Milan M. Ćirković’s work has been frequently discussed on Centauri Dreams, as a glance in the archives will show. My own fascination with SETI and the implications of what has been called ‘the Fermi question’ led me early on to his papers, which explore the theoretical, cultural and philosophical space in which SETI proceeds. And there are few books in which I have put more annotations than his 2018 title The Great Silence: The Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox (Oxford University Press). Today Dr. Ćirković celebrates Stanislaw Lem, an author I first discovered way back in grad school and continue to admire today. A research professor at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, (Serbia), Ćirković obtained his PhD at the Dept. of Physics, State University of New York in Stony Brook in 2000 with a thesis in astrophysical cosmology. He tells me his primary research interests are in the fields of astrobiology (habitable zones, habitability of galaxies, SETI studies), philosophy of science (futures studies, philosophy of cosmology), and risk analysis (global catastrophes, observation selection effects and the epistemology of risk). He co-edited the widely-cited anthology Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press, 2008) with Nick Bostrom, has published three research monographs and four popular science/general nonfiction books, and has authored about 200 research and professional papers.
by Milan Ćirković
This year we celebrate a centennial of the birth of a truly great author and thinker who is still, unfortunately, insufficiently well-known and read. Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 in then Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). That was the year Čapek’s revolutionary drama R.U.R. premiered in Prague’s National Theatre and defined the word “robot”, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the photoelectric effect in the course of which he effectively discovered photons, and one Adolf Hitler became the leader of a small far-right political party in Weimar Germany.
All three of these central-European developments have exerted a strong influence on Lem’s life and career. His studies of medicine, inspired by both his father’s distinguished medical career and his early-acquired mechanistic view of human beings, have been interrupted three times due to the chaos of WW2 and post-war changes. He narrowly escaped being executed by German authorities during the war for his resistance work. Finally, when he was on the verge of acquiring a diploma at the famous Jagiellonian University of Krakow, in 1949, he abandoned the pursuit in order to avoid the compulsory draft to which physicians were susceptible in the new communist Poland. He did some practical medical work in a maternity ward, but very quickly left medicine for good and became a full-time writer.
The apex of Lem’s creative career spans about three decades, from The Investigation published in 1958, to the publication of Fiasco and Peace on Earth in 1987. During that period, he published his greatest novels, in particular Solaris (1961), The Invincible (1966), His Master’s Voice (1968), and The Chain of Chance (1976), along with numerous short story anthologies, the most important being The Cyberiad (1965), as well as the Ijon Tichy and Pilot Pirx story cycles.
Image: Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Credit: Wojciech Zemek.
Finally, several works in the Borgesian meta-genre of imaginary forewords, introductions, and book reviews, notably The Perfect Vacuum of 1971. This has been complemented by very extensive non-fiction writing, mainly in several fields of philosophy of science, futures studies, and literary criticism. The last two decades of Lem’s life were characterized by essayistic and publishing activity, as well as receiving innumerable prizes and awards, but no original fiction writing. Lem passed away peacefully on March 27, 2006, at the age of 84 in his home in Krakow.
Lem was obssessed by the theme of Contact: from his very first science-fiction novel, The Astronauts in 1951 (which he himself denounced as “childish”) to the last, great and deeply disturbing Fiasco, which is a kind of literary and philosophical testament. Nowhere, however, is his thought more in touch with the practical aspects of our SETI/search for technosignatures projects as in His Master’s Voice (originally published in 1968, that is only 8 years after the original Ozma Project! Translated into English by Michael Kandel only in 1983).
It is a brilliant work, perhaps the best novel ever written about SETI, but also a dense tract indeed. So, instead of many examples, I shall concentrate upon this one as a case study for the tremendous usefulness of reading Lem for anyone interested in astrobiology/SETI studies.
The study of the motives and ideas relevant for these fields would require a book-length treatment, as is obvious from the list of auxiliary topics Lem masterfully weaves into the narrative: from the ontological status of mathematical objects to the psyche of the Holocaust survivors, from preconditions for abiogenesis to the origin of the arrow of time. It is a challenging text in more than one sense; there is almost no dialogue and no manifest action beyond the recounting of a SETI project that not only failed but was never truly comprehended in the first place.
Image: A 1983 English edition of His Master’s Voice from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, one of many editions available worldwide.
And this is a book whose plot should not be spoilt, since it is not as widely read as it should be half a century later. Without revealing too much, His Master’s Voice is set at a time when neutrino astrophysics is advanced enough to be able to detect possible modulations (imagined to have occurred near the end of the 20th century in the continued Cold War world). A neutrino signal repeating every 416 hours is discovered from a point in the sky within 1.5° of Alpha Canis Minoris. An eponymous top-secret project is then formed in order to decrypt the extraterrestrial signal, burdened by all the Cold-War paranoia and heavy-handed bureaucracy of the second half of the twentieth century. The project has its ups and downs, including some quite dramatic and literally threatening the survival of human civilization, but it is—obviously—mostly unsuccessful. The protagonist, a mathematical genius and cynic named Peter Hogarth, is neither a hero nor a villain; the SETI plot ends in anticlimactic uncertainty.
An intriguing consequence of Lem’s scenario is a realization that, while detectability generally increases with the progress of our astronomical detector technology, it does so very unevenly, in jumps or bursts. Although the powerful source of the “message” in the novel (presumably an alien beacon) had been present for a billion years or more, it became detectable only after a sophisticated neutrino-detecting hardware was developed. And even then, the detection of the signal happened serendipitously. Thus, in a rational approach to SETI—not often followed in practice, alas—the issue of detectability should be entirely decoupled from the issue of synchronization (the extent to which other intelligent species are contemporary to us).
Fermi’s paradox does not figure explicitly in His Master’s Voice (in contrast to many other of Lem’s works, especially his late and in my opinion equally magnificent Fiasco), and for an apparently obvious reason: “the starry letter” has always been here, or at least long enough on geological timescales. Detectability is, at least in part, a function of historical human development.
And there is a very real possibility, in the context of the plot, that “the letter” does not originate with intentional beings at all. The fulcrum of the book is reached when three radical hypotheses are presented to weary researchers, including the one attributing the signal to purely natural astrophysical processes! But even in this revisionist case, there are other problems, especially in light of the fact that the signal manifests “biophilic” properties: it helps complex biochemical reactions, and scientists in the novel speculate about whether it helped the abiogenesis on Earth. If it did so, the same necessarily occurred on many other planets in the Galaxy, so even if we abstract the mysterious Senders, it is natural to ask: where are our peers? This leads to more severe versions of Fermi’s paradox. In the same time, it makes us think about the various forms directed panspermia could, in fact, take when we reject our anthropocentric thinking.
There is another key lesson. While the discovery of even a single extraterrestrial artefact (and Lem’s neutrino message can surely be regarded as an artefact in the sense of the contemporary search for technosignatures), would be a great step forward, it would not, at least not immediately, resolve the problem. If one could conclude, as some of the protagonists of His Master’s Voice do, that there exist just two civilizations in the Galaxy, us and the mysterious Senders, that would still require explanation. Two is, in this particular context, sufficiently close if not equal to one.
And this shows, finally, the true gift of Lem’s thought to astrobiology and SETI studies: a capacity to go one step beyond in strangeness, to kick us sufficiently strongly out of the grooves of conventional thinking, to disturb us—and offend us, if necessary—and make us reject the comfortable and usual and mundane. In a general sense, all philosophy should do the same for us; that it usually does not is indeed discouraging and depressing. From time to time, however, a thinker passes with a bright torch illuminating the path and indicating how clueless we in fact are.
Lem was just such a figure. Reading him is indeed the highest form of celebration of reason and wisdom.