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Stanislaw Lem's Summa Technologiae


After two years, I have finally finished work on my translation of Stanislaw Lem's major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae, for the University of Minnesota's Electronic Mediations series. As a little taster, I'm pasting below the first couple of pages from my introduction to this rather amazing book.

Evolution may be greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s not all that great: On Lem’s Summa Technnologiae

            Is the human a typical phenomenon in the Universe or an exceptional one? Is there a limit to the expansion of a civilization? Would plagiarizing Nature count as fraud? Is consciousness a necessary component of human agency? Should we rather trust our thoughts or our perceptions? Do we control the development of technology or is technology controlling us? Should we make machines moral? What do human societies and colonies of bacteria have in common? What can we learn from insects? For answers to all these questions and more, Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae is undoubtedly the place to go.

            Lem (1921-2006) is best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the novel Solaris (1961), the film versions of which were directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Grand Prix at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival) and Steven Soderbergh (2002). However, science-fiction aficionados all over the world have been reading Lem’s original and often surprising novels--translated into over forty languages--for years. Be that as it may, the Polish writer’s attitude to science fiction was not unproblematic. Witness his spat with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America association, which was incensed by Lem’s unabashed critique of the majority of the works within the genre as unimaginative, predictable, and focused on a rather narrow idea of the future. Lem’s own novels take a rather different approach. Drawing on scientific research, they are deeply philosophical speculations about technology, time, evolution, and the nature (and culture) of humankind. What makes Lem’s writings particularly distinct is his ironic writing style, which is full of puns, jokes, and clever asides. Yet on another level his gripping stories about space travel, alien life, and human enhancement are also complex philosophical parables about human and non-human life in its past, present, and future forms.

            The philosophical ambition of Lem’s fiction is carried through to what is probably his most accomplished and mature work: a treatise on futurology, technology, and science called Summa Technologiae (1964). With a title that is a pastiche of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Lem erects a secular edifice of knowledge aimed at rivaling that of his scholastic predecessor. His Summa sets out to investigate the premises and assumptions behind the scientific concepts of the day and, in particular, the idea of technology that underpins them. As Lem writes in the book’s opening pages: “I shall focus here on various aspects of our civilization that can be guessed and deduced from the premises known to us today, no matter how improbable their actualization. What lies at the foundation of our hypothetical constructions are technologies, i.e., means of bringing about certain collectively determined goals that have been conditioned by the state of our knowledge and our social aptitude--and also those goals that no one has identified at the outset.”

            Despite having been written nearly fifty years ago, Summa has lost none of its intellectual vigor or critical significance. Some specific scientific debates may have advanced or been corrected since Lem published it in 1964, yet it is actually surprising to see how many things he did get right, or even managed to predict--from the limitations of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program through to artificial intelligence, bionics, the theory of search engines (Lem’s “ariadnology”), virtual reality (which he terms “phantomatics”), and nanotechnology. However, it is in the multiple layers of its philosophical argument that the ongoing importance of his book lies. Biophysicist Peter Butko, who published an explicatory essay on Summa in 2006, describes the book as “an all-encompassing philosophical discourse on evolution: not only evolution of science and technology ... but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization” (2006, 84).

More soon in print from UMP!

Reader Comments (4)

It is eagerly awaited!

April 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMcEvoy Campbell

I've been scouring the web for an English translation of this work and am very much interested in reading your translation. Is it available for public consumption at all?

June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEden Penketh

Is there a set publication date yet?

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnoriginalmoniker

Well done! That means that you now have time to translate 'Dialogi'. ;)

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLarkus

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