The Future According to Stanisław Lem


Arts & Culture


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.


Lem in 1966. Photo courtesy of his secretary, Wojciech Zemek

Yet Lem was no dystopian, on the whole. Even The Futurological Congress is riddled with good humor, though the world it portrays is bleak. Despite having lived through both the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War and the Communist government that followed it, Lem seldom depicts totalitarian rule. In contrast to George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Party strictly controls the “truth,” Lem preferred to depict societies bogged down by excess information and technology. “Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea,” he writes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, “because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?” This observation rings eerily true today, but Lem wasn’t only trying to critique modern society. He wanted to imagine what the future might actually be like.

This goal animates his kaleidoscopic body of work—a collection so diverse that Philip K. Dick once wrote to the FBI that Lem wasn’t a real person but a committee masterminded by the Communist Party. Lem’s early books include The Hospital of the Transfiguration, a nonscience-fiction novel about a doctor in a psychiatric hospital at the beginning of the Second World War, and The Cyberiad, a series of fable-like tales about two omnipotent “constructors” who don’t foresee the consequences of their creations. In Lem’s most famous book, Solaris, adapted for film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and again by Steven Soderbergh in 2002, humanity discovers a strange form of extraterrestrial life, but completely fails to understand it. In a sense, Dick was right: given the variety of his subjects and styles, there really is more than one Lem.

He did have certain overarching ideas, however, most of which he laid out in the Summa Technologiae, a magisterial futurological treatise published in 1964. (The book appeared for the first time in English in 2013, in a translation by Joanna Zylinska.) In the Summa Lem doesn’t try to foretell events exactly—such predictions usually project their own time, he writes, like the “ ‘the world full of balloons’ or ‘the total steam world’ of the nineteenth-century utopians and draftsmen.” Rather, he tries to imagine the paths that technology might take, using biological evolution as a blueprint. The two processes aren’t merely analogs, he claims, but different parts of a single evolutionary process. Eventually, technology will take over completely from slow-moving natural selection, resulting in the re-engineering of both our planet and our bodies. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Lem, of course, made plenty of guesses, and the idea of “autoevolution”—sometimes referred to as the “singularity”—was an especially favorite subject. Although in the Summa he presents the possibility without moral judgment, in his fiction the results are rarely cheerful. Lem’s 1959 novel Eden, one of his few conventionally dystopic works, features an extraterrestrial civilization that has survived a botched attempt at biological self-intervention. The government responsible now denies its own existence, and its subjects live under a terrifying regime of self-censorship and control. In a more lighthearted story, “The Twenty-First Voyage”—included in the 1957 collection, The Star Diaries—Ijon Tichy visits a planet called Dichotica, whose inhabitants are so advanced that they can make and remake their bodies however they like. At first such technology is used for predictable ends—“ideals in health, congruity, spiritual and physical beauty”—but is soon turned to things like “epidermal jewelry” for women, “side and back beards, cockscomb crests, jaws with double bites, etc.” for men. After a while the Dichoticans abandon humanoid form entirely, leading to attempts at reform and standardization, followed by repression, rebellion, and social breakdown. Unlimited choice, the story argues, can become the greatest burden.


A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Solaris.

In his fiction, Lem portrayed not only the fruits of science but also its process and culture. His novels are filled with debates between scholars, struggles between high-minded researchers and government sponsors, and entire histories of fictional scientific fields. In his 1986 novel Fiasco, for example, a group of astronauts argues about life beyond its natural phase. If such beings are so far advanced, their activities should be detectable from space. So where are they? Is their silence the result of our own incomprehension, or are they are invisible for reasons of their own? Perhaps, like the Dichoticans, they are so taken up with perfecting their own organisms that they’ve abandoned space exploration entirely. According to a similar hypothesis, such beings are invisible because technological ease has resulted in a “Second Stone Age” of “universal illiteracy and idleness.” When everyone’s needs are perfectly met, it “would be hard, indeed, to find one individual who would choose as his life’s work the signaling, on a cosmic scale, of how he was getting along.” Rather than constructing Dyson Spheres, Lem suggests, advanced civilizations are more likely to spend their time getting high.

Yet Lem also believed that such a future isn’t inevitable. Technological progress could result in an irreversible inward turn, but it could also lead to contact with other life forms. Nineteen sixty-one’s Return from the Stars presents humanity at just such a crossroads. An astronaut named Hal Bregg returns to Earth after a ten-year voyage. Because of relativity, 127 years have passed on Earth, which has become a seeming utopia. Scientists have invented a surgical procedure called “betrization,” which instills a repulsion to violence and thus causes an end to war and crime. Yet with this new peacefulness comes an aversion to high-risk endeavors, including the kind of voyage from which Bregg has recently returned. According to a new line of thought, space expeditions are actually futile, not only because of their danger but because relativity makes them “purveyors of dead information.” By the time the astronauts return to Earth the society that sent them is gone, and whatever world they discovered will have changed as well. Yet there are those who disagree: “And of what use was Amundsen’s expedition? Or Andree’s?” one characters asks. “The only clear benefit lay in the fact that they had proved a possibility.” Like George Mallory said of Everest, the reason to climb it is “because it’s there.”

Lem, who died in 2006, couldn’t have lived long enough to test most of his predictions, and neither will we. But in his writing he attempted one of the most ambitious feats the human imagination can undertake: he tried to picture, by turns seriously and playfully, not just how humanity might appear fifty or a hundred years down the line, but a thousand, ten thousand, or more. Predicting the future is an old game, and not usually a noble one. Prophets turn out to be wrong, or self-interested, or both. Lem may also have been wrong, as he well knew. But for him, predicting the future was a way to think about the world on the largest possible scale—an effort to transcend our bodies and brains through logic and imagination. Nobody can really know the future. But few could imagine it better than Lem.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter.