Stanislaw Lem's forgotten masterwork Summa Technologiae, now in English half a century after publication, is a heady mix of prescience, philosophy and irony"
The book will be a fabulous shock to those who know only his science fiction, such as Solaris or The Cyberiad. Others will have caught tantalising glimpses of Summa, published in 1964, in a few essays. Diehards may even have read it in translation, notably German or Russian.
The English version has been translated by Joanna Zylinska, professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Zylinska's work is at once wildly imaginative and painstakingly precise; sometimes one wishes, in the later chapters, that she would be a little more slapdash and cut to the chase, but this, of course, is Lem's fault, not hers.
Summa is not for the faint-hearted. Starting with a title that pastiches Thomas Aquinas's 13th-century Summa Theologiae, Lem sets out to replace god with reason. Zylinska's introduction lays out the map. Is the phenomenon that is humanity typical or exceptional in the universe? Does plagiarising nature count as fraud? Do we need consciousness for human agency? Should we trust our thoughts or perceptions? Are we controlling technology – or vice versa?
It is amazing how much Lem got right, or even predicted. This ranges across artificial intelligence, the theory of search engines (he called it "ariadnology"), bionics, virtual reality ("phantomatics"), technological singularity and nanotechnology.
But Lem's philosophical ambition is the real meat. Zylinska quotes an essay by biophysicist Peter Butko, who describes Summa as an "all-encompassing... discourse on evolution: not only... of science and technology... but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization".