Stanislaw Lem: Mortal Engines

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Stanislaw Lem Mortal Engines
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These fourteen science fiction stories reveal Lem’s fascination with artificial intelligence and demonstrate just how surprisingly human sentient machines can be. “Astonishing is not too strong a word for these tales” (Wall Street Journal).

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Stanislaw Lem


Translated and with an Introduction by Michael Kandel


Fifteen years ago Seabury Press, for whom I had translated several books by Stanislaw Lem, gave me the chance to play anthologist and put together a Lem collection of my own, one that had never appeared in Polish. The result was this volume.

My idea: an assortment of Lem’s stories about robots. Some lighthearted, some grim, but all sharing the premise—which is a cornerstone of Lem’s fictional world—that robots, after all, are people too.

The title I found by the time-honored method of browsing through Bartlett’s. It comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, where the Moor, hearing of Desdemona’s infidelity, bids farewell (III, iii, 350—357) to the peace of mind he knew, paradoxically, in his military career. The mortal engines, “whose rude throats / Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,” are thundering cannons, machines of war. In the context of science fiction and Lem, these engines become automata, and mortal takes on the resonance of a pun: mortal sometimes in the sense of death-dealing and mortal sometimes in the sense of subject to death. They are mortal, in other words, as we are mortal.

The robot theme was partly an excuse. A perfectly good theme, fully appropriate to the author—but the truth was, I also wanted to have a little fun: I wanted to translate Lem’s eleven “Fables for Robots,” not because they featured a world peopled entirely by robots (a world, as it were, without a drop of protoplasm) but because they were in that same vein of playful fantasy I had enjoyed so much, both as reader and translator, in The Cyberiad and The Star Diaries. Of all the Lems—the writer of traditional science fiction, the philosopher, the political satirist, the visionary, the moralist, and so on—the Lem I personally liked the best, and still do, was the storytelling humorist: the zany Baron Munchausen Lem.

A few remarks, by way of background, about the robot theme—the cybernetic idea that so obsesses Lem.

The word cybernetic, coined in 1948, was the result of that dramatic and unexpected turn taken by twentieth-century science and technology in information processing: the so-called second industrial revolution. Norbert Wiener, the “father of cybernetics,” presented cybernetics as the study of complex systems that could regulate their own performance or function (output) on the basis of received data about that performance (input)—in other words, systems possessing feedback. Man was one example of this kind of system; a “life-imitating automaton” would be another. The system was the important thing, not the raw material; that could be biological or nonbiological. Thus the distinction between natural and artificial ceased to have relevance. An artificial man, Wiener said, would be better thought of as an analog man. Such a device would actually be an ally of man in the struggle against universal chaos, both machine and man “islands of locally decreasing entropy.”

Socialism, at least the scientific version of socialism, played an important role in introducing the idea of artificial man in the nineteenth century. For some, he (or it) was an ultimate ideal; for others, an ultimate nightmare. Here are two examples, pro and con, both Russian. (For some reason, the Russians, despite their archetypically endless fields, mud, peasants, beards, fleas, and backward technology, have always been very verbal—and quite sophisticated—on the subject of artificial people.) In 1864, Dostoyevski, in his antiutopian Notes from the Underground, saw scientifically defined man as a soulless mechanism, a thing devoid of individuality and independence:

Science will teach man that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something in the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All these human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there will be published certain well-intentioned works in the nature of encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and noted that there will be no more deeds or adventures in the world.

A few years after socialism finally triumphed in the form of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet brave new world, one utopian intellectual by the name of Gastev was moved to write:

The mechanization, not only of gestures, not only of production methods, but of everyday thinking, coupled with extreme rationality, normalizes to a striking degree the psychology of the proletariat, gives it such a surprising anonymity, which permits the qualification of separate proletarian units as A, B, C, or as 325,075, or as 0. This tendency will next imperceptibly render individual thinking impossible, and thought will become the objective process of a whole class, with systems of psychological switches and locks. As these collectives-complexes move, they resemble the movement of objects, with individual human faces gone … emotions gauged not by outcries, not by laughter, but by a manometer and a taxometer. We have the iron mechanics of a new collective, a new mass engineering that transforms the proletariat into an unheard-of social automaton.

Both Dostoyevski and Gastev, on either side of the ideological fence, believed that there was no essential difference between the scientific “explanation” of human beings and the literal “engineering” of human beings.

It is a coincidence that Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921, the year the word “robot” was invented and first used in a play by Karel Čapek entitled R. U. R. The robots in Čapek’s play are an army of artificial workers; they take over the world, and mankind becomes extinct before the curtain rises on the last act.

The first time Artificial Intelligence was talked about—countenanced—was about forty years ago, when some scientists, in the wake of the birth of the “modern computer” (which still had vacuum tubes), became excited about the possibility of eventually constructing a mechanism capable of thought. Wiener, a mathematician, wrote a popular book on cybernetics; A. M. Turing, another mathematician, wrote a witty philosophical article on computing machinery and intelligence; and Isaac Asimov, a biochemist who little dreamed that someday he would become a science-fiction institution single-handed, published an original and seminal collection of short stories called I, Robot. All this in 1950. At which time Lem, a medical student at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, was beginning to wolf down books in English: science, science fiction, philosophy. These American ideas entered his Polish bloodstream. (The name of Trurl, the well-meaning but sometimes short-tempered constructor of The Cyberiad, who travels the universe solving problems political, mathematical, and even matrimonial, I’m pretty sure comes from Turing.)

In Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” (1893), a chess-playing machine loses its temper after losing a game, with unfortunate consequences for its creator. “There is no such thing as dead, inert matter,” says Moxon, the mad scientist. “It is all alive.” Lem is no Moxon, he is eminently sane; yet basically he agrees with the mad scientist. In his autobiographical essay The High Castle, he writes: “I used to be a philanthropist to old spark plugs, I would buy parts of incomprehensible gadgets, I would turn some crank or other to give it pleasure, then put it away again with solicitude… To this day I have a special feeling for all sorts of broken bells, alarm clocks, old coils, telephone speakers.”

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