Sunday, March 19, 2017

Through the Cathode Tube



Copernicus has persuaded us to believe, contrary to all the senses, that the earth does not stand fast." -Nietzsche, The Prejudices of Philosophers 12

What makes Stanisław Lem a superior science fiction writer is that he does not merely awaken our interest in science, he forces us to educate ourselves in order to even understand his plot.

The second of The Invasion from Aldebaran trilogy of short stories does of course bring to mind a number of themes ranging from psychology to literary style. Yet few science fiction stories can effectively compel us to take a moment to research de Laval covergent-divergent nozzles and cathode tubes.

It takes an especially talented science fiction writer to risk complicating his plot with an excess of scientific details. One is prepared for one or two main scientific problems at the center of a story, less so for a jumble of details which,far from being pseudo-scientific nomenclature, symbolize the jumble of real scientific problems that might arise as a result of human deep space exploration.

Yet what allows Lem to get away with it is the clumsy helplessness of his main character, Pirx, who is often as equally perplexed by what goes on around him as we are. Of course Pirx, as a man of the advanced future, knows more than we do (about space travel at least, if not LCD) - but he also has more to know and is often behind.

That the technology around which Lem builds his plot is currently obsolete is secondary. It is not the kinescopic monitor as such which is the culprit, it is the human tendency to trust our senses. Like us, that is all Pirx has to go on in an ever more complex world. We can empathize and identify.

In Test Pirx is told: "If you had a brain to match your biceps, you might amount to something." Already in that story we saw that Pirx's biceps were possibly what made the difference between survival and death in space. In this next instalment, hurling at 4g through space, Pirx's capacity to glance at his range finder is critical to his survival and "a big deal, worthy of a decathlon athlete".

We not only tolerate the various scientific hurdles Lem throws at us, we welcome them as a problem to be solved: a Pirxian puzzle of sorts. If Pirx's simplicity is not enough to sustain us, the writer informs us that:

"In general, people trust their own senses and if they happen to find their dead friend walking down the street, they will sooner presume bearing witness to a resurrection than even consider the possibility that they have gone insane."

Had the doubting Thomas of the story not insisted on trusting his own senses above all else, he may not have vanished without a trace. Perhaps "doubting Thomas" is a misnomer? Lem suggests as much given the grim fate that meets the man who believes what he sees. Whether or not this is a veiled criticism of religion is an interesting question. It may just as well be a simple endorsement of young Socrates' sense that inductive reasoning has its limits and Pythagoras is onto something better.

 Certainly the fate of Thomas suggests that the juxtaposition between faith and witness is erroneous. The biblical Thomas requires tangible proof, while Lem's Thomas presumably meets his end precisely because he believed what his eyes showed him rather than accept that when the senses contradict logic, insanity has appeared.

Perceiving facts is not enough: we must use logic to deduce new facts from existing facts. Lem certainly constructs the proper plot conditions for the exploration of the limits of viable human sense perception : 

"Humans - say the psychologists - as strange as it may sound, often and especially during long periods of isolation, lose control of their minds and emotions and all of a sudden may even fall into a hypnotic numbness or even a dreamless slumber with eyes wide open, from which they fail to recover"

Humans, but not necessarily Pirx. Pirx, as we learned in Test, is a dreamer. Dreamers (and I should know!) thrive in conditions of isolation, far from the burden of more mundane concerns weighing them down, they are finally free to concentrate their minds on problems of a higher nature. 

Lem goes to great lengths to describe the ensuing isolation of the patrol. The stars are immobile. The Earth is, more often  than not, invisible. It is inadvisable to look at the Sun. Man is suspended in a "dentist's chair" over the void. The conditions are certainly ripe for mental breakdown, but Pirx takes advantage of them as any dreamer would, finally focusing his mind on the puzzle of his two lost friends.

As his mind wanders from possibility to probability, we are treated to an example of Kepler's Law. After all, in the gravitational field of a point mass or a spherically-symetrical extended mass (such as the Sun), the trajectory of a moving object is a conic section and therefore if Thomas and Wilmer's rockets were incapacitated it should be possible to plot their position.

At this point it is interesting to note that the term "demonic" appears when Pirx considers for a moment the possibility that an alien intelligence interfered with their patrols. A meteor or a malfunction are morally neutral forces of nature, but possible alien  life is considered demonic, as though sentience were the prerequisite for evil. If so, given  that humans are the only known intelligent life forms in the solar system, then apparently the only potential demon that we know exists in the universe is Mankind.

Certainly it is a demon which Pirx sees when he looks into his mirror. The demonic is as much of and in him as it is him. The mirror is supposed to help cure pilots of their delusion and it certainly provides a catalyst to Pirx. His physical dexterity once again comes to the rescue as does his sensible deductive capability:

"If the light does not move off the monitor screen after the ship is turned, then, quite obviously, there is no light. The monitor screen itself is producing the light. After all, the monitor screen is not a window. The rocket has no windows."

Pirx does not have to understand that the particular cathode tubes used in his ship become worn out after several thousand hours work-time and produce an errant charge on the screen surface. He need only cease trusting his senses long enough to test whether their perception is indeed accurate, which he does by turning the ship. Meanwhile we can enjoy our little lesson in physics.

Note: Image is from one of the several editions of Lem's adventures of Pilot Pirx

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