E-books and tablets, smart phones, Google and even The Matrix were all conceived in the middle of the 20th century by the author of Solaris. Here’s how Stanisław Lem predicted the future we live in.
Optons, lectons, trions and phantomatons... You might not know these words but you use most of these things in your everyday life. Classic Polish sci-fi author Stanisław Lem conceived of many of them long before they became part of our everyday life. He was even the inspiration behind a cult cartoon series and one of the world’s most popular videogames.
Here are some of his most splendid predictions, along with Lem’s concerns, which still define some of our greatest questions of today, including bio-technology and transhumanism.
E-books & tablets
Stanisław Lem was probably the first sci-fi writer to accurately predict the end of paper books and the arrival of electronic formats and e-book readers. He did so in his 1961 novel A Return from the Stars, some 40 years ahead of any first attempts with e-paper. Lem imagined e-books as little memory crystals which could be loaded onto a device, eerily reminiscent of contemporary tablets. He called it an ‘opton’, but most of us today call it a Kindle.
I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I have looked forward to them, after the micro films that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it.
In the same book, Lem also predicted the popularity of audiobooks, which he had called ‘lectons’:
But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation.
The sale-robots are still ahead of our time but we’re getting there – you can already adjust the tempo of audiobooks and podcasts.
In the early 1950s, Lem was already reflecting on the possibility of connecting powerful computers in order to enhance their computing capacity. In his Dialogues from 1957, he considered it a realistic direction of development, that the gradual accumulation of ‘informatic machines’ and ‘banks of memories’ would lead to establishing ‘state, continental and, later, planetary computer nets’.
Lem, who died in 2006, lived to see many of his predictions come true, including the Internet. And it surprised him. His famous though apocryphal reaction to his first encounter with the new medium was said to be:
Until I used the Internet, I didn’t know there were so many idiots in the world.
At around the same time, Lem envisaged a future where people have an instant and universal access to a giant virtual data base which he called a ‘Trion Library’. Trions themselves were tiny crystals of quartz, ‘whose particle structure can be permanently changed’. Trions operate like modern pen-drives, but connected by radio waves, forming a giant library of knowledge. This is how he described it in his The Magellanic Cloud from 1955 (our translation):
Trion can store not only luminescent images, reduced to a change in their crystal structure, that is images of book pages, not only all kinds of photographs, maps, images, graphs and tables – in other words, anything that can be observed by sight. Just as easily, Trion can store sounds, the human voice as well as music, there is also a way to record scents.
Lem’s description is quite accurate, only that what he describes, we call today the Internet or simply Google. We’re still patiently waiting for the possibility of storing smells though.
In that same book, Lem describes what looks like an early version of a smartphone – little portable TV sets which give instant access to the data from the Trion Library. Once again this excerpt from The Magellanic Cloud sounds like a report from our times:
We use it today without even thinking about the efficiency and might of this great, invisible net which enlaces the globe. Whether it be in one’s Australian studio, or in a lunar observatory, or on board an airplane – how many times has every one of us reached for their pocket receiver and called upon Trion Library central, naming the desired work which, within a second, appeared in front of you on the television screen.
The description seems shockingly accurate of our life AD 2017 – it even hints at how many airlines now offer inflight Wi-Fi. It seems important to remember that Lem conceived of these ideas at a time when the average computer was still the size of a giant room. The world wide web itself would only start to be thinkable in the late 1960s, materialising only in the 1980s.
The Magellanic Cloud also came with an interesting vision of the future of goods production, one that brings to mind 3D printing. Interestingly, Lem presents a logic behind the process which hasn’t aged either.
Trion can include a record of ‘a production prescription’. Connected to it by radio waves, the automaton produces the object needed. Thus even the most sophisticated whims of fancy can be satisfied: like those of daydreamers wishing they had ancient furniture or the most extraordinary clothing. After all, it is difficult to send to every part of the world the unimaginable diversity of goods which are only longed for occasionally.
Well, 3D printers are today available in some shops, but ‘the production prescription’ is called an AMF (Additive Manufacturing File).
And how about Lem as a game inventor? Will Wright, creator of one of the most successful games of all time, The Sims, has repeatedly named Lem as the major inspiration behind his game. The book that inspired Wright was Lem’s The Cyberiad, a collection of adventures about two robot inventors called Trurl and Clapaucius.
In one of these stories, Trurl finds an exiled dictator on an asteroid and, as a gift, designs him a glass box with a whole living universe inside it, a simulated civilisation to rule over. This kingdom in a box is what reportedly inspired Will Wright to create a game where every player can create a world of their own.
Of course, Lem wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t delve into the the ethical dilemmas of ruling over, or playing with, the lives of little people:
‘Prove to me here and now, once and for all, that they do not feel, that they do not think, that they do not in any way exist as being conscious of their enclosure between the two abysses of oblivion – the abyss before birth and the abyss that follows death – prove this to me, Trurl, and I'll leave you be! Prove that you only imitated suffering, and did not create it!’ [translated from Polish by Michael Kandel]
Lem certainly didn’t predict Futurama but he was a key inspiration behind this one of the greatest TV cartoon series of the early 21st century (which actually takes place in the 31st century). As David X. Cohen, the show’s creator, explains:
My mom was a voracious science fiction reader, so actually that’s where I got my love of science fiction, and some of the books I found lying around when I was a kid were the Stanislaw Lem books like The Star Diaries, The Tales of Pirx the Pilot. These are these really strange, surreal, and funny sci-fi short stories that I think did have a big influence on me, especially as far as the idea that robots could be characters. So Bender being kind of the most human character on Futurama I think does owe a little bit to Stanislaw Lem.
According to Cohen, one story in particular impacted Futurama:
I particularly remember this one story that had a huge influence on me … about a planet that was inhabited entirely by robots, and these humans crash-land on it, and the murderous robots are out to kill the humans, and the humans have to pretend to be robots to survive, and of course it turns out ultimately – spoiler alert here – it turns out that everybody on the planet are humans who crash-landed and are disguising themselves as robots, and are hiding out in desperation from each other. So that directly influenced Futurama.
The Lem's story Cohen is referring to is almost certainly The Eleventh Voyage from Star Diaries, and the relevant Futurama episode is The Fear of a Bot Planet (episode 5, season 1).
The Cyberiad also offers other innovative, if sometimes awkward, ideas. ‘Smart dust’ is a case in point – a swarm of tiny drone computers no larger than grains of sand, which operate as a massive parallel-processing computer system. The idea of smart dust seems to be quite in sync with the latest achievements of nanotechnology.
...and an electronic bard
Another daring and hilarious idea from Lem’s The Cyberiad is the ‘electronic bard’ – a computer device capable of writing poetry. It seems like this great invention of Trurl’s has somehow materialised in the experimental poetry-writing algorhthyms which can be found online. For the real-life electronic bard inspired by Lem, make sure you visit Warsaw’s Copernicus Science Centre, where you can also watch robots do highly-entertaining dramatic performances based on Lem and other literary authors.
And in case you wanted to try building a robot-poet on your own, we’ve put together Lem’s secret recipe: make sure you ‘bypass half the logic circuits and make the emotive more electromotive’, and remember to ‘intensify the semantic fields and attach a strength of character component.’ ‘Install a philosophical throttle,’ ‘jack the semanticity up all the way, plug in an alternating rhyme generator,’ toss out all the logic circuits, and replace them with ‘self-regulating egocentripital narcissistors.’ Simple really!
With the new virtual reality technologies and devices lurking in every corner and every commercial, VR may seem like the next hot thing in AD 2017. But Stanisław Lem wrote convincingly about VR (his own term was ‘phantomatics’) back in 1964, long before many Western futurists associated with the term conceived of the idea.
In his Summa Technologiae, Lem describes a machine which he calls a ‘phantomaton’, capable of creating alternative realities which would be indistinguishable from the ‘original’ reality.
Moreover, Lem saw this technology as working on multiple layers, meaning that a person leaving one virtual reality wouldn’t necessarily return to the ‘real’ one. Rather, one could switch between different alternative simulations, without ever being sure if this is the ‘original’ reality, or the real world. This obviously would lead to the blurring of the the line between truth and fiction, and Lem obviously saw this as a potential threat:
An accretion of illusory realities like this can lead to a situation where real life can also be treated as a manufactured illusion.
The Matrix, or the great simulation
In his analysis of the phantomatics, Lem is eerily close to the concept of the perfect simulation, as we know it from movies like The Matrix, or more recently Westworld (curiously, one of the examples he gives is about a virtual trip into the Rocky Mountains which goes wrong and ends in an earthquake like the tumbling of houses – the result of the user taking off the electrodes)
Lem’s own dystopian vision of a great simulation appeared in his 1971 novel The Futurological Congress. It’s connected with his concept of ‘cerebromatics’, namely influencing the brain directly through chemical substances. In 2013, the novel was adapted for film by Ari Folman:
Lem’s interest in the philosophical aspect of the rapid development of technology led him to interesting insights into the nature of the contemporary circulation of information. From today’s point of view, some of it may seem to have anticipated many contemporary media phenomena associated with the concept of post-truth or post-factual politics. In his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, Lem wrote:
Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors…?
As Ezra Glinter from the LA Review of Books comments:
Facebook and the deluge of fake news sites didn’t exist when Lem wrote this, but their creation wouldn’t have surprised him.
If Lem could have predicted a post-truth world, then how about transhumanism? Obviously, Lem didn’t use this word but he was close to the idea in his 1955 short story Do You Exist, Mr Jones? (Czy Pan Istnieje, Mr. Jones?). In the story, which was adapted into a radio show and later a film by Andrzej Wajda (entitled Przekładaniec), Lem reflected on the then purely hypothetical problem of the legal status of a man who, following a series of operations which implanted computer parts into his body, has almost all the original parts of his body supplanted by artificial technology (brain included). The man is then sued by the company that financed the operations, which believes he is their property. The story addressed issues which only now are becoming pertinent in regard to human beings, robots, etc., and it was a pioneering exploration of problems in the fields of science which have only recently gained names, like transhumanism or...
Lem was always aware of the dark and potentially threatening sides of technology. Already by the 1960s, Lem believed it was only a matter of time before technology invaded the human body.
In The Twenty-First Voyage from The Star Diaries, Lem’s protagonist Ijon Tichy lands on a planet called Dichotica, whose inhabitants are so advanced that they can make and remake their bodies however they like. As Ezra Glinter explains:
At first such technology is used for predictable ends – ‘ideals in health, congruity, spiritual and physical beauty’ – but is soon turned to things like ‘epidermal jewelry’ for women, ‘side and back beards, cockscomb crests, jaws with double bites, etc.’ for men. After a while the Dichoticans abandon humanoid form entirely, leading to attempts at reform and standardisation, followed by repression, rebellion, and social breakdown. Unlimited choice, the story argues, can become the greatest burden.
Some time later, at the end of the 20th century, commenting on the possibilities and threats of cloning human organisms (which he saw as the beginning of the new era of slavery), Lem reminisced on his stories:
My playful stories written 40 years [that is 60 years ago now] about the cerebral cortex being used as wallpaper decor, are only beginning to take on the shape of a horrifying reality.
Whether horrifying or not, our future is certainly leaving us in awe – in particular of the genius of Stanisław Lem's predictive abilities.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, Sept 2017. Unavailable translations were done by the author.