Nothing matters -- it matters a lot

Review of "Perfect Vacuum" by Stanislaw Lem

a book review by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com


Stanislaw Lem often portrays men (and other beings) facing the unknown and the unknowable. He sets up these confrontations like a series to experiments designed to reveal fundamental aspects of man's nature.

His first assumption seems to be that man's mind cannot deal with random meaninglessness. Presented with any set of facts, no matter how unrelated, we see patterns. Give us dots, and we connect them. Coincidence becomes evidence. Even lack of evidence becomes evidence.

The results are sometimes comic, and often profound.

My favorites are The Investigation (looking into what might or might not be a crime in present-day England), The Invincible (in which humans in a space ship repeatedly try to make sense out of an unknowable alien world), and A Perfect Vacuum (a collection of little masterpieces about nothing).

Seinfeld makes humor out of the trivia of modern life by holding up a magnifying glass to details that we typically ignore, by making a big deal over little things.

Lem often uses trivia as a narrative device. But instead of the trivia of everyday life, he presents invented, imaginary trivia -- quoting imaginary experts and reference books to prove points about imaginary subjects. His characters write reviews of books that were never written. They debate the fine points of theories that no one has ever advanced. They focus on details on the periphery, never daring to look at the center.

His is a galaxy filled with brilliant stars that orbit around a vast, imponderable, unknowable black hole. His characters focus on those stars, but the energy and urgency of their erudite arguments are fueled by the immense gravitational pull of the nothingness in the middle.

Many others have dealt with the subject of "nothing" -- with the realization and the consequences of the realization that the universe probably has no creator, serves no purpose, is simply a collection of random events and matter. Shakespeare's Lear talks of "nothing, nothing, nothing," and "nothing comes of nothing." Milton's Adam must cope not with the words and acts of God, but rather the fact that God says and does nothing -- his punishment is the absence of God. Many volumes have been written about the literature of nothing, AKA the literature of the absurd.

But the brilliance and the unique style of Lem come not from his characters waking up to the absurdity and meaninglessness of the universe, but rather their bizarre, creative, and often convincing ways of avoiding that conclusion. They are able to find meaning everywhere in everything.

The author presents his characters with a perfect vacuum, and they, by some sort of mental quantum physics, spontaneously generate something out of nothing -- beautiful, amusing, and very believable creations of the human imagination, based on nothing, and masking the nothingness they are based on.

It seems like to Lem the world we live in is an alien world, and the alien presence we constantly face is the nothingness, the meaninglessness, the randomness of all that is around us. This is a close encounter of the zero kind -- the kind we confront every day. But rather than despair, he delights in the imaginative strategies and tricks the human mind can come up with, our compulsion to create meaning. What matters isn't the absurdity, but rather the power and complexity of the human mind and spirit which are unleashed in reaction to that absurdity.

He focuses on the reader rather than the book, the audience rather than the play, the critic rather than the original work, the observer rather than the observed.

The gem of the collection A Perfect Vacuum is the final story "A New Cosmogony" in which a brilliant physicist logically deduces the next great revelation about the nature of the universe from the fact that we have not been contacted by intelligent alien beings. Statistically, in the vastness of the universe over the course of billions of years, intelligent beings must have evolved elsewhere and must have had millions of years in which to advance far further than mankind. "They are nowhere to be found? It is only that we do not perceive them, because they are already everywhere... If one considers 'artificial' to be that which is shaped by an active Intelligence, then the entire Universe that surrounds us is already artificial... Where, then are the spacecraft, where the Moloch-machines, where -- in short -- the titanic technologies of these beings who are supposed to surround us and constitute the starry firmament? But this is a mistake caused by the inertia of the mind, since instrumental technologies are required only -- says Acheropoulos -- by a civilization still in the embryonic stage, like Earth's. A billion-year-old civilization employs none. Its tools are what we call the Laws of Nature. Physics itself is the "machine" of such civilization! It is no 'ready-made machine,' nothing of the sort. That 'machine' (obviously it has nothing in common with mechanical machines) is billions of years in the making, and its structure, though much advanced, has not yet been finished!" (pp. 208-209). This physicist imagines not just one but many such intelligent species, which have in the vastness of time deduced the existence of one another and which play a vast game with one another, the rules of which are predicated on the fact that they cannot communicate with one another. "... the thing that determined their subsequent strategies was the fact of the fundamental impossibility of communication, of establishing contact, because one cannot transmit, from the domain of one Physics , any message into the domain of another."

Others have pondered at the seeming miracle that mathematical concepts conceived in isolation, as the logical unfolding for abstract ideas, later are found to be useful in describing and understanding the physical world -- that the human mind seems fashioned in a way that makes the world knowable to it. Lem mocks that notion, while making use of it again and again. In his stories and novels, the world remains unknowable, meaningless, random, nothing. But the characters, indomitably, heroically, and creatively discover new patterns, new kinds of meaning, derive amazing and credible conclusions based on the random evidence presented them. And always, as we read, there's the glimmering suspicion that this nonsense, this obviously artificial fiction, created by Lem, is actually "true," that in his fun antics, he has stumbled upon the meaning behind the seeming nothing...

Read, enjoy, and wonder.



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