Lem on the Singularity and Great Filter, in 1970

Damien Broderick (d.broderick@english.unimelb.edu.au)
Wed, 15 Dec 1999 17:39:10 -0800

Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish polymath and sf writer/critic, published FANTASTYKA I FUTUROLOGIA in Cracow in 1970, which included a long discussion of Olaf Stapleton's magisterial 1930 novel LAST AND FIRST MEN. Parts of this chapter were translated (via Hungarian) by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, and published in 1986 in SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES (Vol 13, p. 272-91). I quote without permission the following rather impressive unfolding of what Vernor Vinge would independently rediscover more than a decade later. Perhaps this insight was achieved prior to Lem; I would be grateful to learn if he, too, was anticipated.

Lem critiques several aspects of Stapledon's two billion year future history, noting almost in passing that its repeated total regressions in progress is implausible but constructed for the literary reason that taking into account genuinely expectable change would have made it impossible to write the novel (as Vinge realized much later):

But let us keep in mind that another vision, in which the species' cataclysmic degeneration is not so profound - in other words, in which there would be some continuity in the current of civilizational transformations - would have made it impossible to write the book. For the ascent that follows exponentially from this premise would surpass the capacities of any artist's imagination. This means that even if the fate of humanity is not at all tragic, we are incapable of plausibly foreseeing - in the very distant future - different qualities of being, other than the tragic. [...] But the existence of future generations totally transformed from ours would remain an incomprehensible puzzle for us, even if we could express it.

It is a law of civilizational dynamics that instrumental phenomena grow at an exponential rate. Stapledon's vision owes its particular form and evenness to the fact that its author ignores this law. [...] Technological development is an independent variable primarily because its pace is a correlative of the amount of information already acquired, and the phenomenon of exponential growth issues from the cross-breeding of the elements of the mass of information. [...] His cautious pen never drove the narrative to `techno-orgiastic escalation,' and his societies are never threatened by hedonism. (pp. 285-7)

Lem's entire discussion is worth reading for its nuance as well as its possible priority. His scathing criticism of the failure of imagination of Western sf is now rather dated, happily, but still applies to most
`consumer fodder' science fiction. His own apparent lapse of imagination -
that proviso, `in the very distant future' - is compensated by his insistence that *already* we have achieved most of the great technical breakthroughs expected by Stapledon no sooner than millennia or even millions of years hence. `[T]he moment of the chromosome structure's discovery cannot be separated by "long millennia" from an increase in knowledge that would permit, for example, the species to direct its development' (p. 285). He even preempts Vinge's metaphor of an event horizon of prediction: `[Stapledon] has invalidated the real factors of exponential growth, which obstruct all long-range predictions; we can't see anything from the present moment beyond the horizon of the 21st century' (p. 287).

No less remarkably, perhaps, Lem made a cognitive leap seldom seen, I believe, outside these forums. There are reasons to doubt his conclusion, but it is an impressive leap of connective imagination:

`Predictions beyond 80 or 100 years inevitably fail. Beyond that range lies
the impenetrable darkness of the future, and above it, a single definite sign indecipherable, but impinging on us all the more: the Silence of the Universe. The universe has not yielded to the radiance of cilivizations; it does not scintillate with brilliant astro-technical works - although that is how it should be, if the law of psychozoic beings were an aspect of the exponential ortho-evolution of instrumentality in cosmic dimension.' (p. 288)

Nice going, Dr Lem!

Damien Broderick