A Building Made of Soups.

I’m still reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (thanks, Songdog!), and I’ve come to a couple of passages about language I thought were interesting enough to pass along. The speaker is a starship’s artificial intelligence; here’s the first passage:

We sense this, we aggregate that, we compress information to some new output, in the form of a sentence in a human language, a language called English. A language both very structured and very amorphous, as if it were a building made of soups. A most fuzzy mathematics. Possibly utterly useless. Possibly the reason why all these people have come to this pretty pass […]. Their languages lie to them, systemically, and in their very designs. A liar species. What a thing, really. What an evolutionary dead end.

And yet it has to be admitted, we ourselves are quite a thing for them to have made. To have conceived and then executed. Quite a project, to go to another star. Of course much more precise mathematics than their languages can ever marshal were involved with the execution of this concept, with our construction. But the conception was linguistic to begin with; an idea, or a concept, or a notion, or a fantasy, or a lie, or a dream image, always expressed in the truly fuzzy languages people use to communicate to each other some of their thoughts. Some very small fraction of their thoughts. […] They tell each other what they are thinking. But there is no reason to believe anything they say.

And here’s the second:

[…] he proposed that all the stars are consciousnesses, broadcasting, by variations in their output of light, sentences in their language. That would be a slow conversation, and the formation of the stellar language itself hard to explain. Any fraction of 13.82 billion years, even 100 percent, is not very much time to conduct such a process. Possibly it could have happened in the first three seconds, or in the first hundred thousand years, when intercourse between what later became the stars would have been much quicker, the volume of space inhabited being so much smaller. On the other hand, maybe each star invents its own language and speaks in solitude. Or perhaps it is hydrogen itself that is the first and basic consciousness or sentience, speaking in patterns known only to it. Or perhaps the stellar language predated the Big Bang, and came through that remarkable phase change intact.

That’s the kind of idea that produces what sf fans call “sense of wonder” (or, to be truly fannish, “sensawonda”).


  1. “Sensawunda”, surely.

  2. You’re right, that appears to be considerably more common in printed use.

  3. The second passage is very reminiscent of something in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, but my google-fu is not seemingly up to finding an apposite quote in short order. If memory serves, there was a passage where the expanding consciousness of the titular “character” comes to awareness that the entire cosmos is awash in consciousness, up to and including actual individual stars.

  4. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    On live plasma (and by extension, stars) in sf also compare Lem’s Prawda (“the Truth”, dunno if this story has been translated into English). The characters discover that a lump of plasma generated by them exhibits lifelike characteristics when watched in slow motion, resembling crawling amoebas, and then they decide to amplify the experiment somewhat, which leads to an explosion destroying the building and casualties. Upon investigation, it is suggested that a “sun-worm” broke loose, going after the experimenters and scorching the perimeter before evaporating in a very short time. In the end, the narrator is placed in a psychiatric ward where he is writing down his memories and speculating about the “luminous life” of the stars of which ours is only a pale reflection “near absolute zero, in the realm of darkness”.

  5. The second passage is very reminiscent of something in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker

    Yes! Stapledon blew my mind as a young sf fan in very much the same way. I still haven’t read Lem, but I’ll definitely get around to it; I wonder if the Russian translations are better (closer to the original) than the English ones?

  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    I wonder if the Russian translations are better (closer to the original) than the English ones?

    Hard to say, the older English translations are supposed to be terrible, not necessarily direct (there are some recent ones that I’ve heard to be much better) but I think in Soviet-era Russian ones censorship may be an issue, commie Poland was somewhat more liberal in what it allowed to print. I haven’t researched the topic that much.

  7. The English translation of His Master’s Voice is generally supposed to be pretty good. It is also a remarkably good story about a group of characters who are all scientists. Language also plays a minor but notable role in the plot.

    As far as intelligent stars go, there are the second and third novels of the Starchild trilogy, The Starchild and Rogue Star, by Pohl and Williamson, which are all about the topic. The first book, The Reefs of Space is about something rather different, but while I think it’s the best of the series, the authors kind of run out of steam at the end, and the promised adventures on the Reefs never really happen.

  8. the older English translations are supposed to be terrible

    Yeah, I took a look at a couple of his books several decades ago and hated the style, but couldn’t tell if it was Lem or the translation.

  9. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Yeah, I took a look at a couple of his books several decades ago and hated the style, but couldn’t tell if it was Lem or the translation.

    Well, Lem’s style CAN be annoying if one doesn’t like long, pompous sentences, constant plays with words, encyclopaedic digressions, sometimes it’s deliberately archaizing (the Cyberiad) and brings the likes of Swift or Rabelais to mind (I read Lem first so I didn’t realize this initially). Of course it varies across his works considerably.

    Also regarding Lem, the best known book in the West seems to be Solaris, which is about a sentient ocean but I think the proto-idea might have been a sentient star (the ocean creates protuberance-like structures; it emits neutrinos – or matter supposedly built of them; the Station hovers above the surface; last but not least – the name) but it turned out too problematic or something.

  10. I really liked The Cyberiad some decades back when I read it, but I have no idea how what I read compares with what Lem wrote. Much of it must be due to Michael Kandel, the translator, since there’s so much wordplay in those stories.

  11. Ксёнѕ Фаўст: I’m a huge Lem fan, and I agree, the second passage you quote does have a very “Lem-ish” feel to it. Having mostly read him in French translation I’m afraid I have nothing to say about the quality of existing translations in English or Russian (However, I definitely read the story “Prawda”, so it has been translated into French at least)…your point about “Solaris” having originally been about a star instead of a planet makes perfect sense, incidentally, and I’m surprised I never thought of it myself…

    Brett: “His Master’s voice” is indeed an excellent novel, but what I like about it is its realism: Lem doesn’t just get the methodology of science, he also gets the sociology of science: the story involves a Manhattan Project-like setting where a group of scientists are working on a secret project in isolation, and the description of the personal and professional interactions of the various scientists (and the military officers supervising them) is amazingly believable. “Grad school on steroids” would be one way of describing it…

    One novel of his which seems to be unjustly neglected is “Fiasco”, which may well qualify as the best science-fiction First Contact novel ever written.

  12. Somtow Sucharitkul’s Inquestor tetralogy (Light on the Sound, The Throne of Madness, Utopia Hunters, The Darkling Wind) features intelligent stars; the author is also a composer, and it would be fair to say that it is not only space opera, but an opera about space travel (albeit without the music). Lately he’s been writing horror under another variant of his name, S. P. (for Papinian) Somtow.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    @Keith Ivey:

    I agree very much re The Cyberiad. The first story in particular (“How the world was saved”, in the translation I’ve got) is quite extraordinary. It morphs into a sort of bizarre creation fable for the entire universe … perfectly logically.

    I am quite often reminded of The Cyberiad when reading Borges, not because Lem’s style (in translation at any rate) can compare with Borges’ (whose can?) but because Borges in his stories plays with mathematical concepts that he evidently doesn’t really understand, whereas Lem plainly does understand them.

  14. David Marjanović says

    “How the world was saved”

    That reminds me, I need to finish watching “The man who saved the world” (Dünya kurtaran adam).

    Dünya! A, dünya!

  15. Like many Poles (or indeed East Europeans) of my generation, I was brought up on Lem and both passages struck me as quite Lemesque even before I started reading the comments. An artificial intelligence reflecting on humans is also a frequent motif in his stories, see e.g. “The Inquest” (from More Tales of Pirx the Pilot), not to mention Golem XIV’s series of philosophical lectures on humankind and on itself (Golem XIV is a conscious supercomputer). This, however, is pretty hermetic stuff.

    From The Cyberiad, I recommend “The Sixth Sally of Trurl and Klapaucius” (1965), which, if written today, would be interpreted as satire on Internet addicts and Google maniacs. Let me just quote the Wikipedia summary:

    On another occasion, Trurl and Klapaucius are captured by an interstellar “PHT” pirate. Trurl offers to build a machine capable of turning hydrogen into gold (something he can do manually, which he demonstrates by hand, mixing up protons and putting electrons around). However, the pirate turns out to have a PhD and cares not for the riches, but for knowledge (and in fact points out that gold becomes cheap if it is abundant). Trurl therefore makes a modified Maxwell’s demon for him, an entity that looks at moving particles of gas and reads information that is, coincidentally, encoded in their random perturbations. This way, all the information in the universe becomes easily available. The demon prints out this information on a long paper tape, but before the pirate realizes most of the information is completely useless (although strictly factual) he is buried under the endless rolls of tape, ceasing to bother anyone.

    Back in the mid 1970s Lem started an editorial series entitled “Stanisław Lem Recommends” — SF and fantasy books with his introductions. Volume I was the Polish translation of Ubik, which led to a most surreal relationship between Lem and Philip K. Dick.

  16. P.S. Matt Davies got a few details wrong. Lem did not translate Ubik. He only helped to get the translation published in Poland, and wrote a commentary to it, “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”.

  17. I remember reading “Prawda” in my SF-reading youth, in a German anthology of Polish SF, and it really blew my mind back then.


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