An Interview with Stanislaw Lem
by Peter Engel
© The Missouri Review
Since he began writing science fiction almost forty years ago, Stanislaw Lem
has been taking on man, the mind, and the universe, often courageously, always
alone. In that time he has churned out novels, plays, short stories, screenplays,
pieces of literary criticism, sociological essays and volumes on the science
of cybernetics and the philosophy of chance. During World War II, as a Polish
medical student, he watched his comrades pass their exams and become lifelong
army surgeons. He refused to give the false answers required by Soviet biology
and failed his exams, sacrificing a career in medicine. Following the war he
joined other writers in championing socialism, but because he tried to advance
the cause using arguments taken from cybernetics, a field banned as a "false
capitalist science," much of his writing waited years to be published.
By the time he achieved a critical and popular following as a utopian writer
he had become disenchanted with socialism, and the awards he received were for
political beliefs left behind years before. But the prizes kept coming: the
Cracow City Literary Award, the Officer's Cross for the Polish Renaissance,
the Award of the Ministry of Culture, and the Great State Award for Literature,
the highest literary prize in Poland. He rarely bothered to show up for the
ceremonies, asking instead that the awards be shipped to his home in Cracow,
where he tossed them in a cupboard and went back to writing.
In supporting his ideals, Lem has often made himself a target. During World War II he abetted the Resistance movement and barely escaped several execution attempts by the Nazis. Today, he belongs neither to the trade union Solidarity nor to the Communist Party nor to the Catholic Church. In a country that is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent political, Lem may occupy the last small square of neutral ground. His skepticism of the search for extra-terrestrial life, the "advances" of modern medicine, the big bang theory, the inherent value of space exploration, and the achievements of artificial intelligence research has hardly endeared him to the community of scientists. In his own words he is like Kipling's cat, independent and alone.
Although discovered only recently by the English-speaking world, Lem has long been regarded in Europe as a leading contemporary philosopher of science. He has published 11 million books, a total of over 35 titles in almost as many languages--including not only the European tongues but also Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Estonian, Ukranian, Moldavian, Lithuanian, Hebrew. There may be pirated editions in other Soviet dialects, but since the Russians rarely send Lem author's copies, he wouldn't know. It hardly matters. Even without those figures, he remains the best-selling and most prestigious author in Poland as well as the most-translated author in the socialist world.
In Western Europe his books fill both the libraries of the intelligentsia and the revolving book racks in supermarkets and train stations, a position among science-fiction writers perhaps last achieved by H.G. Wells. His popularity in the United States has been slower to take root, but by now his critical success is secure. For example, Newsweek has called Lem "the best science-fiction writer working today in any language," and The New York Times has deemed him "worthy of a Nobel Prize." All this recognition has not quite made him an establishment figure. The Science Fiction Writers of America once made him an honorary member, but he responded with a series of critical articles on the mediocrity of American science-fiction writers, calling them, among other things, "charlatans," and was promptly expelled.
Despite his prodigious output and his acclaim, Lem has remained a literary force at a distance. He eschews interviews, and has given only three or four in his life; until now, none has appeared in English. Protected by the Iron Curtain and by a succession of narrative veils (only his fiction has been translated into English), Lem has never had to confront the American reader eye-to-eye. While we know he is a philosopher, we do not know his philosophy. Most philosophers of science are dogmatic: they develop a static picture of the world and it remains with them for life. They display a fondness for numbers and categories: Aristotle enumerated the four elements of nature, Kant the twelve classes of a priori thought, Comte the three stages of human history. But Lem is more evasive. Because he subscribes to the everchanging scientific picture of man and nature, his philosophy remains in flux and he disguises his conjectures as science fiction to avoid having to go on record as espousing any one position. One of his favorite literary devices is the Borgesian trick of reviewing non-existent books, adopting a different narrative voice each time he addresses the reader. The succession of screens makes it impossible to tell which of the various personae, the imaginary author, the imaginary reviewer, or Lem, is really speaking.
In the past, the best approach to Lem has been through his protagonists, "loners virtually to a man" in the words of New York Times critic Theodore Solotaroff. True, they are loners, but of a wide variety, ranging from the vaudevillian to the tragic. Ijon Tichy, the planethopping keeper of the Star Diaries, is an ingenuous, space-age Gulliver, and the cadet who narrates the Tales of Pirx the Pilot is a good-hearted but slapstick bumbler; Peter Hogarth, on the other hand, is a bitter, brooding, and angst-ridden mathematician in His Master's Voice, while Kris Kelvin is an intrepid space scientist in Solaris whose heroism is undercut by psychological vulnerability and emotional frailty. Which, if any, of these characters resembles the real Lem?
Although Lem lives year-round in Cracow with his wife and teenage son, he spent the previous year on a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in West Berlin. (His wife and son remained in Poland.) At the Institute Lem is devoting himself full-time to writing and to catching up on the scientific news denied him by a year of martial law. On November 18, after a flurried exchange of telegrams, John Sigda and I arrived at Lem's rented apartment in West Berlin, a modestly furnished duplex in the outskirts of the city.
He greeted us warmly at the door, looking at age 61 just a bit thinner and more gaunt than the dated pictures on the book jackets. Of average height, but hefty, he had the build of a one-time athlete. A handshake like a vise reminded me that Lem had once worked as an auto mechanic, and I marveled that his thick fingers were able to type without striking several keys at once. (A subsequent letter from Lem proved the suspicion warranted.) Enthusiastically, he ushered us upstairs to the living room, and we gathered around a coffee table to talk.
Lem had offered to conduct the interview in Polish, German, or Russian, all of which he speaks fluently. We chose English and hired an interpreter who would converse with him in German. While we awaited the interpreter's arrival I had a chance to study Lem more closely. Although youthful in manner, his appearance had made a few concessions to age. In addition to his usual spectacles, he now wore a hearing aid in each ear; a spray of white hair had stubbornly resisted the process of balding and ringed the top of his head like a solar corona. In Lem's limited English, we made small talk; he smiled and a gold cuspid glinted from the corner of his mouth. He offered drinks and settled into a wicker chair, by turns downing shots of straight vermouth, dragging on a cigarette, and snacking from a bowl of synthetic bacon chips. It was ten a.m.
I wondered, watching this nutritionist's nightmare, whether Lem was aware that he embodied one of his own major philosophic points: the lack of any real distinction between the natural and the artificial. Mechanical devices amplified two of his senses, a metallic alloy enabled him to use a third, and in concert they supported an aging chassis that ran on ethanol, nicotine and a variety of man-made chemicals. At this stage of the game, I thought, Lem seemed to have given up all hope of organic salvation, preferring to let his body run on pure mind. But before I could carry this thought further, the interpreter arrived and situated himself diplomatically between us. In an atmosphere redolent of detente, we began.
Interviewer: Did you always want to be a writer?
Lem: No, I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to become a physician, the same as my father and my uncle before me. Then I was threatened away from this career by the Lysenko affair. I'm from Lemburg, which is now part of the Soviet Union. In 1946 I had come to Cracow to study medicine. When the first articles and essays were published in Pravda about Lysenko, and the attacks on orthodox genetics started, I didn't like that at all. I soon understood that he had started to falsify all of biology. [The Soviet botanist Trofim Lysenko rose to great power by rejecting Mendelian genetics in favor of a form of Lamarckian evolution more compatible with socialist ideology.] I had wanted to continue studying theoretical biology, but now I didn't want to any more and, in fact, I couldn't. As was usual at that time in Poland, all my colleagues first had to enlist in the army, and they became lifelong army surgeons. Since I wasn't on too good a footing with the military, I didn't pass my last examination. Nobody could force me to give them the answers they wanted.
Interviewer: I'm glad you failed.
Lem: It was almost thirty years until I got my doctorate, an honorary doctor's degree at the technical university in Wroclaw. At the same time I was working to make some money as a scientific assistant at a publishing house in Cracow, a monthly called The Science of Science. I also started writing poems for a Catholic weekly. We were in difficult straits, we had left everything we had in Lemburg, and writing stories came easily to me, so I started writing in order to earn some money and help my father, who was 73 but who still continued working in the hospital. I was 26 years old at the time. That was the beginning. It had nothing at all to do with science fiction.
Interviewer: According to biographical sources, you had to interrupt your studies to work as an automobile mechanic and welder during the war. And Michael Kandel, one of your American translators, says that at one point you narrowly missed being killed by the Nazis...
Lem: Not once, but several times! It is a long story. In 1939 Poland was divided between Hitler and Stalin. At that time I succeeded in enrolling at the medical institute in Lemburg under the Communists. My course of study was interrupted in 1941 because of the beginning of the Soviet-German war. It was interrupted up to '44, and then I continued studying medicine in Lemburg for one-and-a-half more years, and then we had to move to Cracow. During the Occupation I worked as a welder and committed, in a small way, sabotage. Even now I am able to virtually destroy any car. I specialized in that sort of thing. I worked as an auto mechanic in a German firm and stole some ammo and weapons from a place called Beutepark der Luftwaffe and gave it to some men from the Resistance. For these reasons after a while I had to flee, and my documents and everything had to be changed. I had to continue living under false papers and false identity up to 1944. I had to change my papers three times. That's a story which would take four or five hours to tell.
Interviewer: You are now the best-selling and most prized author in Poland, as well as the most-translated author in the socialist world. And yet your writing is bitterly critical of totalitarian regimes and indeed of any political or social system that aspires to a final, perfect state. This seems quite paradoxical. Can you explain why you have been acclaimed by a political system of which you are so critical?
Lem: That's also very complicated. At first I wrote a contemporary novel, not science fiction [Time Saved, also called The Hospital of Transfiguration]. This novel could not be published. I wrote it in'48 and it was published only in '55, during the so-called "Thaw" period after Stalin's death. But in the meantime I wrote my first fantastic [science-fiction] novel with the title The Astronauts, a book which nowadays gives me some pangs of conscience, because it's so bad. I tried at that time to write the good Communist utopia. The intention was good. Although I had realized that the existing circumstances were painful, I had been nourishing hope for some time that gradually things would improve, and that around the year 2000 things would be quite well. And that's the time I was dealing with in the novel.
Then, I wrote a second novel entitled The Magellan Nebula, even worse than the first, and it was a utopia pointing to the year 3000. It still couldn't be published, because I'd written this in '51, when cybernetics had been banned as a false capitalist science. In order to smuggle it through, I had to rename it "mechanioristics"--I created a new term. But a very well-read and up-to-date editor in the publishing house noticed that this new term was identical with cybernetics and tore off my mask. For that reason, for some time the book couldn't be published.
So finally the first two books appeared in the Soviet Union in very large editions, between one and one-and-a-half million copies, and they are being published even now. From then on I was in a sanctified order, as they say in Latin, and began to be published in the GDR and
gradually in all the socialist countries. At that time there existed a certain naivete in the minds of the censors, because anything called science fiction wasn't watched so closely as contemporary literature. In Poland they called it "freaks of the imagination," nonsense which you don't have to pay much attention to. This lasted seven or eight years, and then we had the first purges-in the Soviet Union that is-directed against non-conformist science fiction. Then the mystery was unraveled, and the authors got into trouble. In those days, '56 to '59 approximately, we had the October period when the ice was breaking. By that time I had already written other books and had gained a certain stature. Thus I was able to write more and publish more thanks to my international reputation. And having become, so to speak, the most prominent author in Poland, I received certain medals and state prizes.
Interviewer: And since that time have you had any trouble with censorship?
Lem: No. I did have problems, more coincidental in nature. I wrote a novel which also appeared in America, The Futurological Congress. When it appeared in Poland there happened to be unrest among the populace, and there is also a revolt at the beginning of the novel. It was not an allusion to the existing revolt-it was written before, and it was a coincidence. Certainly Memoirs Found in a Bathtub [a novel set in a futuristic, underground American Pentagon] was an allegory of a totalitarian state with a spy in the system. I thought the Polish would recognize some Polish circumstances in it. It still has not been published in the Soviet Union. But when an Argentine poet came to see me about three years ago, he said it was exactly like in Argentina. So if you are living in such a state, you don't consider this book a product of the imagination but a realistic description of the facts. There have been other, similar cases, but none of them ultimately stopped me.
Interviewer: Have you ever been involved in Polish politics?
Lem: Practically not. I was never a member of any political party. I am in a way a liberal, I am on the side of Popper in his antihistoricism and I believe that there are no other ways of perfecting the human condition except by taking very little steps. All other methods can bring only a lot of misery.
Interviewer: Did you sympathize with the Solidarity movement?
Lem: Even if I really did sympathize with Solidarity I saw the intrinsic dangers of this movement. They were good-hearted and sincere, but very naive and inexperienced and understood nothing at all of politics. They would have politics as clear and sane and fine as the ghost of a saint, a very nice idea but not from this world.
Interviewer: Were you at all affected by martial law?
Lem: Because I was like Kipling's cat, going my own way, and belonged neither to Solidarity nor to the Party, I was not personally imprisoned or otherwise affected under martial law. But I was not especially happy at this time! In Poland ever since the state of war I've been cut off from all scientific information, not for any political reasons but because there's no hard currency. Up to my exit from Poland, the U.S. embassy in Warsaw was furnishing me with Newsweek and Scientific American, but it was not sufficient for my purposes. Here we have a large library, and everything they have I get at once. And the funny thing is that I'm ordering almost exclusively American and British literature. I am corresponding with Douglas Hofstadter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I need no laboratories and other paraphernalia necessary for an empiricist.
Interviewer: Do you think the release of Lech Walesa will revive Solidarity?
Lem: No. He shall and will be compromised or paralyzed in his doings. Not with a bang, but with a little whimper.
Interviewer: How did you first become interested in science fiction?
Lem: As a young boy I started reading H.G. Wells. That's no explanation,
because there are many people who have read Wells, and nothing came out of them.
I also read Olaf Stapledon in the English version with a dictionary in my hand.
And then quite late, in 1956 approximately, I became a little more familiar
with American science fiction. Only then was I able to obtain these new books,
starting with Heinlein, Asimov, etc. Most of them disappointed me, because after
Wells and Stapledon, I'd imagined that rising from these moderate beginnings
science fiction must be becoming more sophisticated all the time. That was not
really the case. During the last six or seven years I've stopped reading any
science fiction. I cannot read authors like Robert Silverberg-they're boring.
I cannot read a utopian or science-fiction novel that is too similar to what
has been done before, or when it moves towards pure fantasy, when the irrational
and fairy tales are clad in the costume of scientific fantasy.
But I did not fall out of touch because both of my agents, one in Vienna and
the other in Hanover, are fans of science fiction--or at least were--and they
continue reading it and I ask them for reports when anything really new
appears. There was this and that, The Left Hand of Darkness and The
Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, which I know from correspondence across
the Atlantic. I was supposed to edit a series of the best science-fiction novels
for my publishers in Cracow, among them one novel by Le Guin, and the novel
caused no misgivings with the censors. But the Polish translator was a dissident.
So this book of Le Guin's had to wait five years before it could be published,
only because of the translator. [Lem eventually quit as editor of the series
in opposition to the ban.]
Interviewer: According to one of your agents, Franz Rottensteiner, you were at one time an honorary member of the Science Fiction Writers of America but were expelled for your attacks on Western science fiction. Are there any Eastern European or Soviet science-fiction writers you like?
Lem: From among the Soviet science-fiction authors I like the brothers Strugatsky [Arkady and Boris]. One of their books, the last one--Picnic at the Side of the Road I think is the American title--Mme. Le Guin reviewed very favorably in the Canadian Science Fiction Studies last year. The Soviet director Andrej Tarkovsky, who filmed my novel Solaris, also made a film out of this novel by the Strugatskys, but as far as I know it didn't turn out well because he was rather complicated in his approach and those who had not previously read the book could not understand the film.
Interviewer: I was wondering what you thought of the film version of Solaris.
Lem: In '65, in Moscow, Tarkovsky and I had a conflict of a serious nature because I did not agree to his screenplay for Solaris. I didn't even want to see the picture. I only saw it four years later, on TV. It's a controversial story. In general, I was scared off from the film business, and ever since I have been rather unwilling to sell any film rights because as an author you lose all control. Between the author and the director there must be a spiritual harmony, a similar approach to film and literature. There must be no pressure and no interference on the part of the producer. In my opinion most science-fiction films--Star Wars, for example--are very poor, sort of a cocktail made from several leitmotifs. And there's not only the director and the producer but also others, and at best you can only withdraw your name. So I'd rather stay away from this type of business. Life is too short.
Interviewer: Which non-science-fiction authors do you like, and which have most influenced you?
Lem: What I like as a reader is not necessarily closely related to what I'm writing about. In German poetry, for instance, I'm very fond of Rainer Maria Rilke, which has no relation to my writing, at least as far as I know. Also Dostoevski and Conrad, and from the Poles Gombrowicz, Witkiewicz, Lemian as a poet, and Milosz as an essayist. Cervantes, Swift--this list could be very long indeed.
Actually, I am influenced primarily by various philosophers. Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein--the so-called "Viennese Circle." To explain this I say that I am like a cow. The cow eats grass and gives milk. But grass isn't really like milk at all. Like the food, the information is being processed in my head and its issue is books. I'm a hard nut to crack for literary critics in Poland because they're accustomed to putting an author into certain slots. They really have problems with me, but I don't feel guilty at all.
Interviewer: Three of my favorite novelists are Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Italo Svevo. It seems to me that your work shares with theirs a certain atmosphere: of dread, alienation from society, emotional deprivation, and estrangement from complete knowledge or understanding--but also, in the face of such desolation, a powerful re-affirmation of life. Your novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, especially, reminds me of Kafka's The Trial and The Castle. Do you like these authors, and have they at all influenced your thinking?
Lem: Kafka yes, but neither Musil nor Svevo. I cannot say why I do not like Musil. I admire him, but I do not like him. I read Musil and Svevo only once and never returned to their books.
Interviewer: Which of your own novels is your favorite?
Lem: It's very difficult for a father to say, "This is my favorite son, and let the other one go to hell." It's far easier to tell you which of my books I hate, which ones have become poison to me. My first books, The Magellan Nebula, and another book which is in English, Return From the Stars, I don't like. Return From the Stars is a simplified, one-dimensional story. If I were to write it today, I would do it entirely differently. But I have a rule never to return to what has been done before. And if I don't like it, I don't sell the author's rights. For instance, I don't sell The Magellan Nebula to anybody.
Interviewer: Can you remember what was new for your body of work about His Master's Voice? It seems to me to be a central work in all of your writing. Does it occupy a special place for you?
Lem: Yes, indeed. I tried to put all of my ability, all of my life experience
into this book, whereas in the other books--for example, The Cyberiad,
a collection of robotic fables--this was not the case. At that time I had reached
a critical point in my career as a writer because I had stopped advancing into
an unknown, distant future and had started to approach the real world. And this
continues to be the way. The newer books have become more humble. Now I only
show a narrow section of the real world through a magnifying glass.
Interviewer: If it is not treading on forbidden territory, I would speculate
that Peter Hogarth, the narrator of His Master's Voice, is the protagonist
of yours who most represents your own viewpoint. Do you identify yourself with
Lem: Yes: Hogarth, that's me. I do not think I identified with a hero so thoroughly and without camouflage anywhere else.
Interviewer: I wonder if in some ways you are also similar to Hal Bregg, the astronaut narrator in Return From the Stars. When Bregg returns from space and over a century has elapsed on Earth, the civilization he encounters has changed so much that he no longer recognizes it as his own. He feels the utter desolation and despair of a man out of his own time, out of step with the rest of society. I have heard it said that many people who survived the Holocaust feel this way. Michael Kandel has called you "a man of reason in an absurdist age," an age of concentration camps and nuclear war. Do you yourself feel like a man out of your own time?
Lem: In the first place, Return From the Stars is now in my eyes not a very good novel, and because of this alone I could not identify myself with its hero. But for someone from outside this must not be an argument of any value. Even if I myself never thought that I am somewhat like Bregg, this could be--the man from outside would say--an unconscious impersonation. I do not know.
Interviewer: Many of your protagonists are, like Peter Hogarth and Hal Bregg, middle-class or upper-middle-class intellectuals, often scientists, who confront deep philosophical or emotional problems but not the basic economic and political ones of hunger, unemployment and political oppression. And yet, being Polish, you can't help but see these problems all around you. Why have you not explored those areas?
Lem: I have! But it has not yet been translated. If you have become familiar with my work through the English translations, you have gotten a patchwork picture composed of parts of me. About half of my books have been published in the U.S., and the selection of what is published depends on my volition only to a limited extent. Generally, it's like this. For a publisher to derive a profit from a book, the book must sell, it must have a saleability. For instance, in France some of my books have not appeared, such as A Perfect Vacuum, although I have a very good translation of it. The publishers don't want to touch it because they're afraid of its not selling well. These are the environmental conditions I have to live with.
I do not expect His Master's Voice to be especially successful in the U.S. because various of my stories were published in The New Yorker, and to the large disappointment of my agent and my publisher, this has not stimulated sales at all. They expected improved sales because the famous author Max Frisch had poor sales at first in the United States, and after some of his texts were published in The New Yorker, his sales picked up quite a bit. In my case, it somehow didn't turn out so well. My overall sales in the Federal Republic of Germany are one and three-quarter million, but in the United States only about half a million. So actually the American reader doesn't like me. The "eggheads" may like me, but they're not a majority among the readers. Very recently it became clear to me that when critics, for instance in the U.S., refer to my texts as philosophically-minded literature and believe that they're uttering praise, in reality they're repelling the public. Most people don't want any philosophy. It has to be introduced like bitter medicine--in small doses.
There's also always been the bottleneck of translation. I am aware of the fact that it's against my interests to use such intricate and difficult syntactical terms, which pose extreme hardships for the translators. But these are not considerations I'm guided by! If it hadn't been for Michael Kandel, The Cyberiad could not have appeared in English. Up to now it has not appeared in German, although there have been many translators who wanted to get at it. Now we've finally found a good translator and are gradually but continuously authorizing his work. He is very good in English, so I sent him the American version as a support, and it helped him enormously. For that reason his translation is far closer to the English language than to the Polish. In Japan everything has been published, but not knowing any Japanese, I simply cannot imagine how it is translated.
Interviewer: The Cyberiad seems unique in all of science fiction. The only other work that comes close is Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. Were you at all influenced by each other?
Lem: Calvino's book appeared in Polish after mine had already been published, and I don't speak and understand Italian. I also know that he doesn't know any Polish, so a crosswise influence is out of the question. One is entirely independent of the other. I came to The Cyberiad through another book, Robotic Fables. These were the first attempts, very moderate ones, and gradually I became bolder and bolder, and tried to continue along this path with puns and neologisms, which pose enormous problems for the translators. I did not pursue this path very far. It was an aside, so to speak, closed off and complete in itself. It might be a little related to Alice in Wonderland, in a certain sense.
Interviewer: Of the books that have been translated into English, only two novels have women who play any prominent role. Can you explain why there are so few?
Lem: You're correct, but I've never tried to introduce democratic principles of equality into my writing. I do not obligate myself to balance the composition of my heroes--by sex or by social status. Neither do I hate women.
Interviewer: Your most recent book to have appeared in English--with the exception of new translations of older books--is The Chain of Chance, which was published in 1978, two years after the Polish edition. What have you written since then?
Lem: My latest, which has just been published, is Wizja Lokalna--in English perhaps The Official Hearing on the Spot. The hero is Ijon Tichy of The Star Diaries, and he gives an account of a trip to a planet where there's a race of people who originate not from the apes but from the birds. They're intelligent beings. The drawing on the cover is from the 17th century and was found in a church. I discovered it in an old book and wanted to use it for the cover of my novel because it fit so well. You'll notice the similarity of the two skeletons [in the drawing: one ape-like, one bird-like]. I took great pains to describe the planet and the civilization. I had to compose a little library for my own purposes. The sequence of biological evolution, cultural evolution, political evolution and reigning philosophical doctrine all results from the clash between their culture and the terrestrial culture. The scurrilous thing about it is the fact that they procreate sexually but they have no external genitals. It's like what happens between flowers and butterflies. And it all occurs on the run. The male has to follow the female, and whenever the female is receptive, the male exudes a cloud of sperm, which passes through the face. There's an exact Latin description. It's quite a complicated story.
This booklet, Provocation, has not yet been published in Poland. It is an extension of A Perfect Vacuum. The subtitle is "A Review of an Unread Book," because the book doesn't exist. First it says my name, and then there's the author who is imaginary. His book is entitled Genocide: The Final Solution as Salvation. The second review is of a book entitled Death as a Foreign Body in Our Culture. This second review is of an imaginary two-volume book written by a German philosopher, Aspernicus, who doesn't exist. Some scientists and historians in Poland actually believed that it was a serious review of an existing book and tried to order it!
I can tell you a nice little anecdote. The secretary-general of our pen club is also a research fellow here in Berlin. He's a professor of contemporary history primarily engaged in Polish-German relations. A member of the Polish Academy of Science once met this gentleman in the street after Provocation was published in a literary magazine. The academician told this gentleman that there is a very interesting book written by Aspernicus, a German. The gentleman said, "I believe that Lem wrote a review of this book." The other said, "I don't know if Lem wrote anything, but I've got the book at home!"
Interviewer: What are you working on here in Berlin?
Lem: I am now writing a new novel, and the working title is LEM! Not Lunar Excursion Module but Lunar Expedition Misery--it's a new abbreviation. I've already completed the first chapter. My working method has changed through the years. I would now compare it to planning a war mission. You must have a strategic formulation: what kind of victory to aspire to, who is to be conquered. The initial position would be a bridgehead. In the, initial phase of war you try to get a feeling of the enemy and find out where he will give way, where it would be best to push ahead. And afterward follow tactical considerations.
In this concrete case the novel is not yet ready, only a lot of raw material. My hero in this novel is Ijon Tichy, from The Star Diaries. The problem is this: You have the condition on Earth of total disarmament, but you have armaments on the moon. Each one of the superpowers, and some of the other states as well, have their own sector on the moon, and there they try to evolve military robots to replace human soldiers. Somehow the connection between Earth and the moon has been severed entirely. There is a quiet panic within all the general staffs on Earth because the weapons are up there and the generals don't really know what's happening, whether or not the robots have become too independent. I say robots, but it's really the wrong term--it would have been better to say "intelligent weapons," because they're not similar to human beings.
My hero was supposed to have familiarized himself with what was happening on the moon in the Soviet sector, the U.S. sector, and the Western European sector. He was supposed to know it but at the same time not know it. That was necessary for the action. I'm limited here by my own rules, that I do not accept any inspiration out of the clean air which cannot be substantiated by real facts. Recently I hit upon the idea that his brain has been divided into two by the effects of ultrasound. There is a surgical intervention for the treatment of epileptics that does the same thing, causing a condition known as the split brain. After having studied the classical literature I knew the actual symptoms of partial losses. My hero returns to Earth knowing where he was--in fact, he's completely rational--but none of what he experienced on the moon is accessible to him directly because it's in the right sphere of his brain, hidden there. And now various secret intelligence services try to capture him to tap the right side of his brain to get at this information.
After his condition is diagnosed, he tries on his own to establish contact with the right part of his brain. Based on the technical literature, I know that this is a state in which the right hand is dissociated from the left hand. So he attempts to establish logical contact between the two halves of his brain using the right and left hands in deaf-mute sign language. And he starts to get an inkling, an initial phase only, and does not yet establish a real interview between the two halves. But he is reckless enough to divulge this to one of his doctors. This doctor had been contacted by an intelligence agency, and the hero gets into hot water. That's the initial position, and I'll advance from there.
The story actually begins in a strange way. When my hero has to familiarize himself with his plight he is in New York at the time and has to go to a certain library to read up on his own state of health. He has unpleasant experiences in the crowds on the bus because his left hand pinches some women on their behinds. And he feels completely innocent! But not all of the women are offended. Only of the women's lib. Most of the others are not--they think it's an approach.
Interviewer: One of the most important themes you develop in your novels, essays and stories is the equality of men and robots as thinking, sentient beings. Do you think that artificial intelligence at this level will be achieved within the foreseeable future?
Lem: In my view the human brain is not only unknown to us in some of its functions, but the more we do research on it, the more new facts we unravel--as in, for instance, the bisected brain--and the less familiar we become with the brain. It does not coincide at all with the conceptions of the brain since the old days, does not coincide with the opinions of the classical philosophers, of modern philosophy or of contemporary philosophy, and in my opinion does not agree at all with conceptions of artificial intelligence like Hofstadter's. Somehow it is different, ultimately. My opinion is that we will probably arrive at an artificial intelligence which is more intelligent and reasonable than human intelligence, but it will be completely different. In the eyes of normal people it will be inhuman.
I'm going to show you a book, Golem XIV. It's going to be published next year in America. The English version already exists. It's a story about the construction of a supercomputer and how it didn't want to solve the military task it was given, for which purpose it had been constructed in the first place. So it started to devote itself primarily to higher philosophical problems. One of the premises of this book--it's not mine--is the idea of the supercomputer's being a creature which has no "I," no ego. It's approximately like this. Human intelligence or rationality is not free, has never been free, and can never become free, because it is meant to operate the body in its struggle for survival, and this is a principle which we've inherited from all animals preceding us. Golem considers itself to be the first intelligent creature liberated from these bounds. Because it does not know any biological compulsion, any struggle for survival, it knows no emotion, but it is perfectly able to assimilate it in order to establish close contact with human beings. In trying to make itself understood by human beings it has to use human speech, and for this reason, purely grammatical reasons, it has to speak as if it had an ego. But it doesn't conceal the fact that in its own spiritual life it does not have any ego, any concrete personality. The assumed ego is only a metaphorical conception. Like if you call on some people, you don't go there naked, you have to be dressed in a certain way. So this speech has become a conventional dress. Otherwise it could not make itself understood. It even endeavors to explain to its audience that it must remain strange to the others, and that the human sphere of interest remains foreign to it. There is a large number of people who do not believe that, and the problems they raise are problems of consciousness. But Golem takes the position that conditions of awareness can be experienced by a material system, as opposed to a spiritual one, and that if you have completely different systems, you have no way of making a direct comparison of two stages of awareness. Like in the new novel the left and right hands of the hero are alien to each other. The understanding must be established by a circuitous route.
There are two stories in this Golem, two lectures for scientists, Golem's first and its last. In the first Golem talks about humans and the way it sees them; in the last it talks about itself. It tries to explain that it's already arrived at a level which biological evolution will never reach on its own. But it's there on the lowest rung of a ladder and above it there might exist now or in the future more potent intelligences. It does not know whether there are any bounds at all to this progress toward the
upper sphere. And when it, in a manner of speaking, takes leave of man, it is primarily for the purpose of advancing further along this ladder. It calls humanity's task--the one assigned to Golem--a task which has no solution, because without the use of force it is not possible to establish a balance in humanity. But it doesn't take any interest in resorting to force, not for moral or ethical reasons, but because it's not a mathematical task. If, for instance, somebody works on geometric research and obtains certain triangles which are not exactly congruent, it is nonsense in the eyes of every mathematician if the researcher tries to use force to establish the congruence of the triangles. If the task cannot be solved from a purely logical starting point, then the solution loses any interest whatsoever for Golem.
Interviewer: Would you be willing to say that artificial intelligence is possible within the next generation, or at some other time in the future?
Lem: I would say in roughly one hundred years.
Interviewer: Along the same lines, in many of your books and especially in His Master's Voice you show that there is no firm dividing line between natural and artificial beings or processes. And yet it seems to me that on a moral level you attack artificial drug stimulation, artificial enhancement of pleasure centers in the brain, artificial biological engineering, and the artificial use of fashion and style. This suggests to me that you harbor a conception of "natural man," a moral conception if not an intellectual one, and in many ways a conservative notion. How does that fit together with your intellectual and philosophical notion of the similarity between natural and artificial?
Lem: I see no contradiction. Man is like he is because he was created like that in the course of biological evolution. And this has created certain biological and psychological limits. I do not, for instance, share the belief of the meliorists that humanity can be improved steadily and become nobler, and I do not believe in the utopian conception of Marxism or Communism that there is a social state with perfect general happiness and well-being. Partially, at least, I share Karl Popper's view in the open society and his diatribes against history. Taking small steps you can improve this or that, but man can never get out of himself, out of his own skin, to become an angelic being.
I have of course a practical code of behavior, called "ethics." Perhaps if I possessed a brain of another type I would like to torture other living beings, but I do not like that. I am not a "perfect democrat" in the sense that I do not think that all men are intellectually equal, but for me there is a non sequitur between the statement "some men are stupid and some not" and the proposition "a wise man is right while exploiting a stupid one." The world is a place full of misery and agony, and a lot of it is not caused by men. The world is only made this way--we are mortals, we procreate this and no other way, we receive, after being born, with our genes, an injection of hope, a self-preservation drive, and some altruism, too, directed in the first place at other members of our species. This has already been shown at the molecular level of our chemistry by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.
But there is a lot of misery not caused by the world, not by some long-lasting effects of the anthropogenetic branch of natural evolution, not by the scarcity of food, natural resources, etc., but only caused by men, to other men. Now please tell me, why should I promote badness when this is no pleasure for me? In this point I am not like Professor Hogarth, whom I made "intrinsically bad" after having read that Einstein was good to other men not because that was in his bones, but because he told himself that he should be so! Of course, I am no saint. I can appreciate the subtle pleasures of vengeance, say, but I know that I am now, in my 61st year, somewhat better than when I was 30. Why? I simply do not know. Perhaps because I saw in the meantime such a lot of human misery and agony in the World War and after.
These limitations, I think, are programmed in our heritage. Each of us carries in his head the heritage of the armored fish, the dinosaurs, the mammals--it's all there. But such limitations do not exist for the large field of imaginary constructions outside the domain of biological evolution, other beings that as an engineer and designer you might project and develop. And lots of these artificially-built beings might have certain traits similar to human beings. But if one wanted to achieve that--the very idea is silly! Because in the field of mechanics it would be the same thing as if the Arabs were to say they didn't want airplanes and automobiles, only improved camels! As if you said that instead of airplanes we needed large birds with feathers, or that it were forbidden to supply automobiles with wheels or that you must invent mechanical legs. That's a demand that there should be a convergence between the evolutionary line of artificial intelligence and the natural evolution of the rational brain. It's a human demand which is unreasonable. There are no signs indicating that the computers with potential for data processing will, in any given field, become equal to men. You should not be misled by the fact that you can play chess with a computer.
One question to which I have no answer is the possibility of applying a Turing test to determine whether or not a machine has a consciousness of its own. In the U.S. next year a book of mine is supposed to be published with the title Imaginary Magnitude. This problem is broached, but not very seriously, with the first hints and allusions to Golem, and as is often the case with me, various points of view are given. There's also a fictitious review of a nonexistent type of literature, the "bit" literature from the 80th generation of computers, which in most cases is already unintelligible to humans. Here the computers doubt whether human beings have a consciousness or not. They have no doubts about their own consciousness, but it appears to them rather unlikely that human beings have it because humans are so strange. It could be a mirage, an illusion. Without a method for proving that human beings have a consciousness, all they know is that human beings sometimes behave reasonably and sometimes not. You cannot say that everything I write in this method could be written in a book that was not science fiction. These are various hypotheses of mine, and it's poetic license that makes it possible for me to express such heretical points of view. I cannot be called to answer for them because everything is permitted.
Interviewer: I have a question relating to your mention of Karl Popper. Many of your novels have the structure of a mystery that goes unresolved--I'm thinking, for example, of The Chain of Chance, The Invincible, The Investigation, Solaris, and especially His Master's Voice. You seem to be making the philosophical point that the solutions that are proposed are merely subjective, ad hoc explanations, projections on the part of people who will never understand the actual, ultimate cause of the mystery. This view seems to me to be compatible with Popper's argument that science advances not by proving hypotheses but by disproving them, by seeing if over a period of time they fail to conform to experience. In His Master's Voice you also have a discussion of the difference between Kant's "thing in itself" and "thing as perceived." Do you think science can really progress, in the manner described by Popper, if scientists never get any closer to understanding the "thing in itself"?
Lem: My point of view was expressed not in a belletristic work but in Summa Technologia, published in German. You can describe the view like this. Directly, man will probably never be able to understand and recognize everything, but in an indirect manner he will be able to get a command of everything if he constructs intelligence amplifiers to, so to speak, fulfill his wishes. He will then, almost like a small child, be receiving gifts. But he will not be able to perceive directly. A small child who is given an electric railway can play with it, he can even dismantle it, but he will not understand Maxwell's theory of electricity and all that. The main difference is that the child will one day become an adult, and then if he wants he will eventually study and understand Maxwell's theory. But we will never grow up any further. We will, perhaps, be better able to control the world, but we will no longer know how it came about, as in microphysics. There was a time when the names physics gave to specific phenomena related well to things known to man. The atom had a core, a nucleus, with electrons orbiting it. But today we speak of charm and quarks--that word from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and we are talking about things which are no longer within the grasp of our senses. The scientist's mathematical apparatus is like a cane in the hand of a blind man. He doesn't see the world directly, but by hitting the ground with his cane he can hear the echo and can recognize whether he is coming close to an obstacle. But you cannot really say that the blind man is thus able to see a wall. And by this circuitous route we continue to manipulate things. In other words, all knowledge is subjective. There's a horizon of human perception, and beyond this the fruit of observation will be gleaned from other beings, research machines or whatever.
Interviewer: I have one final question, and it is another philosophical one. Your novels The Chain of Chance, The Investigation and His Master's Voice all emphasize the idea that we can best describe the workings of the universe as a set of random processes. And yet in many of your works the possibility of the existence of a God or Supreme Being is also an integral question. Is belief in a God compatible with this stochastic conception of the universe?
Lem: To start from my personal view, for moral reasons I am an atheist--for
moral reasons. I am of the opinion that you would recognize a creator by his
creation, and the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way
that I prefer to believe that it was not created by anyone than to think that
somebody created this intentionally. In the first place, for moral reasons.
On the other hand I understand man's wish to have a father figure, a God, over and above. And this wish is not strange to me. A superhuman conception, a conception of God, is still omnipresent in almost all people's minds. There does not exist any large religion in the world which teaches its believers that the highest being should have other than human traits. Even in the Far East God is an anthropomorphic conception. It's very good to be a believer. But you cannot start believing just because you want, in the same way that you cannot fall in love with some woman and say, "This woman is worthy of my love, and that's why I am going to love her." This is not something that can be accomplished by an act of volition.
But with all my computers, I'm still a human being, and my only possible perspective is a human one. I feel that presently we are somewhere in the middle of the road. We know far more than the Greeks did, or more even than we did fifty years ago. At the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists were already worried that the twentieth-century physicist would be out of work, because everything would have been discovered and the structure of science would have been completed. Only a few bricks were missing from the smokestack, and then there would be nothing left for them to discover. But now we know it's quite different. In my brief lifespan of sixty years man's basic cosmological views have been revolutionized. Connected with this question of the birth of the universe is the concept of an ultimate being. I don't know whether, at this exact moment in history, we have really acquired the final truth. And thus I believe that humanity will change its cosmological and cosmogonic views several times over again. The ruling view today is the big bang. Whether this is the end I would doubt.
This feature was originally published in Volume 7, Number 2, 1984 of The Missouri Review.
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