Imaginary Magnitude

Imaginary Magnitude



The Pequod Review:

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) was one of the more intelligent science fiction writers to emerge from post-war eastern Europe. He is most famous today for his novel Solaris (1961), but his wide-ranging style led him to explore philosophy, technology, satire, and literary studies in a variety of forms. One of his most inventive and idea-rich books is Imaginary Magnitude, a “fictional non-fiction” collection of introductions to books that do not exist. 

Each of Lem’s pieces are enormously inventive, as they introduce books across a diverse range of subjects: x-ray pornography, voice-activated encyclopedias, bacteria that communicate in Morse code, and many others. Lem assumes a variety of authorial voices, ranging from the casual amateur to the rigorous academic. And Lem often demonstrates unusual perspicacity about future technologies; here for example he imagines an entire field of literature composed by automatons:

Introduction to A History of Bitic Literature, by Prof. J. Rambellais

1. GENERAL OBSERVATIONS. By bitic literature we mean any work of nonhuman origin – one whose real author is not a human being. (He may have been the author indirectly, however, by performing the functions which generated the real author's acts of creation.) The discipline which studies the entire class of such writing is bitistics.

There is still no uniformity of opinion as to the dimensions of this research field. In this paramount issue there are two opposing trends or schools, commonly known as Old World (or European) and New World (or American) bitistics. The first school, which operates in the spirit of the classical humanities, studies texts as well as the environmental (social) conditioning of their authors, but is not concerned with these authors' functionally structural side. The second school, the American, treats bitistics as also including the anatomy and functional aspects of the makers of the works under study.

Our monograph will not enter into the debate on this controversial problem, so we shall make only a brief comment regarding the matter. The silence of the traditional humanities concerning the “anatomy and physiology” of authors is based on the obvious fact that these authors, who are always people, differ from one another only as beings of the same species may do so. Thus, as Professor Rambellais says, it would be nonsense in romance philology to make an introductory diagnosis to the effect that the author of Tristan and Iseut or The Song of Roland was a multicellular organism of the order of land vertebrates, a mammal which is viviparous, pneumobranchiathe, placental, and the like. On the other hand, it is not nonsense to specify that ILLIAC 164, the author of Antikant, is a semotopological, serially parallel, subluminal, initially polyglot computer of the 19th binasty, with a maximum intellectronic potential of 1010 epsilon-sems per millimeter of n- dimension con-figurational space of utilizable channels, with a net-alienated memory and a monolanguage of internal procedures of the type uniling. This is because these data explain certain concrete properties of the texts of which the aforementioned illiac is the author.

I also liked this line:

Individual books are deemed worthy of attention by the decision of competent experts who eliminate from their field of vision everything outside their own specialty. This process of elimination is the defensive reflex of every expert: were he less ruthless, he would drown in a flood of paper. But as a result, a statelessness equal to civil death threatens everything which, by virtue of being completely new, defies the bases of classification. The book which I am introducing lies precisely in no man's land… 

Throughout the book, Lem’s ideas are entertaining and playful, but yet serious in their implications for the future. And the book has an intellectually engaging effect on the reader, as we indirectly learn about a subject through an introduction rather than the text itself. Imaginary Magnitude may not be the most representative of Lem’s books, but it is one of his most enjoyable.