Stanislaw Lem: The Invincible

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Stanislaw Lem The Invincible
  • Название:
    The Invincible
  • Автор:
  • Жанр:
    Фантастика и фэнтези / на английском языке
  • Год:
    1973
  • Язык:
    Английский
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    4 / 5
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The Invincible: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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A powerful sublight interstellar space ship, a “class two cruiser” called , lands on the planet which seems uninhabited and bleak, to investigate the loss of sister ship, . During the investigation, the crew finds evidence of a form of quasi-life, born through evolution of autonomous, self-replicating machines, apparently left behind by an alien civilization that visited the planet a very long time ago. The evolution was controlled by “robot wars”, and the only form that survived were swarms of minuscule, insect-like micromachines. Individually, or in small groups, they are quite harmless to humans and capable of only very simple behavior. However, when bothered, they can assemble into huge swarms displaying complex behavior arising from self-organization, and are able to defeat an intruder by a powerful surge of EMI. Some members of the spacecraft crew suffered a complete memory erasure as a consequence. Big clouds of “insects” are also able to travel at a high speed and even to climb to the top of troposphere. The angered crew attempts to fight the perceived enemy, but eventually recognizes the meaninglessness of their efforts in the most direct sense of the word. The robotic “fauna” has become part of the planets ecology, and would require a disruption on planetary scale (such as a nuclear winter) to be destroyed. The novel turns into an analysis of the relationship between different life domains, and their place in the universe. In particular, it is an imaginary experiment to demonstrate that evolution may not necessarily lead to dominance by intellectually superior life forms. The plot also involves a Conrad-like dilemma, juxtaposing the values of humanity and the efficiency of mechanical insects. In the face of defeat and imminent withdrawal of , Rohan, the spaceship's navigator, undertakes a trip into the 'enemy area' in search of 4 crew members who went missing in action — an attempt which he and captain Horpach see as probably futile, but necessary for moral reasons. Rohan struck into mountains covered by metallic “shrubs” and “insects” and found these crewmen dead. He gathers some evidence and returns to the ship unharmed because of successful operation of the anti-detection device they managed to create for that purpose.

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“Very well.” Horpach pressed his lips together into a thin line. “No problem getting core samples of the ground within the energy field. Dr. Norwik can take care of that task.” The chief geologist nodded his consent. “As far as the ocean is concerned — what’s the distance from here to the shore, Rohan?”

“About 120 miles,” answered the navigator. He was not in the least surprised that the commander was aware of his presence, although he could not possibly see him.

“That’s a bit too far. But anyhow, take as many people along as you think you’ll need. Fitzpatrick, one of the oceanographers, a few marine biologists, and six energo-robots from the reserve stock. Drive to the shore. Work only inside the protective energy screen. No joy rides on the ocean, no diving attempts. Be careful with the energo-robots, we don’t have any to spare. Got it? Well, you can go ahead then. Wait, one more thing: is the atmosphere suitable for breathing?”

The physicians consulted each other in a barely audible whisper.

“Essentially, yes,” Stormont answered finally. His voice did not sound very convincing.

“What do you mean, ‘essentially’? Is the air breathable or not?”

“The high percentage of methane will eventually have some effect on the men. As soon as their blood reaches saturation point, we can expect certain disturbances in the brain. They’ll become unconscious within one hour of exposure, or perhaps it’ll take several hours.”

“How about using a methane absorber?”

“Not practical. We would need too many — you’d have to change them constantly. Besides, the oxygen content of the air is too low. I’m in favor of taking along oxygen tanks.”

“How about you others? Do you agree?”

Witte and Eldjarn nodded their consent.

Horpach rose from his chair. “That’s it, then. Let’s get started. Rohan! What’s the matter with the probes?”

“They are ready for takeoff. May I put them into orbit before we leave on our expedition?”

“Yes.”

Rohan turned away and soon left the noise of the laboratory behind him. The sun was setting as he reached the control center. The serrated contours of a crater stood out starkly against the horizon, its peaks unnaturally clear against the red-rimmed violet and purple of the sun. The sky was more densely star-studded and seemed to loom more vastly in this part of the galaxy than elsewhere. The major constellations began to sink lower and lower toward the planet’s surface, soon merging with the dark shadows of the desert

Rohan called the satellite launching pad via intercom. They were announcing the start of the first pair of photo satellites, to be followed by additional launchings within the hour. In another twenty-four hours the Invincible’s crew could expect to receive a detailed photographic survey of the entire equatorial zone.

Rohan sat down in front of the control panel. No one would ever have gotten him to admit that he felt the same thrill at the light effects whenever a satellite was put into orbit. First the control lamps of the booster rocket would flare up with red, white and blue lights. Then the starter automat would begin countdown. As soon as its ticking ceased, a slight tremor would shake the entire ship’s body. At the same time a bright phosphorescence would illuminate the desert that until that moment had lain like a dark shadow on the videoscreen.

A low rumble spread throughout the whole cruiser, down to the lowest decks, as the tiny projectile shot out of the ramp at the ship’s nose. The Invincible was bathed in a sea of flaming light. The booster rocket fled skyward, its glow a feeble flicker on the slopes of the dunes, which Christmas tree: they indicated that the burnt-out rocket could no longer be heard — the instrument panel was racked by a sudden feverish trembling. The oval-shaped ballistic control lights flashed out of the dark, and were welcomed with friendly encouraging nodding by the shimmering lights of the remote control steering, like bits of mother-of-pearl. Then colorful signals lit up like a Christmas tree: they indicated that the burntout rocket stages had been jettisoned. Finally the rainbow effect created by the constant flickering and shimmering was blotted out by a stark white rectangle. This was the sign that the satellite had reached its orbit. In the center of this glittering white area a small gray island emerged, gradually condensing its vague outlines to form the number 67, the altitude at which the satellite was circling the planet.

Rohan quickly checked out the orbital parameters, but perigee and apogee were close to the values calculated beforehand. There was nothing else for him to do here. He compared the time aboard the Invincible, 18:00, with current local time: it was 23:00. For a brief moment he closed his eyes; he looked forward to this excursion to the seashore, for he preferred working on his own. He felt hungry and tired. Rohan deliberated whether he should take a pep pill, but then decided to have a real meal. As he rose from his seat he realized how exhausted he actually felt. The momentary shock caused by this discovery gave him a new burst of strength. Rohan took the elevator down to the mess hall. His crew was already there waiting for him: the two drivers of the air-cushioned hover trucks. He was fond of the one name Jarg, because of his pleasant disposition. There were also the oceanographer Fitzpatrick and his two colleagues Broza and Koechlin. They were just finishing supper as Rohan ordered some hot soup and helped himself to bread and a few bottles of nonalcoholic beer which he took from an automatic dispenser built in the wall. He placed everything on a tray and walked over to the dining table. At this moment a slight tremor shook the floor. The Invincible had launched another satellite.

The commander had not been in favor of any nocturnal expeditions. Shortly before sunrise, at 5:00 Am. local time, they started out on the journey. They employed the usual precautionary measures, advancing in the painfully slow marching order that was generally known as the “funeral procession.” A group of energo-robots led the way while others brought up the rear. They had erected an ellipsoid force field for the protection of the entire group, for the all-purpose vehicles, the cross-country jeeps containing radar and radio installations, the mobile kitchen, the trailer with airtight living quarters, and the small carriage on caterpillar tracks on which their laser beam sender had been mounted.

Rohan and his three experts climbed into the energo-robot at the front of the train. It was a rather tight squeeze, but this way they had at least the illusion of a relatively normal ride. The entire train moved at the speed of the slowest vehicles — the energo-robots — which did not contribute to the men’s comfort. The caterpillar tracks groaned and crunched through the sand. The turbo engines maintained a steady hum, reminding Rohan of a huge swarm of persistent flies. Cool air blew from the air conditioning duct that opened directly behind their seats. The energo-robot rocked back and forth like a big sloop making its way through heavy seas. After a while the black needle of the Invincible sank below the horizon. For some time they drove across the monotonous desert while the sun rose, blood red and cold.

The landscape changed. There was no longer so much sand. Instead rocky shelves rose at a slant from the ground. Many detours were necessary. Conversation was impossible because of the noisy engines and the oxygen masks covering their faces. Conscientiously the men scanned the horizon, again and again finding the same picture: huge rock piles and big chunks of well-weathered stones. Finally the ground began to slope downwards. At the bottom of a basin-shaped valley they discovered a small brook with a narrow trickle of water that glittered in the red light of the dawn. Both banks were lined with wide deposits of round, polished stones, indicating that the brook occasionally must carry considerable amounts of water.

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