I’ve been intermittently reading through the London Review, as I’ve mentioned here before, and while it’s the best of its type, there are the occasional head-scratchers. Many of the things the journal printed about literary theory in the early-mid 80s, for example (outside of Kermode’s contributions) tended toward the dotty. But I don’t know if I’ve come across something as spectacularly wrong as these remarks by Tom Shippey about Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco: Lem has often seemed in the past to be a beady-eyed observer, sitting on the SF periphery, watching everything that happens in centre-field, and quickly and deftly sewing it up into new shapes for much less sophisticated readers.
Like many citizens, I’ve followed the Google in China case somewhat. This Wired article caught my attention for a different reason. Look at this quote: “If you’re a law firm and you’re doing business in places like China, it’s so probable you’re compromised and it’s very probable there’s not much you can do about it,” Mandia says. Is there a way of parsing this other than “it’s like so probable” ?
I’ve said this before, but the proper analogy between an alien intelligence capable of placing impenetrable spheres around the exact boundaries of a human township is not ants to humans, as in King’s novel, but a virus colonizing some type of formicative intestinal bacterium to Colette, say. I’ve been amusing myself thinking of the type of apoplexy that Stanislaw Lem may have worked himself into when considering the consequences of the book’s premise, as in his essay on Roadside Picnic.
I learned from Michael Kandel’s essay* in Peter Swirski’s collection The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem (McGill UP, 2006) that crew member Harrach’s feelings about the absurdity of women appearing in science fiction novels (on pp. 313-14 of the Polish original according to Kandel) which expands into a rant was dropped from Kandel’s translation (with Lem’s approval) because Kandel and his editor thought that it would appear “ridiculous if not offensive to an American reader” (80 n.8).
It’s pretty easy to tell if I’m in a sentimental mood when I’m listening to music on my computer. If the Arcade Fire song “Intervention” comes up and I don’t skip it when he gets to the line about “working for the church,” then the natural lights of the season or something have gotten to me. I then sometimes read the reviews in The Yearbook of English Studies to get my edge back, if needed.
I am quite curious about why the English edition of One Human Minute does not contain “Provocation,” whereas the German does (and is titled Provokationen, no less). I am reading the German translation, albeit slowly, not yet having adequate Polish. The remarks about Heidegger and Mann are of interest. Also “Der Nazi als Gangster ist schon eine allzu triviale Banalisierung des Problems, als Diener des Teufels aber ist er eine pathetische Banalitat.” John Galbraith would’ve disagreed.
I’ve been reading Lem’s Peace on Earth intermittently on this long, shelter-finding trip; and he envisions, perhaps influenced by Jaynes–though he doesn’t cite him as I remember–, ultrasonic callotomy emerging as nanotech warfare strategy…on the moon! (There was a piece linked on metafilter today about chemical efforts to homosexualize, halitosisize, or enflatulate an enemy force– all rejected as unsuitable by planners, but braincandy just the same.) I can remember very well the belladonna eyes of the deer that ran into my car last night on the Natchez Trace, though I don’t, of course, remember the mechanics of the swerve, braking, protective arm over my wife–any of that.
A recent paper (summary) about the encoding of a message in bacteria DNA left me wondering what the first use of this idea in literature was (i. e., a persistent, long-term message decoded by DNA analysis left by previous humans, aliens, god(s), alien gods, god-like aliens, humans who became aliens then gods then humans, etc.) “Golem XIV” has some related speculation on the informational nature of the genetic code, I believe, and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub also raises the problem of data persistence which the paper cites as a potential practical application; but I seem to remember something using essentially the same idea.
I did happen to catch and release a croaker considerably larger than the one pictured below, but I chose not to photograph it so as not to compromise the considerable dignity of that aged fish. It was then caught and eaten by a mocking otter. I’m also catching up on the Litvinenko news and theories, and I have wondered what the odds are that it was a situation similar to that described in Lem’s book.
A reference in the title there to F. Crick and L. E. Orgel’s “Directed Panspermia” (Icarus 19 [July 1973]: 341-346), mentioned in the same footnote as this “For the general idea of life on Earth having arisen from extraterrestrial activity […] an idea also elaborated in the Strugatsky brothers’ […] Roadside Picnic” (Steven J. Dick, The Biological Universe Cambridge, 1996. 377n104). I’m not sure what Dick means here. I’m writing something short about Lem’s narrative theory, or presuppositions at least, in his brief essay on the book; but I thought briefly of the moulages being an advance unit that cause the rest of the world to be distorted into being, a temporal and stochastic paradox that may make sense of the Golden Ball.
“This right here beats anything I have ever seen,” Sheriff Tom Alexander told the Asheville Citizen-Times, which reported that victims may have come from as far away as South America These incidents, like the well-publicized case in Germany a few years ago, admit of no sociological explanation. They are bubbles of evanescence, chance beyond our ability to perceive. Our flawed intuitions about probability and causality are the subject of a good deal of Lem’s writings–note that the translator of The Chain of Chance gave it that overly descriptive title instead of the cognate “Catarrh.” This is yet another topic I’d like to address in the upcoming discussion, with specific reference perhaps to Investigation.
Any reader of Lem’s Fiasco will know both why you would want to weaponize space and the disastrous consequences (and be a better speller). Missile defense, particularly in space, should of course be called “missile offense.” It is designed to eliminate an enemy’s deterrent, not prevent attack.
Whose error? “The vocabulary of Evolution is like the Eskimos’ vocabularly–narrow in its richness; they have a thousand designations for all varieties of snow and ice…” (Lem, Imaginary Magnitude, 164).
“In the U.S., there is a periodical published by scientists and intended strictly for the cognoscenti, some specialists. It abounds with parodies, in-jokes (mostly nonsensical), and crazy ideas, entirely inaccessible to outsiders.” Lem. “Twenty Two Answers and Two Postscripts.” SFS 13 (1986): 251. The early days of Philosophy of Science had a strange and often funny column called “A New Budget of Paradoxes” by “W.M.M.,” but that clearly isn’t it. UPDATE: Two distinguished scholars, one often referred to as “the most erudite scholar of his generation” and the other a dynamic force in today’s blogosphere, wrote to me separately to say that this was likely the Journal of Irreproducible Results (now known as the Annals of Improbable Research).