Monday, September 28, 2009

Stanislaw Lem "The Start Diaries"

Finally reading some Stanislaw Lem. I love how Eastern European science fiction is so different from the Western kind. It is really much more introspective, philosophical and satirical.

In one story, the narrator winds up imprisoned on a planet where every midnight the entire population, who have all been made to look identical, switches jobs/roles randomly. The narrator is bewildered, and he asks about how this can work:

" do each of you possibly manage to practice all professions? Can you really be not only a gardener, judge or lawyer, but also a father or mother at will?"

"Many professions," replied my smiling interlocutor, "I do not perform well. Consider however that one's practice of a profession lasts but a single day. And besides, in any society of the old type the overwhelming majority of people carry out their professional duties indifferently at best, yet the social mechanism does thereby cease to function. A second rate gardener will ruin your garden, a second-rate ruler will bring disaster upon an entire nation, since both have time enough to do this, but here they do not. Moreover in an ordinary society, in addition to occupational incompetence, one can sense the negative if not destructive influence of the private ambitions of individuals. Envy, pride, egoism, vanity, the thirst for power - these have a corrosive effect on the life of the community. Here that evil influence does not exist. Indeed, here the ambition to have a career does not exist, nor is anyone motivated by personal gain. I cannot take some step in my role of today in the hopes that it will profit me tomorrow, for by tomorrow I shall be someone else, and who I shall be tomorrow I do not know today."
"And feelings?" I asked. "Can one really love a different person every day? And what happens to fatherhood and motherhood?"
"As far as feelings are concerned, we have satisfied two needs, needs that would appear to be mutually exclusive, yet they dwell within the breast of every intelligent creature: the need for permanence and the need for change. Affection, respect, love were at one time gnawed by constant anxiety, by the fear of losing the person held dear. This dread we have conquered. For in point of fact whatever upheavals, diseases or calamities may be visited upon us, we shall always have a father, a mother, a spouse, and children. But this is not all. That which does not change will soon begin to pall, regardless of whether it brings us happiness or sorrow. Yet we also crave stability, we wish deliverance from vicissitudes and tragedy. We wish to live, but not be fleeting, to change, yet remain, to experience all - and risk nothing. These contradictions, unreconcilable it would seem, are with us a reality. We have even erased the antagonism between the upper and lower strata of society, for each of us- each day - can be a king, as there is no walk of life, no sphere of activity closed to any man."
"What do you do about death?" I asked.
"Death? It is an obsolete idea. There can be no death where there are no individuals. We do not die."
"But that's absurd, you don't believe in it yourself!" I exclaimed. "All living things must die, and so must you!"
"I, and who is that?" he interrupted with a smile.
There was a moment of silence.
"You, you yourself!"
"And who am I, I myself, beyond this present role? A name? I have no name. A face? That's to the biological measures carried out among us centuries ago my face is the same as everyone else's. A role? But that changes at midnight. What then is left? Nothing. Consider for a moment, what means death? A loss, tragic since irrevocable. The one who dies, whom does he lose? Himself? No, for once dead, he has ceased to exist, and one who exists not, there is nothing he can lose. Death is the province of the living - it is the loss of someone near.
"But we never lose those who are near us. I have already explained that, I think. every family is eternal, Death for us - this would be the constriction of a role. The law forbids that. But I must go now. Farewell, O uninvited alien!"


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