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.”

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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.”

phoca_thumb_l_pismaczek

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.”

HA!
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: Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

stealingworldsschroederA spunky burglar is on the run for her life after helping her now-murdered father rob a corrupt ecological securities firm. Schroeder’s virtual worlds detective caper, set in the near future, is a young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures.

This didactic novel is strong on ideas, and makes up for that strength in character development and VR setting descriptions. One of our favorite ideas in Stealing Worlds is the advent of philosophies about AI design. Face it, our current economic systems are exploitive and increasingly destructive. As we automate our economic systems they become more aggressive, faster, less humane. Chris put it best when he said, “The money tree is the only tree that when you shake it, the fruits and nuts fall upwards.”

The Automated CEO
In Stealing Worlds, synthetic sentiences have not only taken over manufacturing and accounting jobs, but corporate boards. By automating and blockchaining the decision matrixes of a corporate board, theoretically you can filter out greedy and corrupt decision-making. It’s a simplistic view of morality, but Schroeder’s on the case.

blockchainAIThe main flaw, highlighted by Meg: “Okay, here’s this terrible state of affairs caused by the misuse of powerful technology. And the solution is…even more technology that’s even more powerful, and it can’t be hacked! I’m skeptical.” In this context, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Epistemology Acting Up Again?
Of course, the new technology does get hacked. Unwilling to fault the idealized blockchain, the problem is in its sensory apparatus. Even though the blockchains remain incorruptible, the sensors are hacked – the uncountable multitude of minuscule sensors that provide all the big data to the blockchain-girded AIs. Giving a blockchain AI phony data is a great way to control its decision making.

The book glosses over just how many millions of tiny sensors are needed to generate sufficient data to formulate these blockchain AIs. Every tree, every person, creature, piece of fruit, quantity of water, soil sample, etc. Any aspect of the material world that can be monitored by sensor generates data. Talk about microplastic litter, on a new massive global scale. (What is blockchain anyway? A type of software ledger that can verify and ensure an original digital phenomenon. With infinite identical digital reproduction, how can you tell which file is the original? For example, blockchain is used to generate bitcoins, which cannot be copied. They exist in a finite, global quantity, and that is why the work as money.)  It’s funny that the sensors are hacked, corrupting the data which the perfect blockchain AIs unwittingly absorb. It’s like the state of journalism, ha!

This is a classic replay of the flaw of technological romance, the insistence that the newest, most promising, most powerful technology is of course immune to human greed and corruption. It’ll fix everything this time, we’re sure of it!

chardevSetting and Characterization
Meg noted, despite Schroeder being a futurist with a degree in Foresight Studies, “he had a hard time describing virtual places.” Many agreed, there was an unconvincing and random quality to the VR interfaces. Everyone agreed that the Peruvian rainforest segment was beautifully described. Maybe that was not a mistake, since by the end of the book, the aim is to sort of re-diefy nature.

Also, the romance and sex in the book was so trite it was barely there. Nikita pointed out that Schroeder was raised in a Canadian Mennonite community. This was during the portion of our discussion about the book’s unidimensional characterizations. Regarding the protagonist, Sura, Meg said, “I never worried about her. Too much like a video game figure. But at least video game characters get to die.” Ha! Chris said, “She didn’t have an arc, a hero’s journey.” Dave added, “No – she has a payoff, namely the meaning of her parental loss.”

Schroeder doesn’t do women, doesn’t do sexy, but the ideas hold it together. Gill’s last word, “You never get a sense of what makes these characters tick. But it was worth the ride.”

Waving compass character cartoon styleThe Character of Compass
Compass is a friend of Sura’s who turns out to have a selective type of amnesia. Compass remembers who she is in the present, but she can not remember how she got here. She is unable to recollect her own past to conjure a continuous identity, so she lingers in different VR character frames to keep herself sane. In Chris’s words: “prosthetic personality disorder.”

A Special Announcement
During our end-of-discussion chat, Meg shared some delightful news: she’s had a story accepted for publication by Analogue Science Fiction Magazine!!! It’s a 10,000 word novella (of which they only print 2 per issue) called “Flashmob.” Watch for it. WAY TO GO, MEG! Too cool! 😀

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Join us next week for our discussion of Stanislaw Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe.”


Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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P.S. The notes!

p.88 – is it the end of drudgery, or a new running wheel for capitalism’s rats?

p.89 – good rant on the new economy. Shoveling garbage IRL becomes an in-game resource. People are getting paid in virtu for proxy tasks in situ. It’s like spending real world money on Warcraft gold. Virtual worlds are only instantiated if they have an economy. That’s a threadbare “world.”

p.82 – the Cahokian Elder and the orchard forests of the past.

p.89 – the thundering roar of forest sounds in the days before humans, and lumber.

p.89 – another rant that puts me in the mind of  “Everybody Knows” by Don Henly (also, covered by Concrete Blonde in the 90s!). The “black people standing around” line gave me pause. In the Henly song, the lyric is: “old black Joe’s still picking cotton. Everybody knows.”

p.91 – geography bows under the weight of the gaze

p.106 – luck talk/monopoly. The illusion of the self-made man.

p.113 Proudly Eagle Owned! carshare service. A blockchain AI corporation with no human members. requires lots of sensors.

p.120-1 – All that ‘splainin’ and I still don’t get it. How is this different than using USD to buy Warcraft tokens.

p.122 – oracles? I am not gripped. Who understands this?

p.130 – my eyes are glazing over

p.167 – parallel Americas: poverty-stricken and wealthy, clean and surveilled or filthy and private?

p.169-70 – How the wealthy cope with privacy loss. “Whitelisting” your face in the recognition databases.

p.169 “Who really runs the show?”
This question, this premise, the axiomatic belief itself that a “who” clandestinely wields world-controlling power. There is the kernal of God and conspiracy theorist in that simplistic framing of the question.
CONSIDER THIS: The show runs us. Even if humans “built” it.
So many forces at play, so many instances of greed and stupidity, as well as genius and generosity, so many people out for themselves and their ilk that no one runs the show, because everyone’s is. Think of Caesar’s assassination. Everybody was in on it, and almost none of them agreed with each other on any other points but the knives’.

p.177-8 – nice touch. the case for total surveillance. Pf. So, how to preserve privacy in this total immersion surveillance?

p.178 – Andrew Yang outlines some of this in real life terms in The War On Normal People

p.179 – an idea similar to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

p.183 – the most important thing about AI is not what it thinks, but what it thinks it is.

p.190 – totally, the “solution” is as bad as the problem.

p.199 – the virtues of blockchain avocado tracing.

p.212 – the human heart, at it again.

p.260 – actants and deodands: AIs acting on behalf of externalities and non-human life. We’ve tagged every plant, animal, and square foot of soil in this stand of forest. Nevermind the litter. Now, using an interface we’ve written, the big data from those sensors can manifest as an interactive AI.

p.264 – so it’s basically like a mushroom trip in nature, but instead of mushrooms to talk to the forest spirits, you use sensors that represent every living thing in the forest and talk to the AI that is amalgamated from that sensor data. How’s the bear doing? How are the moles doing? How’s the fungal soil layer doing? It’s all somewhere in there.

p.264 – “There are more organizational principles at work in just this one forest than humanity has invented in ten thousand years”

p.265 – the mycelial mind

p.271 – Phil Dick homage line: “They are that which is still there, even when you stop believing in them.”

p.272 – An AI with a unique worldview, not borrowing a human worldview.

p.287 – The interface is the mask.

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading

Grab your gear, reader, summer’s on! Join us for another sunbaked expedition into the Uncanny Valley, with your intrepid hosts, David Gill and Suhail Rafidi.

Where & When? (IRL and Online)
Wednesday night discussions, 7:00 PM Pacific (6/17, 6/24, 7/1, 7/8, 7/15)
For those reading along at home, you can tune in live via Zoom link, which is emailed out the day of the discussion. Contact myself or David for the link. As usual, I will post the discussion after the event.

What Are We Reading?
Three novels, a novella, and a short story covering 5 authors: Karl Schroeder, Stanislaw Lem, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip K. Dick, and Martha Wells. Get your copy from your local library, bookstore, online store, or friend’s shelf. The Stanislaw Lem story is available at the New Yorker archives, but requires a free subscription.

The Meetings
June 17:
Stealing Worlds (2019) – Karl Schroeder
June 24: “Let Us Save The Universe” (1971) (In English in the New Yorker in, 1981) – Stanisław Lem.
July 1: We (1924) – Yevgeny Zamyatin
July 8: We Can Build You (1962, published 1972) – Philip K. Dick
July 15: All Systems Red (2017) – Martha Wells

stealingworldsschroeder

Karl Schroeder’s 12th novel is a virtual worlds detective caper set in the near future. A young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures. For some background, listen to Schroeder’s interview on The Bitcoin Podcast #288.

lemsavetheuniverseStanisław Lem’s short story “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. A call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

zamyatinweLike many thought-provoking Russian novels of its time, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 authoritarian dystopia, We, was first published in translation outside of Russia. I’m pleased to announce that we’ll have Russian scholar Nikita Alligre joining us for this discussion. He’ll give us some sweet sweet literary background on Zamyatin and the circle of writers he ran with. This looks to be a groovy session.

wecanbuildyouPKDAs we are hosted by the Internet’s first and foremost Total Dick-Head, we’re definitely going to Phil up this summer! We’re tapping David’s expertise this season, and reading PKD’s We Can Build You, written in 1962 and not published until 1972. This book stands as a conceptual prequel to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

marthawellsallsystemsredMartha Wells kicked off her Murderbot Diaries with this well received adventure novella. Weighing in at just under 100 pages, it is reputed to be a potent and accessible gateway drug into her subsequent novels.

Now crack a book, and let’s DO THIS! See you soon.


With The Total Dick Head Himself!

Keep track on our Facebook Page:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/496095803825881/

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Stobl

Stobl was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe. He started a fantasy magazine predating Weird Tales by two years. This story was written in 1907, before both world wars. It was not translated into English until 2016, primarily because Stobl was relegated to the literary dustbin for joining the Nazi party prior to WWII, becoming a high official in the Nazi writing and propaganda campaigns. We read this story so you don’t have to.

David: He’s a full on Nazi. This guy likes his shirts brown.

Group: HA!

David: Is there anything Nazi about the story? I don’t think so.

BunniculaChris: Well, there’s a gesture toward the inferior beings reproducing too much.

David: Where’s the sci-fi?

Chris: The self-reproducing mechanism. Earliest instance of a “grey-goo” problem, that disassembles everything into itself, and can build nothing else. A rabbit that has a litter of six overnight.

Here’s looking at you…

Nowell: I feel like this is a mild recapitulation of Frankenstein, though a little more sinister, where the scientist says, “You’d better grant me my wishes or else.” No one understands me, the brilliant scientist, everyone laughs at me until… they feel the wrath of my hideous revenge.

David: It’s still sci-fi if there’s a punchline.

Chris: It’s not really a punchline, more the creepiness of rabbits.

David: At least this is the first story we’ve read this summer that has a character, and scenes.

Nowell: I love the line, “I don’t think you know what a billion is,” and the images of a snow covered city, which is actually rabbits. A fun little vignette. Though let’s be honest, Hopkins is a total asshole. 🙂

Suhail: At least it’s not an essay, like the last two. Another grad school story.

David: Interesting that it, like Rokeya’s story, has been ignored by the canon, but for totally different politically (in)correct reasons.

Suhail: The concept reminds me of that Dick story, do you remember it, Dave? The one with the ant swarm, where the shoes are reproducing like bunnies…

David: That’s “The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford”

Suhail: Yes! That one.

Chris: It reads better as a thought experiment. I think it’s a joke.

Click to enlarge.David: The science fiction and bureaucracy interact and have a Brazil-like effect (the 1985 Terry Gilliam film.)

Chris: It is Brazil-like.

The industrial rivalry. Of course, the mad scientist is a creative American who’s figured this trick out, and he’s playing fast and lose with German expectations.

Chris: An O. Henry story, with rabbits.

David: What do you mean?

Chris: There’s a twist. The story is meant to set up the twist.

David: It’s a fleshed out story. From academic perspective, it’s approaching or prefiguring the pulps.

But, again, not fun to read. We read this one so you won’t have to. Join us next week, when we’ll discuss Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Sky”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!