creative outliers, those who are to me the more compellingly challenging dreamers of dark dreams, the ones whom I would categorize more as speculative fiction along the lines of Huxley, among them: the protean Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon, and Samuel Delaney. It is among this second tier of feverish thinkers that we find the quietly brilliant Stanislaw Lem, lurking even at the edges of their unique territories, in a sanctum seemly reserved for only the select few authors: a writer who regularly defies all classification, routinely blurs borders, melts boundaries, ignores genres, and just generally follows his own less traveled path.

In these respects he’s most like Huxley, the prolific explorer of consciousness whose great last novel Island often strikes me as the only sound comparison one can make with Lem; and if Verne and Wells were the fathers of science fiction, then Lem might be their gifted grandson. Indeed, among the many peripheral visionaries I mentioned (they can see the future, but only way off to the edges) he stands alone, a towering figure in the ranks of SF lovers, yet one whose disdain for that designation is equally legendary. It’s perhaps for that reason that the metaphor used by culture critic Walter Benjamin most appealed to me in its resonance with Lem’s status. Like Benjamin, he uses a self-constructed telescope to home in on a special domain, but rather than “pointing his telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the nineteenth century, which he was trying to reproduce based on the characteristics in a state of the future world . . . ,” ever since about 1956, Lem was aiming his perceptive lens at that future world itself, the future world which we currently occupy. It is as much a mirage as the past was.

(MIT Press)

But Lem has also insisted, unlike Benjamin, on allowing magic to remain intact, since for him it is precisely the condition of magic which makes life worth living, if not even possible in the first place. Thus his works share a charming kind of fractal quality: a never-ending recursive pattern of infinitely complex images that are self-similar across different scales. That is in fact what made his novel Solaris (and Tarkovsky’s later brilliant evocation of it in cinema) so mesmerizing – its encounter with an alien consciousness that reflects, refracts and amplifies the human emotions of those who come into contact with it – and therefore what made that story so believable, despite its virtual dreamlike structures. And all his stories, especially the earliest ones collected in the MIT Press edition called The Truth and Other Stories, reveal a similar pattern, almost as if they were leaves falling from a single tree.

From that tree, one can catch a deep glimpse of the entire surrounding forest. For contemporary novelist Jonathan Lethem – who does not write science fiction per se but has become something of a specialist in the arcane Philip K. Dick, and who has written eloquently about his assertion that there are actually in fact five distinct Stanislaw Lems, each toiling independently in a different literary territory (not unlike the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, who seemingly wrote under hundreds of pseudonyms) – the collection of stories in The Truth (from 1956-1993) is “an astonishing gift to those Lem fanatics who foolishly imagined we’d already read the entirety of this promiscuous, prescient and centrifugal genius.”

Lethem is not exaggerating, Lem’s brilliance really is centrifugal, since his work moves perpetually outwards from a central point, and yet to me it’s also centripetal, in that it pulls in the world through an inward developing force field, with him at its centre. Of the twelve stories in The Truth, only three have previously appeared in English, therefore in a real sense it’s the first newish book by Lem since the end of the last century. One of the most profound of the stories is from 1976, about a computer that can predict the future but only by 137 seconds, and all of them display the same dizzying range of his personal and professional interests, though also tightly focused largely on the intersection between science and human behaviour, on our own constructed reality, and also on our grim obsessions with explaining our experiences. It has been translated into over forty languages and sold over thirty million copies.

There is definitely something about his insights and style, which the New York Times has acclaimed as being “worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature,” and Kim Stanley Robinson, who openly admits to writing science fiction, forcefully feels that Lem is proof that the genre, most of which is disabled by facile writing motifs, can also be serious literature. “Speaking of prophetic,” Robinson opines, “this collection includes the story ‘One Hundred and Thirty Seven Seconds,’ which surely stands as one of the great science fiction stories of prediction ever written, on a pare with Verne himself.” For Robinson, as a result of the definite statement made in Solaris, and in that one singular computer story, Lem will always remain a permanent figure in world literature, not just in science fiction.

I agree, since much of what Lem produced early on, and then as he passed the landmark of Solaris and moved on towards another favourite masterpiece of his for me, His Master’s Voice from 1967, can also be found embedded in an obscure but fascinating non-fiction philosophical study he produced called Summa Technologiae, in 1964. That book alone serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for translating Lem’s thought, not just into English, but into a human language transcending nation states altogether. In it he explored some of his curiosity about everything from cybernetics to the search for extraterrestrial life, and he speculated on several practical applications for fanciful appliances which did not yet really exist, but would two decades later.

The title is Latin and refers to itself as a compendium of technological innovations, which Lem often characterized as his examination of “thorns of roses that have not yet flowered.” After wading through a variety of moral, ethical and philosophical issues which arise as a consequence of a civilization thriving in the apparent absence of limitations, both of the material and the technological variety, he embarks on what can only be termed spiritual reflections on current and future technologies. For example, some of the phenomena which existed almost solely in the realm of science fiction are now science fact in our time, among them a practice Lem called “phantomatics” which basically mirrors our present forays into virtual reality platforms, of the recent Meta sort.

He also toyed wisely with “ariadnology,” the theoretical use of search engines; techno-singularity, “moletronics,” the exploration of molecular nanotechnology, “cerebroatics” or cognitive enhancement via machines, and most tellingly of all, his “intellotronics” or techniques of artificial intelligence, AI. Along the way, Lem touches upon notable similarities among several kinds of evolution, biological, technological and social; an overview of then-current SETI efforts; the ability to “grow” new information almost like plants; engineering entirely new life forms; and, in a scary chapter called “Prolegomena to Omnipotence,” the possibility that in the future we might be able to do literally anything at all we desired, unless of course we can’t, mostly by virtue of removing the very possibility of there even being a future at all.

A glancing read through his Summa reveals the salient fact that it contains, in speculative yet snappy non-fiction format, virtually all of the germinal ideas, notions, whims, pet projects, obsessions and compulsions that were expressed by him in a parallel platform known as fiction and literature. Which makes his achievement with speculating on our attempts to contact alien life forms existing elsewhere in our universe, or perhaps in other presently unknown but adjacent universes (he even ruminates on our potential for creating our very own new cousin universes), all the more compelling to me when we come upon a 1967 novel, His Master’s Voice, in which he ponders what, if anything, we could glean from an encounter with another existent but unknown non-human species.

What makes this novel so important is its depiction of possibly the ultimate science-fiction narrative plot: a potential message in a bottle (or in our case, an electromagnetic radio transmission swimming in neutrino soup) washed up on earth’s airwaves after being sent by who knows who from who knows where, or even more crucially when. The last aspect is important, of course, because it may have been sent by a race/species gazillions of years ago who may no longer even be alive, or else, for someone with my inclinations (and perhaps Lem’s too), it’s a message from the future, our future. SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) has become a standard trope not only in science fiction but in everyday life, with almost everyone being aware that such a search has been ongoing for decades. Yet its actual potential has been occurring behind the scenes for even longer by far, with the great Nikola Tesla suggesting in 1896, during the time of H.G. Wells, that what he called an “extreme version of his wireless electrical transmission system could be used to contact beings on Mars.” As usual, no one was either sensitive or smart enough to listen to Tesla.

In a 1955 issue of Scientific American Magazine, one John Kraus described his idea to scan the cosmos for signals using a flat-plane radio telescope equipped with a parabolic reflector. Lem was conversant enough with actual science to know of this development and a decade later incorporated the fanciful notion into his novel, giving it the cheeky title that echoes that classic advertising logo used by RCA Victor recordings: a small dog cocking his ear while listening to a gramophone album. By 1971, NASA started funding an actual SET program at Ohio Sate University partially funded by Hewlett-Packard laboratories. Since then, very serious people have spent silent decades performing the human being equivalent of cocking their ears at ever more powerful arrays of radar and amplification systems.

Enter Stanislaw Lem. But far from entertaining the usual SF motif of actually getting such a message, the Polish author’s even more crucial contribution has once again been a psychological and philosophical one: how to decipher it, what would it mean and how would it change human history forever to have our most cherished (and largely psychotic) religious beliefs challenged by the intervention of beings far swifter than us into the global affairs of our precious little blue spec of sand in space. It’s a compelling read, as usual with Lem, not because of what happens, but rather because of what doesn’t. Instead, Lem’s focus is on the team interactions, competitive interplay and typical human hubris of those racing to decode the actual signal that they did receive.\

(MIT Press)

The key question, an existential one, in fact, is whether it is a signal, or space noise, or a message at all. How would we ever really know one way or the other? No convenient Rosetta Stone-like code exists as yet, unlike the real one in the desert that helps archaeologists decipher multiple ancient languages. At first glance, the key plotline of His Master’s Voice is fairly straightforward, almost conventional, but that changes rapidly. By pure chance, scientist have discovered a recurring signal from deep space that appears patterned enough to be a message from some sort of rational beings. How can people on Earth understand this message, if there is one, since they know literally nothing about the senders—including whether or not they even exist? The tale is written as a memoir of one of the mathematicians, Peter E. Hogarth, participating in a government-sponsored program with the code name of the book’s title as he attempts to decipher the potential coded message. The story evolves into a contest of wills, with considerable explication of the competing philosophical approaches of the scientific team, which reveals as much about them as about any mythical message.

What starts as an apparently linear sci-fi story blossoms into a full blown examination of the fundamental questions facing us all: the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the limits of the human mind and our languages, as well as a most unnerving subplot, the inherent ethics of military-sponsored scientific research. Subsequent to the novel’s appearance, in the real world, Ohio State’s Jerry Ehman detected what he dubbed the ‘wow signal” and groups began, in earnest, to try and isolate the message and interpret its meaning, except that the signal never again recurred, leaving them all flummoxed. Lem’s own description in his foreword is the most cogent encapsulation of his motives:

The adventure I am to relate boils down to this: humanity came upon a thing that beings belonging to another race had sent out into the darkness of the stars. A situation, the first of its kind in history, important enough, one would think, to merit the divulging, in greater detail than convention allows, of who it was, exactly, who represented our side of the encounter. All the more since my genius nor my mathematics alone sufficed to prevent it from bearing poison fruit.

Thus commences Lem’s meditation, not on who the aliens might be, if indeed the signal was anything more than random static similar to that on a television screen between stations, and left over from the so called Big Bang or accidental but natural radiation waves spreading ever further outward, but rather who we might be, and even more disconcerting, who we actually are.

Lem’s warning to us in 2022, from the mists of 1967, is at par with all of his most visionary writing in a lengthy and productive career that still evades easy characterizations:

Thus the means of civilization replaces its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values. The same rule, when applied to the perfecting of the human brain, becomes sheer madness; every conflict, every difficult problem is compared to a stubborn cork that one should discard and replace with an appropriate labour-saving device. Baloyne named the Project ‘His Master’s Voice’ because the motto is ambiguous: to which master are we to listen, the one from the stars, or the one in Washington. Skepticism is like a microscope whose magnification is constantly increased: the sharp image one begins with eventually dissolves, because it is not possible to see ultimate things: their existence is only to be inferred.
Due to this ongoing anomaly, which he readily accepts with his usual grace, I find Stanislaw Lem to be the ultimate inferring agent of such ultimate things. I call him the long distance operator because the call he placed way back in the middle of the 20th century is still ringing, loud and clear. Pick up the receiver, if you dare.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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