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Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
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review of
Stanislaw Lem's Mortal Engines
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - July 28, 2015

I suppose, strictly speaking, this isn't 'a bk by Stanislaw Lem' insofar as it's a collection of short stories by Lem, united by the theme of robots, chosen by the translator, Michael Kandel, at the prompting of the publisher, Harvest/HBJ, so that there cd be a Lem bk in English that hadn't previously existed in Lem's language, Polish. I wdn't exactly say that that negatively effects the collection but it does result in a bk that's less sylistically unified than, say, what I might think of as its predecessor, the bk that 11 of the 14 stories previously appeared in, Bajki robotów ("Fables for Robots") in Cyberiada (3rd edition), wch is, apparently not the same as The Cyberiad - Fables for the Cybernetic Age, published by Avon in English in 1976, since none of sd 11 stories are in sd The Cyberiad. Harumph.

This is the 16th bk I've read by Lem. He's one of my favorite SF writers, his bks usually have strong ideas & strong literary style. My favorites by him have been Solaris made into a movie 1st by the great Tarkovsky & 2nd by Soderbergh. I loved them both. I've also enjoyed very much Lem's The Invincible, The Chain of Chance, & Imaginary Magnitude. Mortal Engines isn't really 'up there' in their company, I'm somewhat indifferent to it.

I started reading this as a break from 2 other bks that I'm currently reading that I find somewhat tedious: GX Jupitter-Larsen's Sometimes Never & George Herbert Mead's Mind, Self, & Society. The days when I've finished both of those & reviewed them will be a relief, indeed. They're both excellent in their respective ways but that doesn't mean I'm exactly 'enjoying' them. SO, I read Lem for some relief & Mortal Engines did the trick but it didn't exactly inspire me to heights of passion or whatever.

In the translator's introduction there's this: "Norbert Weiner, the "father of cybernetics," presented cybernetics as the study of complex systems that could regulate their own performance or function (output) on the basis of received data about that performance (input)—in other words, systems possessing feedback. Man was one example of this kind of system; a "life-imitating automaton" would be another. The system was the important thing, not the raw material; that could be biological or nonbiological." (p viii)

This gives me an excuse to quote at length from my review of Rudy Rucker's The Hacker and the Ants ( https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/... ) wch, in turn, quotes from my review of Rucker's Master of Space and Time ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... ), a critical nesting process that I quite enjoy:

""How did I look? Like most users, I owned a tailor-made simmie of my cyberspace body. Cyberspace users called their body simmies tuxedos." - p 14

""The funny thing about the "cyber" prefix was that it had always meant bullshit.

""Back in the 1940s, the story went, MIT doubledome Norbert Weiner had wanted a title for a book he'd written about the electronic control of machines. Claude Shannon, also known as The Father of Information Theory, told Weiner to call his book Cybernetics. The academic justification for the word was that the "cyber" root came from the Greek word for "rudder." A "kybernetes" was a steersman or, by extension, a mechanical governor such as a weight-and-pulley feedback device you might hook to your tiller to keep your sailboat aimed at some fixed angle into the wind. The practical justification for the word was contained in Shannon's advice to Weiner: "Use the word 'cybernetics,' Norbert, because nobody knows what it means. This will put you at an advantage in arguments."" - p 19

"This is obviously a pet peeve for Rucker b/c he also referred to it in Master of Space and Time 10 yrs before. In my review of that I wrote:

"""Cybernetics. That was a word Harry and I had always laughed about. Nobody had any idea what it means, it's just some crazy term that Norbert Wiener made up." - p 13

""Really? Paul Pangaro has this to say:

"""What does the word “cybernetics” mean?

"""“Cybernetics” comes from a Greek word meaning “the art of steering”.

"""Cybernetics is about having a goal and taking action to achieve that goal.

"""Knowing whether you have reached your goal (or at least are getting closer to it) requires “feedback”, a concept that comes from cybernetics.

"""From the Greek, “cybernetics” evolved into Latin as “governor”. Draw your own conclusions.

"""When did cybernetics begin?

"""Cybernetics as a process operating in nature has been around for a long time.

"""Cybernetics as a concept in society has been around at least since Plato used it to refer to government.

"""In modern times, the term became widespread because Norbert Wiener wrote a book called “Cybernetics” in 1948. His sub-title was “control and communication in the animal and machine”. This was important because it connects control (a.k.a., actions taken in hope of achieving goals) with communication (a.k.a., connection and information flow between the actor and the environment). So, Wiener is pointing out that effective action requires communication.

"""Wiener’s sub-title also states that both animals (biological systems) and machines (non-biological or “artificial” systems) can operate according to cybernetic principles. This was an explicit recognition that both living and non-living systems can have purpose. A scary idea in 1948." - http://www.pangaro.com/definition-cyb..."

"Note that in the The Hacker and the Ants incarnation of this pet peeve Rucker 'quotes' a conversation between Shannon & Weiner. Really? Was that somewhat incriminating conversation recorded in the 1940s? I think not. Rucker is putting forth someone's imagined version of a hypothetical conversation. It may be very accurate - but it's probably not an actual quote. Naughty, naughty, Rudy."

& since I'm in the midst of an intertextuality spree here, I might as well throw in a bit of Mead's Social Behaviorism: "In so far as one can take the role of the other, he can, as it were, look back at himself from (respond to himself from) that perspective, and so become an object to himself. Thus again, it is only in a social process that selves, as distinct from biological organisms, can arise—selves as beings that have become conscious of themselves." ("Introduction" by Charles W. Morris, p xxiv, to Mead's Mind, Self, & Society) "Social psychology is especially interested in the effect which the social group has in the determination of the experience and conduct of the individual member." (Mind, Self, & Society, p 1) In case it isn't glaringly obvious, I'm drawing a parallel between the "system [as] the important thing" & the emphasis in Social Psychology on the social as the self-determinant.

Ahem. Back to Mortal Engines's intro: "In his" [Lem's] "autobiographical essay The High Castle, he writes: "I used to be a philanthropist to old spark plugs, I would buy parts of incomprehensible gadgets, I would turn some crank or other to give it pleasure, then put it away again with solicitude. . . . To this day I have a special feeling for all sorts of broken bells, alarm clocks, old coils, telephone speakers."" (p xi) Once upon a time I wd've called this Animism, these days, thanks to Rucker, I prefer the term Hylozoistic (hylozoism: "The philosophical doctrine holding that all matter has life, which is a property or derivative of matter." - http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hylo... )

Yes, Lem likes to put the shoe on the other foot, he likes to imagine human life, life as we typically think of it, as seen from the perspective of robots, things usually considered to be simulations of life:

""Fine, fine!" said the King. "Is it true that the thing is made of water, and yet nontransparent, like that puppet of mine?"

""This too is true! It has, Sire, a multitude of slimy tubes inside, through which waters circulate; some are yellow, some pearl gray, but most are red—the red carry a dreadful poison called phlogiston or oxygen, which gas turns everything it touches instantly to rust or else to flame. The Homos itself therefore changes color, pearly, yellow, and pink. nevertheless, Your Royal Highness, we humbly beseech you to abandon your idea of bringing here a live Homos, for it is a powerful creature and malicious as no other . . ."" - p 17

The 1st 11 stories, as previously stated, are, indeed, fables, as is the last story, arguably the 'best', "The Mask". By "fable" I mostly mean stories told in a somewhat simple formulaic way that involve kings & kingdoms, wch might be more appropriately called "fairy tales" even tho no "fairies" are involved, but they're also fables in the sense of "a short tale to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters" ( http://dictionary.reference.com/brows... ) insofar as the robots are the "inanimate object" characters & if there isn't always a "moral lesson" there's, at least, some sort of lesson, sortof.

"How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand" is a fable in the sense of "legends or myths collectively" ( http://dictionary.reference.com/brows... ) b/c it makes a creation myth out of the Big Bang Theory, wch some wd probably consider to be a creation myth in the 1st place.

The 2nd story, "Uranium Earpieces", ends w/: "serves moreover as a constant reminder of the virtues of disarmament" (p 14), a moral. The 3rd story, "How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface" ends w/: "From which one can see straightaway that we have told the truth and not a fairy tale, for in fairy tales virtue always triumphs" ( p 30) perhaps explaining why these are fables & not fairy-tales after all. The 7th, "Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon", ends w/ "However from that time on he was an altogether different king: the events he had undergone made his nature less bellicose, and to the end of his days he engaged exclusively in civilian cybernetics, and left the military kind strictly alone" (p 62), another moral (sortof).

The last story, "The Mask", was my favorite & the one that Lem seems to've put the most work into in a writerly way. In keeping w/ his apparent hylozoism it begins w/ the birth of a creature thru electro-mechanical means: "In the beginning there was darkness and cold flame and lingering thunder, and, in long strings of sparks, char-black hooks, segmented hooks, which passed me on, and creeping metal snakes that touched the thing that was me with their snoutlike flattened heads, and each such touch brought on a lightning tremor, sharp, almost pleasurable." (p 181) Lem's not heavyhanded about it, he leaves it mysterious, the 'newborn' is, to all appearances, a human female of seductive beauty & wit.

All in all, yes, it's Lem, it's good, this wd be a great bk if it were in a lesser writer's oeuvre but in Lem's it's lesser. Still, I recommend it, read everything by him if you don't have anything better to do, et cetry, et cetry..

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Started Reading
July 27, 2015 – Finished Reading
July 28, 2015 – Shelved
July 28, 2015 – Shelved as: sf

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