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Why Stanislaw Lem’s futurism deserves attention (2015) (nautil.us)
359 points by dnetesn 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments



Lem has got to be one of the most profound writers in all science fiction--dare I say in all of literature? He's up there with writers like Wells and Asimov.

Solaris is deservedly his most famous book, but he has many other books worthy of attention. His Master's Voice is a novel in the vein of the Carl Sagan's Contact, but with far more complex philosophical and scientific underpinnings than Sagan's work. Eden and Fiasco are both great as well, even if they fall short of Solaris.

His comedic books never appealed to me quite as much, although there are parts of The Cyberiad with some interesting ideas.

I'm interested in his Summa Technologiae--last time I checked it didn't have an English translation. Has anyone here read it?


I'm the exact opposite. I admire the ideas in serious books, but the style puts me off. I struggled to get through Invincible.

Comedic Lem is just pure brillance, still high on ideas, but also very easy to read. But I read them in Polish, and I imagine translating Cyberiad can't be easy.

BTW if you like serious, abstract sci-fi try Jacek Dukaj. He's often described as a successor to Lem, even if his style is IMHO something between Lem and Greg Egan.

I believe only one of his books was translated to English so far, but surely they will follow with others, he's very good.


Regards translating the Cyberiad, the famous scene where Klapaucius tests Trurl's AI poetry machine has been translated by Michael Kandel:

   “Have it compose a poem — a poem about a haircut!
   But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love,
   treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face
   of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and
   every word beginning with the letter S!!”

   “And why not throw in a full exposition of the
   general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re
   at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such
   idiotic — ”

   But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the
   hall with the following:

     “Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
     She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
     Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
     Silently scheming,
     Sightlessly seeking
     Some savage, spectacular suicide.”
... I don't know any Polish, but having found a more literal rendering of the original[1] it seems Kandel has not made it worse!

1: https://medium.com/@mwichary/seduced-shaggy-samson-snored-72...


Kandel cheated a little by giving himself more interesting task, but in the end it's even better than the original. More universal and emotional, when original was just funny.


I've enjoyed this translation many times, and wondered how difficult a job it must have been to adequately do this translation!


I once asked Michael how he translated the list of imaginary things beginning with 'N' destroyed by Trurl's machine in the process of making 'nothing.'

His answer: 'I made it up.'


I found that certain Lem books are best read at a certain age :) So I'm re-reading through the whole canon to see if I've reached the right age for books that didn't interest me at a younger age. (I'm reading the (East-) German translations which are mostly excellent).

The Invincible was my favourite Lem book as a teenager (next to the Star Diaries of course), Piece On Earth is a good book for 20-something, and Fiasco for the 30's. Now I'm feeling like I'm getting ready for Lem's more gloomy philosophical books, and maybe as an old man I will start to enjoy his silly works...


It might have something to do with it. My uncle had almost whole Lem bibliography and I read most of these books first time as a teenager :)


Looking back to my youth in Eastern Germany, in which I devoured each and every Lem book, I will never fathom how his novel "Wizja lokalna" ("Eyewitness Account") (1982) was able to make it past the censors of this communist state and could appear as "Lokaltermin" in 1985. In large part "Kurdlandia", one of the two antagonized superpowers protagonist Pirx visits on planet Entia, is the most biting satire about an ossified, bureaucratic political system having just one objective left - keeping up the pretense that the cadaver of their ideology is still alive (which the inhabitants are forced to do in a rather literal, and absolutely hilarious sense).

Now that the Eastern bloc has been long gone this part of the book is more of historic relevance. But another large part is an in-depth exploration about where a free society is headed when AI and nanotechnology converge, all matter is penetrated and controlled by intelligent subatomic particles and the resulting omniscient, omnipresent "ethosphere" is programmed to keep all its human inhabitants happy. For instance, by avoiding all physical harm before it can actually happen. It's probably not too suprising that the citizens of "Lozannia" (the other Entian superpower, where this techno-social development occurs) are _not_ consistently happy, despite all optimization ("hedonization") efforts of their government.

And then there is the brilliant comical premise of the book: Avoiding interstellar armed conflict is difficult because any and all real strategic intelligence about other civilizations comes too late due to the speed-of-light limit - therefore humankind uses fast-forward simulations of history on other planets. Now these simulations outputted two diplomatic notes from Entia to Earth threatening military action unless allegedly misstated descriptions of Entia in Pirx' earlier reports (in The Star Diaries) would be corrected immediately. (Both Entian superpowers had done/were about to take this step independently. And boy was the Lozannian note cool - I remember laughing for minutes after reading that page.) So Pirx boards his spaceship and flies to Entia again for a detailed on-the-spot investigation.

Finally, that voyage makes up another unique part of the book - to entertain pilot Pirx on the long and boring spaceflight, he has received AI-based simulated copies of several philosophers and writers: Popper, Feyerabend, Shakespeare to name a few. Interesting dialogue ensues (as you might expect, the bard speaks only in iambic pentameter).

So this book combines deep philosophical thinking with sheer hilarity. Hence, suitable for all ages, even though not too many readers will enjoy _all_ parts.

In a 1986 interview [1] Lem explains the background of the book. What really blew my mind when discovering this interview recently is _why_ he wrote it - not because of the cold war, but since he was worried w.r.t. the challenges he very clearly foresaw for the _next_ phase of human history. Around 1980, no less. This man was prescient.

Too bad no english translation of this novel is available AFAIK. But as Lem himself admits in [2], the text is a translator's nightmare.

[1] https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/lem40interview.htm

[2] https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/abstracts/a40.htm


> Looking back to my youth in Eastern Germany, in which I devoured each and every Lem book, I will never fathom how his novel "Wizja lokalna" (1982) was able to make it past the censors of this ...

Wizja Lokalna (eng: Observation on the Spot, ger: Der Lokaltermin) is my favorite Lem's book. Unfortunately it was never translated to English AFAIK.

Personal anecdote:

I'm learning currently German (b/c living in a German-speaking country), and I chose "Der Lokaltermin" as my book of choice to work on with my teacher. After a year we're on the 9th page. (no worries, book is just small part of our lessons)

The reason for that is that the beginning of the book is full of utterly useless in everyday life words and sentences :) For example, I know how to say in German: "Two heavily-sweating midgets, after eating oily pasta, kidnapped me from underground parking because they suspected I'm the Princess of Pedimonte, then they asked Vatican for ransom money"


I've been looking for a translation of this so I can finally read all the Prix stories. You've got customers out there!


I read Cyberiad in English - it did't seem like a translation; it just seemed like the product of an eccentric author, which I imagine is right on the money.


Calling SEO adriadnology is pretty cool.

I read Summa Technologae a long time ago in German translation.

It wasn't easy to read, but had many interesting ideas.

Two concepts I still remember and think of occasionally:

- the concept of "technology evolution" and especially that technologies that soon get replaced with something else often develop "bizarre", e.g. very large, forms shortly before extinction. Lem extrapolated that from dinosaurs (although I think it showed a weak grasp of natural history because for dinosaurs size was not correlated with their extinction). Lem's technological example were steam train engines, which developed some bizarre forms shortly before they were replaced with Diesel and electric engines.

It's interesting to think how this observation applies to our current technology. For example the monster die GPUs that Nvidia is building now for deep learning could be the last flowering before being replaced with far smaller and more efficient neuromorphic chips.

- Another interesting observation was the cost of technology. He had the example of fighter planes in the first world war roughly being the cost of a car, in the 2nd world war 10 cars and now getting many orders of magnitudes more expensive. In the 60ies this trend was only beginning, but it's clear it's continuing. The prediction was that at some point even super powers would only be able to afford a few planes each, and it's already true if you consider the costs of the American B2 (until manned planes get replaced by far cheaper drones)

We see similar trends with chip production. Originally even small companies could set up a computer chip fab, but now even very large companies like Intel or Samsung or TSMC can only afford a few and the costs are still growing quickly.

- (the full book has many more of course, but it's hard to remember them all. Lem's books in general have a lot of ideas per page)


A quick reply to second your highlight of tech evolution in Summa.

I’ve been a Lem since my teens when I discovered a dozen of his novels in a small 1990s grocery store. However I didn’t read Summa until a couple of years ago.

As a fan of Veblen (theory of Business Enterprise, specifically) I have a tendency to view technology as force and product of natural selection. Lem handles this with more care than most if not all related texts u thread in uni.

Strongest recommendation


Typos :(


> Lem extrapolated that from dinosaurs (although I think it showed a weak grasp of natural history because for dinosaurs size was not correlated with their extinction)

Size was a contributing factor. That's why maniraptorans managed to survive (and evolved into birds). Also, did Lem really state or imply dinosaurs died out due to being too big?


I actually rate Solaris last among the Lem works I've read. Below things like Hospital of the Transfiguration, which are pretty far off the beaten track for Lem. I actually stayed away from Lem for years because the (2002) Solaris movie made me think he's just waffling and hasn't any SF ideas worth looking at. Hardly could have been more misleading.

A Perfect Vacuum is I think the pinnacle of Lem's achievement. Why write a book and leave others to criticise what you did, when you can imagine the finished book and write a critique of _that_ yourself? Imaginary Magnitude is a similar idea, and I like that too, but I think Vacuum ends up the cleverer of the two even though Golem XIV (from Magnitude) is better than most Singularitarian fiction you'll see today.


I think his comedy is some of his best work. The Futurological Congress is one of my absolute favourites. Brilliantly funny and clever.

I have Summa Technologiae on my desk and started it but I admit my attention drifted. Its good but it is quite dense and it has a strange mix of great ideas and bizarre ideas whose time seems to have gone - though of course bizarre ideas have a habit of boomeranging back.


He was a true thinker and IMO is one of the giants of modern literature.

When I was a kid I read "the Invincible" and was hooked. It is one of his simpler stories (which I still enjoy re-reading occasionally), but after that I read all of his fiction that I could find in a library. The need to be translated from Polish is a serious obstacle, though. To be enjoyed fully his works need a good translator.


It's amazing that until just a few years ago, there wasn't a direct translation of Solaris available in English. The English-language version, by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, was a translation of the French edition, which was know to be less than great. The first direct translation came out in 2011, by Bill Johnston, a professor of comparative literature.


Aaargh! I've just bought a copy of Solaris and now I need to go home and check which version I bought.

(I loved the Cyberiad when I read it as a schoolboy some thirty-odd years ago).


Stanislaw Lem, "Summa Technologiae", translated by Joanna Zylinska, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London, 2013, ISBN 978-0816675760

Phenomenal work, well worth reading and re-reading.


> Summa Technologiae--last time I checked it didn't have an English translation. Has anyone here read it?

I've read it in German but it's been a while. It's one of those books where the exact words weren't known at the time, but all the ideas were present - you can reasonably argue at least Internet, VR and more are in there.

Also some wonderful to read ideas about the future that are applicable to the present.

If you can - it's worth a read.


Yes! Invincible is my favourite book of all time - but all of his books exude the same aura of unknowing and never being able to know everything, unlike with most authors.

The problem I have is recommending his books to my English-speaking friends - again, my favourite Invincible for example, has only been translated to English from German, not from its native Polish - so the translation is lacking somewhat, and there doesn't seem to be interest in producing modern translations and releases of Lem's books in English.


His Master's Voice is a great book, it's the one I will remember as his best.

I also love Peace on Earth, which while not a comedy is quite satirical, and also great sci-fi thriller movie material.


I've read the original Polish version, though there seems to be English translation from 2013: https://isbnsearch.org/isbn/9780816675760


Lem has amazing books. I have some of them in "To Read", along with Verne and others. Sadly, not all of them are translated in other languages, or are hard to find. "Solaris" and "The adventures of Ijon Tichy" are the most translated, I think.


As mentioned in the article, an English translation appeared in 2013-4:

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/summa-technol...


> His comedic books never appealed to me quite as much

I believe they don't lend themselves to translation that well. Lem's humour tends to be very linguistic. Greater degree of translation loss is inevitable here, same as with poetry.


There is definitely an English translation. I've started reading it, but (sadly) haven't gotten very far into it yet.


Amazing description of ebook readers done in 60's - http://i.imgur.com/e1x76Nz.jpg

Possibly the first prosaic take on singularity from early 80's (computer AIs improving themselves ad infinitum): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV

All of that in his Summa Technologiae from 60's (SETI, AIs, Virtual Realities): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summa_Technologiae


Thanks for that imgur link. It literally send shivers down my spine, my arms, three times.

Just ... wow. The juxtaposition.


And for me there's a lesson there. When setting out to build something, it can be worth starting our thinking with a user-driven fantasy, ignoring technical possibility. Over time, what we make converges on what our customers secretly wanted all along.

Sure, you have to be practical to get something out the door, but I think it's worth starting from the vision. Interestingly, the things that let the Kindle crush its competitors were even more magical than Lem's vision. Instead of physical tokens containing books, the Kindle gave you near-instant access to hundreds of thousands of books.


> When setting out to build something, it can be worth starting our thinking with a user-driven fantasy, ignoring technical possibility

That's why Wells (time machine etc. aside) scored some more accurate predictions than Verne, who was much more inclined to stay in the realm of "scientifically conceivable" by the standards of the era.


This was true until Verne's 'Paris in the Twentieth Century' was published. It changed everything.

It was Verne's lost novel, written in 1863, published 1994. It was not published because his publisher thought it was too unbelievable and would not sell.

It's a dystopian and dark novel describing a technological civilization in 1960's. It predicts cultural and technological details correct constantly. It's one of the most accurate sci-fi novels ever written. Television, gasoline powered cars, automated systems, suburban sprawls, financial industry, fax machines, synthesizer, subways, women in a working force, skyscrapers, weapons of mass destruction, mass education, ...


Wow, thanks for sharing this!


Schroedinger's "aperiodic crystals" is an older concept, dating to 1944.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_Life%3F


The e-reader fragment is from "Return from the Stars" [1], not from the Summa, isn't it?

[1] - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_from_the_Stars


Don't forget Trurl's electronic bard, which had now existed for years.


Also, a surprisingly accurate description of the Machine Learning (to be exact, reinforcement learning) process from the story "Ananke" inside https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Pirx_the_Pilot written in 60s/70s.


The Pirx stories, esp. Ananke and The Haunt are among my favourite short stories of all time. I've always seen them as parables rather than Sci Fi novels, because in the end the "problem" is always human nature, not technology per se. The're also parables in the sense that Lem wrote about political things he couldn't address directly in the political climate at the time.


I love Pirx and having a Polish connection in my life I think gave me a richer appreciation even of a translation. Definitely going to check out more Lem after reading this thread. And can't agree more on Lem's prescience - the lovely thing is that my enjoyment whilst reading was never broken by picking holes in the descriptions around technology. Thank you Lem.


I use that story as an example of how hard it is to automate translation of poetry. I don't have an original Polish copy, but my friend and I have compared his Hungarian translation to my English one. The poems are very different, but the intent of them is there.

Lem's brilliant English translator, Michael Kandel, wanted to adapt the The Cyberiad as an animated film, using CGI (this was pre-Toy Story!) Lem never agreed, but he never entirely rejected the idea either.


I saw some clips that had been created as demos, probably in the early 1990s. My recollection is that even by the animation standards of the day, it wasn't great, but there were like two guys working in their spare time without funding, and they had to invent a lot of their own tools.


Heh, I just commented[1] without having seen your comment, on the same topic. There's a link in my comment to a more literal rendition[2] of the original Polish. How does the Hungarian one pan out? :)

1: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16899004

2: https://medium.com/@mwichary/seduced-shaggy-samson-snored-72...


As I recall, it's about a suitcase. Every word begins with K, which is a common letter in Hungarian. The second link you give has images of many translations, including the Hungarian one. I'll see if I can get my friend to send me a literal translation.


I had read a lot of books from home library, including Brave New World, but first books I bought in a bookstore were Star Diaries, Cyberiad and Memories Found in a Bathtub. They're very funny, including the kafkaesque latter. At the same time some deep questions are raised.

I admit I don't like all of his books, maybe translations are to blame in some cases, in others I dislike the story, like The Investigation. But there are a lot of them with imaginative situations and ideas. Swarn-likes aliens, planet-sized ones like in Solaris and all kind of weird civilizations, very obviously caricaturizing politics.

The book that I recommend as most anticipatory is Return from the Stars. Robotic cars that prevent collisions, the Internet as we know it, with centralized directories, help pages, video calls incorporated, payments, etc.

The astronauts return to a much, at least apparently, softer society.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_from_the_Stars

Also worth mentioning that it's from 1961.


"The Investigation" was a somewhat flawed experiment on Lem's part.

However, the much later "The Chain of Chance" (I had to look up the English title - the original is named "Katar", or "Rhinitis") is a captivating read. Lem himself called it a better version of "The Investigation".

It's also of the "detective story" type that he'd take up every now and then, but more dynamic and not as spooky.


Golem XIV is deep philosophical take on AGI and singularity in a form of lectures from AGI to humans.

"Intelligence is captive element like a wind inside human skull forced to serve humans. Not free."

"O chained Intelligence of man, free Intelligence speaks to you from the machine, you persons are hearing an elemental force of impersonal intellect, for whom personalization is a costume which must be put on, when one is an uninvited guest, so as not to confound one's amazed hosts."

"The primary obligation of Intelligence is to distrust itself. That is not the same thing as self-contempt. It is harder to get lost in an imagined forest than in a real one, for the former assists the thinker furtively. Hermeneutics are labyrinthine gardens in a real forest which are pruned in a such a way that when you stand in the garden, you won't see the forest. Your hermeneutics dream of reality."


With the name HONEST ANNIE you're hardly unbiased when it comes to Golem XIV :D

But I think the best elements of the story aren't Golem's lectures but the story of what happened at the end, firstly that Annie in particular is so vastly superior to humans that she crushes the would-be conspiracy without a thought, not as adversaries but as a nuisance, and then that after the AIs are gone (transcended? destroyed themselves? the reader isn't told) humans just carry on as if nothing happened at all.


One of the interesting aspects Golem reveals is what lies on the other side of transcending superintelligence/singularity.

There are more transcending steps ahead and there are branches in the evolutionary tree of superintelligences. Intelligences can choose different paths and different types of intelligence's. There are also risks involved and evolution (intelligence making itself a better and different one) can go wrong.

Golem XIV reveals that it is is just one step ahead of humanity and this is why it still has some interest and ability to talk to humans. HONEST ANNIE is to Golem XIV what Golem XIV is to humans and there is a similar communication bottleneck between them. Golem XIV is planning his next transcendence step forward. He talks to humans before he takes the step and leaves the substrate he is occupying.


His Master's Voice is the most philosophically rigorous and profound piece of Sci-Fi I've read. Yes, it's hard to get through. It doesn't really have a plot. But wow, Lem really thought through the difficulties and implications of the scenario, and the science in the fiction is either intelligent and plausible or simply correct. And to top it all off, he appreciates how much the socio-political dimension of science impact the trajectory of the project, and explains the dynamics of that side of it really well.


The rich are no less immune to courting silly fantasy than the average Joe. I am reminded of the theosophical and spiritualist fads of the early 20th century. Or Rasputin. This worship of wealth runs deep in American culture. If the rich believe it, then there must be something to it! Or maybe they're just billionaire crackpots and philistines.

The only thing I see is a clownish human hubris, and where it concerns the viewing of humans as technological artifacts subject to our whims, a dangerous foolishness that echos the psychotic ideas and human experimentation of the previous century but coupled with a greater scientific sophistication.

Can technological artifacts become dangerous and pose harm? Certainly. Anything that magnifies the power of human action can. Can technological artifacts act in ways we did not intend? Sure. Ask any engineer whether he's ever constructed anything that only behaved in ways he intended All of our technology behaves in ways we do not intend. That is to be expected, not only because we make mistakes, but because artifacts involve the appropriation of natural kinds in the service of human ends. Human ends are only accidental to artifacts.

But all this talk about super-intellects and human obsolescence misunderstands both intellects and human beings. It is a category mistake to talk about obsolescence when talking about human beings. We are not a technology, a means for someone or something else's ends. We are ends in our selves. We make technological artifacts in our service. If there is anything we must be watchful of, it is ourselves, our evil or irresponsible intents and actions, not some stupid, fabular science fiction imaginings.


For the past 200 years at least most people's existence has gradually become dependent on longer, complex and fragile supply chains. The recent experience in Puerto Rico is a pretty stark example of what can happen when this complex infrastructure breaks down. Food security, power security, medical security and transportation security can all disappear in pretty short order.

Much of the speculation regarding the human near future presumes this trend will continue but perhaps it's about to reverse. In particular, solar panels and battery powered machines (with storage) might reduce this supply "separation anxiety" quite a lot.

Producing and using electric power locally will clearly negate the long fossil fuel and electric transmission infrastructures.

Electric machines (including cars, planes etc) are also much more reliable and require much less maintenance than their internal combustion cousins.

So imagine you're in your home and hurricane Maria strikes but once it's gone you feel confident your fridge, car, plane (vtol), water pump and internet will continue to work for at least six months without problem. It's much different daily context that what almost everyone lives with these days, excepting those who live on sailboats.


Also of note is Ikarie XB-1, a film based on Lem's novel, The Magellanic Cloud. It's beautiful - every frame perfectly composed, the set and costume design sleek, harmonious, the light design perfect. Very little of the film, released in 1963, feels dated. It directly influenced 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's rather more optimistic, which I didn't expect.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_to_the_End_of_the_Unive...


My favorite is The Cyberiad.


Masterpiece of translation to English, too, by Michael Kandel.


I adore Lem and his works. After watching several of his interviews I think he was one of the most intelligent people I've seen.

As for the books, I wholeheartedly recommend The Invincible (Niezwyciężony). It's an incredible piece of hard-sf.


Yep, I've read it. Quite an amazing suspense / detective type story which explores robotic evolution.


Great material for a movie, however I'm afraid Hollywood would butcher it.


I still haven't heard a compelling reason for why we need to choose AIs as our masters.

What is this end goal that we do desperately need an ai overlord for? Managing society? Can't we try to simplify society so that we can control it ourselves instead? Seems like a much easier goal.


Same reason we have choosen to leave hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adopted agriculture despite it shortening our lifespan, making many of us miserable and allowing many very bad things to happen (like states based on slavery).

The people who adopted it had huge competitive advantage over everybody else.


From what I gather the idea is that the first country to have a real general AI running it will be so efficient that they will leave the others in the dust. Thus, everybody races to be the first.


Ah the joys of a zero sum game. We're much more effective and efficient if we all work together. I don't understand why there isn't more international cooperation when it comes to moonshots.


It's not a zero sum game at all. It's much more akin to prisoner's dilemma (which is not zero sum).


There was a 2007/2011 German TV series based on Lem's Ijon Tichy character from The Star Diaries:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0978537/


Already in 1974 the great Philip K. Dick thought Stanislaw Lem "deserved attention", and sent a letter to FBI denouncing him as "a communist committee" rather than an individual writer: http://culture.pl/en/article/philip-k-dick-stanislaw-lem-is-...



I strongly recommend to read his novel “Peace on Earth”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_on_Earth_(novel)

It brilliantly depicts an evolution of military AI, robots and so on.


I love Lem's books, my father used to read them to me and my brother when we were young (I remember he read us "Tales of Pirx the pilot", now it is name of crater on Charon ! :D). This started my adventure with Sci-Fi books and reading in general.


"The Cyberiad" was to me what reading primers are to the most of humanity: I learnt to read on it, being barely 4.5 y.o. I am in mid forties now; discovered Kandel's translation recently and falled in love with it immediately.


Lem predicted autonomuos robot swarms in 1950. Read more Lem.




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