Decrypting the master
His reading on cybernetics led also to an interest in the topic of artificial intelligence and the development of quasi-animate cells with ambiguous ontological status, designed by calculating machines. Biotechnology has a significant place in his writing; after all, he lived in the era of the discovery of DNA and the rise of huge hopes related to our ability to decipher the human genome. He appreciated the value of genetic discoveries, the fact that they would enable us to fight certain illnesses or make food production more effective. As time went by, his optimism about genetic engineering dimmed: he recognised the dangers posed by big capital business, which commercialised even genomes. Nonetheless, he still perceived the development of biotechnology in a larger context, and his pessimism resulted from a worry about political and financial misuse.
What fascinated him the most about the changes within life sciences was the moving boundary between the natural and the artificial, because he realised that biotechnology would eventually have to challenge these binary divisions. If ever more advanced artificial entities come into being, we must not ignore the possibility that they might develop a consciousness, or at least sensitivity to pain. As one of the characters in His Master’s Voice, Saul Rappaport, put it: “[…] the difference between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ was not entirely objective, not an absolute given, but a relative thing and dependent on the cognitive frame of reference [translated by Michael Kandel, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1999].” The ability to create semi-sentient beings holds a prominent position both in Lem’s essays and in his novels and short stories. In “Prognoza rozwoju biologii do roku 2040” [“A Prognosis for the Development of Biology Until the Year 2040”], written in May 1981, he tried to predict the direction in which techno-biological ideas for evolution would develop, with an unusually optimistic scenario for the future. In this essay, he predicted the modern ontological problems stemming from our ability to design entities partially similar to living organisms, and that it would be philosophers rather than engineers struggling to classify them. “These classification problems will emerge especially when genetic engineering and molecular biology produce a lateral offshoot in the form of materials, often with cellular structure, which will clearly display characteristics of life, but only some of them, for example only self-repairing or self-replicating abilities, or metabolism variants unseen in other species. […] The enormous void between animate and inanimate matter will be filled so thoroughly that any attempts to determine the unambiguously biological or abiological nature of these new creations will become pointless and only testify to our intellectual inertia.” And although Lem didn’t yet use the terms symbionts, liminal life, synthetic life, in silico, in vitro, to describe these physical beings, the perspective of their arrival filled him not with fear, but rather curiosity about how philosophy and legislative practice would handle them.
Excerpt translated by Marta Dziurosz
Decrypting the master
The High Castle is a distinctive hill in Lviv; it is also the title of Lem’s autobiography in which he described his childhood. Could Agnieszka Gajewska’s most recent biography of the writer, Stanisław Lem: Exiled from the High Castle, have been called anything else if Lem’s whole post-war life – as Gajewska claims – was marked by an escape from Lvovian trauma on the one hand, and on the other by a bitter yearning for the time of childhood innocence, a time it is impossible to revisit?
The author has tackled Lem before: her Zagłada i gwiazdy. Przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema [Holocaust and the Stars: The Past in the Prose of Stanisław Lem] (2016) is a scholarly monograph on his oeuvre. In her present book, Gajewska significantly widens that perspective, emphasizes the previously signposted arguments, paints a vivid picture of the dreary era in which Lem created and lived. Her key to understanding the writer is the issue of his Jewish identity, wartime trauma and memory, which Lem tried to simultaneously efface and salvage throughout his life. This is why he escaped towards the stars. The war years are crucial to Gajewska. This is when Lwów (present-day Lviv) was occupied and Lem’s family had to go into hiding. Out of scraps of documents, reports and memories, the author meticulously reconstructs what happened to young Stanisław back then, what horrors he and his loved ones experienced. The author’s position is that an echo of these tragedies often returned later in Lem’s books, but in images that were seemingly unrelated to World War II. The doubler graveyard in Eden, the scrapyard full of destroyed robots in Return from the Stars, the horrifying events in the life of his character Rappaport, who was forced to transport dead bodies… There were many more such reminiscences in Lem’s writing, it’s just that nobody has connected these premises before. The common omission of that specific aspect of Lem’s writing is also discussed in the book.
Gajewska’s work removes the patina from the monument that Lem’s output has started to solidify into though the years, and refreshes it for the next generation of readers. This is only one of the reasons for which it deserves due attention.
Translated by Marta Dziurosz
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