In Poland, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stanisław Lem, a new stamp with a denomination of 4 zloty was issued / kurier-nakielski.pl
September 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Stanisław Lem. A personality that can reasonably be attributed to polymaths – the range of his interests was huge, as was the variety of genres of books he wrote – from philosophical satire in the spirit of Swift (Tales of Robots and Cyberiad), to Borges’ short stories (collections of Imaginary Greatness, Absolute Vacuum) and fundamental philosophical works (Summa of Technology, The Philosophy of Chance). Back in the early 1960s, Lem predicted the Internet, e-books, and virtual reality (“phantomatics”).
But the closer the 20th century approached the end, the more gloomy Stanisław Lem’s forecasts became. And already at the beginning of the XXI century, Lem gave up writing science fiction. His explanation sounds unusual for our consciousness, accustomed to total rationalism: “I don’t want my predictions to come true”.
Who is Stanisław Lem? And what message did he leave to all those who were at least somehow able to hear him – and Lem doubted the abilities of most people very seriously – remaining until the end of his days a convinced and consistent misanthrope. On his grave in Krakow, there is an inscription in Latin: Feci quod potui faciant meliora potentes – I did what I could, may those who are able do better.
So what did Stanisław Lem do? If we trace the logic of the unwinding of some internal semantic spring of his books, then we can find two diverging, then converging lines. One line I can conditionally call scientific and technological, the second – humanitarian.
I’ll start with the second line, as it is more explicit. Lem with the detachment of the chronicler, in which, however, melancholic bitterness is easily recognized, shows that in human history and civilization, despite all the outstanding achievements, there remains a certain error, or flaw, which – the further into the future – the more radically manifests its toxicity (or lethality). Lem speaks about this flaw through the mouth of the cyberneticist Snaut, “We do not want to conquer any space at all, we want to expand the Earth to its borders”.
It’s about the eternal, alas, human fear of the unknown, which turns into not only xenophobia, but also a refusal to see reality that does not fit into the usual human framework. For many, this drawback is seen as significant, but by no means fatal.
For Lem, this flaw is a condemnation to humanity. The more intensive the progress, the faster and closer humanity comes to the limits of the usual ideas – and in the literal sense, its survival entirely depends on the ability to abandon the known in favor of a fundamentally different, the Unknown with a capital letter. And – yes, Lem is as pessimistic as possible in assessing the ability of humanity to take such a step.
The second line is scientific and technological. Lem is known as a rationalist and a champion of strictly scientific knowledge. But a careful study of his work reveals that not everything is so simple and unambiguous. Lem severely criticizes the limitations of science, the tendency to narrow specialization and the inability to see the whole reality.
As a result, the writer points to the intersection point of these lines, where scientific progress, coupled with human limitations, create a situation in which the development of technology leads to a rapid decline in the intellectual and ethical level of mankind, to the irreversible degradation of man as a species.
To the final loss of connection with extra-human reality. And according to Lem, this reality will eventually answer, and this answer for us will be catastrophic and fatal. It is no coincidence that the last fiction novel is named more than eloquently and unequivocally – Fiasco.
But is Lem’s pessimism absolute? I guess not. He shows a different path, however, most would rather choose death than it. Lem shows the possibility of going beyond the “human, all too human” both in science and in ethics. This is the path of a certain absolute loneliness, the loneliness of the intellect in front of the transcendental reality and the ethical loneliness, the willingness to become a stranger to the majority who live in a familiar dream.
The path is extremely difficult, but only it opens a connection for a person with the Unknown, in other words, a connection with himself outside of clichéd notions and scientific stereotypes, those screens with which we fence ourselves off from the abyss.
Lem showed the opportunity. And that means, in his words, “the time of terrible miracles has not passed”.