Friday, April 21, 2017

Missing the Point

There is nothing quite like the mischievous thrill of reading a story, understanding it and consciously choosing to ignore its main points in favor of tangents.

Terminus, the robot, is clearly the point of Terminus, the short story by Stanisław Lem. Yet as interesting as the question of the reflection of human consciousnes and emotions on a machine template are, the story invites us to consider several themes which are - to my mind - more intriguing.

"On Earth, one felt the limits of silence, its' finite nature, its' temporary state. Amomgst the lunar dunes a man carried his own personal little silence trapped within a space suite which magnified the noise of our nostrils, the crunch of our joints, our pulse, even our breath - only the ship would be lost in black, cold silence at night."

The impatience of Pirx as he floats back to his desk after accidentally pushing himself into the air by way of a pencil in zero gravity. The orange face of the experienced Boman, made so on account of cosmic radiation. The irony of a sales pitch (an old ship marketed as a piece of history) actually being a piece of history. The suggestion that it was quiet enough to hear the blood running through your veins...

There is so much in this story that is interesting as background - a background almost more intriguing than the foreground. Hanging over all of this is the sad fate of the doomed crew. The contrast between the scope of human achievement and their despair invites reflection.

Nothing really happens in this story. It is all an excuse to go to Mars with a malfunctioning robot in an old rocket. The mystery surrounding Terminus is easily solved. What is truly fascinating is the longer voyage made by the writer, who has dedicated so much effort to details of place.

Lem's descriptive prose are an excellent window into the reality of space travel. From the detailed description of launch dynamics and sensations to the eery solitude of space, and the contrast between infinity and human frailty, this story is the most melancholy of the Pirx adventures I have read thus far.

The rocket doubles as a kind of haunted house in space, with morse code clanging through echo chambers playing the role of ghosts and demons. The weather report features meteore showers. Details, details - everywhere an abundance of small details that thrill those of us for whom the stars are still out of reach, those of us still chained by gravity!

Picture found here.

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