Monday, May 26, 2008

The Master's Voice Project: More quotable Lem

"Although he was a Renaissance homo animatus and homo sciens, he took pleasure in contacts with people whom I would rank among the least interesting, though they present the greatest threat to our species; I mean politicians."

"Nye represented a very real power, and neither his manners nor his love of Husserl made him likable."

"Our ability to adapt and therefore to accept everything is one of our greatest dangers. Creatures that are completely flexible, changeable, can have no fixed morality."

"In another age, another era, he would have been, I am certain, a stern mystic, a builder of systems; in our era made sober by a n overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress, he was only a commentator and an analyst."

"I confess that he made me uneasy, because I do not believe in human perfection, and people who have no quirks, tics, obsessions, the touch of some minor mania, or points on which they turn rabid — I suspect such people of systematic imposture (we judge others by ourselves) or of totally lacking character. Certainly, much depends on the side from which we get to know a man. If, as usually happened to me, I first became acquainted with someone through his work — which in my profession is extremely abstract — and therefore, as it were, from the most spiritual side, the impact of meeting that entirely physical organism, which I had pictured instinctively as a kind of Platonic emanation, was always a shock."

— from His Master's Voice, by Stanislaw Lem.

This little gem of a book (just under 200 pages) gripped me from the start. I've quoted from it extensively, previously as well as above; Lem makes sweeping yet pithy statements on both the nature of Man and the natures of specific men.

The observations become wordier as the book progresses and the thoughts are more complex, constantly moving further away from black and white and the knowable.

Thus the means of civilizations replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values. The rule whereby corks in bottles give way to metal caps, and metal caps to little plastic lids that snap on and off, is innocent enough' it is a series of improvements to make it easier for us to open containers of liquid. But the same rule, when applied to the perfecting of the human brain, becomes sheer madness; every conflict, every difficult problem is compared to a stubborn cork that one should discard and replace with an appropriate labor-saving device. Baloyne named the Project 'His Mater's Voice,' because the motto is ambiguous: to which master are we to listen, the one from the stars or the one in Washington? The truth is, this is Operation Squeeze — the squeeze being not on our poor brains but on the cosmic message, and God help the powerful and their servants if it succeeds.

Lem attacks the science fiction establishment:

One day I found him amid large packages from which spilled attractive, glossy paperbacks with mythical covers. He had tried to use, as a "generator of ideas" — for we were running out of them — those works of fantastic literature, that popular genre (especially in the States), called, by a persistent misconception, "science fiction." He had not read such books before; he was annoyed — indignant, even — expecting variety, finding monotony. "They have everything except fantasy," he said. Indeed, a mistake. The authors of these pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it wants: truisms, clich├ęs, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed and made "wonderful" so that the reader may sink into a safe state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his philosophy of life. If there is progress in a culture, the progress is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.

And he talks about the politics of the Cold War.

For all the questions it poses regarding first contact, alien societies, and the paradigms through which we attribute such concepts as intelligence, civilization, communication, progress — nothing much happens in this book — it's mostly an exploration of humankind itself, here and now, for it's only through others that we can come to know ourselves.

It ends like this:

I was never able to conquer the distance between persons. An animal is fixed to its here-and-now by the senses, but man manages to detach himself, to remember, to sympathize with others, to visualize their states of mind and feelings: this, fortunately, is not true. In such attempts at pseudo merging and transferral we are only able, imperfectly, darkly, to visualize ourselves. What would happen to us if we could truly sympathize with others, feel with them, suffer for them? The fact that human anguish, fear, and suffering melt away with the death of the individual, that nothing remains of the ascents, the declines, the orgasms, and agonies, is a praiseworthy gift of evolution, which made us like the animals. If from every unfortunate, from every victim, there remained even a single atom of his feelings, if thus grew the inheritance of the generations, if even a spark could pass from man to man, the world would be full of raw, bowel-torn howling.

Which a brings a tear to my eye. Because no matter what we find out there, we are alone.
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