Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Stanislaw Lem

Cosmology and Science Fiction

Translated by Franz Rottensteiner

These remarks owe their existence to a suggestion of Dr R. Mullen of Science-Fiction Studies, who received a review copy of Cosmology Now (ed. Laurie John, Taplinger Publishing Co., 168p, $10.95) but felt the book too peripheral to the journal's concerns for an ordinary review. The title too is Dr Mullen's choice. Therefore my remarks are addressed to the readers of Science-Fiction Studies, and they were written in German since my English is insufficient for the task.

1. Cosmology Now was authored by several British scientists for the BBC in 1973. The American edition, the one on hand, appeared in 1976. A reviewer both well-versed in the subject and malicious could claim with some justification that the book would be better called Cosmology Yesterday. If the cosmos is the most durable of things, this durability doesn't extend to the science that deals with its exploration. Even the best cosmological reference works written some seven or eight years ago are today totally out-of-date. The three life-years that Cosmology Now has now had have seen much change in cosmology. Since I don't have to write a "regular review," I will list only the most important innovations. The age of the cosmos is today estimated to be some 20 billion years. The experiments of Weber, who claimed to have registered gravitational waves, have been discarded, since his apparatus was of insufficient sensitivity. The health of the "steady state" theory which denies the evolution of the universe from a zero point has deteriorated noticeably. Scientists are inclined to award the palms of victory to the theory of the Big Bang. Moreover, many of the things described in Cosmology Now have lost their former, beautiful simplicity. For instance, there is now a whole "family" of black holes. In addition to the ones postulated originally, which were supposed to be the final stage of a collapsing neutron star, there have been new ones, for instance partially reversible black holes. These may not be assumed to be "gravity graves," invisible for all eternity. And there are especially the black micro-holes. As the new theory of Stephen Hawking of Cambridge will have it, these are objects with the diameter of a proton and mass of a mountain range. Quite a lot of them are said to have been created at the time of the Big Bang. I mention the theory of Hawking, first, because it introduces the method of quantum mechanics into the field of the general theory of relativity, and second, because it implies consequences that cannot be overlooked and may change our whole outlook. Although there are so far no irrefutable (empirical) proofs for the existence of any black holes, we cannot imagine any possible technological utilization of the big black holes, whereas one may consider the micro-holes as energy sources that can surpass the annihilation of matter by several million times, the so far energetically most potent reaction. Such a micro-hole is supposed to contain the energy of several million of hydrogen bombs. Sapienti sat. There are other important discoveries, but I cannot enlarge this short aside into a "regular book review." Therefore—finis.                

In our times, scientific works grow old very fast. The Internal Constitution of the Stars by A. Eddington enthralled me when I read it 40 years ago, and it is still a magnificent book, but it must be read now as (genuine!) Science Fiction, because nothing in it corresponds anymore with our present knowledge. In my opinion the same may happen with Cosmology Now: please take this remark as a hommage. This volume will remain readable, indeed exciting, but very little of its aesthetically appealing, lucid simplicity in its development of the model of the universe will survive the changes to come. I say this as a dilettante and a heretic who knows more about the history of science than about cosmology. The first conquerors of new knowledge find it always easier to proclaim that "God may be subtle, but He is not malicious," because the biggest hurdles are discovered by the next generation of scientists. But it seems to me that one of the main theses of Cosmology Now will remain valid: that the universe is a continued explosion extended over a time of twenty billion years that appears as a majestic solidification only to the eyes of a transient being like Man. The question whether we are living in a rhythmically pulsating universe or in a cosmos that will finally dissolve into vacuum still remains to be answered. The pendulum of mutually exclusive opinions goes on swinging.

2. Now then, what is the relationship between cosmology and SF? The facts are clear: both universes, that of the writers and that of the scientists, grow ever more apart. The estimations of the "density of cosmic civilization" show this most evidently. The scientists, even the founders of CETI (Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligences) feel compelled to attribute ever smaller figures to the psychozoic density in the cosmos, because the accumulating negative results of the "sky listening" (for signals) force them to do so. SF takes not the slightest notice of such changes. Therefore for SF one of the biggest riddles of contemporary cosmology, the silentium universi, doesn't exist at all. But it would be totally wrong to reduce the divergence of the two universes to only one parameter, the one mentioned. Science fiction started its escape from the real cosmos even before the question was formulated why the universe remains silent so stubbornly. This flight has by now evolved into a "steady state"; SF has encapsuled itself so much against the space of cosmology that it is unwilling to receive any signals; that is to say, any news from the field of science, with the exception of what manages to make the front pages of the newspapers (such as the tale of the black holes). This encapsulement took place when the authors got hold of two fantastic, very convenient inventions: unlimited travel in time, and unlimited travel in space. Thanks to time travel and FTL the cosmos has acquired such qualities as domesticate it in an exemplary manner for story telling purposes; but at the same time it has lost its strange, icy sovereignty. SF doesn't know of the cosmos of colliding galaxies, the invisible stars sucked in by the curvature of space, the pulsating magnetic fields. Nevertheless there is in SF not a single one of the civilizations of the "third stage" postulated by CETI, the civilizations which are, thanks to their applied science of astral engineering, able to control stellar energies. As far as their content is concerned, most of the civilizations in SF correspond to the state predicted for Earth in 2000 or 2300, although structurally they have remained arrested rather in the 19th century, with their colonisatory tactics of conquest and their strategies of war, whose magnification is only due to the principle of "Big Berta" [the German super-gun that shelled Paris during WWI]. SF has not the slightest idea what could be done with a power of the magnitude of a sun, if it isn't used exclusively for the destruction of inhabited planets. And in SF cosmic civilizations have no intellectual culture at all, because a future-oriented movement that claims to probe into the farthest future, and makes its home in a realm of naively contaminated, amateurish ideas on "primitive slave societies," must be held totally lacking in credibility. SF criticism often talks of a "sense of wonder" that the field is supposed to generate, but upon close examination that "wonder" divulges its close relationship to the tricks of a stage magician. As popular fiction, SF must pose artificial problems and offer their easy solution. The astonishing results of contemporary cosmology which border on paradox, are of no use to science-fiction writers, because they cannot be tucked into the narrow fixed frame of the artificial cosmos. Any comparison, including that with the stage magician, isn't quite exact, because the magician doesn't aim at anything beyond the production of some tricks, whereas the self-imprisonment that is characteristic for SF has made it unable to describe real space any more.                

To do justice to SF, which looks so shabby when compared to the background of cosmology, it is necessary to further explain its dilemma. The sins of individual authors have always been relatively small. The development of the totally false, domesticated universe was a gradual process of self-organization, and therefore all together are responsible for the final deformation—and nobody. Thanks to the first SF invention all occurrences in space have become easily reversible, but the authors who "just" want to shine with a new version of time-travel have forgotten the larger context. It is particularly due to these unnoticed relationships that nature was softened in the cruelty of the irreversible flow of time that is its hallmark. In order that space might not be used as another cruelty to man, it was "short-circuited" by another invention, i.e. annihilated. The fact that a domestication of the cosmos has taken place, a diminution that whisked away those eternally silent abysses of which Pascal spoke with horror, is masked in SF by the blood that is so liberally spilt in its pages. But there we already have a humanized cruelty, for it is a cruelty that can be understood by man, and a cruelty that could finally even be judged from the viewpoint of ethics—granted that one could take this blood seriously at all. By looking at it this way, we come to understand what SF has done to the cosmos: for it makes no sense at all to look at the universe from the viewpoint of ethics. Therefore, the universe of SF is not only minuscule, simplified and lukewarm, but it has also been turned towards its inhabitants, and in this way it can be subjugated by them, losing thereby that indifference which causes man to project continually new enigmas to be solved and secrets to be lifted, in the vain hope to get there the answer to the question for his own meaning. In the universe of SF there is not the slightest chance that genuine myths and theologies might arise, for the thing itself is a bastard of myths gone to the dogs. The SF of today resembles a "graveyard of gravity," in which that sub-genre of literature that promised the cosmos to mankind, dreams away its defeat in onanistic delusions and chimeras—onanistic, because they are anthropocentric. The task of the SF author of today is as easy as that of the pornographer, and in the same way. Now that all the real stops to the satisfaction of their impulses have been pulled, they can have their fling. But with the stops has disappeared the indescribable richness that can be conveyed only by real life. Where anything comes easy, nothing can be of value. The most inflamed desire must finally end in miserable dullness. Once the credible, the real barriers have been blown up, the process of falsification must go on; artificial barriers must be erected, and in this manner the stuffed waxworks come about, the miserable ersatz that is supposed to be cosmic civilizations.

3. Why is it impossible to regain the universe that has been lost to SF? One could claim that the laws of the market do not permit it—that today no authors and publishers would dare to subject the readers to a cure of giving up that would equal the renunciation of easy solutions to fictitious problems. True, it must be admitted that not everything in SF is rotten in the same degree. After all, there was once the cosmogonic fantasy of a Stapledon. But Stapledon, as an isolated writer, was still able to view the universe of cosmology, and not the humanized universe of SF. It should be kept in mind here that "humanize" in this context doesn't mean to "make more humane"; we know that among the animals there are no sexual murderers, and a sexual murderer can hardly be called a humane being.                

It must be admitted that the universe presents the "peak of indigestibility" for fiction writing in the whole field of our experience. For what can you do as an author with the central subjects of cosmology—with the singularities? A singularity is a place that exists in the continuum just as a stone exists here; but there our whole physics goes to pieces. The desperate struggles of the theoreticians, going on for several years now, have only the purpose to postpone this end of physics, its collapse, by yet one more theory. In fiction, however, things like that cannot be domesticated. What heroic characters, what plot can there be where no body, however strong or hard, could exist longer than a few fractions of second? The space surrounding a neutron star cannot be passed closely in a spaceship even at parabolic velocity because the gravity gradients in the human body increase without a chance that they might be stopped or screened, and human beings explode until only a red puddle is left, just like a heavenly body that is torn apart from tidal forces when passing through the Roche limit. Is there therefore no way out of this fatal dilemma: that one must either be silent about the cosmos or be forced to distort it? Cosmology shows us a way out.               

Just as one may look at the knowledge of yesterday as a fantastic speculation—as I said about the famous work of Eddington—so one may imagine a cosmogony of tomorrow, dissimilar to the current one, but nevertheless understandable, for cosmic processes are accessible to us to the degree that they can be focused by reason. But nothing is today so much held in contempt in SF as reason. In this regard a total harmony unites the authors with the readers. Obscenity is no longer indecent—the intellectual has taken its place in the pillory. SF fans should be discouraged from perusing Cosmology Now, unless they are willing to free their imagination from its imprisonment to discover in the brightness of real suns the true face of nature.

Back to Home