06 July 2015

Review: Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem

Mass market paperback, 248 pages
Published 1985 (originally 1981)
Acquired March 2008
Read May 2015
Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem

This is one of those what we might call non-novel novels, a novel entirely made up of nonnovelistic material, like Nabokov's Pale Fire. In this case, Imaginary Magnitude is a collection of introductions to other books: Necrobes by Cezary Strzybisz, Eruntics by Reginald Gulliver, A History of Bitic Literature (2nd ed.) by J. Rambellais (ed.), Vestrand's Extelopedia, and GOLEM XIV by GOLEM XIV. They're all from the "future" (i.e., some are from 2009 and 2011, but the book was published in Poland in 1981), and they seem to be from the same future history-- almost all of them are concerned with non-human forms of writing. What does it mean for a computer to write literature, or an essay? Or, can bacteria write if guided by the right evolutionary pressures? There's also an introduction by Lem himself on the subject of writing introductions. (It's not as funny as it should be, but there are a couple good lines.)

This is certainly Lem at his most esoteric. Each introduction is a weird mix of humor and earnest speculation, and the balance tips too far to the latter sometimes. My favorite part was definitely the introduction to the Extelopedia, which explains how now that encyclopedias go out of date as soon as they are published, the Extelopedia stays up-to-date by being about future knowledge. To generate this future knowledge, they asked futurists about their predictions, and then included none of them, since futurists are invariably wrong. But then there's some actual excerpts from the content of the Extelopedia, and this was not interesting at all.

Straying from the book's supposed remit is its biggest mistake. GOLEM XIV is a collection of lectures by a superintelligent supercomputer, and here we get not only an introduction, but a foreword, two lectures, and an afterword. Lem trying to be profound in a lecture from a know-it-all computer is dull; he had already covered much of the same ground (speculation about man and evolution) in his Summa Technologiae back in the 1960s, and I'm not sure why he covered it again here under this conceit. Unfortunately, the excerpts from GOLEM are over half the book.

Definitely more interesting in concept than execution, and definitely my least favorite Lem novel so far.

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