The Lem
February 8, 2022 2:08 PM   Subscribe

‘Extrapolation’ may be a purer ideal. The term is imported from mathematics: a writer, keenly observing the world around them, can measure its trends and implications, then offer persuasive suppositions about what comes next. Yet, like multi-tasking or Tantric sex, extrapolation is easier to name than it is to find examples of people really doing it, or doing it well. A few, like Philip K. Dick, seem cursed to endure it as an abreactive symptom, a cry of protest at living through the 20th century. Stanisław Lem belongs in that company of SF writers – Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Kim Stanley Robinson – who have practised intentional extrapolation with regular and sustained success. from My Year of Reading Lemmishly by Jonathan Lethem [LRB; Archive] posted by chavenet (15 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I quite enjoy Len and sometimes enjoy Lethem so excited to dig into this, thanks!
posted by aspersioncast at 3:26 PM on February 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I've just been rereading some Lem.
posted by gamera at 3:27 PM on February 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Stapledon as a prognosticator??

I laughed out loud back in high school when the universal supergenius protagonist of Odd John undertook a profound and comprehensive study of mathematics, and the only conclusion he was able to come to was that 'they should have used base 12 instead of base 10'.

And my memory of Starmaker and Last and First Men is Toynbeesque cycles of rise and fall completely untrammeled by even the crudest notions of thermodynamics, much less anything as abstruse, recondite, and esoteric as the heat death of the universe.
posted by jamjam at 4:12 PM on February 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've always enjoyed Lem. But I am still surprised no-one really predicted how mobile phones would change us. Or maybe I missed those authors.
posted by mdoar at 4:28 PM on February 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I remember years ago, somebody saying that one of the failures of science fiction was that it failed to predict the pocket calculator.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:37 PM on February 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

When I was about the same age as Lethem would have been, I got the paperback version of the Seabury Press Cyberiad through something called the Quality Paperback Book Club, which was kind of pioneering the category of trade paperbacks as distinct from cheaper mass market paperbacks. Similarly, it made an impact on me that has lasted through the decades and is, like Lethem's books, still on a bookshelf a few feet to my right. So I feel a kind of kinship with him there.

On the other hand, some years later, Lethem would try to pick up the girl I was with at a convention right in front of me, so fuck him.
posted by Naberius at 5:15 PM on February 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I love Lem - - and this is a great review essay on a writer I always thought under appreciated. In addition to his observations on virtual reality, I was fascinated by his prescient deployment of self-assembling nanoparticles.

I was passed a copy of The Cyberiad in San Francisco in 1976 by a friend who said you will like this; and subsequently read virtually everything he wrote, in every register he wrote. (It did end most of my reading of SF as almost nothing rivaled it.) I cherish the dozen or so writers who gave me the same urge to read and reread everything they wrote and provided a lifetime of challenge.

One aspect of Lem's central novels on the hopeless incommensurability of human and alien intelligence (esp. His Master's Voice, Solaris, and Fiasco) that Lethem addresses in passing, though barely, is that they contain extended exercises in academic debate and disciplinary rivalry, as the scientists try to come to terms with the messages or actions of their interlocutor, and experiences they have in contact with an alien something. (I was in graduate school in social sciences later, studying politics, game theory, economics, anthropology, etc.) Very different from an old short SF story I recall -- I think called "First Contact" -- where a science space ship meets an alien ship also exploring a nebula. They realize that their home worlds are mutually at risk. They warily exchange information and gestures, until they notice shared characteristics (humor, thoughtful accommodations) that allow them to reach a mutual accord and part in friendship, having made a very serious deal.

I found the extended debates a seriocomic parody of the university; everyone finding something perhaps though rebuttable, but collectively no one finding anything decisive. In the end the greatest human theories and technologies come up empty in the face of - - what?
posted by lathrop at 5:51 PM on February 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

That's a great appreciation of Lem. I love the Lem of Cyberiad; the article made me realize how much other Lem I've missed.

(Also: Star Maker is about the heat death of the universe. Its astrophysics is outdated, but it's not bad for the 1930s.)
posted by zompist at 7:31 PM on February 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Thanks for that correction, zompist; I was disgusted with Stapledon by then and I clearly didn’t give it a fair reading.
posted by jamjam at 7:38 PM on February 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh, that's a good one about the multiple Lems. I haven't read him much since childhood, but I used to know Pilot Pirx and the Cyberiad by heart.

I always wish that his Russian contemporaries were more translated into English, especially Bulychev, who touched on many of the same themes.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:50 PM on February 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I like the breakdown of the different Lems. It is a problem I've encountered when others ask what Lem books I recommend. While I think the Cyberiad is brilliant (Lem Two) I usually recommend Solaris (Lem One) as a starting point because it is so perfect in many ways. It also has the Lem themes: the wide gap between knowledge and the un-knowable, reality as an absurdity.

But my personal favorite book has always been the Investigation (Lem Three) perhaps because it goes right to the heart of causality itself and our over-reliance on it. Leave it to Lem to write what I think is the ultimate detective novel: Who did it? The Universe did it. Why? That has no answer because the Universe itself is a question that has no answer.
posted by vacapinta at 3:08 AM on February 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I believe that the seminal work in that regard is The Murderer by Ray Bradbury (1953).
posted by bouvin at 8:04 AM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting this.
posted by kmt at 12:22 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am still surprised no-one really predicted how mobile phones would change us.

In Obłok Magellana (Magellanic Cloud, one of the early novels not translated into English) the protagonist presses a button on his communicator to alert all humanity about a lost child - notion both visionary and naive in its disarming optimism. Or perhaps Lem, a Jewish survivor of the WWII, wrote it like this to push back against the cheapening of human life it brought.

"I covered the child with my jacket and reached for the teleran. Pulling it from my pocket, I felt a round object in it: the speckled golden ball which I picked up at the rocket station. I gave it to the boy, and found on the edge of the teleran a button that had never been pressed before, surrounded by red letters:
I pressed it - and a clamor erupted from the apparatus: human voices, the urgent whistling of automatic stations, signals from distant ships and continents, the hum of rocket beacons, scraps of words, music, singing, all melted into a million voices coming from a flat box. I leaned over the device and quietly - because I didn't want the boy to hear me - I said the sacramental words: "Attention! Human in danger!"
I repeated this three times and waited. Something shifted deep in the loudspeaker. Silence grew there, in widening circles, as if someone had thrown a stone into an endless lake. Tens of thousands of voices fell silent, while others replied expectantly:
- Come in! - the were saying. - Come in, over! Someone was still asking about something, quick bursts of transmit pulses still sounded here and there, while the transceiver stations passed my words on and on; it seemed as if I heard the echoes of my own voice, which in a fraction of a second circled the entire globe, and then, concentrated in directional emitters, was thrown into the skies. The artificial satellites and moon cosmodromic stations, working with one-second delay, took the call and switched to reception until the entire inner sphere of human domination went silent, and the soft murmur of the loudspeaker in the teleran was interrupted only by the never-ending ticking of atomic observation clocks. Suddenly a lunar pilot spoke up, asking what had happened. A thick voice told him to stop immediately, and there was silence. Five seconds passed from my call. And in the sixth, as required, I started speaking briefly and to the point: a child was found, his name is Pao, he is three and a half years old, hazel eyes, and so on. Then there was silence again, shot through by the short whistles of the transceiver stations, and at once two voices spoke simultaneously: announcing that they had a note from their parents and had been expecting any news for five hours. And then - in the twenty-second second - all the interrupted connections were resumed, all ship and rocket stations sounded out, the machines picked up their broken sentences, people laughed and talked, and the tempestuous buzz started gushing from the miniature loudspeaker again."

"Okryłem dziecko kurtką i sięgnąłem po teleran. Dobywając go z kieszeni, odkryłem w niej jakiś okrągły przedmiot: złocistą, nakrapianą piłeczkę, którą podjąłem na dworcu rakietowym. Dałem ją małemu, a sam odnalazłem nie przyciskany dotąd guziczek na krawędzi teleranu, otoczony czerwonymi literkami:
Nacisnąłem go — i z aparacika buchnęła wrzawa: głosy ludzkie, prędkie gwizdanie stacji automatycznych, sygnały dalekich statków i kontynentów, buczenie nadajników rakietowych, strzępy słów, muzyki, śpiewu, wszystko to, stopione w milionogłosy gwar, biegło z płaskiego pudełeczka. Pochyliłem się nad aparatem i cicho — bo nie chciałem, żeby malec mnie słyszał — powiedziałem sakramentalne słowa:" Uwaga! Człowiek w niebezpieczeństwie!"
Powtórzyłem to trzy razy i czekałem. W głębi głośniczka coś drgnęło. Rosła tam cisza, zataczając coraz szersze kręgi, jakby ktoś kamień rzucił w bezkresną wodę. Dziesiątki tysięcy głosów milkło, rozlegały się sygnały oczekiwania:
— Odbiór! — mówiono. — Uwaga, odbiór! Jeszcze ktoś o coś pytał, jeszcze tu i ówdzie rozlegały się szybkie serie impulsów nadawczych, a tymczasem moje słowa przekazywały stacje translacyjne dalej i dalej; zdawało się, że słyszę echa własnego głosu, który w ułamku sekundy obiegł całą kulę ziemską, a potem, skupiony w emitorach kierunkowych, został rzucony w przestworza. Odezwały się stacje kosmodromiczne sztucznych satelitów i Księżyca, pracujące z jednosekundowym opóźnieniem, przyjęły wezwanie i przeszły na odbiór, aż cała wewnętrzna sfera panowania człowieka zamarła i delikatny szmer głośniczka w teleranie przerywał już tylko nigdy nie ustający tykot atomowych zegarów obserwacyjnych. Naraz jakiś pilot księżycowy odezwał się, pytając, co się stało. Jakiś gruby głos kazał mu się natychmiast wyłączyć i nastała cisza. To było w piątej sekundzie po moim wezwaniu. A w szóstej, tak jak było trzeba, zacząłem krótko i rzeczowo mówić: Odnaleziono dziecko, nazywa się Pao, ma trzy i pół roku, orzechowe oczy i tak dalej. Potem znów nastała cisza, przestrzelona krótkimi gwizdnięciami stacji translacyjnych, i naraz dwie odezwały się równocześnie: oznajmiały, że mają zanotowane zgłoszenie rodziców i już od pięciu godzin czekają wieści. A potem — w dwudziestej drugiej sekundzie — wszystkie przerwane połączenia wznowiono, wszystkie stacje okrętów i rakiet odezwały się, automaty kończyły wypowiadanie urwanych w połowie zdań, ludzie się śmiali i rozmawiali, i znowu burzliwy gwar przelewał się w miniaturowym głośniku."

Translation by Google with some crude editing
posted by hat_eater at 3:16 PM on February 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

This is fantastic, thank you! I maintain The Cyberiad isn’t just one of the finest SF novels but one of the funniest - better, in fact, than Douglas Adams.

I’ve read a few others - Fiasco (which was so shocking it gave me heartburn), The Futurological Congress (an incredible commentary on VR, imo), Solaris (the bit in the library was a perfect depiction of scientific communication) - and I’ve just bought The Investigation and Summa Technologiae thanks to this post.
posted by adrianhon at 3:59 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

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