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Lem’s strange aliens, revisited

I started 2014 reading the recently published English translation of Stanisław Lem‘s masterpiece Summa Technologiae (see my forthcoming review “Summa Technologiae – Lem’s grim, sober Singularity”), so I decided to revisit some of Lem’s science fiction works.

Lem, who passed away in 2006, is known and loved by science fiction readers worldwide. With more than 25 millions books sold, he may be the most widely read science fiction writer ever, which shows that there has always been a demand for mature, complex science fiction literature.

A common theme in Lem’s fiction is the strangeness, the fundamental incomprehensibility of alien intelligences out there. The lesson is that alien intelligences may be so different from us, their consciousness so alien, with textures and flavors so different from our own consciousness, that communication may prove impossible. Lem warns us not to anthropomorphize – the universe is probably stranger than we imagine, perhaps stranger than we can imagine. Lem’s novel often leave the reader in a moody state of quiet despair. I prefer more positive, solar science fiction, but this is Lem, one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Who am I to criticize him?

In Solaris, Lem’s best known work, scientists face a strange, utterly alien living ocean, that fills a planet around a double stars. The ocean is clearly alive, its behavior resembling the muscular activity of an organic being, or perhaps the neural activity of a giant brain. It creates huge and incomprehensible structures of jelly and hardened foam, larger than cities, which are cataloged but never understood by the scientists. Perhaps the living ocean is incomparably more intelligent than us, and it is certainly much more powerful: it can tweak the laws of physics within its strange creations, control and stabilize the orbit of the planet around the double star, and even fabricate persons out of subatomic matter, from memories extracted from the minds of the scientists. These “guests,” perhaps emissaries, perhaps sensors, weapons, or perhaps even gifts, seem fully conscious and able to understand that they are not real persons, which results in a deeply moving tragedy. The scientists can communicate with the guests, but never with the ocean itself, which is probably sentient but with a consciousness so different from ours that communication will remain impossible. The guests, the persons fabricated by the ocean, are able to communicate and show human feelings – they pass the Turing test. But the ocean itself doesn’t, and perhaps its apparently intelligent behavior is really the unthinking metabolism of a very alien life form.

I watched again two film adaptations (1972 and 2002) of Solaris. Both are good films, but fall short of the book. Both films emphasize the tragic love story between man and ghost more than Lem intended, with a “happy end” (sort of) in the 2002 film. Lem writes: “to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… in “Solaris” I attempted to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid.” In both films I miss the majestic swirls, contortions and creations of the living ocean.

In His Master’s Voice, scientists study a message received from the stars, encoded in neutrinos. Narrated in first person after the facts, His Master’s Voice is really a long philosophical essay, with just enough story telling to keep the reader’s attention (the book is one of the very few philosophical essay that I know of which is also a page-turner). The project, narrated by a participant – a famous mathematician – in a memory found after his death, takes place in a closed government facility, and of course there are plans to exploit the findings for military applications.

A part of the message seems understandable, and the scientists find a way to use it to synthesize a new material with strange properties, perhaps a new life form sent from the stars. But the purpose of the new material is never understood, the rest of the message never decoded, and the goal of the project – decoding a message sent by an alien civilization – is muddled by more and more uncertainties. Perhaps the message is not a message at all, but radiation based on unknown science, broadcast to stimulate the emergence of life in the universe. Perhaps the signal is not even the work of intelligent aliens, but the outcome of unknown natural phenomena, perhaps related to residual radiation leaks between phases of a cyclic, expanding and contracting universe. But is there always a meaningful difference between the actions of intelligent life and the “mindless” works of the laws of physics? The question is left unanswered, and the signal from the stars remains a Rorschach test, onto which we project what is in our own minds.

In The Invincible, the crew of a starship landed on an apparently desert planet must confront highly efficient self-organizing swarms of insect-like, self-reproducing, self-repairing micro-robots, apparently evolved over the ages from war robots left by a civilization that visited the planet long ago. The micro-robotic swarms are the survivors of the evolutionary struggle for the survival of the fittest, and the masters of the planet. Though probably not sentient in any sense that we can relate to, the swarm intelligence of the robotic insects proves more much effective than ours, and the human cosmonauts must retire in defeat after many losses.

A common message emphasized in all three books is that our human intelligence, consciousness, our particular human way to inhabit the universe, may be overrated – other life forms may be more efficient and more powerful than us without being sentient in any sense that we can understand, and natural phenomena (not even life forms, just mindless matter and energy following natural laws) may exhibit behaviors similar to conscious intelligence. With this persistent uncertainty between sentience and automation, life and non-life, Lem warns that reality may be stranger than our current models.

Image: Wikipedia

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