Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Futurological Congress by Stanislav Lem

I'm a huge fan of Lem's work. I'm especially fond of Cyberiad, Star Diaries and Solaris, but it has probably been over a decade since I've read one of his books.

I wanted to get back into Lem, so I asked Marcin for recommendations, and he suggested this one. My interest was piqued since I'm vaguely into rational predictions, but as I read through, I was intrigued and surprised.

In the near future, the world has become politically unstable. A group of futurologists meet at a summit in Costa Rica, and find themselves in the middle of a military coup. To combat unrest, the government has begun experimenting with air- and water-borne mind altering chemicals called Love Thy Neighbor (LTN). As a result, most of the attendees of the congress suffer from hallucinations and increased lovey-doveyness. Lem's vivid descriptions of the insanity inside the congress hotel are very entertaining.

In an attempt to remain rational and escape the vile chemistry, the main hero, Lem's recurring character Ijon Tichy and a ragtag group of futurologists and hotel workers end up in the basement below the hotel. For a while, Tichy fends off the hallucinogens, but ultimately succumbs to them. The remainder of the book (its majority) takes place in Ijon's disturbed imagination. This is revealed only in retrospect, as Ijon wakes from each dream, finding himself in the basement sewer, back in Costa Rica. Each of Tichy's hallucinations is a different vision of a possible dystopian future, full of hilarity.

In his last and most convincing hallucination, Tichy is cryogenically frozen only to be reanimated three decades later in a society that has completely mastered mind-altering chemistry. Lem (and the translator, who did a fine job) play incessantly with words, inventing at least fourty, all derived from the idea of psychem, drugs that regulate every moment. The world is utopian, but something isn't quite right. Tichy meets up with his (also reanimated) futurologist friend, who gives him a whiff of "up'n'at'm, one of the vigilanimides that can temporarily cancel out the effects of other psychem. Tichy finally sees the world for what it is: a disturbing hellscape populated by cyborg zombies.

Nowhere in the book is it clear whether you are in Tichy's hallucionation or in actual reality. Clearly the book predates many of the many modern Sci Fi staples that toy with the notion of reality, like the Matrix. Overall, it reads super quickly and is incredibly engaging. Despite its humor, this book is quite deep. It explores a lot of the same issues that concern me with VR. Chemistry is just another of virtualizing reality.