Stanislaw Lem

Book reviews

A new edition to mark the 40th anniversary of a science-fiction classic is among this month’s new titles.

Penguin

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age

by Stanislaw Lem, £9.99, ISBN 9780141394596

One of my life’s biggest regrets is my interview with Stanislaw Lem in 1996 - the interview that never took place. I was in Krakow recording a programme for BBC Radio 4 when I remembered that Lem, one of my favourite writers of all time, was still living there. On my request, our Polish fixer got hold of his home phone number, and I had a brief conversation with Lem’s wife who said that he was not feeling very well, but would still give me an interview. She added that the interview was to be conducted in German, because Lem did not speak any English, and my Polish was less than basic. The problem was that my German was even more basic than that, read non-existent! So the interview never took place.

It was only a week later, when I was already back in the UK, that I remembered that Lem spoke fluent Russian. Even now I keep cursing myself for not suggesting to interview him in my mother tongue - the language in which I was first introduced to his books at the age of 11.

Lem was probably more widely read in the Soviet Union that he was in his native Poland. Such was his popularity there that a couple of my university mates had specially learned Polish to be able to read some of the writer’s books that were published in Poland, but had failed to pass the rigorous test of Soviet censorship. ‘The Cyberiad’, incidentally, was one of them. I can now understand why: they could see too many dangerous parallels between Lem’s witty parody of the future society, with its numerous linguistic neologisms and wild fantasies, created by an explosive combination of pseudo-science, pseudo-sociology and outright lies, and the Soviet reality.

I am thrilled that Penguin has just released a new edition of this momentous, intelligent and very funny book, with original illustrations by Daniel Mroz and Introduction by the well-known British fantasy writer Christopher Priest. This paperback marks the 40th anniversary of the book’s first publication in English in 1974. Yet ‘Cyberiad’ today stays as topical as ever, just like Lem’s other science-fiction masterpieces, ‘Solaris’, ‘Tales of Pirx the Pilot’ and my absolute favourite ‘The Star Diaries’.

To my mind, it is the latter that ‘Cyberiad’ can be best compared to. In fact, the two collections of short stories complement and resemble each other in their tone, ingenuity, wittiness and in their hilarious tongue-in-cheek philosophy. Ijon Tichy - a fabricator adventurer of the future, a Baron Munchausen of the space era and ‘The Star Diaries’ intrepid protagonist, has a a lot of similarities with ‘The Cyberiad’ constructors Trurl and Klapacius, who both have a lot in common with the ‘Diaries’ ever so inventive Professor Tarantoga.

The stories comprising both books are equally gripping, grotesque and full of astounding ordeals. They are also resplendent with intelligent parodies of modern science and engineering creations: from the device called ‘femmefataltron’, with its ‘libidinous lubricity’ measured in ‘kilocupids’ (‘The Cyberiad’) to an oven-like contraption which disintegrates people into dust-like ‘constituent elements’ and then reassembles them back (‘The Star Diaries’).

I hope that Penguin is now thinking of releasing a special edition of ‘Star Diaries’ in 2016 - 40 years after it its first English translation. Just like this anniversary release of ‘The Cyberiad’, it won’t fail to delight Lem’s numerous fans all over the English-speaking world.

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Oxford University Press

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

By Alex Wright, £18.99, ISBN 9780199931415

As everyone knows, the technology behind the Internet emerged from United States government-funded research with digital computers during the cold war. Less well known are the Internet’s conceptual origins. The visionary Belgian librarian Paul Otlet, who died in 1944, is not a figure familiar to many engineers or scientists. Yet Otlet is increasingly regarded by information scientists - including the management of the search engine Google - as one of the godfathers of the Internet, along with his celebrated contemporary HG Wells. New York-based designer Alex Wright’s welcome and readable biography, ‘Cataloging the World’, explains why Otlet deserves to be more widely known.

Otlet’s main achievement was his ‘Universal Bibliography’, tirelessly compiled over half a century in Brussels. This index of published works attempted to catalogue every book, magazine, newspaper and other significant item of intellectual property ever created. Its 15 million entries were written on index cards filed in a vast grid of wooden cabinets. Much, though not all, of Otlet’s collections were destroyed by the Nazis in 1940.

Inspired by microfilm, he regarded his index as the foundation for a future system of networked ‘electric telescopes’ that would permit users anywhere to search through millions of interlinked documents, images and audio and video files. In 1935, Otlet noted with exceptional prescience: “From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen.”

A utopian internationalist, Otlet was convinced that a central authority was required to effect the free flow of knowledge by standardisation. Today’s online free-for-all would probably have dismayed him.

As Wright perceptively discusses, Otlet’s work invites us to consider “whether the path to liberation requires maximum personal freedom of the kind that characterises today’s anything-goes Internet, or whether humanity would find itself better served by pursuing liberation through the exertion of discipline”.

Andrew Robinson

 

Portfolio Penguin 

Driving Honda

By Jeffrey Rothfeder, £25, ISBN 9780670920563

For the most part, the automotive industry is a top-down, command-and-control business driven by MBA-style ‘suits’ promoted from sales and marketing. For today’s monolithic carmakers failure isn’t an option, conformity to the corporate culture is a stark necessity, while a culture of doing something a certain way “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” means that at least you’ll do no wrong.

But that, as Jeffrey Rothfeder explains in his superb new book, is not the ‘Honda Way’. The Japanese multinational has built its reputation on manufacturing good, long-lasting, reliable internal combustion engines for the automotive and ‘powered-goods’ markets in a way that to its competitors seems to be highly unorthodox, even secretive.

In ‘Driving Honda’ Rothfeder explains how the style that defines the company is one of simple values: promote your best engineers into positions of management, learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to embrace the power of your people’s talent, no matter how unconventional.

Honda may not make the most cars, but it makes the most engines, and since its foundation in the late 1940s, it has never posted a financial loss, while its stock value has doubled since 2008. Any corporation this successful needs to be taken seriously, but what makes Rothfeder’s story so gripping is that it’s one of a big company that has made its mark on the world by thinking like a small company.

What emerges from the dozens of interviews he has conducted with Honda executives and engineers is that here we have a flat management system where everyone has a voice, and where a culture of innovation means that even those in the margins can work freely to produce new technology.

Although ostensibly about Honda, Rothfeder’s new book is essentially a powerful corporate parable about how sticking to your guns can lead to real success.

Nick Smith

 

Oxford University Press

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

By Nick Bostrom, £18.99, ISBN 9780199678112

Unstoppable murderous robots working on behalf of an evil genius or alien race may have been a staple of early science fiction, but they’ve been usurped in more recent times by machines intent on destroying humanity because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Or sometimes where we’ve become collateral damage in their attempts to create what they believe is a better world.

It was the mathematician IJ Good, chief statistician in Alan Turing’s Second World War codebreaking team, who was one of the first to articulate the fears behind this popular strand of sci-fi jeopardy. He warned in 1965 that a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could design even better machines than itself, an iterative process leading inevitably to an ‘intelligence explosion’, which would leave humans trailing in its wake.

“Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control,” he wrote.

It’s this phenomenon that Nick Bostrom, a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford with a background in physics, computational neuroscience and mathematical logic, analyses in ‘Superintelligence’.

The process of evolution that has put mankind in this position where it needs to address the scenario of being overtaken by its own inventions shows that stronger muscles or sharper claws count for little when compared with a powerful brain.

Having tried to create a machine at least equivalent to the human brain, Bostrom argues, we need to decide now how to deal with the version beyond that - a superhuman intellect capable of upgrading itself with no help from us.

How do we ensure the subsequent technological explosion is a controlled one? Having described the history of AI up to today, Bostrom looks at some possible scenarios, the solutions and how we can quantify them. It’s a fascinating and rational analysis of a topic that is easily sensationalised, and thought-provoking reading.

Dominic Lenton

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