Uncanny Valley Digest: Stanisław Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe”

lemsavetheuniverseLast night’s Stanisław Lem discussion was a joyride in a cosmic salvage craft! (In Polish, the “ł” is pronounced as a soft “wa,” between “L” and “W” on the English speaking palate.) Lem’s most well-traveled character, Ijon Tichy, delivers a wry and corrective missive to humanity.  “Let Us Save The Universe,” was first published in 1971. The English translation was published in the December 14, 1981 issue of The New Yorker. In it, Tichy laments the “growth of cosmic tourism,” and all the litter in its wake. He culminates in a call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

The asteroid belt is littered and defaced. Eros is graffitied with lovers’ names and “arrow-pierced hearts in the worst taste.” Ceres is plastered with 3D family photos like a Fotomat of Mt. Rushmores. Juno has been chipped and eroded away by vandals and souvenir hunters.

stanislawlemBoth stars in Centaurus are growing dim because they’re orbited by so much litter. One large planet in the system has a Saturn-like ring of “beer bottles and lemonade containers…tin cans, eggshells, and old newspapers. “There are places where you cannot see the stars for all the rubbish.” There’s also the problem of inconsiderate tourists expectorating into space. “Individuals who fall sick during a voyage seem to consider outer space their personal toilet.” That gunk freezes! Instant micro meteorites, quite dangerous. Also, “Alcoholism is a special problem.”

Oxygen supply lines are delayed across the 6 light years between Beluria and Palindronia. “People who go there to sightsee are forced to freeze themselves and wait.”

You get the point. The first third of the story reads, and I’m memory-quoting Chris here, “like a crotchety old man at the park complaining about all the people ruining his peace and quiet.”


The rest of the story is a tongue-in-cheek monsters compendium of plants, insects, and animals, that have mutated to lure, capture, and devour hapless human tourists. Like bottombiter chair ants, “that group together and mimic wicker furniture,” until a weary tourist comes along and instinctively plops into a random wicker chair, never to rise again.

There is a plant, the furiol, that attracts loud, misbehaving, destructive children, who love to kick and crush it because it cracks like an egg. It releases spores that get into their systems and infect the children.

“The child develops into an apparently normal individual, but before long an incurable malignant process sets in: card playing, drunkenness, and debauchery are the successive stages, followed by either death or a great career.”


That part’s funny enough, but he follows up by saying, in response to those who want to eradicate this plant, “Those who say this do not stop to think that children should be taught, instead, not to kick objects on foreign planets.”

There is a bird, hunted and eaten to the brink of extinction, called the scribblemock. It mimics humans much like a parrot does, but in writing. “Some people deliberately infuriate the bird by taunting it with spelling errors.”

Discussion ensued:

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Yes, that’s a Lord Of The Rings, Black Orc Porter

David: “Welcome to the Cosmic Confluence on Channel 28 Cable Access.”
Nowell: Yeahhh.
David: I found it a little bit impenetrable.
Meg: It correlates with increasing cultural awareness of pollution as a problem.
Suhail: It reminds me of Sharing Air.
Chris: Ecological talk of species mimicry betrays a gentle paranoia, of all these beasties that lure people in and devour them.
Meg: There’s another Tichy story with an electronic bard that spouts some really excellent poetry.
Nikita: Another famous one – The 14th Journey Of Tichy. There was an Azerbaijani-Russian collaboration animated movie of it.
David: The litter. Here’s the result of all that golden age sci fi going-out-into-the-great-beyond, colonizing space, and owning the universe stuff. So here’s all your junk and bullshit strewn everywhere. It’s an early cynical response to golden age sci fi, like, going out there isn’t going to be as great as we think.
Meg: It’s a big deal when a sci fi story gets published in the New Yorker. How much is it characteristic of Lem or how much is it New Yorker’ed? Because it’s very quaint in tone, with the sketches, with a Thurber-y, New-Yorker tone.
Chris: He was considered one of the most intellectual of sci fi writers. Not cynical so much as world weary and penetrating.
solarislemmovieNikita: Solaris is a masterpiece.
Chris: The only other Polish author I’ve read in depth is Sapkowski’s Witcher books (fantasy, recommended).
A recommendation of The Clockwork Man, by William Jablonsky.
Meg: In Poland or Eastern Europe, is sci fi literary? Seems like yes.
Nikita: Sci fi was taken very very seriously. “using Aesopian language to get past the censors.”
Suhail: Like the coded indictment of Cold War Russia in The Master And Margarita, by Bulgakov.
We went on a Bulgakov tangent about that masterpiece. Meg reads The Master And Margarita every couple of years; loves it. Nikita and Meg suggested strongly The Heart Of A Dog, also by Bulgakov.
Chris: Lem has 36 writing credits on IMDb. A Tichy series, 14 episodes. TV shorts. TV Movies. The most recent is a sci fi film in Hungary called, “His Master’s Voice.” Sounds like a ton of films to be explored.
Had a great free association from Meg that lead to Alfred Jarry being an influence on Lem. And David noticing that a character in Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? steals that name. “It’s Al Jarry, a B-movie actor from Indiana who plays Mercer in the Mercerism simulations.”
Chris: And Mercerizing is the industrial process of polishing threads of fabric for textiles. Just as the thread connecting these subjects has been made more lustrous.
Nice one, Chris!
Nikita: Clearly, Tichy is blaming humans for polluting what we assumed to be infinite spaces, but they’re not.
Meg: An extension of the fallacy that humans are at the top of the food chain.
Nikita: Things are in disrepair. There’s litter everywhere. Alcoholism is rampant. It’s a total reflection of the deteriorating soviet block social state of affairs (1971-81).

“Some people believe it is all right if humans eat creatures from other planets, but when the reverse takes place they raise a hue and cry, call for military assistance, demand punitive expeditions, etc.”

The story ends on a call to action, for us to enforce the laws and clean things up: “let us save the universe.” Sardonic; and all right in the middle of the environmental movement! (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962. Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970)
David: Now that we’ve had at it, I take back what I said about it being impenetrable.
Suhail: I also read it as a random flight of fancy at first, until Chris pointed out that these creatures are all evolved to devour humans because of cosmic tourism.

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Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.52.14 PMNikita suggested an animated Russian film from 1981 called “The Mystery of the Third Planet.” We shared around the YouTube link, to watch it later.

On that note, join us next week, for our discussion of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Metropolis


Last night’s Metropolis discussion was so Babylonian-modern that I forgot which century we were in! The high turnout was almost entirely via call-ins and I was delighted. Sadie put it best when she said, “It’s like we’re in the future.” That comment brought up some good jests, and hearkened back to the recent Internet anecdote about an AI’s posted video memory of watching Blade Runner, how that remembered copy is not subject to copyright authority.

Metropolis nurtured a rich discussion. It is clearly a literary piece of work. Every frame, every motion, is carefully considered. Metropolis was made in 1927, the heyday of the silent film industry. It is a work made by a master of the medium, who knew all of its limitations and how to exploit them. The robot in this movie would look at home next to C3PO.

We were also astounded that it still felt so current. It’s been 90 years, and science fiction movies are still rehashing this movie. Brought up some interesting ideas about where science fiction of today differs and by how much, especially in the treatment of AIs and the social justice implications of high technology and surveillance. Very powerful themes. It’s still a masterpiece. WATCH THIS MOVIE! Or at least catch the Metropolis Screenshot Slideshow. Now for the notes!


Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.34.09 PMDavid: This is one of the most accurate envisionings of the future, from the past, I’ve ever witnessed.

Nowell: I have dreams about bi planes flying around cities like that.

Nowell: That ending scene of Rotwant and Freder fighitng on top of the cathedral roof was “shot-for-shot the ending of The Crow. Proyas is a big fan of this movie.”

David: It’s not mimetic. For example, consider the giant machine Freder first encounters;Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 5.51.31 PMwith all the human parts doing a kind of synchronized dance to the machine works. It is expressionistic, conveying that anxiety.  “It is not trying to show you what the future will be like. It’s saying, ‘This is what the future is going feel like, you idiots, unless we pull it together and clean up our acts.”

David: One of the 1st texts designed to scare the shit out of you about the future. No realism – powerfully expressionistic and symbolic. It’s curious that it tells Germany’s future so presciently, because sit went down almost exactly like that 10 years later.
This led to a longer thread about the economic and social historical context of Germany when this movie was produced and released.

Definately total roaring 20s style decadance. He just put the present into the future. It is all contemporary technology, but saturated, packed tighter than ever. Look at those sets of Metropolis as viewed from the Frederson’s Babel Tower; the iconic cityscapes.

screenshot sadie says hi

1925 Novel by Thea Von Harbou
1927 Movie by Fritz Lang
The book was being written as the movie was being made. Like Kubrick and Clarke with 2001.
Historical note (which we drilled a lot deeper when Hitler came up later): Thea and Fritz were married. Thea became a Nazi sympathizer in 1933, and they divorced shortly thereafter. Fritz then moved his operation to the United States to wait out the unpleasantness. More on this later.

Hmmm…This movie was panned by H.G. Wells. David added, “I’d be curious to read the context on this. I wonder why that was…?” and we all answered with fun speculations. Maybe Wells was jealous because he was so famous at the time. Maybe Wells just wasn’t into this type of storytelling; he seems more partial to swashbuckling adventure without such glaring, pointed social commentary. Maye he was just panning it because he was a paid shill. Who knows? Please comment below.
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Suhail: I was thoroughly impressed by the full and total use of everything placed before the camera, especially the use of human bodies, their motions and their expressive capacities, as set pieces.

David: An expressionistic portrayal of anxiety. As opposed to Frankenstein, which is very realistic, with letters and journals – Metropolis is unreal, choreographed, symbolized, exaggerated.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.29.12 PMNikita corroborated this expressionistic theme by reminding us of the German expressionist movement in Germany at the time, with things like The Cabinet of Dr. Calighiri.

It also brought up a discussion of Méliès’ Voyage To The Moon (1902). “It’s a visual lark!” said Meg. “A frivolous journey with dancing mushroom people…” Such a different conception of science future high technology than Metropolis. David posited that one of the “primary dialectics of science fiction is: ‘Will it be a good future, or a bad future?’” With Méliès’ imaginary realm at one end, and Lang’s dystopia at the other.

Meg: This was Hitler’s favorite movie. So much so that he wanted lang to be Hitler’s film propagandist. Lang’s mother was Jewish, and this precipitated Lang’s emigration to the U.S.A.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.02.41 PMNowell: And Goebbels (The guy who got the job Lang turned down) liked the theme of social justice. “The Reich certainly saw the value of cinema, and Hitler effectively inserted himself into everything as the “hero”. Makes perfect sense that he would envision Fritz Lang as his propaganda guy. I wonder how the conversation went when they actually found out that he was Jewish.”

Meg: Let’s consider this Mediator theme. It is the opening and closing placard of the movie. Somehow, a revolution by the people alone fails. And the ruling class can’t reform. They need the Mediator. Who is that? The obvious answer seems “Freder,” But there are a lot of arguments for it being Grot, the foreman of the Heart Machine. He may be the Heart between the Brain of the Frederson tycoon and the Hands of the working masses behind him. Hmm, the underestimated Grot.

Suhail: This was around the time of strong organized unions, and the I.W.W. So it can be interpreted as a contemporary cautionary tale that the tycoons need to be cool with the union bosses; there Grot would be the union boss.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.28.20 PMIt confronts an ancient fundamental problem of society. Is progress doomed to always be made on the backs of the poor? The small groups of people who control vast resources, and their willful misuse of large masses of poor, uneducated laborers. This is not a centuries-old story. Lang, with his Babel themes, is saying this is a millennia-old story.

Nikita & Meg: the movie establishes a dystopian urban visual style that set the tone for the next 100 years. (Yeah, when will we think of something new?) Gilliam’s Brazil, Batman’s Gotham, Fifth Element, Dark City (Another Proyas film that does a brief shot-for-shot homage to Lang), The Matrix trilogy, even Clockwork Orange.

Nikita: Lang was inspired by the first Frankenstein movie, a 16-minute film from 1910.

Nikita: By the way, what actually happens, in the plot, from the beginning to end? Just for clarity.

Suhail: [A 10 minute verbal recap of the plot of the movie, to applause.]

David: After hearing that, I am realizing I only understood about 30% of the movie when I watched it.


Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.34.52 PMDavid: None of the technology (in the story) is new. It’s tacitly contemporary. If you can make a woman robot, why not make worker robots?

Suhail: Maybe they’re too expensive.

David: Snowpiercer was a Metropolis reboot. But nobody present had seen it. Nowell, who used to work at ILM, and worked on the Matrix trilogy, reminded us that this movie was all over sci-fi.

Meg: The visuals looked so much like World’s fair cities of the future from the 30s and 60s. The technology and the vision didn’t seem that different.

Hel Robot, make-up and eye movements on her remind us of Alex in A Clockwork Orange

The role of creativity, the portrayals of the creative person: the inventor, the engineer. In its didactic purpose it seems to suggest that the creators are corruptible. Social context: a post revolutionary lashing out at the intelligentsia. The working class lost a lot of the brains behind the machines. They could operate them but could not fix or engineer them.

Meanwhile...Nowell's view

David: Anxiety about the switch from craftsmanship to mass production. The relentless and depressingly uniform sameness of the humans, rich or poor.

Look how banal the high technology is treated. There is no consideration of the ethics or anxieties of AI the way Frankenstein does; though both do deal with Othering.

Nowell: It figures, too, that the Hel robot was the “perfect woman” because he could completely control her.

David: Sci fi unfortunately has a history of depicting women that way.

Meg: As we are going to see next week for The Windup Girl…

Here we diverted into our first impressions of Windup Girl. Meg says she’ll get through it, David is curious what we all think so far, Suhail thinks it’s going to be bestseller smoke and mirrors like Afterparty or Franzen’s The Corrections, with no compelling social insights, critiques, or subversive thought. A long, prosaic bore… We’ll find out next week, when we trudge on into the unknown, crowing:

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.28.20 PM


Thank you for reading! Reading rules!