Science Fiction III


More notes on some classic science fiction titles.

Previous parts: SF I, SF II.

This piece is just a collection of short observations on sci-fi titles that I've read.

Kurt Vonnegut: Cat's Cradle (1963, 206pp)

A darkly funny little fiction about a journalist who follows a profile piece all the way to the end. The ice cold antechamber to the inferno of Vonnegut's celebrated Slaughterhouse-Five.

Cat's Cradle is a peculiar sort of yarn. It's a Cold War allegory, a satire on American affairs, and a knowing look at science and religion, and the absurdities of life. Cradle is a fairly simple story framed by a narrator who mixes together a first person account of what happened and some teachings from the Bokononist faith of little falsehoods.

We meet the Hoenikkers, the children of the late Felix Hoenikker, co-creator of the atomic bomb. Brilliant, but socially inept, the physicist Hoenikker left behind a broken family when he died as a result of careless experimenting. In a sense Cradle is a morality tale about a scientist whose playful travails have unintended or spiteful consequences.

Remarkably, the story throws our journalist narrator to a rocky island in the Caribbean, the banana republic of San Lorenzo. From there, a series of entertainingly convenient and straightforward plot twists bring our narrator to the present. All the little pieces fall into place, all the caricatures have their moment, and then the inevitable happens.

There is science and there is fiction in the world of Cradle. The book is more of a portrait of an era, rather than a speculation about of a future past. What little science and technology makes an appearance, carries little surprise. The fantasy is entirely with the mysterious substance that Hoenikker synthesised.

The science of it is not central. The point is that we have our seat assigned at the dinner party for the end of the world, and the bell is ringing.

Daniel F. Galouye: Simulacron-3 (1964, 169pp)

Turtles all the way down, the philosophy of the virtual machine. Adventures in artificial worlds, life and death in the depths of a simulated existence. The real world and the ones a level up and a level down.

The Simulacron-3 is a virtual environment built for a simple purpose: public opinion polling. That is, consumer market research. Our protagonist, Doug Hall, is the lead investigator — the simulectronicist — in a project aiming to rid the world of the nuisance of face-to-face in-person polling. There are laws and powerful lobby organisations backing this seemingly ancient practice. But Hall, and the corporation he works for, are building an artificial world where simulations can produce all this opinion data. The management has some other uses in mind as well.

It all starts to go wrong, when people and things begin to go missing from Hall's own reality. And worse, only Hall seems to even remember the departed. Entire lives get erased from common memory. Suddenly there are problems with the simulation research as well, and Hall's colleagues engage in all kinds of strange scheming. Half the book is Hall trying to piece things together in his head. Tapping into simulation's feeds becomes a daunting task.

The story is rather small and has a straightforward arc. Simulacron feels a little basic, but the reality is that it landed twenty years before the dawn of cyberpunk, and decades before the Matrix (1999) and Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010). The level crossing, tapping into another world, is a standard mechanism today, but it wasn't so in the 60s. In some sense the philosophical questions are eternal, but the treatment here is rather gentle.

Galouye has imagined an advanced future and it's in your face from page one. Obviously there's the simulator itself, an advanced computer system, still presented mainly as an electro-mechanical contraption. The neural and sensory hacking needed to tap into the system is equally advanced. Consciousness can be transferred wholesale or in part when visiting, even feedback is possible. Back "up", the body is simply put to rest on a sofa. The mind, all of human psychology, is just another engineering discipline.

Video screens and radios are easy to come by. Pedestrian traffic is replaced or at least dominated by "pedistrips", conveyor belts of various speeds. Intercoms have cameras, video calls are commonplace. Food and beverages are generated on demand by buttons on the wall. Synthesised nutrition is the norm, real stuff is once again a special treat.

There are advanced laser weapons everywhere. The laser guns can poke holes in people or simply stun their limbs for a few hours. Everybody knows how to operate these guns, to the point of adjusting settings without looking. Our chief engineer can even control behaviour through localised brain-stuns done with flawless accuracy. The choice weapon for domestic terrorists is the thermite bomb. Force fields protect buildings and people from accidents.

The cars fly and float, and fairly reliably so, to the point of enabling Superman dates hovering in the sky. For some reason the main nerd here has beautiful women throwing themselves at him for company. A high-end retro restaurant visit features waiters and pattern table cloths as novelties. In place of a cinema, there's multi-sensory, immersive and intimate spectacle viewing options and other private experiences.

A Martian hypnostone is the centre piece of an elite party. The evening's main entertainment is a performance by a troupe that travels with their own anti-gravity generator. Drinking is frequent, smoking is mostly done in easy joints specifically set up for it. Art on the walls is 3D. The music is "period", that is, what passed for contemporary in the '60s.

For all its futurism, Simulacron is in the end almost a classic moral story, a fable. It's a fairly juvenile male fantasy — the engineer vs. the world — but the pace is quite high and the story is easy to read through. Light existential fun for fans of virtual realities.

👉 Be sure to check out Jill Lepore's book IF THEN (Liverlight, 2020). It tells the story of The Simulmatics Corporation, an early data science consulting business. The Simulmatics mission was to build a "People Machine", a punched card powered number cruncher that could help with understanding human behaviour. The company was in operation during the volatile decade of the 1960s, managing to get mixed up in the biggest political intrigues of the era. The Simulmatics Corp prepared surveys for the Kennedy campaign, the Nixon campaign and the Vietnam War machine. They also did forecasts for old media and big industry. Lepore mentions Galouye's Simulacron-3 in her study.

Stanisław Lem: The Futurological Congress (1971, 129pp)

A conference for the future goes all wrong, but psychoactive drugs keep the stories going. Congress is sharp satire on the conference circuit, on futurology, and more broadly on society, global issues, and our collective obsessions.

Congress is a kind of a warning shot, reminding people to be careful of what they wish for, especially when it comes to the utopias of the future. A strong political undercurrent runs through the story. We see social divides, uprisings and conflict, policing and control. Dramatic upheaval sends people from penthouses to hide in the sewers. Societies can change in all kinds of ways, you just have to see through the deception to begin.

Indeed, the world is not what it seems. We are all watched over by greater powers. If the world appears absurd and wrong before you, perhaps you are one of the select few, who can see past and through all the layers. Perhaps you can see the world for what it really is, for the billions of us crammed together. Or maybe we are all just hallucinating.

Stanislaw Lem's short novel starts off as a satire on congress hotels. Ijon Tichy, space traveller (and serial protagonist in Lem's novels), arrives in volatile Costa Rica to attend a conference on the overpopulation crisis. The hotel is absurd, Tichy's room is absurd. So are the fellow guests, the entertainment, the proceedings. There's a delicious appreciation for procedure that reminds me of some of Douglas Adams' finest work. Congress, too, is about a rather ordinary fellow getting pulled into a bit of an adventure in a strange land.

There's something in the water, and soon the absurdity is within us. The hotel descends into full chaos, but most people take it in good spirits. There is refuge underground, but the air is thick with hallucinations. In vivid chemical dreams, Tichy finds himself in all kinds of odd virtual situations and identity crises. Lem is comfortable with exploring philosophical territory in his work, never compromising on his relentlessly black humour. Eventually help arrives, but at that point Tichy, in and out of reality, is beyond helping. He ends up frozen, cryogenically preserved for the future.

In the distant future, the year 2039, Tichy is warmed up again. Things have changed quite a bit. Earth has become a Utopia of sorts. Money is not important, everyone has plenty, and the world is at peace. There are many new things, new concepts, and new strange words with familiar roots to describe them. Tichy slowly learns how the world works.

You see, everybody is on drugs — all the time. The creative pharmaceutical industry has produced precision narcotics, "psychems", to manage any and all psychological states. There are layers upon layers of masks between the brain and the world. The future is a false world of synthetic substitutes brought on by myopic (bio-)technological progress. It is a great lie, a necessary lie, but a lie nonetheless.

When Tichy gets his hands on a solution of dispel, it all unravels for him. As with John Carpenter's They Live, the truth is far uglier than we care to believe. The fate of the world depends on those who see the world for what it really is. There's a reason why the city feels cold.

Stanisław Lem: The Cyberiad (1965, 289pp)

A series of short fictions about a pair of master constructors — Trurl and Klapaucius — and their adventures in the many kingdoms scattered among the stars. Polish sci-fi wordsmith Lem in full swing, brilliantly translated to English by Michael Kandel. Two of these stories feature in Hofstadter's anthology The Mind's Eye.

The Cyberiad is a collection of independent, but thematically connected stories. Each story explores some point of friction between robots and humans and the various schemes people engage in, always in pursuit of something. Lem's take on humanity and society is warm and humorous, even ridiculous, but equally the stories carry a sharp message about our place in the grand scheme of things.

Trurl and Klapaucius have a rare talent: they can build machines to meet any need. Unspecified intelligent machines themselves, T&K are in effect demi-gods, able to move stars around and to grant absurd fantastical powers to their electro-mechanical creations. The two compete on the sophistication of their constructs, and their ability to solve problems. Trurl is the rash one, often getting in trouble. Klapaucius then has to bail them both out. Together they build their most elaborate machines.

The two builders offer their impressive construction services to anyone willing to pay their hefty fees in gold and other valuables. Many stories begin with a royal summons, a distress call from a kingdom in peril somewhere in the galactic neighbourhood. At the same time, the two builders seek out interesting phenomena and follow-up on travellers' rumours. The universe is a silly place, it turns out, and our protagonists are always ready for another sally to fully appreciate it.

Trurl and Klapaucius engineer solutions to human problems. As always, the right machine is only half the answer. It's all about understanding the customer and what it is that they are truly after. The best solutions always require some kind of lateral thinking. For all their might and ability, it is creativity and resourcefulness that really allows the constructors to get the job done. For the reader, the pleasure is equally in both the unpacking of the problem and the deployment of the solution.

In his more insightful stories, Lem explores deep questions around identity, beneficence, romance, and life's purpose. Here, asking questions is perhaps the only meaningful answer. Lem blends classic fables with his robot fantasies, effectively giving fairly straightforward stories a cartoonish cyber-prefix.

In terms of technology, The Cyberiad is a bit of a challenge. Intelligent machine are commonplace, the singularity happened a long time ago, so pretty much anything goes. The two constructors themselves are effectively post-human, as are many of the named individuals we meet in the stories. There are whole robot societies. The robots are very much like you and I, with their vanity and anger and compassion, their passions and fears, their sense of beauty. Indeed, the robots have feelings.

Despite their human characteristics, for the robots, human time scales mean nothing. Space travel and impossible builds are not much of a challenge when you have all the time in the world. Perhaps that is Lem's point. If we one day build societies with intelligent machines, where robots walk the streets with us, we have to get used to the idea that they will still be there tomorrow — even if we can't say the same for ourselves.