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“137 Seconds” is a short story by Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, translated into English for ...
2021-09-08 11:30:00
Stanisław Lem

137 Seconds (Part I)

Illustration by Stefan Berdak (from “Przekrój”’s archives)
137 Seconds (Part I)
137 Seconds (Part I)

Breaking news, out-of-control teleprinters, and a world-wide network of knowledgeable computers are at the centre of this short story by the master Stanisław Lem. So prepare yourself for a truly surprising mix of sci-fi and supernatural horror!

Read in 21 minutes

Gentlemen, for lack of time and by reason of unfavorable circumstances, most people depart this world without ever stopping to think about it. Meanwhile, those who try to do it have a dizzy turn, and then get on with something else. I am one of them. As I built up my career, the column space devoted to my person in Who’s Who grew with the years, but neither the latest edition nor future ones will record why I gave up journalism. That is going to be the subject of my story, which in other circumstances I’m sure I wouldn’t be telling.

I used to know a talented young man who decided to build a sensitive galvanometer, and he managed to do it too well. The device even moved when there was no current, because it reacted to the vibration of the Earth’s crust. This anecdote could serve as a motto for my story. At the time, I was the night editor for UPI’s foreign service. I survived a lot there, including the automation of the way the newspapers were edited. I parted company with the live page-setters to work with an IBM 0161 computer specially adapted for editorial work. I truly regret that I was not born about a hundred and fifty years earlier. My story would be starting with the words, “I seduced the Countess de . . . ,” and if I’d gone on to describe how I’d seized the reins from the coachman’s hands and started whipping up the horses to escape pursuit by the thugs set on me by her jealous husband, I wouldn’t have had to explain to you what a countess is or what seduction involves. Nowadays, things aren’t so good. The 0161 computer is not a mechanical page-setter. It’s a devil of speed, reined in by the engineers’ tricks so that man can keep pace with it. This computer replaces ten to twelve people. It is directly connected to a hundred teleprinters, so that whatever our correspondents type out in Ankara, Baghdad, or Tokyo reaches its circuits at the same moment. It organizes the texts, and pitches onto the screen a series of page designs for the morning edition. Between midnight and three a.m.—the time when the edition closes—it can compile as many as fifty different versions. It’s up to the editor on duty to decide which one will go to print. A page-setter who had to produce not fifty but just five designs for the dummy edition would go insane. The computer works a million times faster than any of us, that is, it could work like that if it were allowed to. I realize how much of the allure of my story I am destroying by making such comments. What would be left of the countess’s charms if, instead of lingering on the alabaster complexion of her breasts, I talked about their chemical composition? We are living in disastrous times for raconteurs, because the accessible stories they tell are anachronistic old hat, and the sensational ones require entire pages out of the encyclopedia and a university textbook. But no one has found a remedy for this particular curse. And yet, working with my IBM was fascinating. Whenever a new piece of news came in—it happens in a large round room, full of the constant rattle of the teleprinters—the computer immediately sets it into a mock-up of the page on a trial basis, only on-screen of course. It’s all a game of electrons, light, and shade. Some of the staff were sorry about the people who’d lost their jobs. But I didn’t miss them at all. A computer has no ambitions, it doesn’t get upset if the final report is missing at five to three, it has no domestic worries, it doesn’t borrow before payday, it doesn’t get tired or insist that it knows better, and in particular, it doesn’t take offense when it’s told to move the words it has set into the headline onto the back page in nonpareil. At the same time, it is incredibly demanding; it’s hard to get your head around this at first. When it says “no,” that’s a final “no,” for good and all, like a sentence passed by a tyrant: it cannot be contradicted! But as it is never wrong, the mistakes in the morning edition can only have one author: it’s always a human being. The IBM engineers have thought of absolutely everything, with the exception of the tiny detail that, however well-balanced and secured they are, the teleprinters always shake, like a very fast typewriter. As a result, the cables connecting the editorial teleprinters to the computer have a tendency to come loose, and eventually the plugs fall out of the sockets. It only happens rarely, about once or twice a month. The bother of having to get up and push the plug back in is so minor that no one has been in a rush to insist that the connections should be changed. Each of us duty editors thought of it, but without great conviction. Perhaps by now they have been changed. If so, the discovery I’m going to tell you about won’t be repeated.

It was Christmas Eve. I had the edition ready just before three—I liked to secure a few minutes’ spare time for myself to have a rest and smoke my pipe. I had the pleasant feeling that the rotary printing press wasn’t waiting for me, but for the final report—that night it was a piece of news from Iran, where that morning there had been an earthquake. The agencies had only sent part of their correspondent’s wire, because after the first tremor there had been another one, strong enough to destroy the cable connection. As the radio was silent too, we figured the radio station had been reduced to rubble. We were counting on our man, whose name was Stan Rogers; he was as small as a jockey, and he often made use of his size to get on board military helicopters; when there was no room to spare, an exception would be made for him because he weighed no more than a suitcase. The screen was filled with the front-page layout, with a final white rectangle still blank. The connections with Iran were still down. In fact, several of the teleprinters hadn’t stopped hammering away, but I instantly recognized the sound of the Turkish one when it came on. It’s a matter of practice that one acquires automatically. I was surprised to see that the white rectangle was still blank, although the words should have been appearing on it just as fast as the teleprinter was bashing them out, but the delay only lasted for a second or two. Then the entire text of the report, very concise anyway, materialized all in one go, which I also found astonishing. I can remember it by heart. The headline had already been prepared—beneath it ran the sentences: “Two underground tremors of a magnitude of seven and eight degrees on the Richter scale occurred in Sherabad between ten and eleven o’clock local time. The city was reduced to ruins. The number of victims is estimated at one thousand and the number of homeless at six thousand.”

A buzzer sounded, which was my alarm call from the printing house: three o’clock had just gone by. As such a laconic text left a little free space, I diluted it with two extra sentences, then pressed the key, and shot off the final edition to the printing house, where it went straight to the typesetters to be composed and sent to the rotary press.

I had nothing left to do, so I got up and stretched my legs; as I was lighting my pipe, which had gone out, I noticed a cable lying on the floor. It had fallen out of its socket. It belonged to the teleprinter from Ankara. And that was the one Rogers used. As I picked it up, the absurd thought flashed through my mind that it had already been lying there before the teleprinter had started up. Of course, that was ridiculous, because how could the computer have added that piece of news without being connected to the teleprinter? Slowly I went up to the teleprinter, tore out the sheet of paper with the message typed on it, and raised it to my eyes. I noticed at once that the wording seemed to be slightly different, but I was feeling tired, I was drained, as usual at that time of night, and I didn’t trust my memory. I switched the computer on again, asked it to show me the front page, and compared the two texts. Indeed, they were different, but not significantly. The teleprinter version said: “Between ten and eleven o’clock local time, there were two successive tremors in Sherabad, of a magnitude of seven and eight degrees on the Richter scale. The city has been completely destroyed. The number of victims exceeds five hundred, and the number of those without shelter is about six thousand.”

I stood there, staring now at the screen, now at the sheet of paper. I didn’t know what to think or what to do. The meaning of the two texts was almost exactly the same; the only factual difference was the number of fatalities, because Ankara said there were five hundred, while the computer had doubled it. At any rate, I hadn’t lost the typical reflexes of a journalist, and immediately got in touch with the printing house.

“Listen,” I said to Langhorne, who was the typesetter on shift that night, “I’ve caught an error in the Iranian report, front page, third column, last line, it should say: not ‘one thousand’ . . .”

I broke off, because the Turkish teleprinter had woken up and started to type again: “Attention. Final report. Attention. The number of earthquake victims is now estimated at one thousand. Rogers. Out.”

“Well, so then what? What should it say?” asked Langhorne from below. I sighed.

“Sorry, pal,” I said. “There’s no error. My mistake. It’s all fine. It can go out as it is.”

I quickly replaced the receiver, went over to the teleprinter, and read the appendix six times over. Every time, I liked it less. I felt, I don’t know, as if the floor were giving way beneath my feet. I walked around the computer, casting it mistrustful glances, in which there was certainly a touch of fear too. How had it done that? I couldn’t understand a thing, and I felt that the longer I thought about it, the less I would comprehend.

At home, in bed I couldn’t get to sleep. I tried my best, above all for reasons of mental hygiene, not to let myself think about the weird incident. After all, in the objective sense it was trivial. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone about it—nobody would believe me. They’d take it to be a joke, a naïve, silly one. Only after tossing and turning in bed, once I had decided to subject the matter to close scrutiny, in other words, to do some systematic research into the computer’s reactions to having the teleprinters disconnected, did I finally feel some relief, at least enough to manage to fall asleep.

I woke up in a fairly optimistic mood, and—though God knows where it came from—with a solution to the enigma, or at least something that might pass as one.

While the teleprinters were in operation, they shuddered. Their vibrations were strong enough to cause the connector plugs to fall out of their cable sockets. Could this be the source of substitute signaling? Even I, with my feeble, slow human senses, was able to catch the differences in the sounds of the individual teleprinters. I could recognize the Paris one when it was in motion because it produced such distinct metallic strokes. So if the receiver was hundreds of times more sensitive, it would even pick up the tiny differences between the strokes of the individual letter keys. Of course, this wasn’t one hundred percent possible, and that was why the computer hadn’t repeated the tele- printer text word for word, but had distorted it a little stylistically; it had simply supplemented the information it lacked. As for the number of victims, it was a mathematical machine by origin; there had to be statistical correlation between the number of houses destroyed, the time of day when the earthquake had occurred, and the number of fatalities; in transmitting that figure, perhaps the computer had made use of its capacities to do some high-speed calculations, and the result was those thousand victims. Our correspondent, who had not made any calculations, had passed on the estimate he’d been given on the spot, but a little later, once he had obtained some more precise information, he had sent the final correction. The computer had come out on top because it wasn’t relying on rumor, but on precise statistical material, the power of which lay in its ferrite memory. This reasoning fully set my mind at rest.

Indeed, the IBM 0161 is not a passive transmitter; if the teleprinter supporting it makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, the error appears on the screen, to be replaced at lightning speed by the correct form of the word. Sometimes this happens so fast that you don’t notice it, and you only find out that a correction has been made when you compare the typed-out text with the one the computer has put on screen. Nor is the IBM just an automatic page-setter, because it is connected to the computer networks of various agencies, and libraries too, and you can ask it for data with which it immediately enriches reports that are too thin. In short, I explained it all to myself very well, yet I still planned to carry out some small experiments by myself during my next shift, but not to tell anyone about them, nor about what had happened on Christmas Eve, because that was more sensible.

I did not lack the opportunity. Two days later I was sitting in the foreign service room again, and when Beirut began to transmit news about the disappearance of a Sixth Fleet submarine in the Mediterranean Sea, I got up and, without taking my eyes off the screen on which the words of the text were appearing at rapid speed, with a fluent, furtive movement I pulled the plug out of the socket. For a split second the text didn’t expand, but remained cut off mid-word, as if the computer were surprised and didn’t know what to do. But this shock only lasted a moment; almost instantly the words began to jump out on the white background again, while I feverishly compared them with the text being typed out by the teleprinter. Something already familiar to me occurred again—the computer transmitted the teleprinter’s message, but altered the words slightly: “the Sixth Fleet’s spokesmen announced” instead of “said,” “the search continues” instead of “is ongoing,” and a few more minor details of this kind distinguished the two texts.

It’s surprising how easily a person gets used to the unusual, as soon as he grasps its mechanism—or thinks he has grasped it. I was already under the impression that I was playing cat and mouse with the computer, that I was fooling it, and that I was fully in control of the situation. The dummy edition still glared with numerous blank spaces, and the texts that were going to fill them were coming in now, at the peak hours for news, several at a time. I identified each of the relevant cables from their bunches and pulled out the plugs, one by one, until I was left with six or seven in my fist. The computer went on working away as calmly as could be, although it was no longer connected to any of the teleprinters. Without a doubt, I told myself, it distinguishes the letters and words being typed out by the vibrations, and whatever it doesn’t recreate at once, it supplements by lightning-fast extrapolation or another of its mathematical methods. I was acting as if in a trance; on the alert, I waited for the next teleprinter to awaken—and when the Rome one started up, I pulled on the cable, but so hard that when the plug came out, so did the other one, through which the teleprinter itself was powered, so naturally it stopped working. I was already on the move to plug it into the socket when something prompted me to cast an eye at the screen.

The Rome teleprinter was off, but the computer was filling the space set aside for the Italian government crisis like anything, with a “latest report.” With bated breath, feeling once again as if strange things were happening to the floor and to my knees, I went up to the screen and read the innocent words: “appointed Battista Castellani as prime minister,” like a telegram from the world beyond. As fast as I could, I connected the Rome teleprinter to the main supply cable to collate the two texts. Oh, now the differences between them were far greater, but the computer did not deviate from the truth, that is, from the gist of the dispatch. Castellani really had been made prime minister, but the sentence appeared in a different context, four lines lower down than on the screen. It looked just as if two journalists had independently gained the same information, and had freely edited the text of the note, each in his own way; feeling as if my legs had turned to jelly, I sat down, to try to bolster my hypothesis one last time, but I could already tell the attempt would be futile. My entire rationalization had collapsed in a single moment, because how could the computer have deciphered the vibrations of a teleprinter that was as silent and lifeless as a block of wood? It was hardly in a position to catch the vibrations of the teleprinter our correspondent was working on in Rome! My head began to spin. If someone had come in, God knows what sort of suspicions I’d have prompted—I was sweating, my eyes were darting around, and I was still clutching a fistful of cables in my sweaty grip, like a criminal caught red-handed. I felt like a cornered rat, and I reacted like a desperate one—because I started violently disconnecting all the teleprinters, so that soon after the rattle of the last one stopped—and I was left alone with my computer, amid deathly silence. And then a strange thing occurred—possibly even more surprising than anything that had happened before. Although the dummy edition was not yet entirely filled, the rate of the incoming texts diminished noticeably. What’s more, at the new, decelerated pace, sentences appeared that were devoid of precise content, vacuous—in short, so-called padding. For quite a while the strings of lines continued to crawl into their spaces on the screen, until they came to a standstill—all of them. Some of the texts had acquired an absurdly comical character; there was a note about a soccer match, in which instead of the final result there was a vapid platitude about the brave stance of the players on both teams. The latest news from Iran broke off with the statement that earthquakes are phenomena that occur on a cosmic scale, because they even happen on the Moon. It sounded quite inane. The mysterious sources from which the computer had been obtaining precise inspiration until now had dried up.

Naturally, my first task was to finish formatting the edition, so with the greatest haste I hooked up the teleprinters; I could only devote proper thought to the events I had witnessed after three, once the rotary printer was at work. I knew I would have no peace until I had gotten to the roots of this fascinating display of efficiency, with its no less astonishing cessation. The first thought to occur to the layperson was that one should simply put the relevant questions to the computer itself: if it was so clever, and at the same time so utterly obedient, let it reveal in what way, by what mechanisms it worked when disconnected, and also what then put the brakes on this work. This notion was planted in our heads by popular baloney about electronic brains, because we cannot talk to a computer in the same way as we can to a human being, wise or dumb—after all, it’s not a person at all! We might just as well expect a typewriter to tell us when it’s broken, and where and how to repair it. A computer processes information to which it has no rational relationship. The sentences it spits out are like trains traveling along the rails of syntax. If they are derailed, it means something inside it isn’t working properly, but it is unaware of that, for the sufficient reason that a computer is no more animate than a lamp or a stool. Our IBM was capable of formulating and reformulating the texts of stereotypical press releases by itself, but that was all. The weight of the individual texts would always have to be decided by a human being. The IBM was capable of compiling two pieces of information that supplemented each other into just one, or of selecting set phrases to introduce a purely objective report, for example for a dispatch, by using ready-made models for such procedures, of which it had recorded hundreds of thousands. This sort of introduction would only correspond to the contents of the dispatch, thanks to the fact that the IBM had done a statistical analysis of it, picking out the so-called key words—so if in the dispatch the terms “goal,” “penalty,” and “rival team” were repeated, it chose something from the repertoire of sports competitions; in short, the computer is like a railroad worker who knows the right way to set the points, couple the wagons, and send the trains out in the right direction, though he doesn’t know what they contain. It knows its way around the features of purely external words, sentences, and phrases of the kind that are subject to the mathematical operations of dismantling and assembly. So I couldn’t expect any help from it.

I spent that night at home, unable to sleep as I turned it all over in my mind. In the computer’s output I had noticed the following regular feature: the longer it was disconnected from the sources of information, the less well it reconstructed it. I found that quite understandable, considering that I had been in journalism for twenty-something years. As you know, the editorial offices of two mass-circulation weeklies such as Time or Newsweek are completely independent of each other. The only thing that connects them, as they edit their individual issues, is that they happen to be in the same world, and have very closely related sources of information at their disposal at an analogous time. On top of that, they address a highly assimilated readership. So the similarity of most of the articles they contain is not at all surprising. It arises from the special excellence at adapting to the market that both of these competing teams have achieved. How to write reviews of events in one country or on the scale of a single week worldwide can be learned, and if the writing is done from a similar position—namely, that of the journalistic elite of the United States—by people equipped with a similar education and analogous information, which they handle with the purpose of gaining the optimal effect on the reader, then it is no wonder that texts compiled independently and in parallel sometimes resemble twin pairs. The similarities never go as far as individual sentences, but the attitude, tone, intensity of affectation, distribution of stress, highlighting of certain explicit details, contrasting juxtaposition of features—for example, in the profile of a politician—in other words, everything that serves to rivet the reader’s attention, and to suggest to him that he is at the source of the very best information, constitutes the toolkit of every proficient journalist. In a way, our IBM was itself a “dummy” of this kind of reporter. It knew the methods and the tricks, so it knew how to do the same things as any of us. Thanks to the routine that was programmed into it, it had become brilliant at finding the catchy phrases, juxtaposing facts in a shocking way, and presenting them to its best advantage; I knew about all this, but I also knew that its virtuosity could not be reduced to explanations of this kind. Why was it still so capable when disconnected from the teleprinters? And why did this ability so quickly abandon it? Why did it start to blather after that? My head was still full of the idea that I could find the answers to these questions on my own.

Read the next part of “137 Seconds”.

137 Seconds is an excerpt from The Truth, and Other Stories by Stanisław Lem, published by The MIT Press in September 2021 and translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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