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Observation on the Spot

Observation on the Spot (Wizja lokalna) is a science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem which has not been translated into English. It deals with Ijon Tichy's traveling to a faraway planet, Entia (which is a Latin equivalent of their self-name) to study their civilization. The title of the novel has to do with the use of a computer to generate (predict by modeling) information about this planet based on scant data available because it takes a long time for light to travel there -- these technical details are not worked out properly and are quite irrelevant to the main thrust of the novel. Lem has worked out in considerable detail both the history of the Entian species since primeval times and to this day and the present social structure of the technologically highly advanced and socially libertarian Entian society. Major topics of the book are: the problems of the society of plenty based entirely on automated production where individuals have little to do; imposition of ethical laws through technology i.e. the ethicsphere which has made it impossible to harm individuals physically; and the ideological opposition of two dominant systems, which is basically a parody of Western-Soviet Union split taken to the absurd.

Plot summary

Tichy arrives on Entia to discover a unique anthropomorphic civilization divided into two major states: Kurdlandia (from "kurdl") and Luzania. These names require some explanations.

Kurdl is a huge animal inhabiting the marshes of Entia. The name of the animal is Lem's invention, used in earlier tales about Tichy. (In Polish it is kurdziel, however in declensions of the word the root converts into "kurdl", hence there are no associations with the English word "curdle"). The name "Luzania" derives from the Polish root "luz-" with the meaning of "loose", "not restrained"; the choice will become clear below.

Kurdlandia's guiding ideology is "national mobilism", that is the vast majority of the population must live inside of the (live) kurdls, in their stomachs, various passages, and internal organs. Kurdls walk about the marshes, guided by drivers, and their inhabitants hence are able to explore the land of their wonderful country inside of their home kurdl, in the words of a patriotic individual the main character spoke to. Inhabitants of the kurdls may get out periodically (at least for 24 hours a year). Exceptions are largely confined to high government officials who live outside the marshes, on dry ground, in normal houses. Kurdlandia has no technology to speak of and is proud of it.

The other state, Luzania, constitutes the most significant treatment of the topic of an "ideal state" in Lem (and many would argue, in all science fiction). Their most prominent accomplishment is the creation of "ethicsphere" (compare "atmosphere"). They have produced huge numbers of molecular sized "shustrs" ("quickies" in English) that serve to control matter in the shustrated areas. The primary function of the shustrs is the enforcement of the laws of ethics as physical laws (hence the word ethicsphere). Hence, it is a physical law in Luzania that it is not possible to hurt an individual physically. If you try to strike your neighbor, your hand will be stopped by suddenly occurring air viscosity (but it would not hurt you either). If you try to drown, the water will push you out. Doing non-physical harm, such as by pestering, criticizing, and otherwise mentally tormenting people is still possible, although in such a case the shustrs would probably help the victim to walk away from the attackers. In fact, there is a whole protest movement in Luzania of people who want to end the ethicsphere, and a major element of their activities is trying to inflict harm on anybody just to prove the possibility of doing so, but they have not succeeded yet.

The shustrs also serve to produce material goods necessary to maintain a high standard of living. Hence, there is not much of an economic life going on, although there are limits for the amount of energy individuals may spend on satisfying their needs. Many Luzanians are involved in intellectual pursuits, such as being professors, students, and government officials, but the problem of nothing productive to do stands prominent. Apparently the shustrs are capable of some collective thought, at least for the purposes of self-replication and self-improvement, as well as in order to identify instances of potential harm to individuals (no small feat, no doubt). The artists of Luzania feel particularly slighted by the fact that shustrs can create art of all forms of much greater quality than they can; naturally, many of them are members of the protest movement.

There exists ideological opposition between the collectivist Kurdlandia and the generally libertarian Luzania. Generally speaking, many of the people holed up in the kurdls on poor rations would have been more than happy to run away and live in plenty across the border. On the other hand, many Luzanians, especially university students and faculty, dislike the consumerism and ethical limitations of freedom under the shustrs and call variously for the imposition of the kurdl-ism or at least for a slight rollback of the technological development and the abolition of the shustrs, depending on the degree of radicalism of the individual. Luzanians also enjoy traveling to Kurdlandia on vacation to get out of the shustrated areas.

The main character spends most of his time in Luzania, studying the history of the world and the current Luzanian social system. We learn about it through his words.

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