Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992

Thomas P. Weissert

Stanislaw Lem and a Topology of Mind

Reading the fiction of Stanislaw Lem, one inevitably discovers the recurring theme of contact with another noetic species—that is, a species with the property of mind. Although Lem explores a wide range of possible forms of other species, the result of the contact in each case runs from relatively benign failure to find a common language, as in The Invincible, to total genocidal fiasco, as in his most recent novel, Fiasco. In that work, Lem expounds his "window of contact" theory, which delimits the period of time during which two noetic species may actually communicate with each other. According to this theory, the single cosmic "moment" during which one civilization may communicate with another is after both have reached the technological level of maturity to manipulate electromagnetic radiation, and before either of them passes into the "too mature" level where they have the applied science to "undertake to change the natural intelligence given them—what would correspond to the human brain" (Fiasco 92). Here Lem implies that there is a natural evolutionary process that moves a species up through some noetic level, after which it takes control of the process of its own further evolution. The outcome of each of Lem’s explorations of noetic contact seems to rely on the size of the intelligence gap between the two species. By linking Lem’s speculations with current thinking on the nature of our own minds, we should be able to develop a solid understanding of the assumptions underlying both the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the aims of artificial intelligence research.

As a first step, we need to arrange the structures of the physical universe into an evolutionary hierarchy, ordered according to some unifying measure. Recent philosophical work, motivated by the need to unify the accepted theories of evolution and universal entropy increase, has eliminated the transcendency of the mind, hypothesizing a cardinal scale of complexity. According to this assumption, matter and energy combine to form increasingly complex structures, ultimately resulting in the human brain. In other words, the evolutionary process is a physical complexification, driven by something like the second law of thermodynamics, which produces living cells from chemicals, and mind from brain. This assumption underlies much of the work in artificial intelligence, which expects, for example, that once a sufficiently complex neural network can be built, then it should exhibit noetic properties. Also, if it only requires complex physical processes to produce intelligence, then we might expect to find a noetic species which has evolved under completely different conditions from our own.

Using this scale of complexity to differentiate the varying configurations of physical entities, we need to employ a broad set of general categories to partition off forms with unique properties. In his theory of time, J.T. Fraser divides the cosmos into six integrative levels of reality, a hierarchy of increasingly complex structures. Each level is defined by the scope of temporal experience possible within it—that is, the experience of atoms is different from that of living cells and also from our own psychological experience of time. Each level is also associated with a unique emergent behavior, such as the chemical properties of atoms or the living property of cells. The most significant aspect of this system for our purposes is the emergence of consciousness from the so-called "biotemporal" level—from living matter to mind. Although Fraser designed his system to account for the existence of the cosmos as we know it—a global metaphysics uniting the disparate realms of the hard sciences—one may freely extrapolate beyond our own trajectory through the hierarchy to other possibilities. To more clearly identify the individuals at each level of the hierarchy, David Ray Griffin adds the stipulation that the whole is only greater than the sum of its parts when a new, self-motivating individual emerges from the union. Because we can only infer the existence of time through the dynamics of motion, the ability to self-motivate implies the experience of time. Thus a human being is the self-motivating, noetic individual emergent from the complex concatenation of the individual pre-noetic cells.

This metaphysical system, which I have outlined very briefly, provides us with an understanding of how a noetic species may evolve to consciousness. However, in order to apply Lem’s window of contact theory—that is, to discuss the degree of a species’ noetic development—we need to add another structural feature to our system. Obviously cats have minds and memories, but their noetic level is inferior to ours. Moreover, Lem explicitly adopts the idea of noetic sub-levels when he outlines the process of intellectual self-evolution, which characterizes the "too mature" phase mentioned in Fiasco. In Lem’s "Golem XIV" a super-intelligent computer, named Golem, lectures to its human designers about intellectual evolution: "When you take a human brain and start to strengthen it intellectually, as if inflating a child’s balloon, you will see that, as it expands, it will climb on the scale of intelligence like a stratospheric balloon that penetrates higher and higher cloud layers in its ascent" (Imaginary Magnitude 195). Whereas Fraser’s theory of integrative levels does not account for relative degrees of complexity within each particular level, fractional sub-levels may be introduced to specify differences in complexity within one integrative level. Let us turn to complexity theory once again and adopt the use of the fractal dimension, which is a continuous numerical measure of an object’s spatial complexity. When rounded off to the next highest whole number, an object’s fractal dimension becomes the number of Euclidian dimensions necessary to contain that object. Thus physical complexity becomes analogous to spatial complexity and integrative levels become analogous to Euclidian dimensions. As a consequence, in our metaphysical system, even though two species reach the noetic integrative level, their particular sub-levels may differ and they may never be able to communicate if the gap between them places one outside the window of contact of the other.

Although we could apply this system to many of Lem’s contact stories, let us narrow our application to an analysis of two of Lem’s novels. In each novel, human space travelers encounter what appears to be, at first, a single alien intelligence—in the first, inferior; in the second, superior. In The Invincible, a rescue mission in search of its sister ship is beset by "the black cloud"—a swarm of ferrous insects, which, it is supposed, evolved in a runaway cybernetic war with the more traditional, humanoid robots. The ferrous flies eventually won this evolutionary battle because of their non-localization and their interchangeability. The swarm consists of millions of identical flies, yet they comprise a single intelligence. Thus you would essentially have to destroy them all to destroy the cloud; anything less would have little effect.1 Whenever the insects sense the presence of magnetic fields, such as the minute field generated by the electrical activity of a humanoid robot or the human brain, they mass together into the deadly black cloud. Apparently, they evolved this singular sensitivity to the signature of their traditional enemy in strict accordance with the rules of evolution. In response to this stimulus, the cloud attempts to annihilate the source of the field by directing huge vortices of magnetic fields against it. Without an enemy, the insects remain dormant on the ground. Individually, the insects exhibit no noetic behavior, but whenever they mass into the black cloud, it possesses the tactical ability to devise effective attacks and it even learns from its failures. According to our theory, the individual, self-motivating insects are pre-noetic cells, but they have developed the ability to make discrete jumps into consciousness in response to the stimulus. Whereas the humans are never able to communicate with the cloud, they are able to render themselves invisible to its perception by donning a cap that randomizes the external magnetic fields of their brains. Even at its most conscious noetic level, the black cloud exhibits only the simple behavior of war-like destruction, which Lem clearly sees as a low-level noetic development. The humans are able to deter the destructive attacks of the cloud and thus are superior to it, but they are not able to communicate with it. The noetic sub-level of the cloud is low and outside our window of contact. In the end the humans choose to leave the cloud to its own devices. Failure to communicate with an inferior intelligence presents no new frustrations for our species.

But the singular black cloud is not the only manifestation of consciousness for the ferrous flies. The black cloud arises when all the flies join together in response to a stimulus, but in a brief scene near the end of the novel, the flies are seen to alight in small groups at random to form geometrical structures in the air. At one point, the protagonist, Rohan, invisible to the flies, witnesses this "dreaming" activity as the insects create an image of his own face. Thus the flies exhibit a second, lower-level consciousness when they group together in small numbers. The behavior, while still noetic, seems to be just subconscious musing, definitely not at the level of the aggressive black cloud. Although nothing is made of this secondary consciousness in The Invincible, a structurally similar development finds a much more significant role in what is arguably Lem’s most significant novel.

In Solaris, an entire planet is covered by a sentient plasma ocean. Human scientists have been stationed on the planet for years studying the ocean and trying for some sign of noetic contact. The ocean is a single experiencing noetic individual composed of the "biological" plasma, samples of which have been removed from the planet for analysis. No noetic behavior was observed in the samples. Again Lem employs the device of noetic emergence from a composite of identical particles. Well before the narrative instance, the ocean has already demonstrated the noetic dreaming behavior of creating temporary geometrical structures on its surface, as well as recreating disproportionate versions of the human form of people that have come into proximity with it. But the current group of scientists on the planet experience a new behavior. The planet has begun to create independent noetic creatures from the imprint of the scientists’ memories. Each scientist discovers a personalized visitor, a living person physically identical to someone from his past, complete with all the memories that the host has of the original person. The protagonist of this story, Kelvin, is visited by Rheya, a simulacrum of his late wife. Although initially she is equipped with only the incomplete set of Kelvin’s memories of his wife, Rheya begins to develop a personality of her own. The initial memories are implanted as the nucleus for new personality development, just as the replicant Rachel in Blade Runner is given the memories of Tyrell’s niece. When Kelvin experiments with a sample of her cell structure, he discovers that, at the subatomic level, she is constructed of neutrinos rather than the usual subatomic particles. In essence, the ocean is able to create, from its own biological material, a noetic individual that functions in every way as a human being. Just as we are trying to create artificial intelligence, the ocean is able to create artificial humanity.

If the ocean is able to understand the human noetic level well enough to create it artificially, then it must be at a significantly higher noetic level. Let us draw upon an extension of Gödel’s theorem, which requires one to proceed to a meta-level language to avoid the paradox of self-referential statements. The extension here is that higher levels of complexity are required to fully understand the behavior at any particular level. Even though Kelvin can communicate with Rheya because, by design, they occupy similar noetic sub-levels, his hopes of communication with the ocean itself seem to be forever doomed; the ocean is high and outside our window of contact. According to Lem’s theory, the ocean must have moved on to the "too mature" level of noetic self-evolution. But just as in The Invincible, the flies can group together in small numbers to form the lower-level dreaming consciousness, so in Solaris, Rheya is made of a small quantity of the stuff of the ocean and she is of a lower-level intelligence. The gap between ourselves and the ocean is probably as large as that between ourselves and the black cloud, but, because the ocean is a superior intelligence, the disappointment at not being able to communicate with it is greater—our hopes were higher. Although it seems vaguely tragic that we are forever blocked from communicating with the only known extra-terrestrial intelligence worth talking to, the true tragedy in Solaris comes as Kelvin realizes the final loss of Rheya. The ocean discontinues sending the visitors, perhaps losing interest in the project. The gap between the noetic sub-levels of Rheya and Kelvin is small, the communication large, and the tragedy of the loss is great.

We have seen that in both Solaris and The Invincible, the single alien intelligence emerges as greater than the sum of its pre-noetic parts. They both are associated with a secondary lower-level intelligence composed of some fraction of the whole. But whereas the black cloud and the ocean are both outside our window of contact, the ocean’s secondary consciousness, the visitors, are within the window, thereby enabling the element of tragedy, which makes for a much more interesting story. In Fiasco, Lem again explores contact with another noetic species. This time natural evolution has provided a species which is within our window of contact, but which has evolved along a different trajectory through the hierarchy. Tragedy again ensues when the human contact-mission ends up annihilating the Quintans because of a specio-centric misinterpretation of their actions. Here, in an example of what we might expect to find in a best-case scenario for our real search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Lem predicts the worst for our species.2


1. Lem was so taken with this hetero-versus-homogeneous technology that he later wrote a short story, "The Upside-down Evolution" (in One Human Minute) to describe it in detail.

2. In terms of artificial intelligence research, it might be interesting to tackle the often heated debate over the adequacy of the Turing intelligence test by reinterpreting the test in terms of self-motivating individuals and noetic sub-levels.


Fraser, J.T. The Genesis and Evolution of Time: A Critique of Interpretation in Physics. Amherst, 1982.

Griffin, David Ray. "Pantemporalism and Panexperientialism." Unpublished essay.

Lem, Stanislaw. Fiasco. Trans. Michael Kandel. San Diego: Harcourt, 1986.

————. Imaginary Magnitude. Trans. Marc E. Heine. San Diego: Harcourt, 1984.

————. The Invincible. Translated from the German edition, Der Unbesiegbare (1967), by Wendayne Ackerman. NY: Seabury, 1973.

————. Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. Trans. Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek. NY: Harcourt, 1982.

————. One Human Minute. Trans. Catherine S. Leach. San Diego: Harcourt, 1986.

————. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. NY: Berkley, 1970.

Wicken, Jeffrey S. Evolution, Thermodynamics and Information. NY, 1987.

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