Saturday, December 09, 2006

Science Fiction - "Eden"

"Eden" is one of the earlier books written by S. Lem. It was first published in the 60s. The plot is simple - a spacecraft crashes on the planet Eden, and the crew works on survival and repair, and little exploration. Eden is civilized, but our explorers have hard time figuring out what is going on.

For me the strength of the book lies in its descriptions of the alien planet, its plants, animals and the local intelligent beings. The crew calls them "doublers" - as they appear to be a combination of two different bodies.

The first order of business after the crash is for the crew to find some drinkable water, as the ship's supply is mostly radioactive, and all purifiers are not yet working. This leads to initial explorations of the planet. They find some weird plants that can hide under the surface when disturbed, they discover breathing plants - they name these "lung trees".

On one of the first trips they stumble upon a "factory" - a large structure that seems to be making something, but they are unable to divine the it's purpose. The Engineer follows through the process, but the production process just seems to loop on itself - producing objects that are at the end thrown in the input hopper.

One odd thing about the book is that the characters do not have names, but are referred to by their function. We have the Captain, the Doctor, the Engineer, the Physicist, the Cybernetist (to manage the robots), and the Chemist. We only learn the real name of the Engineer - Henry.

As the story progresses the crew makes a contact with the "doublers", but not particularly successful. As they accumulate observations they are unable to make any sense of what is going on. This, I believe, is the main point of the story - we as humans would have a very difficult time trying to explain a completely alien culture. We naturally tend to apply human patterns, and on an alien planet they do not make any sense.

Lem explores this idea in several of his other books: "The Invincible", "Solaris" and much later in "Fiasco". Of these, "The Invincible" is my favorite.

The beings on Eden appear to fence in and attack the crashed ship, but in the end our crew is able to leave Eden. Just before the departure, they do establish contact with a doubler, who appears to be a scientist, but the communication between them is imprefect and they get only an inkling of what has happened on Eden.

I liked this book, because it explores the idea of communication between us and aliens without the benefit of a universal translator.


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