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The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanislaw Lem (read in 2015)

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a surrealist romp by the master of speculative non-hard science fiction, Stanislaw Lem. In this one, we meet the narrator Ijon Tichy, who is so wonderfully written and who is so convincing, that one quickly wonders whether the eponymous congress actually exists. It doesn’t. The Congress takes place in Costa Rica, a convocation of the best and brightest minds that looks to tackle the problem of the future for the whole of planet Earth. In particular, they are to tackle the problem of population. Everything that follows may or may not have taken place, because of the copious amounts of mind-altering substances ingested both deliberately and accidentally by the author.

There is possibly an attack by militants on the hotel. There are supposedly psychotropic drugs in the water. Who put them there? To what end? Tichy ends up in the sewer (or does he?) and wakes up several more times, each time believing simultaneously that he is both closer and farther from the “true” reality. We hear extravagant stories of psychotropic schemes put into place to both control and appease humanity, utopian dreams through chemistry.

At this point, we wonder how he can even tell which is the real reality—is it the one with which he’s the most familiar? How does he even know when he was first dosed? When does real life begin? Is life with propaganda—both mental and chemical—real? Tichy lives seemingly long swathes of life only to discover that it all wasn’t real, was all due to other, more sophisticated chemicals. Until he finally wakes up. And that’s real. Right?

It is now real reality (or so he thinks) with the world massively overpopulated and in the midst of an impending environmental disaster. Tichy tried to end it all, but ends up only waking from his fevered onion-skin–like dreams to the second day of the Congress.


“Publishers of Liberated Literature, and the Phillumenist”
Location 77-77
“Of course there were skeptics who said that the Association’s allotments must have been cut, since only that could account for such heroic frugality.”
Location 146-147
“The next thing I knew, all the lights were out, and the telephone, no matter what number I dialed, kept connecting me with an automated recording of the story of Rapunzel. I tried to take the elevator down, but it too was out of order. The students were singing in chorus, shooting their guns in time to the music—in the other direction, I hoped. Such things happen even in the best hotels,”
Location 154-156

This bit reminds me so much of Douglas Adams. But looking at the publication year, it seems to precede the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

“The original plan was to have this house of the future be mobile, by means of a powerful propeller, thereby making collective sightseeing excursions possible, but that was ruled out because, first of all, there would be 900 million houses to begin with and, secondly, all travel would be pointless. For even if a house had 1,000 exits and its occupants employed them all, they would never be able to leave the building; by the time the last was out, a whole new generation of occupants would have reached maturity inside. The Japanese were clearly delighted”
Location 268-272
“But Professor Dringenbaum went on with his lecture, which was fairly pessimistic in tone, for it maintained that the next phase of our civilization would be cannibalism. He cited several well-known American theoreticians, who had calculated that, if things on Earth continued at their present rate, in four hundred years humanity would represent a living sphere of bodies with a radius expanding at approximately the speed of light. But”
Location 298-301
“I turned on this desk unit, taking it for a radio. A swarm of glittering fleas came bursting out, covered me from head to foot, tickling everywhere, all over—until, screaming and waving my arms, I ran out into the hallway. It was an ordinary feely; by accident I had switched it on in the middle of Kitschekov’s Pruriginous Scherzo. I really don’t understand this new, tactual art form. Bil, Symington’s oldest son, told me that there are also obscene compositions. A pornographic, asemantic-asemiotic art, related to music! Ah, how inexhaustible is man’s inventiveness! Symington Jr. has promised to take me to a secret club. An orgy, or what? In any event I won’t touch the food. Or drink anything.”
Location 1031-1036
““We owe our liberation to chemistry,” he went on. “For all perception is but a change in the concentration of hydrogen ions on the surface of the brain cells. Seeing me, you actually experience a disturbance in the sodium-potassium equilibrium across your neuron membranes. So all we have to do is send a few well-chosen molecules down into those cortical mitochondria, activate the right neurohumoral-synaptic transmission effector sites, and your fondest dreams come true.”
Location 1171-1174
“Everyone wants to commit a villainy without having to feel like a villain. Revenge provides a good excuse—but what did Joan of Arc ever do to to you? Is her only offense in being brighter, better? Then you are worse, crowbar or no. And that no one desires! We all would like to perpetrate the most despicable, vicious crimes, and yet remain noble throughout, wonderful! Simply magnificent! Who doesn’t want to be magnificent? It’s always that way. The worse they are, the more magnificence. The very impossibility of it whets the appetite. Our client isn’t satisfied with tormenting widows and orphans—he must bask in the glow of his own righteousness besides. A criminal himself (though, mind you, fully justified and exonerated), he has no wish to associate with criminals. But this, so far, is old hat, a tedious commonplace. No, you must give the client nothing less than sainthood, you must make of him a veritable angel, and in such a way, that he gratifies his lusts with the feeling that it is not only permitted, but actually his duty, a sort of sacred trust.”
Location 1188-1196
“But how can I use a method to discredit that very method, if the method is discreditable?”
Location 1220-1221
“Hasn’t “Psychomatics” been promoting lately their strata pills, the multilaminars, which produce many-leveled fantasies? Suppose for example you want to be Napoleon at Marengo, but when the fighting is over you’re in no hurry to return to reality, so right there on the battlefield Marshal Ney or one of the Old Guard hands you another pill on a silver tray. It’s part of the hallucination too, but that doesn’t matter, for when you take it the gates to the next dream open before you, and so on ad libitum.”
Location 1257-1260
““That word means something different now. A futurologist makes profutes, prognoses, prophecies, while I deal exclusively with theory. This is a completely new field, unknown in our day. You might call it divination through linguistic derivation. Morphological forecasting! Projective etymology!””
Location 1270-1272
““Linguistic futurology investigates the future through the transformational possibilities of the language,” Trottelreiner explained. “I don’t understand.” “A man can control only what he comprehends, and comprehend only what he is able to put into words. The inexpressible therefore is unknowable. By examining future stages in the evolution of language we come to learn what discoveries, changes and social revolutions the language will be capable, some day, of reflecting.””
Location 1274-1278
““It isn’t a matter of what I think or don’t think, Tichy. We have simply used futurological linguistics to create a new cosmogony, another theory for future generations to consider. They may or may not take it seriously, but the fact remains that it is possible to articulate such a hypothesis!”
Location 1316-1318

Such absolutely wonderful bullshit.

“By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image—superimposed—and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not. If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is—undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored—you would drop in your tracks!””
Location 1336-1339

The Matrix copied from Mr. Lem as well, I suppose.

““This is up’n’at’m, one of the vigilanimides, a powerful countersomniac and antipsychem agent. A derivative of di-methylethylhexabutylpeptopeyotine.”
Location 1341-1342

The red pill.

“There are things, my boy, that everyone knows, and things that no one knows. Pharmacocracy has its open as well as its secret side; the first depends upon the second.””
Location 1381-1382
““Come again?” “Psychotroped, hallucinated. Why run nuclear tests if you have fungol gum?””
Location 1495-1496

This is a vision of a world in which mankind cures all of its ills through pharmacology, fakery, hallucinogens and corruption. War is gone, man’s most ecologically corrosive works remain done only in fiction.

“It’s no longer necessary to call out the national guard—all you have to do is sprinkle the right mascon over the troubled area and the populace will see paratrooper units landing, marines charging, tanks—a real tank now costs about a million dollars, while a hallucinated one amounts to less than one-hundredth of a cent per person, or centispecter per spectator. A destroyer costs a dime.”
Location 1500-1502
“yet there must exist some biological minimum—the bare necessities of life—which no fiction can ever replace. One has to live somewhere, after all, eat something, breathe something. Meanwhile actualysis robs us of one sphere of genuine activity after another.”
Location 1525-1527
“yet there must exist some biological minimum—the bare necessities of life—which no fiction can ever replace. One has to live somewhere, after all, eat something, breathe something. Meanwhile actualysis robs us of one sphere of genuine activity after another. Besides which we are getting a frightening accumulation of side effects. And these require the use of dehallucinides, supermascons and fixators—with dubious success.” “What are they?” “The dehallucinides? A new series. They create the illusion that there is no illusion. At the present they’re given only to the mentally ill, but the number of people who suspect the authenticity of their surroundings is growing in leaps and bounds. The amnestives can do nothing against sursurmises or doubledoubts. For these are secondary fantasies, in other words twice removed. You don’t understand? Well, say someone imagines that he is only imagining that he doesn’t imagine—or the other way around.”
Location 1525-1531
““He says that my restorative, the one you’ve just been using, is not the genuine article. He writes, and I quote, ‘The Federal Bureau of Suggestion, Division of Psychemeering (that’s Psychemengineering), in order to divert the attention of the soothseers from many critical phenomena, is deliberately and maliciously supplying them with false counterhallucinatory agents containing neo-mascons.’” “It doesn’t make sense. The drug you gave me works, I experienced its effects myself. And anyway, what is a soothseer?” “A position of high social standing, which a few—including myself—have the honor and privilege to hold. Soothseeing is the right to take vigilanimides—for the purpose of determining how things are in reality. For someone has to know. That’s obvious, I think?” “Yes.” “And as for the drug, my friend’s guess is that it does indeed cancel out the influence of mascons of earlier vintage, mascons introduced some time ago, but doesn’t stop them all—particularly not the most recent. In which case this”—the Professor held up the flask—“would be no restorative at all, but a most treacherously devised mascon, a counterfeit countermeasure, a double reagent, or in other words a wolf in sheep’s clothing!””
Location 1548-1557

Here I see echoes of the film They live (or vice versa, since this book predates that film by decades). And isn’t this how we are today, but with propaganda and psychological manipulation, rather than direct chemical manipulation? To the point where no one knows what’s real anymore unless it’s in line of sight?

“Much like the old trick where one would set up easily discovered hiding places for a thief—in the hopes that he’d be satisfied with his first find and not seek out the real, far more cleverly concealed treasure!””
Location 1560-1562

But how do you, in the end, know that you have come to the end of the rainbow? Every step along the way is a lie. How can you ever be sure that what you see is real? This is really nicely written stuff, with contemporaries in Burroughs, Dick, perhaps even Derrida, etc.

“Then, in the next ten years, transcepting would do away with crowds and congestion, the consequence of overpopulation. Channels of interbrain communication, whether by cable or radio, would make pointless all gatherings and get-togethers, excursions and journeys to attend conferences, and therefore all personal locomotion to whatever location, for every living being could avail itself of sensors and scanners situated over the whole expanse of human habitation, even to the farthermost planets.”
Location 1590-1594

For more on this, see the book Diaspora by Greg Egan.

“Their job was to see that everyone got his share of aerosol.”
Location 1646-1647

In other words, the Matrix through direct chemistry and no digital component.

“I looked, petrified, at the transformation taking place, realizing in a sudden shudder of premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer—clearly, its falsification had begun so very long ago, that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth.”
Location 1658-1661

How do you know in which direction it’s going? Toward the more or less “real”? Perhaps we can ask Žižek what he thinks Lacan would say.