The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Heresiarch

In the review I linked in my previous post, I found a link to an older review also by Kenneth Silber. Titled "Selfish Baby Universes," it describes Biocosm by James N. Gardner [a lawyer, we are told]:
The universe, in Gardner's telling, is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that genes are regarded as "selfish"; it is geared for self-replication. The Big Bang thus resulted from a Big Crunch in a previous universe. Our universe will end with a similar event, giving rise to one or more baby universes. Intelligent life arises in each universe, and eventually develops the ability to create new universes friendly to intelligent life.

But how did the cycle begin? Isn't there a gigantic chicken-and-egg problem? One might suppose the first universe containing intelligent life arose by accident, perhaps as part of an ensemble of universes that were mostly unfriendly to life. But Gardner regards this as an unsatisfying explanation. Rather, he proposes a notably strange idea. There may be a "closed timelike curve," a gravitational warping of space and time such that future events can influence the past. Thus, the universe may have been created by its own inhabitants!
Naturally, my first thought on reading this was of Stanislaw Lem. In "A New Cosmogony", the final section of the mind-altering A Perfect Vacuum, Lem describes almost the same theory:

What might a civilization that lasted millions of times longer do? The astrophysicists who dealt with such questions declared that such civilizations did nothing, seeing they did not exist.

What happened to them? The German astronomer Sebastian van Hoerner maintained they all committed suicide. And why not, if they are nowhere to be found! But no, replied Acheropolous. They are nowhere to be found? It is only that we do not perceive them, becaue they are already everywhere. That is, not they, but the fruit of their labor. [...] If one considers "artificial" that which is shaped by an active intelligence, then the entire universe that surrounds us is already articifial. [... where are] the titanic technologies of these beings who are supposed to surround us and constitute the starry firmanent? But this is a mistake caused by the inertia of the mind, since instrumental technologies are required only -- says Acheropolous -- by a civilization still in the embryonic stage, like Earth's. A billion-year-old civilization employs none. Its tools are what we call the Laws of Nature. Physics itself is the "machine" of such civilizations! [...] That "machine" is billions of years in the making...

There is the majority of Mr. Gardner's idea, planted in communist Poland in 1971. But before I could even reach my bookshelf, it occurred to me that I needed to consult His Master's Voice [1968]. This is one of Mr. Lem's most human novels, the story of a man who puzzles at an insoluble problem -- a lone indecipherable message from outer space -- until his faith in science, and even reason, founders. Towards the end, desperate theories are offered:
Thus, in this spirited picture, the stellar code was revealed to be a transmission sent into the sphere of our Universe -- from the Universe that came before it. The Senders, therefore, had not existed for at least thirty billion years. They had fashioned the "message" so well that it survived the annihilation of their cosmos; and their message, joining the processes of the succeeding creation, set in motion the evolution of life on the planets. We, too, were Their children...
Merging these two speculations, we obtain Biocosm.

Of course, these are not developed to book length. But a rich man may well spend as much on the decorations as a poor man spends on his house; and [with the possible exception of Jorge Luis Borges] no one has ever been richer in this way than Mr. Lem.

His most famous work is probably Solaris [1961], made into two movies. [Soderbergh's rendition, unappetizingly and inaccurately presented on the cover of the latest printing, is more faithful but less poetic than Tarkovsky's long dream.] In His Master's Voice, we are also treated to a brief and partial exegesis:
Let us suppose that biological evolution could take a double path: it could create separate organisms, and then, from them, intelligent beings; or it could create, on the other branch, biospheres that were "nonintelligent" but highly organized -- [...] one that in the course of a very long development would master even nuclear energy[...], not in the way that we mastered bomb or reactor technology, but in the way that our bodies "mastered" metabolism.
This is the merest fragment of Solaris, which also draws in the threads of Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point", of the meaning of identity [prefiguring today's science fiction puzzles about uploading], and of the process of scientific discovery.

Mr. Lem's intricate puzzles and tales of comic horror are given their freest rein in The Cyberiad, a loose collection of the adventures of the near-omnipotent "constructors" Klapaucius and Trurl. It is most famed for The Poem. Klapaucius says, of Trurl's Electronic Bard,
Have it compose a poem -- a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!
And [a feat shared with translator Michael Kandel] it does.

My own favorite is a short, earlier novel, The Invincible [sadly, out of print]. The most linear of these books, it nonetheless tells a story of staggering and alien imagination. Reading anything by Mr. Lem is a voyage, propelled by intricate hypotheses, toward the outer reaches of a vast and perhaps incomprehensible universe. These are not books of science fiction, but adventures in metaphysics, dramatically humanized voyages of epistemology.