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Reading Stanislaw Lem's "The Invincible" (1967) in 2022

[update: this post was written before ChatGPT appeared. ChatGPT has relegated much of Science Fiction appearances of intelligent robots way less futuristic]

It´s revealing to read SciFi books of the past. How antiquated so many details are! For example, in the 1967 SF novel "The Invincible" by Stanislaw Lem one will find quite inconsistent predictions.

Lem got a fantastic high-level vision while getting many details very wrong. Here are some of his imagined broad technological capabilities of the future civilization:

  • Space travel at near speed of light

  • Anti-matter weapons that can dry out oceans

  • A kind of "neurolink" technology to read the memory content of recently deceased people.

But many of the imagined details of the future technology are amazingly incongruent with the imagined advanced overall capabilities.

These are some examples for incongruent details:

  • People read books printed on paper

  • Information is stored on microfilm

  • Maps are stored as postcard-sized "microphotogram-maps" which must be read through a strong magnifying glass

  • Space routes are calculated with the help of slide rulers

  • Satellite cameras whose images are transferred to "specially prepared plates", which are then visually checked by a crew of 30 specialists to find a specific object

  • Machines are controlled by physical code stripes

  • Spaceship communication is supported through stationary telephones.

The one thing that shines through its absence is the mobile phone: our supercomputer in the pocket. Lem had no idea of miniaturization or design at the molecular level.

Of the super-computer in each child´s pocket, linking them up to the world´s knowledge, to all books ever printed, to all music ever composed, to millions of porn videos, and theoretically at least, to all human beings.

In Lem´s future, astronauts carry a compass device in their pocket - something every child has today as a minor function on their mobile phone, along with a zillion other functions such as writing, communicating, measuring, taking pictures, recording audio, playing games, navigating etc.

But of course: if I imagine that the future will always include mobile phones, this is surely as wrong as imagining space travel supported by slide rulers.

So, any decent SciFi would have to imagine a level of technology where even the mobile phone looks like a clunky burden on the human race, just like we see Stanislav Lem´s static microphotogram-maps.


A thought on...

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