Friday, March 24, 2017

The Cosmic Albatross

The final installment of the Invasion from Aldebaran series (so called not because it features an invasion, but because the trio of short stories first appeared in a magazine thus named) is a study in contrasts and a reminder that while Mankind might free itself from the chains of gravity, it cannot relieve the boundaries of human nature.

In a sense, Albatross is the grimmer of the three short stories because of the scope of the cosmic accident it deals with. There is something rather uncanny about three separate adventures all featuring the protagonist caught up in extreme dangers of space-fairing life. On the one hand it is not at all unexpected that sailing through the cosmos should evoke similar hardship as one expects from maritime adventures on the high seas. On the other hand, our pride tends to rebel against Lem's suggestion that we would be just as endangered "up there" as we were on the seas.

What bothers us most about this trilogy is that it suggests a proportional excess of mishaps and accidents in space await us when we reach the star. True, relatively large amounts of time elapse between the accidents, but one wonders whether airline pilots experience catastrophic emergencies every two to four years? Naturally it could just be that Pirx is unlucky, but by the time we read Albatross, where there is no rescue (either by brain or by brawn), no scientific puzzle to unravel, we are left with the impression that Lem's point in these stories was to depress our enthusiasm for space travel as an idealistic liberation from the misfortunes of Earth life.

It is perhaps a matter of my own personal temperament, which commands a type of stoic apathy towards suffering and death that my mind focused more on the first part of the story, with its' suggestive descriptions of deep space luxury travel, manners and femininity than on the second part of the story which introduced all of the tensions associated with an SOS. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Lem is making it clear to us that whatever else awaits Pirx - it is not without danger.

Yet human beings are not lemmings, nor insane. They would not continue venturing into space if it were this unsafe - would they? We cannot say that Lem's cosmos is a realm reserved to the warrior spirit, the type of man who would be insane enough to display courage under enemy fire. This is not the type of man who flies into the stars in Lem's stories. Besides the fact that Albatross features a titan class passenger ship where people are eager to dance rather than dive into the dangers of a rescue mission, Pirx himself is not a warrior spirit. For all of the talk of his brawn, he is above all a good pilot; a capable combination of technical aptitude and practical ability. He is a dreamer, not a warrior.

I cannot but recall to mind the words of the wife of Commander Dick Scobee of the space shuttle Challenger, who noted in a documentary that her husband confided in her that despite all of humanity's technical advances - space is dangerous. Commander Scobee flew although he knew the danger. It was not simply a sense of duty, but the human eagerness to rise above ourselves, that apparently drove him and others. I suppose Lem's humans are not much different to Scobee - they know the dangers, but they go anyways. They conquer some dangers; but cannot conquer them all.

Finally, I wonder to what extent the Albatross does not refer to the albatross of the Rhyme of the Ancient mariner. The poem is by now such a common-place associate of the word that it is hardly possible to call anything, let alone a space-faring vessel, an albatross, without raising interest in the term. Yet insofar as the poetic albatross refers to guilt, Lem's simply refers to cataclysm. 

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