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Life As Simulacrum: Stanislaw Lem’s Sci-Fi
Leszek Koczanowicz on a writer whose novels explore the search for meaning within simulated realities.
Science fiction, although now associated with popular writing, has its noble origin in Plato’s Republic. The story of an unreal but socially perfect city has been repeated again and again over the centuries ever since, giving testimony not only to the longing for an ideal but also to the need for combining philosophy and literature. Could it be that abstract philosophy alone was not able to convince people to believe in social ideals? Perhaps bare argument must be supplemented with narrative. “Once upon a time” is hypnotic, but “if a, then b” is boring. However, the problem lies not only in the feeling of excitement or boredom. In science fiction, utopia is directed at the space between the real and the unreal. This space has its own rules, different from those of the real as well as the unreal, and allows readers to move smoothly between the edges of reality and non-reality. Classic (pre- Marxist) utopias had the charm of fairy tales rather than the solemn power of myth. Marx changed utopia from fables into a kind of ‘scientific’ speculation.
In the Nineteenth Century, the old conception of utopia split up into quasi-scientific imaginings and literary dreams of human power over nature. In both cases, science became an indispensable part of utopia. In Marxism (and to some extent in Positivism) utopia posed as a science, closing the circle which had originated with Plato’s Republic. Philosophy returned to itself this time disguised as science. Literature produced naive apologetics of scientific progress (Jules Verne), and warnings of the dangers of the development of technology (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells). Science was the real hero of those stories – an unseen hand manipulating human subjects. Often characters were portrayed to be no more than the incarnation of scientific procedures. This situation has not changed much over the past hundred years or so. Utopian thinking has become more and more divided as science fiction in its different varieties has degenerated into pulp fiction. Even the collapse of Marxism did not put an end to the idea of the possibility of the description of trends and predictions of ‘the future.’
Beneath the superficial differences, it is clear that the two sides of utopia – scientific and fabulous – mirror each other. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer, is one of those authors who attempts to reestablish the broken link between philosophy and literature. His work is a perfect example of the fertile possibilities of such a hybrid. Lem’s writing strategy has been to explore, very often through the use of absurd situations, what happens when traditional philosophical theories are confronted by the possibilities given by technological progress. To some extent Lem’s work can be described as a ‘philosophical experimentation’ where hypotheses are put to the test by new technologies. Doing so, Lem doesn’t cease to be a writer of fiction. He is conscious that this position gives him more freedom in his play with philosophical concepts. In passing through the contested land between philosophy and literature, when he is approaching dangerously close to the realms of philosophy, he can always return to the safe retreat of literary narratives.
It is always risky to make too strong a connection between biography and work, but Lem’s life has obviously influenced his artistic activity and philosophical views. As a witness to Nazism and the Holocaust he has had to be very cautious about any definite concept of human nature and moral values. Living in the ‘embodied utopia’ of communist Poland made him skeptical about any simple link between technological progress and human happiness. Experiencing the system which was able to send cosmonauts into outer space yet never solved the problem of the production and distribution of toilet paper, Lem was sensitive to the inner contradictions of the social consequences of even the most advanced technology. The hard core of Lem’s philosophical views is the idea that there are no general laws governing human life. His universe is the universe of chance, of unpredictable mechanisms set in motion by capricious coincidence.
From the many topics discussed by Lem, I have chosen the problem of simulation as the most characteristic presentation of his philosophical views. This issue is inevitably connected with his own biography, as the communist regime under which he lived mastered the art of creating an ‘artificial reality’ in the media and through propaganda. When I started to read Lem in the sixties and seventies as a high school student, I saw his stories mainly as a savage satire on the drawbacks of communism. Now, I think that his ideas about simulation are of a more profound character. Lem developed a theory of simulation (including virtual reality) earlier than most Western scientists. His perspective on this topic came before the very popular concepts of simulacra created by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard.
Lem touched upon the concept of simulation in his early collection of short stories, entitled Star Diaries. The main character of these stories is Ijon Tichy, the star pilot who is an embodiment of common sense in the crazy world of a technologically advanced civilization. In his adventures, Ijon is pursuing the trail of a famous sage named Oh, who is the author of a general theory of simulation, and who is implementing his theory everywhere in the universe. For instance, knowing the deadly consequences of technological progress, Master Oh invented the simulation of progress, training the people of one planet to use electric eels as a source of energy. In this way, the planet avoided the environmental disaster caused by using nuclear plants while the people enjoyed the benefits of developed technology. In this fragment of a story, Lem directs his irony at both ends of the controversy. He makes a mockery of the environmentalists who believe in unlimited possibilities of ‘clean’ technology, as well as of the believers in technological progress as a source of human happiness. In the next part of Lem’s story, the illusion of the omnipotence of simulation goes further. The sage resolves the conflict between a maverick scientist and the clergy about astronomical questions. The scientist claims that the sun is going around the earth, which is an offense to the local religion, and he is threatened with severe punishment. Master Oh uses a brake to stop the planet. This is observed by the scientist from his prison cell, and he becomes eager to confess his mistake. The simulation of objective truth is established in this way.
Probably the most extreme proof of the omnipotence of simulation is the simulation of eternity and immortality. Following the traces of the sage’s activity, Ijon Tichy eventually comes to a society where, at midnight, every social position is changed by drawing lots. One day an individual could be the president of the state and a brother, the next day the same individual would become a gardener and a sister. The position of father, however, posed a problem: it sometimes happened that it was occupied by a woman in the last days of pregnancy. So, a special law was passed which stated that the father can give birth to a child, ending the discrepancy between the biological and the social. This new arrangement is called ‘artificial eternity’, and was invented by Master Oh to harmonize the longing for stability with the desire for change. In such a society, death does not exist, as there is no individual that could die – the number of social positions is fixed. The moral which is drawn in the story, by one of the members of that society, is that individualism is the greatest threat to human happiness.
When I first read this story under communism, I interpreted it as a critique of the collectivist ideology. Now, after the collapse of the communist regime, I would be more cautious about such a direct interpretation. I now see it as a parable of human nature rather than a criticism of a particular social system. Lem tells us about the impossibility of achieving what humans want the most and about the illusion that they can gain it using technological tools. If we do not have what we want in the real world, the only way of getting it is through simulation. Lem shows, however, that there is a price for letting technological progress solve our existential dilemmas.
In later works by Lem, the problem of simulation takes on a much more sophisticated form than that of a ‘mere’ critique of technological progress. The collection of essays entitled A Perfect Vacuum, contains a piece entitled ‘Non Serviam’, in which Lem discusses a non-existent science called ‘personetics’ that is described as “the cruelest science man has ever created.” (A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of non-existent books, so it is itself a kind of simulation.) Personetics is an experimental theogony, the construction of an artificial world using the computer programs BAAL 66, CREAN IV or JAHVE 09. Those computer programs can generate intelligent beings for whom the real world is the world of mathematics. Lem focuses on the relationship between those beings and their creator. In this way, Lem approaches the old philosophical problem of the existence of God and what human beings owe to their creator (and what He owes to them). The subsequent generations of personoids (as the inhabitants of this mathematical world are called) discover the same reasonings on this topic as were discovered in human history. EDAN 197, for instance, reinvented ‘Pascal’s Wager’. This reasoning is extended by ADAN 300, in the following way: “For in all worlds it is this: when there is no full certainty, there is no full accountability. This formulation is by pure logic unassailable, because it sets up a symmetrical function of reward in the context of the theory of games, whoever in the face of uncertainty demands full accountability destroys the mathematical symmetry of the game. We then have so-called games of non-zero sum.” Even if somebody were to try to defend God using the argument “I believe because it is absurd”, logic prevents this. “What I wish to say,” speaks one of the personoids, “is that if one believes in contradiction, one should believe only in contradiction, and not at the same time in uncontradictions (i.e. in logic) in some other areas. If however, such a dualism is insisted upon … then one thereupon obtains a model of creation as something that is, with regard to logical correctness, ‘patched’ and it is no longer possible for us to postulate its perfection.”
Lem ends his story with the voice of Professor Dobb, who directed the experiment and who is in fact the Creator of the beings more and more certain of his non-existence. He is their creator, but they are sure they do not owe him anything. On the contrary, he is embarrassed that the experiment which created the new world must perish when the University refuses to pay his electricity bills.
Simulation is for Lem an opportunity for philosophical experimentation. He is testing some philosophical dogmas, and in this way showing that many of our beliefs are at best dubious. The most important of these convictions is the doctrine that the universe must be ordered according to ‘iron laws’. Lem instead proposes a universe of chance, where everything is contingent. The personoids who seek the logic of their existential situation are in fact dependent on a university’s budget – probably the most contingent thing in the world.
© Leszek Koczanowicz 2001
Leszek Koczanowicz is a professor of philosophy at Opole University in Poland. He is particularly interested in pragmatism and in contemporary philosophy.