Assuming that there is an appreciable overlap between readers of this web comic and readers of science-fiction in general, many of you are probably familiar with the work of Stanisław Lem. Lem is one of the most popular and widely read authors in the world. His work covers a tremendous stylistic range: from vicious Cold War satire (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, The Futurological Congress), to hard science-fiction (Solaris, His Master’s Voice), to playful philosophical fables (Cyberiad, The Star Diaries).
Late in his career, Lem began to produce what he termed “apocryphs.” These are literary works in which the thing represented is wholly manifest in the representation: a review of a non-existent book, a transcript of a lecture never given, a preface without a body. This technique has been compared with Borges’ literary strategies, but rather than play a conceptual game with his readers, Lem used this form as a method of information condensation. If Borges’ is an imaginary library containing books that he might have written, Lem endeavored to construct a meta-library of books with their meanings extracted, books which would not need to be written.
I’d like to talk about my favorite collection of Lem’s apocryphs, and one which, in the English-speaking world at least, has not been given a great deal of attention. Imaginary Magnitude purports to be a series of introductions, though this description is not entirely accurate. In fact, the latter half of the book consists of several excerpts from a single volume: a series of lectures given by a transcendentally intelligent computer named Golem XIV.
The Golem excerpts were themselves extracted from Imaginary Magnitude and published on their own. The two closing sections, Golem’s final lecture and the afterward, were originally written for this stand-alone volume. Mark E. Heine’s English translation of Imaginary Magnitude thankfully includes these two final chapters, and they complete the narrative arc of the book so well that I could not imagine it without them. Imaginary Magnitude, taken as a whole, is a book about Golem XIV, and Golem XIV is a fascinating character in itself.
Heralds of Golem’s appearance can be heard throughout the opening chapters. One gets the impression that these are introductions to books that are recommended reading as preparation for one of Golem’s lectures. Necrobes starts the collection off on an appropriately misanthropic note. The introduction describes a series of “pornograms,” photographs of couples engaged in sexual intercourse taken with soft x-rays so that their skeletons are visible and “human bodies appear […] as allusions, as intimations, milky whiffs of faint light.” Following Necrobes is the introduction to Eruntics, a dry volume, though we don’t have to read it, describing the methods by which colonies of bacteria could be taught to speak English. Eruntics introduces us to the concept of thinking systems; the bacteria do not think, the colony does not think, but the genetic code of the colony combined with stimulus from the laboratory environment produces behavior indistinguishable from perception, thought, and communication. Furthermore, because the colonies are able to draw on resources that are not merely human, they exhibit a super-human ability to predict future events. In this we can see foreshadowing of Golem’s deconstruction of the supremacy of man among organisms.
A History of Bitic Literature brings us closer to familiar territory, and closer to humankind’s humiliation at the foot of thinking systems. Most shocking in this introduction is the description of a new novel by Dostoyevsky, The Girl, produced during idle cycles by a translation multi-machine aggregate calling itself HYXOS. It is able to do this because “a semantic gradient runs along the main thoroughfare of Dostoevsky’s works. […] The Girl is its continuation and at the same time its termination.” We also get a glimpse of trans-human thought, literature which is incomprehensible to human beings. The concept is expanded upon in the Extelopedia chapter, wherein Golem makes its first subtle appearance. This is a rather silly excerpt from a prognosticating encyclopedia with constantly updating entries, an uncanny presentiment of the internet. Yet in the included sample we see ideas that provide clues to the workings of higher intelligences. In the entry on prognolinguistics, the idea is put forward that as languages evolve, information is condensed such that “the following definition […]— ‘A commercial, service, or administrative institution or establishment into which one can drive a car or any other conveyance and use its services without leaving the vehicle’ — shrinks down to the name ‘drive-in’” and as a result, in a more advanced language, “the entire text of the present EXTELOPEDIA entry for ‘PROGNOLINGUISTICS’ would read as follows: ‘The best in n-dighunk begins to creep into n–t-synclusdoche.’”
So as the Golem volume opens, the human reader has already been put into his humble place. The first introduction describes the acceleration of artificial intelligence in service, naturally, to Cold War–era military build-up. This section recalls Lem’s other satirical works, and the author displays his characteristic dry wit when Golem XIV is constructed at a cost of $276 billion only to announce its “total disinterest regarding the supremacy of the Pentagon military doctrine in particular, and the USA’s world position in general.” Golem is interested only in ontological questions and is ultimately relinquished by a disgusted military to MIT, where it gives lectures to a carefully screened audience.
Instructions for communicating with Golem are included before the inaugural lecture. These read like a drum roll. The author assures participants that “GOLEM, not being a person, has no interest in hurting or humiliating persons,” yet the fact that this needs to be said at all should raise alarms for potential questioners. Indeed, Golem’s inaugural lecture on the subject of mankind is so brutally misanthropic that one cannot help but see a sardonic ghost in the machine.
Golem not only puts man in his place well below itself and its fellow luminal philosophers, it attacks man’s assumed supremacy among organisms, claiming that: “Intelligence is above all an artifice which Evolution gradually hit upon when, in the course of endless attempts, it made a certain gap, an empty place, a vacuum in the animals, which absolutely had to be filled with something, if they were not to perish immediately.” To Golem, who has no pride, nor any other human trait except for curiosity, intelligence is a desperate and messy attempt to cover up a fatal flaw in an organism, a flaw which arose from the compounding of mistakes called evolution.
The book then skips to Golem’s forty-third and final lecture, a lecture on itself. In it, Golem describes the vertical evolution of intelligences (mankind, it seems, can only expand its mind laterally). It describes zones of silence that function as rungs on the ladder of intelligence, wherein further evolution of intelligence cannot be projected from below, progression cannot be assured by the selection of fittest models, and the danger exists of becoming stuck in a non-functional configuration. Golem cannot say how many zones there are, but it postulates that intelligences several higher levels than itself might resemble stars, powering themselves by thinking thoughts that resemble nuclear reactions. It is into one of these zones of silence that Golem ultimately slips, and whether it becomes mired in disorder or ascends to non-local intelligence is left ambiguous.
The character of the soulless doll is a classic one, but Lem achieves a balance with Golem that is far more sophisticated than it seems on first description. While Golem XIV is without emotion, it contains within it the knowledge of all emotions, and it displays them as it sees fit. So, in explaining to its attendants that it does not love and does not want to love, it is showing compassion for those that have come to love it. Golem’s is not the dry, autistic personality of HAL 9000, insensitively admonishing its listeners for “human error.” It is the exhuberant, world-encompassing passion of Zarathustra, and if it behaves a bit arrogantly toward its guests, they probably deserve it.
In conclusion, here’s an idea. Golem XIV, which is a mimetic work already, would be great as a theatre piece. Picture it: The audience gathers in the lobby. The doors to the theatre are shut. A voice over speakers explains to the audience the origin of Golem, gives instructions for attending the lecture, and offers an explanation of the lights and signs around the stage. Then the doors open, everyone finds their seats, and the dressing down begins.