Reading Stanislaw Lem’s Dialogues for the Times, 5 October 2021

Some writers follow you through life. Some writers follow you beyond the grave. I was seven when Andrei Tarkovsky filmed Lem’s satirical sci-fi novel Solaris, thirty seven when Steven Soderbergh’s very different (and hugely underrated) Solaris came out, forty when Lem died. Since then, a whole other Stanslaw Lem has arisen, reflected in philosophical work that, while widely available elsewhere, had to wait half a century or more for an English translation. In life I have nursed many regrets: that I didn’t learn Polish is not the least of them.

The point about Lem is that he writes about the future, predicting the way humanity’s inveterate tinkering will enable, pervert and frustrate its ordinary wants and desires. This isn’t “the future of technology” or “the future of the western world” or “the future of the environment”. It’s neither “the future as the author would like it to be”, nor “the future if the present moment outstayed its welcome”. Lem knows a frightening amount of science, and even more about technology, but what really matters is what he knows about people. His writing is not just surprisingly prescient; it’s timeless.

Dialogues is about cybernetics, the science of systems. A system is any material arrangement that responds to environmental feedback. A steam engine is a mere mechanism, until you add the governor that controls its internal pressure. Then it becomes a system. When Lem was writing, systems thinking was meant to transform everything, conciliating between the physical sciences and the humanities to usher in a technocratic Utopia.

Enthusiastic as 1957-vintage Lem was, there is something deliciously levelling about how he introduces the cybernetic idea. We can bloviate all we like about using data and algorithms to create a better society; what drives Philonous and Hylas’s interest in these eight dialogues (modelled on Berkeley’s Three Dialogues of 1713) is Hylas’s desperate desire to elude Death. This new-fangled science of systems reimagines the world as information, and the thing about information is that it can be transmitted, stored and (best of all) copied. Why then can’t it transmit, store and copy poor Death-haunted Hylas?

Well, of course, that’s certainly do-able, Philonous agrees — though Hylas might find cybernetic immortality “grotesque, awkward, and disagreeable”. Sure enough, Hylas baulks at Philomous’s culminating vision of humanity immortalised in serried ranks of humming metal cabinets.

This image certainly was prescient: Cybernetics was supposed to be a philosophy, one that would profoundly change our understanding of the animate and inanimate world. The philosophy failed to catch on, but its insights created something utterly unexpected: the computer.

Dialogues is important now because it describes (or described, rather, more than half a century ago — you can almost hear Lem’s slow hand-clapping from the Beyond) all the ways we do not comprehend the world we have made.

Cybernetics teaches us that systems are animate. It doesn’t matter what a system is made from. Workers in an office, onse and zeroes clouding a chip, proteins folding and refolding in a living cell, string and pulleys in a playground: are all good building materials for systems, and once a system is up and running, it is no longer reducible to its parts. It’s a distinct, unified whole, shaped by its past history and actively coexisting with its environment, and exhibiting behavior that cannot be precisely predicted from its structure. “If you insist on calling this new system a mechanism,” Lem remarks, drily, “then you must apply that term to living beings as well.”

We’ve yet to grasp this nettle: that between the living and non-living worlds sits a world of systems, unalive yet animate. No wonder, lacking this insight, we spend half our lives sneering at the mechanisms we do understand (“Alexa, stop calling my Mum!”) and the other half on our knees, worshipping the mechanisms we don’t. (“It says here on Facebook…”) The very words we use — “artificial intelligence” indeed! — reveal the paucity of our understanding.

“Lem understood, as no-one then or since has understood, how undeserving of worship are the systems (be they military, industrial or social) that are already strong enough to determine our fate. A couple of years ago, around the time Hong Kong protesters were destroying facial recognition towers, a London pedestrian was fined £90 for hiding his face from an experimental Met camera. The consumer credit reporting company Experian uses machine learning to decide the financial trustworthiness of over a billion people. China’s Social Credit System (actually the least digitised of China’s surveillance systems) operates under multiple, often contradictory legal codes.

The point about Lem is not that he was terrifyingly smart (though he was that); it’s that he had skin in the game. He was largely self-taught, because he had to quit university after writing satirical pieces about Soviet poster-boy Trofim Lysenko (who denied the existence of genes). Before that, he was dodging Nazis in Lv’v (and mending their staff cars so that they would break down). In his essay “Applied Cybernetics: An Example from Sociology”, Lem uses the new-fangled science of systems to anatomise the Soviet thinking of his day, and from there, to explain how totalitarianism is conceived, spread and performed. Worth the price of the book in itself, this little essay is a tour de force of human sympathy and forensic fury, shorter than Solzhenitsyn, and much, much funnier than Hannah Arendt.

Peter Butko’s translations of the Dialogues, and the revisionist essays Lem added to the 1971 second edition, are as witty and playful as Lem’s allusive Polish prose demands. His endnotes are practically a book in themselves (and an entertaining one, too).

Translated so well, Lem needs no explanation, no contextualisation, no excuse-making. Lem’s expertise lay in technology, but his loyalty lay with people, in all their maddening tolerance for bad systems. “There is nothing easier than to create a state in which everyone claims to be completely satisfied,” he wrote; “being stretched on the bed, people would still insist — with sincerity — that their life is perfectly fine, and if there was any discomfort, the fault lay in their own bodies or in their nearest neighbor.”