Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Peace on EarthPeace on Earth by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I grew up on Stanisław Lem. Most people know him as a science-fiction writer, but he was a philosopher, futurologist, social and literary critic first, and a sci-fi author second. I do not want to repeat what I wrote about Lem here , when reviewing his very good book (four stars was my rating) "The Chain of Chance" (the Polish title is "Katar"). "Peace on Earth" (1987) is not quite on the same level, but still, it is a greatly enjoyable and thought-provoking read. It could technically be categorized as a science-fiction adventure novel, but to an equal degree it is an essay on human nature and the future of our species. Ijon Tichy, hero of many Lem's books, and one of my favorite literary characters, returns here.

The story happens in not so distant future - the Earth has been totally demilitarized and disarmed, and the arms race has been moved to the Moon, where it is pursued by so-called planet machines, basically robots controlled by self-optimizing software, that are evolving to become more and more deadly. But soon the Lunar Agency that supervised the whole setup loses track of what is happening on the Moon; several reconnaissance missions fail, and it is up to Ijon Tichy to save the Earth from the danger of being annihilated. Mr. Tichy manages to sort of complete his mission and return from the Moon, not empty-handed, but in the process he gets callotomized (his corpus callosum, a bundle of neural fibers that joins the two hemispheres of the brain, is severed), and there are really two of him, not quite in harmony with each other.

The plot could serve as a script for a successful, meaning juvenile and silly, sci-fi movie, with heavily armed robots, badder and badder killing machines, fighting each other in spectacular scenes of destruction. Yet the silly plot is just a vehicle to showcase interesting futurological ideas and to portray usual stupidity of the human race. During the reconnaissance Tichy uses so-called "remotes", which are sort of androids that perform the physical activities (fighting, killing, even dying) allowing the controlling human to remotely "participate" in these activities. There are many more intriguing ideas: computer chips replaced by self-organizing microbes, "synsects" (synthetic insects) taking the role of soldiers, large-scale combatants replaced with swarms consisting of millions of cooperating micro-particles, etc.

As usual in Tichy novels, there is a lot of first-rate humor. "Sadistics" is a new branch of game theory that deals with games that end fatally for everyone. The sudden need to urinate on the Moon brings Tichy a lot of trouble. To me, the funniest is the mention of Probacteria Party, whose members claim that "microbes have as much right to live as we", so we need to refrain from killing them. I laughed out loud, but then came the realization that the emergence of such a political party is not that unlikely these days.

Three and a half stars.

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