Science Fiction Studies

#22 = Volume 7, Part 3 = November 1980


Stanislaw Lem

On Science, Pseudo-Science, and Some Science Fiction

Translated by Franz Rottensteiner

Doris and David Jonas. Other Senses, Other Worlds.  Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein & Day, 1976. 240p. $25.00 cloth; $3.95 paper.

This book about intelligent beings that may exist in outer space was written by a US husband- and-wife team; he is a psychiatrist trained in Vienna, she an anthropologist. It provides me with an opportunity to discuss a currently topical problem. The Jonases deal with hypotheses that are based on hard scientific facts, especially in physics and biology. In several chapters they describe credible environmental conditions that could have led to the evolution of biological organisms with sense organs quite different from any presently known. They show how, on a planet with an opaque atmosphere, smell could become the dominant sense by a process of natural selection; and in another chapter, how specific conditions of light could favor the development of insect-like eyes sensitive to polarized light, as an additional means of orientation. I have read this volume with great interest because the rational attitude of its authors comes quite close to my own view. Most of all, I agree with their basic conviction that for the establishment of hypotheses we can rely only upon our scientific experience. I do not so wholeheartedly agree with their conclusions, however. They are of the opinion, for instance, that contact with the "others," an exchange of information between different planetary civilizations, is predominantly a technical problem that can be solved by purely technical means and methods; and they believe that we will face no insurmountable difficulty in decoding signals from outer space, because any kind of reason must be identical with human reason.

There was a time when I was of the same opinion. True, the extraterrestrials may be different from human beings, as far as their shapes are concerned; they may have radically different bodies and other, specialized, sense organs; they may breathe something other than oxygen or live on the bottom of the ocean; but their reason must be very similar to ours, since there can be no form of intelligence other than the one that is specific for human beings.

I no longer believe this. Our abstract intelligence, its--if we may call it thus -- logical superstructure, which we have already passed on to our information-processing machines, may indeed be a cosmic constant. But the kind of reason that determines the social life of human beings, the "unreasonable reason" that rides astride our instincts and is inseparably bound up with our evolution toward human beings--this kind of reason that causes our civilization to oscillate between continued progress and doom may be a specifically local phenomenon, one limited to Earth. Specialists keep telling us that our ancestor, the rather unsympathetic ape, having become carnivorous and naked, still continues to live in our bodies. This sexually hyper-excitable ape gifted with reason, who cannot get rid of his pre-human, magical thinking and instincts, this being whose psyche is as many-layered as some geological formation, cannot possibly be a constant for all the stars. Human reason may be future-directed in its effects; but at the same time it is a relic of our pre-historical past, during which human beings were peeled out of the primate through over three million years.

I have long since lost my belief that the idea of interplanetary contact may disregard the fundamental difference between the various paths of development in the cosmos, that there must be a single rational denominator common to all the intelligent inhabitants of the universe. How can there be communication between reasonable beings that exist at different stages of historical development, if we cannot even communicate with our own human neighbors when they live in different political circumstances? The bright slogans that we have inherited from the 19th century, such as "the progress of science," "the future as an improved present," "freedom of the individual from the state," have been shown up as fleeting, time-bound, historical--i.e. transient and variable.

I believe that mankind will continue to exist, even if the supposed connection between increased production and general welfare loses its validity. I think that the establishment of contact with "others" is a genuine possibility. But it is here that the dream of anthropocentrically reasoning rationalists is bound to end; and we will have to consider books such as the Jonases' as an expression of self-aggrandizement characteristic of human beings in the infant stage of their civilization.

Joseph Weizenbaum. Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman. 1976. 300p. $12.95 cloth: $6.95 paper.

In this scientific age, cybernetics has given a new lease on life to the myth of the man-made intelligent being, and divided cyberneticians into two camps quarreling about whether artificial intelligence is possible. In all these debates, which have been going on for 30 years, it has proved impossible to decide once and for all whether a computer, an information-processing machine, can be educated toward creative intelligence. An American of German descent, Professor Weizenbaum, has now written a book on the topic.

In its first part he discusses the maximalist view, which holds that the machine will one day surpass the human being as an intelligence amplifier. Against this position he offers the argument that there are inherent limits to "thinking" machines which make it impossible to mechanically simulate human reason. Now this contention is correct insofar as no computer will ever become a duplicate of a human being; but curiously enough, this professor of computer science equates the problem of whether duplication of a human being down to the smallest details is possible with the question of whether such a goal is technologically at all desirable. How nonsensical such a comparison is becomes evident when we consider that we have developed means of transportation without simulating the movement of legs, and that we fly through the air without simulating the flight of birds or insects. Rather, both kinds of new movement are basically different, and it is exactly this difference that has enabled us to reach the Moon and Mars. Of course, Mr. Weizenbaum, being dead set against "artificial intelligence," knows the limitations of the current computer generation very well; but his specialized knowledge is insufficient basis for a "negative prophecy" that would remain valid for all time. The history of science is full of first-rate scientists who predicted one thing or the other would be impossible "for all eternity." According to such pessimists men would never have been able to master atomic energy; in biology, similar negative statements were pronounced 15 years ago about genetic engineering. Yet today there exist a number of atomic power plants and the first stirrings of an industry based on genetic modification of the bacterial inheriting factors. Compared to the energy or the transport industries, computer science is still an infant in swaddling clothes. All the more unreliable is any linear extrapolation based on the stupidity of current computer generations. Professor Weizenbaum does not seem to be aware that his pessimistic arguments are identical to those brought forward in the USSR 20 years ago, during a tempestuous theoretical discussion between supporters and opponents of artificial intelligence. Weizenbaum has nothing new to add to that discussion, which I know well since I took part in it. To put it succinctly, we know as little about the future course of computer evolution now as we did then.

Weizenbaum's book is, however, rooted not only in a negative attitude toward the possible properties of computers, but also in a passionate indignation about what he calls "the imperialism of instrumental reason" (10:258). He is thinking of the dehumanization of science, of that mutilation of the essence of humanity which is inherent in the technocratic point of view, and which assumes an assimilation of man to machine such that all human characteristics and values which cannot be mechanically simulated will be explained away as non-existent. I share without reservation his moral indignation about the interdiction of science and its political serfdom. But--contrary to him--I do not believe in the effectiveness of such ethical appeals as those found in his book. There can be little doubt that Weizenbaum is a scientist of a persuasion close to that of Noam Chomsky, the founder of a new school of theoretical linguistics. However, both of these undoubtedly sincere men have proved by their popularizing writings how vague and naive is the thinking of highly learned specialists when they deal with problems outside their specialty with an eye toward the amelioration of the world. The so-called "imperialism of instrumental reason" is neither a local US phenomenon nor the collective cognitive error of a number of scientists. This "imperialism" must rather be seen as closely connected with global power politics, and is therefore a phenomenon with cultural-historical and social causes that cannot be solved with well-meant appeals to the consciousness of scientists. Any result of socio-political and cultural developments can be changed only by far-reaching structural reforms, not by an analysis of the decline of values in academic groups. Weizenbaum, who accuses his fellow scientists of political blindness, is blind himself when he directs his attack at the consequences rather than the causes of the problem. He blames the rotting--because alienated--fruits from the tree of knowledge, but he does not dig down to the roots which grow from poisoned soil. What rings true in his book is not new; and what is new appears dubious, if not inadequate.

Immanuel Velikovsky. Worlds in Collision. (first edn. 1950). NY: Pocket Books, 1977. 400p. $1.95 paper.

Lyall Watson. Lifetide: The Biology of the Unconscious. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979. 343p. $10.95 cloth; also, NY: Bantam, 1980. 344p. $3.50 paper.

I am not quite sure how to tackle the job of reviewing these two books since I consider them concentrated packages of misinformation. They come in a form indistinguishable from genuine scientific works, but already the blurb on each book promises infinitely more than a genuine science book is permitted to promise. Human knowledge is as frail as the human body. Science is no guarantee against either mistakes or ignorance. Our knowledge, even at its most exact, is invariably imperfect because it does not reflect an external truth but our present state of knowledge. All these fake-science books, on the other hand, promise us the final solution to all enigmas of nature and the answer to all questions of existence. They do not promise what is temporarily qualified, relative, and historical, but what is absolute. In lieu of the difficult, gradual understanding of natural phenomena they offer unshakable certainty. They offer proofs for the life of the soul after death and for titanic prehistoric upheavals in our solar system that supposedly formed Earth and the other planets. They ridicule established science, calling it ironically "doctrinaire" and "academic" science; and the fact that this doctrinaire science is what makes the difference between the Stone Age and the Atomic Age makes no difference to them.

My dilemma is as follows: should I discuss seriously all the shameless factual misstatements that pretend to science in these works? But such a resolve would be doomed to fail. Before me lies the German translation of Immanuel Velikovsky's huge book Worlds in Collision, which provoked a veritable tempest of indignation among prominent scientists when it appeared in the US in 1950. Several astronomers tried to expose publicly the numerous lies and distortions contained in the book--with the unfortunate result that because of these attacks it became famous around the world. What can I hope to achieve against such a book? Paragraph for paragraph, the book should have annotations that set things straight--a quite helpless endeavor if one keeps in mind that Velikovsky had many successors whose combined efforts have created a scurrilous "anti-astronomy," much more imposing and misleading than the notorious Welteislehre (world glaciation doctrine) of Hrbinger.

The other book that I should review cannot be considered an isolated case either, since it is only one ripple in a new "wave" of pseudo-scientific writings that deal with life after death. Its author is a half-educated biologist, Lyall Watson, and his Lifetide: The Biology of the Unconscious would require several years of work by a whole team of authors to deal with it as it deserves: as the adage goes, 20 wise men are needed to correct the ramblings of a fool.

But even granted the unlikely case that I would fill a whole bookshelf with precise corrections of all these false teachings, I do not know whether anybody would be willing to go through such a library. One cannot expect such willingness from the readers who so eagerly study Velikovsky and Watson, because such readers do not want corrections and debunkings. What they want to learn is only what confirms the reports of migrations of the soul and marvels in outer space.

What is the unfortunate reviewer to do in these circumstances? What do other reviewers do in such cases? Mostly, they follow the example of the ostrich: they pretend to ignore this flood assaulting the book market, they desert their posts, so that finally only the apologists, apostles, and pupils of these mystifications take on the role of critics.

I can only add a pensive marginal note. Any consumer society protects its members by passing appropriate laws: whoever offers inedible, dangerous, or poisonous substances as food must expect to answer in a court of law. Legislation protects our bodies, but our minds are not protected in the same way against misleading information. They are not protected because an institution set up for this purpose would amount to censorship, and then there arises the difficult ancient question of who would watch over the censors so they would not claim a papal infallibility. This classical question--quis custodiet ipsos custodes?-- cannot be given a satisfactory answer. Therefore we are bound to live with these excrements of the mind. The serious problem is that such excrements are on the increase, and thus are a danger that any democratic society would be mistaken to ignore.

Ian Watson. The Martian Inca. London: Gollancz, 1977. 207p. 3.95.

As a rule I do not review SF books, for they are as a rule bad. To take notice of this kind of book seems to me justified only if it raises the culturally relevant question why in this genre bad books are written even by intelligent and scientifically or fictionally talented writers.

A promising English author, Ian Watson, has tackled in his novel The Martian Inca a classical topic, the first contact between aliens and human beings. In The Martian Inca two different story-lines run parallel: that of the first American manned landing on Mars, and that of the curious events surrounding a Soviet space probe back from Mars. Having crashed in Bolivia, it infects human beings with a Martian life-form, so that they undergo a strange psychic change. A Bolivian Indian turns into a reincarnated Inca, bent on recreating his vanished empire by leading a revolution against the new masters of Bolivia. At the same time, as the result of a similar change, two American scientists on Mars become transformed into clairvoyants; but their newly acquired talents serve for nothing, for they are killed in a Martian sandstorm.

As is only proper for SF, Watson's book provides a causal explanation for these extraordinary events. According to his imaginary hypothesis, on Mars there are micro-organisms similar to our viruses. Infected humans at first become dangerously ill, and then the very structure of their thinking processes is irreversibly changed. The metamorphosis of a scientist resembles the sea-change wrought in a primitive Indian insofar as the result in both cases is a mystical experience that opens up extra-sensory contact with the essence of all things. The viruses from Mars have no civilization of their own, because it was in no way necessary for them to enter upon this difficult path of technological progress. They do not need any science, technology or civilization, because they are intelligent in a scientifically non-terrestrial way. They are about to know the world by a process that requires no sensory organs, no language, and no tools. These supposedly very primitive viruses are therefore vastly superior to human beings. The human beings infected by them gain an uncanny insight into the drama of existence, the mystery of life, and if these shortcut insights were of no use to them, it was because they were members of a species that has lost the chance at reason. The message of this novel may be reduced to this bland statement that human civilization is a deplorable aberration, having got stuck in the dead-end of materialism and rationalism. There was, indeed, a chance of a true path even on Earth, in the Far East, where mysticism once flowered; but this chance was lost, and the path destroyed by the aggressive civilization of consumerism.

I believe this message of Ian Watson's novel to be wrong. The mystic message of the East towards life and its deeper meaning may well help this or that individual, but this oriental wisdom is totally without merit as a program for civilization. The literary form of Watson's book is modern, but its content is wrong and misleading. There never was a Holy Grail in the East, a final truth, of a revelation in the sources of passive mysticism that we have lost and now must weep over. True, this way of thinking is fashionable in modern times, so that many people, in particular among the younger generation, mistake this passing fad for the Philosopher's Stone.

The idea from which Watson starts is truly simplistic, for it implicitly assumes that in the universe there is a royal--i.e. simple, harmless, and easy-- road to reason, a way of general salvation, perfectability, and blessing, and that we ourselves have blocked this way. Such a royal road does not exist. We have only the choice between primitive vegetating and a dangerous technological progress. However, the intelligence of people on our planet is at present quite insufficient to recognize the prospective import of this watershed and to make a conscious choice. The drama of existence does not allow shortcut solutions, since there exists no single valid truth that would make happy all intelligent beings for all times. There are just hard facts and fairy-tale-like myths; even in literature, including SF, there is no other alternative. It is a pity that even highly talented, well-read, and intelligent writers of the younger generation, such as Ian Watson, fail to recognize the difference between the delusion of mysticism and what is really the case. He has erroneously yoked his considerable erudition to the wrong purpose of passing off a shallow fairy-tale for the lost redemption of our civilization. His novel tells much more about the confusion that currently holds captive even the brightest young people than about the real state of things on Earth and in the heavens, from which Mars shines down upon us as a challenge. About the genuine mysteries of the universe that we have yet to solve in the years to come, Watson's novel tells us nothing. He has wasted a good--in the sense of well-written--novel on a worthless cause. Only if Ian Watson comes to this insight himself may we expect from him a mature SF work.

Paul Erdman. The Crash of Seventy-Nine. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1976. 350p. $8.95.

For several years now there has existed a new genre of popular literature that may be called "politics-fiction." Politics-fiction is located halfway between SF and Futurology. It differs from SF in that it does not describe far-off worlds and times but our world in the near future, and from that branch of futurology sketching scenarios of future events by its preference for shock effects. Nevertheless it tries to achieve a semblance of verisimilitude in political fantasy. Indeed it is difficult to show what is improbable to the point of impossibility in politics-fiction, because the whole condition of our world appears to resemble an accumulation of improbabilities. The Arab oil monopoly and the subsequent energy crisis, the military presence of the Cubans in Africa, the abduction of a leading Italian statesman by terrorists--only 10 years ago these events would have been deemed impossible by any informed person. Since all of these nightmares have nevertheless come true, we have lost our ability to distinguish beforehand what is possible from what is impossible. Our intuitions in this regard have become disturbingly unreliable--a situation taken advantage of by politics-fiction in a narrative strategy that aims at shocking the reading public as much as possible. Obviously this audience still has not had enough fear of the future, obviously people are still full of desire for new horrors, since they snatch up and read this variously fictionalized pessimism. A "good," i.e. typical, example of this kind of entertainment is the novel by Paul Erdman, an American banker who started writing politics-fiction while still a prisoner on trial after bankruptcy. His novel describes a new and ultimate crisis of Western Civilization: its villain is the Shah of Iran, its victims are Western Europe and the US, and the final blow to them is a four-day war of aggression waged by Iran in order to occupy all oil-producing Arab countries, the first of them being Saudi Arabia. This daring strike, intended to make the Shah the sole oil monopolist, becomes a Pyrrhic victory for the Iranians when the Americans enter the war and their Phantom fighters bomb the Shah's headquarters, whereupon the already prepared atomic bombs of the Iranians are activated. The Shah and all his staff perish in the flames, but this atomic inferno does not save the West because atomic bombs dropped several hours earlier by the Iranians over the oil fields contaminate the whole region with radioactivity. The Iranian plot fails, but for 15 years Arab oil will remain unavailable. This story is told by an ex-banker, an American who becomes chief financial adviser to Saudi Arabia. The author of the novel shows that he actually has some knowledge of banks and banking operations, and those readers who can get their thrills from the juggling of billions of dollars will find the book full of excitement.

The plot of the novel contains an improbability that could under no circumstances come true: the totally passive attitude of the USSR during the four days' war. The Shah has made sure of Soviet neutrality by informing the Russian diplomats of a Chinese presence in Saudi Arabia, and the Russians believe the Shah's every word. The author is well-informed in financial matters, but when he enters the realm of high politics, the book becomes naive and clumsy.

Thus far, my objections to the novel appear to be of little consequence because it is a novel of politics-fiction, which, similar to any average novel of SF, must not be taken seriously. Admittedly we have here no serious political prediction. However, I wish to stress that its absurdity is typical of the genre of politics-fiction, which plays around with catastrophes. In novels of politics-fiction the Soviet Union almost never plays a major role; it is almost never shown as a factor causing the decline of the capitalist West. Why does it not occupy a more prominent part? I think I know the answer. The strongest fears in the West should not even be mentioned, let alone conjured up. The audience is to be frightened, but within limits. The implicit premise of such plots is: a world without oil, without gas, without cars, a world in financial and economic crisis is preferable to a world ruled by communism. The aim of politics-fiction is to arouse a comforting horror, but nothing more. In Paul Erdman's novel the West is thus sentenced to 25 years of pain and uncertainty, until the radioactive fallout abates. This is not exactly a happy ending, but it is not a death-sentence either.

My conclusion therefore is: in place of the worst possible horror, politics-fiction puts a fantastic, diluted version. Someone who does not feel quite well, and suspects that he has cancer, is not exactly told that he is as strong as a bull, but only that he will have to suffer some small affliction. The much more difficult question that comes to mind here--why human beings should want to be frightened by such political horror-visions instead of (as in the past) being pleased by rosy pictures of a bright utopian future, why humans can derive pleasure from frightening visions at all--this question I shall not consider here, because an answer would require a large philosophical tome instead of a brief review.

Sir John Hackett, et al. The Third World War: August 1985. NY: Macmillan, 1979. 368p. $12.95.

With burning curiosity I opened this book, written by the eminent retired warlord, about the course of World War Three. At last I was to learn how I would be delivered from the Soviet yoke--for such is the happy ending this volume leads up to! Now there is no lack of futurological scenarios depicting the next world war, but most of them have been penned by futurologists who are amateurs in military matters. This time, however, the conflagration between East and West was dealt with by specialists of the highest rank. For his book, Sir John Hackett consulted the best minds of NATO. I was at first startled, then bored to death, and when I reached the conclusion -- which describes the dissolution of the USSR--wonder again got the upper hand on boredom. That is, I began to wonder how such an illustrious assembly of staff officers could produce such a high degree of political naïveté and stupidity. After some thought I began to see the light.

Suppose an author about to write a love story is offered, by the cosmetics and underclothes industry, the well-rewarded opportunity to introduce into his story their latest products, which he is perfectly willing to do. What will happen? The overwhelming assortment of products that this industry has to offer, and that the willing writer has to fit in somehow, begins to grow into a heavy burden for even the most lyrical of scenes. More than that: the gigantic accumulation of creams, bust-supports, pantyhose, and lipsticks will become ever more mysterious for the unsuspecting reader. Such a reader is quite unable to understand why the psychological aspect of the love affair is almost never mentioned whereas the various pieces of clothing worn by the heroine are enumerated just as she is about to climb to the heights of lust with her lover. The author, on the other hand -- since by now he realizes how this impairs his romance -- tries to counterbalance the irritating effect by exhaustively describing the ensuing act of love, drawing upon all the details of anatomical and sexological knowledge to incite the reader. This method, however, has no result other than a bizarre cross-breeding of pornography with a Catalogue of the cosmetic and underclothing industry. In a similar manner, one imagines, Sir John Hackett's book must have come about. Only in this way can I understand why the depiction of the Third World War is repeatedly interrupted by listings of the most modern and recent weapon-systems of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The list of abbreviations introducing the novel includes more than 80 entries, such as COMNORTHAG, CENTAG, EUROSAM, FUMO, etc. Most likely the reader will fail to notice that the wealth of acronyms, suggestive of intimate knowledge, only masks the intellectual poverty of the book. For in my opinion the novel's only function is to describe in combat scenes the use of the weapons and military units that NATO has in store. For instance, after the battle for control of Germany had been lost by Warsaw Pact powers, a Soviet atomic strike annihilates Birmingham. Taken by itself, this is singularly idiotic, since after this strike the Russians remain passively waiting for the Western counter-strike -- as if somebody who has slugged an opponent would remain standing with his hands in his pockets and never suspect that his opponent might return the blow. However, had atomic weapons been used at the beginning of the war -- or immediately after the first engagements with conventional weapons -- the whole arsenal of beautiful women's underwear could not have been exhibited. Against the guns the best bludgeons are useless: when hydrogen bombs rain down, it is useless to brandish conventional weapons. But since the whole stock of women's underclothing is so expensive, it must be shown off -- that is the single reason that determines the strategy of war in Sir John Hackett's book. Just as the act of love in our example must be preceded by the lady's striptease so that all the titillating garments covering her voluptuous body can be described in properly glowing terms, so the battlefield of the Third World War must serve as a dress parade for all the glittering weapons before the final consummation, i.e. the atomic strike.

Seen in this light, the book is logically constructed. The Russians are strong like bears and armed from head to toe, but inflexible in their deployment of troops; the West is numerically inferior but more flexible and electronically better equipped. The Russians are so kind as to do everything possible to ensure that this superiority of NATO should prove decisive. In the first place, they do not try to use their overwhelming numbers in tanks and soldiers to drive in several columns through Europe to the shores of the Atlantic. No, they allow mobile warfare to deteriorate instantly into trench warfare, although their superiority of numbers in strategically important segments of the frontline is 30 to 1.

Difficile est satiram non scribere: it is difficult to review this book without satirizing it. For the same reasons that caused our imaginary writer to enhance the act of promoting the cosmetics and underclothing industry with as passionate as possible a description of intercourse, General Hackett does not spare us a single gruesome detail of the inferno that is the city of Birmingham going up in flames. Nor does he forget that varnish is brought to boil by the explosion of ships in a nearby harbor. Some lyrical passages on the experiences of individual NATO soldiers are not lacking--in all likelihood in order to enliven his kind of reporting.

But if somebody should not believe in the women's underwear strategy of the book, he will be surprised to read in the author's note (i.e., afterword) the impressive words: " ...the only forecast that can be made with any confidence of the course and outcome of another world war, should there be one, is that nothing will happen exactly as we have shown here." Faced with this admission, one is finally forced to give in. A book that thus provides its own alibi and contradicts its own probability is perfectly suited to become a bestseller. Seen in this way, the publicity effort of the cosmetics industry (NATO) will prove successful--thanks to Sir John Hackett.


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