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The Future According to Stanisław Lem

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from The Congress, a new film adaptation of Lem’s 1971 novella The Futurological Congress.

In his 1971 novella The Futurological Congress, the Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem describes a group of futurologists who have gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Rica to stave off planetary disaster. Overpopulation and resource depletion are at crisis levels; famine and political collapse are just around the corner. Even before the conference begins, events take an ominous turn. Guerrillas kidnap the American consul and start mailing in body parts, demanding the release of political prisoners. As Professor Dringenbaum of Switzerland explains how humanity will soon resort to cannibalism, rioting breaks out in the streets. In response, the Costa Rican government deploys new types of chemical weapons, intended to make the rebels docile and peace-loving. They induce feelings of empathy and euphoria, and come with names like “Felicitine” and “Placidol.” Planes barrage the city with LTN, or “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs.

Among the conference attendees is Ijon Tichy, an unflappable cosmic adventurer with the habit of getting into outlandish scrapes. Having inadvertently received a premature dose of the drugs through the hotel’s tap water, Tichy has the foresight to take refuge from the bliss-inducing crackdown in the building’s sewer system. Nevertheless, he winds up inhaling a near-lethal dose of psychotropic chemicals and tumbles down a dark rabbit hole of hallucinations. When he finally wakes up in the year 2039, after having been cryogenically frozen for decades, he finds a world where such substances have ceased to be used for crowd control and have become, instead, a way of life.

The novella—masterfully translated by Michael Kandel and recently adapted as The Congress, a part-live action, part-animated movie by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman—is more a satire than a poker-faced dystopia. Rather than solving its problems, humanity learns to mask them using comically sophisticated pharmaceuticals. In the “psychemized” future, you can take drugs like “gospelcredendium” to have a religious experience, and “equaniminine” to dispel it. Books are no longer read but eaten; they can be bought at the psychedeli, a kind of one-stop psychem superstore. For a friendly conversation there’s “sympathine” and “amicol,” for an unfriendly one “invectine” and “recriminol.” Even acts of violence and revenge are sublimated into ingestible form.

Folman’s movie adopts this premise, but reframes it as a critique of the entertainment industry. Instead of Ijon Tichy, the movie’s main character is the actress Robin Wright, who plays a fictional version of herself. At first, studio executives want to scan her to create a digital avatar that will take over all of her roles. Twenty years and a switch to animation later, they want to produce a drug that will enable anyone to “be” Robin Wright, or at least to believe that they are. The Congress itself is a Hollywood bash celebrating the new age of chemical entertainment, rather than an academic conference on humanity’s doom. As in Lem’s novella, however, this future promises not social and scientific progress, but technological hedonism and senescence. Read More »

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Drinking in the Golden Age

June 19, 2013 | by

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We live in a golden age of booze. I realized this a few weeks ago while doing shots of samogon at Speed Rack, a women’s bartending contest that had been described earlier in the evening as the “March Madness of boobies and booze” and the “roller derby of cocktail competitions.” While I swilled Russian moonshine across from a giant ice sculpture shaped like a bottle of Chartreuse, Jillian Webster, a dirty-blond Angeleno in a sleeveless Budweiser T-shirt, dueled with Eryn Reece, a dark-haired New Yorker wearing the black-and-pink-flame Speed Rack top. As they scooped and stirred to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades,” the 500-strong crowd roared its encouragement. With frenzy of pouring and a smack of the buzzer, Reece pulled ahead, winning first place, bartender’s glory, and a trip for two to France. Read More »

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The Joys of Yiddish Dictionaries

February 22, 2013 | by

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 10.49.05 AMOne of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.

A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America. Read More »

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Secret Doctrines

November 14, 2012 | by

Theosophy Hall of the United Lodge of Theosophists on East Seventy-Second Street in Manhattan is one of those strange, wonderful, time-warp spaces you can find all over the city, if you know where to look. From threadbare armchairs in the lobby to a library of occult books in the basement, it’s the kind of place that hasn’t changed in decades. It could be a museum, if someone hung a velvet rope.

I was at the ULT on a recent Wednesday evening to attend the weekly study group on The Key to Theosophy, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. My interest had been piqued by a new biography, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman, who (for those interested in such trivia), was the bassist for Blondie before reinventing himself as a writer on occult topics. A man in a brown sweater vest and a silver-haired woman wearing gold-rimmed glasses led the discussion from a semi-circular stage that, under pink and purple lighting, looked like an old-fashioned science fiction set. With the ancient furnishings, solemn proceedings, and casual talk of 1,500-year reincarnation cycles, the scene was delightfully weird.Read More »

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Big Squeeze

April 24, 2012 | by

On a recent Tuesday afternoon I was sitting with Walter Kuehr in the back room of Main Squeeze Accordions on Essex Street, asking questions about the accordion business. He said he mostly does repairs these days, and he conducts the Main Squeeze Orchestra, a fourteen-piece all-female accordion band he founded in 2002. Photos of famous accordion players line the wall: Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk Show; John Linnell from They Might Be Giants; Texas conjunto star Flaco Jimenez; “Weird Al” Yankovic. They’ve all played in Main Squeeze, often in exchange for instrument repairs. On a shelf piled high with books and accordion music there’s an advance copy of Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, a study of the piano accordion by ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson. She was once a student of Kuehr’s, and they keep in touch.

“Something drew me in,” Jacobson said later, recalling her first visit to Main Squeeze, in 2001. “I had been thinking for some time that the accordion would be my next instrument. How could I not have this thing that makes even the simplest melodies sound so danceable, so rich?” Though Jacobson got her ruby-red Delicia Carmen elsewhere (she traded for it with her piano, which is now the house instrument at the Brooklyn music venue Barbes), she returned to Main Squeeze to learn how to play.

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