In One Human Minute, Stanislaw Lem takes a hard look at our world and technology—what it means now and what dire implications it could have for the future—in satirical, wise, and biting prose.
With this collection of three essays, Lem targets some of the most pressing issues humanity faces, from our unsettling origins to the cybernetic future of our weaponry. “The Upside-Down Evolution” chronicles the Earth’s military evolution from nuclear stockpiles to deadly, robotic microweapons. “The World as Cataclysm” examines how humankind’s dominance on Earth is the result of the extermination of another species just as qualified to rule the world. And the title essay presents a disturbing and fascinating snapshot of every single thing happening on the planet in a sixty-second span.
Effortlessly blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, scientific essay and fantastical short story, cynical reproach and wry humor, Lem’s One Human Minute combines the best elements of the renowned science fiction author and Kafka Prize winner’s writing into one irreverent and intellectually stimulating package.
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This book presents what all the people in the world are doing, at the same time, in the course of one minute. So says the Introduction. That no one thought of it sooner is surprising It was simply begging to be written after The First Three Minutes, The Cosmologist's Second, and the Guinness Book of World Records, especially since they were best sellers (nothing excites publishers and authors today more than a book no one has to read but everyone needs to have). After those books, the idea was ready and waiting, lying in the street, needing only to be picked up. It would be interesting to know if "J. Johnson and'S. Johnson" are man and wife, brothers, or just a pseudonym. I would like to see a photograph of these Johnsons. It is hard to explain why, but sometimes an author's appearance provides a key to a book For me, at least, that has happened more than once. If a text is unconventional, reading it requires that one take a special approach. An author's face can then shed much light My guess, though, is that the Johnsons do not exist, and that the "S." in front of the second Johnson is an allusion to Samuel Johnson. But, then again, perhaps that is not important.
Publishers, as everyone knows, fear nothing so much as the publication of a book, since, according to Lem's Law, "No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn't understand, if he understands, he immediately forgets"— owing to general lack of time, the oversupply of books, and the perfection of advertising. The ad as the New Utopia is currently a cult phenomenon We watch the dreadful or boring things on television, because (as public-opinion research has shown) after the sight of prattling politicians, bloody corpses strewn about various parts of the globe for various reasons, and dramatizations in which one cannot tell what is going on because they are never-ending serials (not only do we forget what we read, we also forget what we see), the commercials are a blessed relief. Only in them does paradise still exist. There are beautiful women, handsome men — all mature — and happy children, and the elderly have intelligence in their eyes and generally wear glasses. To be kept in constant delight they need only pudding in a new container, lemonade made from real water, a foot antiperspirant, violet-scented toilet paper, or a kitchen cabinet about which nothing is extraordinary but the price. The joy in the eyes of the stylish beauty as she beholds a roll of toilet paper or opens a cupboard like a treasure chest is transmitted instantly to everyone. In that empathy there also may be envy and even a little irritation, because everyone knows he could never experience ecstasy by drinking that lemonade or using that toilet paper. Everyone knows that this Arcadia is inaccessible, but its glow is effective nevertheless.
Anyway, it was clear to me from the start that advertising, as it improves in the merchandising struggle for existence, will enslave us not through the better quality of the goods it promotes but as a result of the ever-worsening quality of the world. After the death of God. of high ideals, of honor, of altruism, what is left to us in our overcrowded cities, under acid rains, but the ecstasy of these men and women of the ads as they announce crackers, puddings, and spreads like the coming of the Heavenly Kingdom? Because advertising, with monstrous effectiveness, attributes perfection to everything — and so to books, to every book — a person is beguiled by twenty thousand Miss Universes at once and, unable to decide, lingers unfulfilled in amorous readiness like a sheep in a stupor. So it is with everything. Cable television, broadcasting forty programs at once, produces in the viewer the feeling that, since there are so many, others must be better than the one he has on, so he jumps from program to program like a flea on a hot stove, proof that technological progress produces new heights of frustration. Although no one said it in so many words, we were promised the world, everything — if not to possess, at least to look at and touch. And literature (is it not but an echo of the world, its likeness and its commentary?) fell into the same trap. Why should I read about what particular individuals of different or the same sex say before going to bed, if there is no mention of the thousands of other, perhaps much more interesting people who do more imaginative things? There had to be a book, then, about what Everybody Else was doing, so that we would be tormented no longer by the doubt that we were reading nonsense while the Important Things were taking place Elsewhere.
The Guinness Book was a best seller because it presented nothing but exceptional things, with a guarantee of authenticity This panopticon of records had, however, a serious drawback: it was soon obsolete No sooner had some fellow eaten forty pounds of peaches complete with pits than another not only ate more, but died immediately after from a volvulus, which gave the new record a dismal piquancy. While it is untrue that there is no such thing as mental illness, that it was invented by psychiatrists to torment their patients and squeeze money out of them, it is true that normal people do far madder things than the insane. The difference is that the madman does what he does disinterestedly, whereas the normal person does it for fame, because fame can be converted into cash. Of course, some are satisfied with fame alone, so the matter is unclear. In any case, the still-surviving subspecies of intellectuals scorned this whole collection of records, and in polite society it was no distinction to remember how many miles someone on all fours could push a nutmeg with his nose painted lavender.
So a book had to be conceived that resembled the Guinness volume, was serious enough not to be dismissed with a shrug (like The First Three Minutes), but at the same time was not abstract, not loaded with theories about bosons and quarks. The writing of such a book — an honest, uncontrived book about everything at once, a book that would overshadow all others — seemed a total impossibility. Even I could not imagine the sort of book it would be. To the publishers I simply suggested writing a book that at worst would be the perfect antithesis of its advertising claims; but the idea did not take. Although the work I had in mind might have attracted readers, since the most important thing today is setting records, and the world's worst novel would have been a record, it was quite possible that even if I had succeeded, no one would have noticed.
How sorry I am not to have hit upon the better idea that gave birth to One Human Minute. Apparently, the publisher does not even have a branch on the Moon; "Moon Publishers," I am told, is only an advertising ploy To avoid being called dishonest, the editor sent to the Moon, in a container on one of the Columbia shuttle flights, a copy of the manuscript and a small computer reader. If anyone challenged him, he could prove that part of the publishing operation actually did take place on the Moon, because the computer on the Mare Imbrium read the manuscript over and over. Perhaps it read without thinking, but that didn't matter: people in publishing houses on Earth generally read manuscripts the same way.
I should not have struck a satirical note at the beginning of my review, because there is nothing funny about this book. You may feel indignation, you may take it as an affront to the entire human race, aimed so skillfully that it is irrefutable, containing nothing but verified facts; you may console yourself that at least no one can possibly make a film or a television series out of it — but it will definitely be worthwhile to think about it, though your conclusions will not be pleasant.
The book is unmistakably authentic and fantastic — if, like me, you take "fantastic" to mean that which goes beyond the limit of our conceptions. Not everyone will agree with me, but I remain convinced that the poverty of today's fantasy and science fiction lies in the fact that there is too little of the fantastic in it, in contrast to the reality that surrounds us. Thus, for example, it turns out that a person with his brain cut in two (there have been many such operations, especially on epileptics) both is and is not one individual. It happens that such a person, who appears completely normal, cannot put on trousers, because his right hand pulls them up while his left lowers them; or that he will embrace his wife with one arm while pushing her away with the other It has been shown that in certain cases the right hemisphere of the brain does not know what the left sees and thinks, so it had to be acknowledged that the splitting of consciousness and even of personality had been achieved, that, in other words, two people existed in one body. But other experiments showed no such thing — not even that sometimes the individual would be single and sometimes double. The hypothesis that there were one and a half individuals, or two and something, also fell apart. This is no joke; the question of how many minds reside in such a person appears to have no answer, and this, indeed, is both real and fantastic. In this and only in this sense is One Human Minute fantastic.
Although each of us knows that on Earth all the seasons of the year, all climates, and all hours of the day and night exist together at every moment, we generally do not think about it. This commonplace, which every elementary-school student knows, or should know, somehow lies outside our awareness — perhaps because we do not know what to do with such an awareness. Every night, electrons, forced to lick the screens of our television sets with frenzied speed, show us the world chopped up and crammed into the Latest News, so we can learn what happened in China, in Scotland, in Italy, at the bottom of the sea, on Antarctica, and we believe that in fifteen minutes we have seen what has been going on in the whole world. Of course, we have not. The news cameras pierce the terrestrial globe in a few places: there, where an Important Politician descends the steps of his plane and with false sincerity shakes the hands of other Important Politicians; there, where a train has derailed — but not just any derailment will do, only one with cars twisted into spaghetti and people extracted piece by piece, because there are already too many minor catastrophes. In a word, the mass media skip everything that is not quintuplets, a coup d'état (best if accompanied by a respectable massacre), a papal visit, or a royal pregnancy. The gigantic, five-billion-human backdrop of these events exists for certain, and anybody who was asked would say, yes, of course he knows that millions of others exist, if he thinks about it, he might even arrive at the fact that with every breath he takes, so many children are born and so many people die It is, nevertheless, a vague knowledge, no less abstract than the knowledge that, as I write this, an American probe stands immobile in the pale sun on Mars, and that on the Moon lie the wrecks of a couple of vehicles. The knowledge counts for nothing if it can be touched with a word but not experienced. One can experience only a microscopic droplet out of the sea of human destinies that surrounds us. In this respect a human being is not unlike an amoeba swimming in a drop of water, whose boundaries seem to be the boundaries of the world. The main difference, I would say, is not our intellectual superiority to the protozoon but the latter's immortality: instead of dying it divides, thereby becoming its own, increasingly numerous family.
So the task the authors of One Human Minute set themselves did not look plausible. In effect, were I to tell someone who has not yet seen the book that it contains few words, that it is filled with tables of statistics and columns of numbers, he would look upon the undertaking as a flop, even as insanity. Because what can be done with hundreds of pages of statistics? What images, emotions, and experiences can thousands of numbers evoke in our heads? If the book did not exist, if it were not lying on my desk, I would say the concept was original, even striking, but unrealizable, like the idea that reading the Paris and New York telephone books would tell you something about the inhabitants of those cities. If One Human Minute were not here in front of me, I would believe it to be as unreadable as a list of telephone numbers or an almanac.
Consequently, the idea — to show sixty seconds in the lives of all the human beings who coexist with me — had to be worked out as if it were a plan for a major campaign The original concept, though important, was not enough to ensure success. The best strategist is not the one who knows he must take the enemy by surprise, but the one who knows how to do it.
What transpires on Earth even during a single second, there is no way of knowing In the face of such phenomena, the microscopic capacity of human consciousness is revealed — our consciousness, that boundless spirit which we claim sets us apart from the animals, those intellectual paupers capable of perceiving only their immediate surroundings. How my dog frets each time he sees me packing my suitcase, and how sorry I am that I cannot explain to him that there is no need for his dejection, for the whimpers that accompany me to the front gate. There is no way to tell him that I'll be back tomorrow; with each parting he suffers the same martyrdom. But with us, it would seem, matters are quite different We know what is, what can be; what we do not know, we can find out.
That is the consensus. Meanwhile, the modern world shows us at every step that consciousness is a very short blanket: it will cover a tiny bit but no more, and the problems we keep having with the world are more painful than a dog's Not possessing the gift of reflection, a dog does not know that he does not know, and does not understand that he understands nothing; we, on the other hand, are aware of both If we behave otherwise, it is from stupidity, or else from self-deception, to preserve our peace of mind. You can have sympathy for one person, possibly for four, but eight hundred thousand is impossible The numbers that we employ in such circumstances are cunning artificial limbs. They are like the cane a blind man uses; tapping the sidewalk keeps him from bumping into a wall, but no one will claim that with this cane he sees the whole richness of the world, or even the small fragment of it on his own street. So what are we to do with this poor, narrow consciousness of ours, to make it encompass what it cannot? What had to be done to present the one pan-human minute?
You will not learn everything at once, dear reader, but, glancing first at the table of contents and then at the respective headings, you will learn things that will take your breath away. A landscape composed not of mountains, rivers, and fields but of billions of human bodies will flash before you, as on a dark, stormy night a normal landscape is revealed when a flash of lightning rends the murk and you glimpse, for a fraction of a second, a vastness stretching toward all horizons. Though darkness sets in again, that image has now entered your memory, and you will not get rid of it. One can understand the visual part of this comparison, for who has not experienced a storm at night? But how can the world revealed by lightning be equated to a thousand statistical tables?
The device that the authors used is simple: the method of successive approximations. To demonstrate, let us take first, out of the two hundred chapters, the one devoted to death — or, rather, to dying.
Since humanity numbers nearly five billion, it stands to reason that thousands die every minute. No revelation, that Nevertheless, our narrow comprehension bumps into the figures here as if into a wall This is easy to see, because the words "simultaneously nineteen thousand people die" carry not one iota more emotional weight than the knowledge that nine hundred thousand are dying Be it a million, be it ten million, the reaction will always be the same: a slightly frightened and vaguely alarmed "Oh." We now find ourselves in a wilderness of abstract expressions, they mean something, but that meaning cannot be perceived, felt, experienced in the same way as the news of an uncle's heart attack Learning of the Uncle's heart attack produces a greater impression on us.
Excerpted from "One Human Minute"
Copyright © 2017 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
ONE HUMAN MINUTE,
THE UPSIDE-DOWN EVOLUTION,
THE WORLD AS CATACLYSM,