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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Stanislaw Lem's Okamgnienie Peering into the Future
Stanisław Lem's Okamgnienie
[A Blink of an Eye]
Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow 2000
ISBN 8308030386

Peter Swirski

Lem has had a lifelong interest in the questions we raise in this book [The Mind's I]. His intuitive and literary approach perhaps does a better job of convincing readers to his views than any hard-nosed scientific article or arcanely reasoned philosophical paper might do.—Douglas R Hoftstadter

Is final knowledge of the processes which led to the genesis of life on earth possible? Will science bring us immortality? Are we alone in the Cosmos? What are the odds of meeting an extraterrestrial civilization? Is Nature an evolutionary monopolist? What do cloning and genetic engineering portend? Will humans produce artificial intelligence? What will be the consequences of the lightning-fast unfolding of communication technologies?

Questions of this kind, found on the back cover of Stanisław Lem's Okamgnienie (A Blink of an Eye, 2000), would normally bespeak a book by a physicist, biologist or computer scientist. Yet Lem is none of the above. The author of this slender volume has achieved greatest fame as a writer of science fiction novels, many of which are required school reading in his native Poland.

Since his first bestseller, Astronauci (Astronauts, 1951), Lem has produced an unbelievably diverse body of writing, which includes contemporary novels, short stories, poetry, science fiction, detective fiction, fantasy, experimental writing, literary criticism, scientific treatises, sociological and cultural analyses, philosophical essays, futurology, literary theory, autobiography, television and radio plays, film scripts and volumes upon volumes of polemical writings.

Reflective, cerebral, irreverent, ironic and boundlessly creative, Lem has close to 50 book titles to his credit, among them several multi-volume monographs. And although he stopped writing fiction with the publication of Fiasko (Fiasco, 1987), to this day he remains an avidly consulted literary and cultural critic, philosopher, futurologist, sociologist, essayist and scientific commentator.

What tomorrow may bring

Fittingly, Okamgnienie is a collection of diagnostic and prognostic essays on the nature of the technological world in Y2K, on the threshold of the new com-tech and bio-tech millennium. Although not a work of fiction, it fashions a hero of epic proportions: Evolution. This is neither a hyperbole nor a surprise; Lem's succinct summary of the role of cognition in his writings provided the title for his 1979 interview with Andrzej Ziembiecki: "'...Knowing Is the Hero of My Books....'" (Polish Perspectives 22, pp 64-69). Biochemical evolution, the evolution of the cosmos, new generations of robots and computers, the brain as an evolutionary fossil record, and the evolution of intelligence and life, all segue and interweave in this portable micropedia of techno/scientific knowledge for the new century.

Structurally, Okamgnienie consists of an introduction and 21 brief chapters of mostly 5-10 pages, though sometimes as little as three. Combined with the large font and compact size of the book, Lem's latest offering amounts to a distillate and a concentrate of thought, an impression enhanced by paragraphs that sometimes fill more than a page. In Hollywood terms, these condensed overviews might be called treatments, were it not for Lem's immaculate precision of thought, scientific erudition and vast intimacy with the sometimes diabolically complex issues at hand.

Most chapters are inspired by, and usually open with, a reference to a specific publication or scientific source which occasions the reflection. Characteristically, these references come from all the major languages of the world which Lem reads and, in many cases, speaks fluently (albeit with a pronounced Polish accent).

The folly of futurology

This slender (only 160 undersized pages) book opens with critical remarks aimed at Technologies of the 21st Century, a 1993 futurognostic publication of the German Ministry of Science. Lem's caveat is simple: the study makes no mention of the technologies that clearly vie to be twin engines of progress in the next decades: the global communication network (World Wide Web) and bio- or, more precisely, bio-engineering research. The former puts ever more processing power and colossal information banks at our fingertips, while the latter awes and terrifies the world daily with the announcements of cloning frogs, sheep, human embryos and (still to come) you and me, genetic engineering (glow-in-the-dark bunnies and monkeys), pest-resistant strains of rice and grain, etc.

All this is true. One wonders, however, not so much about the myopia of the German futurologists but about Lem's own near-sightedness in relying exclusively on this single source. After all, publications about the joys and perils of the Internet and about the pros and cons of unzipping the DNA secrets dormant in our genes proliferate like flies in the summer heat.

Prognoses and pretexts

But perhaps the futurological straw man is rhetorically needed as a foil to Lem's reckoning of his own prognostic efforts, which span at this point almost half a century. For, as the author is not loath to bring to the reader's attention on several occasions, the intellectual pre-text and publishing pretext for Okamgnienie are Lem's two multi-volume nonfiction studies, Dialogi (Dialogues, 1956) and Summa Technologiæ (1963).

In the early Dialogi, Lem analyzed the then still-novel field of cybernetics, externalized by means of Berkeleyan dialogues between Philonous and Hylas. Much as with Okamgnienie, the blurb on the title page of the original edition of Dialogi sampled the menu of its intellectual stew:

"Dialogues on atomic immortality, the theory of impossibility, philosophical utility of cannibalism, sorrow in a test tube, cybernetic psychoanalysis, electric metempsychosis, various evolutionary feedback, cybernetic eschatology, personality of electroneural nets, orneriness of electronic brains, eternal life in a box, manufacture of genius, epilepsy of capitalism, governing machines, design of social systems."

Even more awe-inspiring than the scope and ambition of Dialogi is the reflection that, 45 years after it was first written, its far-reaching hypotheses and diagnoses have lost none of their pertinence.

Even more closely related to Okamgnienie is Lem's landmark work of futurology, published in 1963 under the encyclopedic title of Summa Technologiæ. Already in our interview (A Stanislaw Lem Reader, Swirski, 1997), Lem toyed with the idea of writing a retrospective on his earlier efforts to chart the course of our civilization's instrumental development in the next millennium. As he wrote in 1963, Summa Technologiæ is a "cybernetic interpretation of the past and future of Man... a picture of the Cosmos seen with the eyes of the Constructor... a study of the engineering of the powers of Nature and of human hands... a collection of hypotheses too bold to claim scientific accuracy" (p 5).

Picking up the thread of the fictions from the same period, the book develops a series of wide-ranging prognoses on the social, cultural and technological destiny of our civilization. Virtual reality, information breeding, cosmic expansion or teleporting are just a few hypotheses with which Lem bridged the discussion of the technology of his day with super-technology of the future.

In Summa Technologiæ, Lem gave us a speculative canvas of cosmic proportions—the technological future of the entire human race, sketched not with a linear brush of a conventional futurologist, but splashed with colourful buckets of far-out analyses and predictions.

Okamgnienie echoes it in the grandness of scope, erudition of reference, precision of analysis, as well as a certain feeling of suprahuman abstractness. Perhaps aware of the occasional dryness of his prose, the author defends his theoretical and generalist approach—at the expense of more specific predictions, more human in perspective and scale—by pointing out that "all attempts in countless prognoses conceived in the 20th century to chart out minute concretizations of the future have faltered" (p 8).

Not for the faint of heart

With its difficult, specialized bio-chemical lexicon, and discussions of future technologies such as micro-molecular computing or harnessing the troping capabilities of bacteria and phages in medical therapy, this is not a book for the faint of heart or feeble of cerebroproteinal neuroprocessor (brain). Adjectives such as technogenic, xenogenic, toposophic, prokaryotic, eukaryotic, psychozoic, orographic, and nouns such as cytochromes, teropods, zoocides, polymers, prions, to name a few, will likely require some intellectual effort on the part of even the most ardent of Lem's fans.

What is to stop the reader, then, from chucking Okamgnienie against the wall and spending the rest of the afternoon with one of Lem's brilliant fictions? For one, at 80 the author remains a master of image, simile and metaphor, which translate into an incredible power of delivery of even the most abstract of concepts. His picture of the human brain?

"We are put together from parts and fragments improvised over a multitude of eras and epochs, almost like a drowning man first saved by clinging to a floating tree who later, from temporarily available parts brought in by the waves, amid countless trials and failures, step by step cobbled together a sea vessel" (p 59).

This brief sample helps address another obvious question, namely why a writer—as opposed to a bona fide scientist or at least a professional philosopher—should tackle matters of such gravity and magnitude. The answer jumps out from every one of the miniature chapters. The issues they touch upon, often lying at the conceptual limits of our era, are simply too philosophical to be left to scientists and too scientific to be left to philosophers only. "My philosophical affiliation," reflected Lem in our 1992 interview, "is in a large measure with the sceptics. Neither am I given to prostrating myself before the natural sciences, and I have frequently adopted quite an irreverent attitude towards them."

Bridging the gap between science and fiction

Lem's career has prepared him ideally for the task of bridging the rigours of scientific inquiry, philosophical analysis and belletristic imagination. With sales creeping past 40 million worldwide and more literary awards than one could mention, he is a grand master of contemporary letters. With academics mining his writings for insights and ideas, his reputation as a philosopher can only grow. And as a member of any number of scientific panels (including notably the original CETI: Conference on Extraterrestrial Intelligence), he remains a prognosticator and futurologist of first eminence.

Ever a skeptic and cautious visionary, Lem calls, in Okamgnienie, for a new edition of the Encyclopædia of Ignorance, against the zeal of techno-prophets and science addicts who would pave the road to the future with the corpses of those who scoff at their utopian scenarios of instrumental might and social right.

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And yet the tantalizingly laconic examples of research featured in Okamgnienie seem almost out of this world. Ropes so light and durable that spaceships could haul cargo into space like an elevator... elementary components of computer systems, the so-called logic gates, fashioned from a single molecule... The most memorable if gruesome example is from the field of medical therapy: in a grotesque straight out of Lindsey Anderson's social satires or H G Wells's Island of Dr Moreau, Lem reorts that in the USSR there were attempts made to cross apes with humans. Thank heavens, comments the author, that it all came to nothing...

Genome science

Elsewhere Okamgnienie reports on how the Human Genome Sciences, Inc has drawn the world's attention to the progress in biotechnology by claiming that the sole causes of death in 2100 will be accidents, murder or war. In other words, owing to regenerative medicine, old age and the ailments which accompany it will cease to be a lethal factor at all!

In a prospect as wondrous as it is frightful, the chiefs of biotechnological companies (which sprout every day like bacteria culture in a petri dish) assert that senility is a soluble problem. Lem puts it in a headline-ready form: for the first time human immortality is within our reach. In the same breath, however, the wary author bemoans the dramatic commercialization and sensationalism of science and its popularizers, especially those of the pseudo futuristic-prognostic variety (one of Lem's perennial bêtes noires).

Senility and aging reappear in the subsequent chapters dealing with cosmic civilizations or exploration and domestication of space. Where old science fiction glamorized space as a source of prolonged youth and longevity, today we know that orbital weightlessness accelerates senility.

Much in the same vein, there has been a pronounced adjustment in our views on the possibility of Contact. Today there is no more talk about developed extraterrestrial civilizations; debates focus more modestly on the slender hope of discovering traces of life in its bacterial, ie simplest, forms. But perhaps this is for the better. Lem concludes it would be preferable if we were indeed alone in the Cosmos, for one can hardly imagine an "advanced" civilization more burdened with so colossal a legacy of war, persecution and murder.

Okamgnienie is not exactly subway reading, but then again, Lem has long since stopped worrying about satisfying hordes of Star Trek-raised pseudo-science buffs. As he put it in 1992, "The task of a writer is not to provide quick and easy recipes for ultimate solutions, but rather to flag certain problems and pose questions about them."

With these words in mind, Okamgnienie is a fitting retrospective on his own career and a stunning farewell to the millennium just departed. Only Lem, instead of wishing a Happy End to the world, could send it off in the last words of the book on its cosmic voyage into Y2K with a "Happy End of the World!"

Peter Swirski, 2 April 2001

The author is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta

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Crisis to Crisis

Omer Fisher
The Road to Independence

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Balkan War III

Roma Culture
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Liszt and the Roma

Rhoda Dullea
The Roma Question

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Romani Theater

Behind Bars!
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Slobo's Support

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Slovenia's Opportunity

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Look to the Future

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An excerpt from Okamgnienie

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

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Out of Time

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

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