Monday, February 28, 2011


By Stanislaw Lem
Stanislaw Lem is well known for his many reviews of non-existent books. One Human Minute follows in this tradition with two reviews and an essay on the development of intelligent life. The writing is quintessential Lem. His interests with statistics, randomness, and artificial intelligence will be familiar terrain for readers who have read The Cyberiad, The Investigation, or The Chain of Chance. Unburdened by the genre trappings of American sf, Lem is able to roam wherever his mind takes him. It makes for some truly forward-looking sf (though Lem might well bridle at the label).

The title review looks at One Human Minute (J. Johnson & S. Johnson, Moon Publishers) a statistical compendium that provides a snapshot of human existence in an average minute. Some of the comparisons are unsubtle: eg the First World spends more on clothes for sex-dolls than the Third World spends on clothes for people. While this is part satire on global poverty and oppression and part satire on human knowledge, it is also forward looking in its own way. After all, couldn’t you look up this information on the Internet?

The Upside-Down Evolution begins with one of those jabs at sf that made Lem such a controversial figure. Lem asks, what better way to hide a dangerous message from the future than as idiotic science fiction junk? The book in question recounts the development of weaponry and the 21st century rise of gnat-sized robot warriors and the revolution in warfare and politics that followed. It’s a conceit that has an eerie echo of truth in a world where nano-technology is in development and Predator Drones make critical war decisions. 

The World as Catastrophe is science writing, not science fiction. Lem explores attempts to quantify the likelihood of intelligent life arising and asks where the boundaries of a statistically calculable (and hence repeatable) event and an un-guessable, random occurrence lie.

This is late Lem, beyond the sf trappings of his early work. Here he is pure intellect, beyond storytelling. For those who found the ideas that underlie his early work interesting in their own right, One Human Minute is worth exploring.
-Dave Hardy