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LARB on Stanislaw Lem, devourer of encyclopedias

By David Auerbach
Los Angeles Review of Books

lem_summa coverAT LAST WE have it in English. Summa Technologiae, originally published in Polish in 1964, is the cornerstone of Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre, his consummate work of speculative nonfiction. Trained in medicine and biology, Lem synthesizes the current science of the day in ways far ahead of most science fiction of the time.

His subjects, among others, include:

  • Virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Nanotechnology and biotechnology
  • Evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology
  • Artificial life
  • Information theory
  • Entropy and thermodynamics
  • Complexity theory, probability, and chaos
  • Population and ecological catastrophe
  • The “singularity” and “transhumanism”

Lem was one of the very few thinkers at the time to examine these burgeoning subjects in the context of both the humanities and the social sciences. Yet despite the far-ranging explorations, Lem tempers his speculations with a de-romanticized and often grim view of humanity. Indeed, part of Lem’s genius was his keen awareness that the possibilities of science and the possibilities of humanity do no more than scarcely overlap, and so our investigations must be conducted with our limited vantage point in mind.

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Summa Technologiae