The Old Axolotl: Man without Body, Book without Paper
The new book by Polish sci-fi guru Jacek Dukaj may seem like an apocalyptic vision of the future devoid of man (or at least, man as we know him), but it also offers interesting insights as to the future of electronic literature and reading in general.
Jacek Dukaj is widely considered Poland’s best sci-fi author, a continuator of the noble literary tradition of Stanisław Lem. However, his newest book The Old Axolotl (set to premiere in English on 24th March) comes out exclusively in electronic formats, which means it will be read only on smartphones, tablets, e-readers and computers. See The Old Axolotl home page
The book will have no traditional paper release, instead it will feature digital elements that are supposed to engage the reader in an unprecedented way. With different layers of hypertext, illustrations and graphic elements which include logos and diagrams of robots that can be printed on 3D printers, The Old Axolotl may seem like an experiment in reading (and creating) the electronic literature of the future.
This is strangely, but definitely not by coincidence, in keeping with what the book is about. The beginning of The Old Axolotl is set in the near future when the Earth is hit by an unexplained global catastrophe that within 24 hours kills all biological life. What survives is computers, the internet, and other electronic devices… and a handful of lucky individuals, who in the final hours of impending doom, using an abandoned game-playing technology, managed to scan their personalities onto hardware and thus copied their consciousness into the new digital world. Now they learn to lead their new digital life outside their bodies, using the mechanical bodies of robots, mechs, and whatever else they can find and hack. This is the starting point of Jacek Dukaj’s newest book – and a book without material form which tells the story of a man without a body.
To tell more would be spoiling the fun which comes with reading (and learning what an axolotl has to do with the future of man). Suffice to say, the book offers a compelling cyber-punk vision of a future where man is no more, and bots engage in a life that is at times all too human, imitating the habits of men, waging wars, and feeling melancholy, which comes with asking questions, like 'What does it really mean to be human?'
These philosophical questions about the future of man and technology, are of course part of Dukaj’s signature style for which he is known in Poland, but in The Old Axolotl he also (for the first time maybe) tackles the issue of what it means to read literature in the future. And gives a taste of it.
The future of literature
Far from being only a practician of sci-fi, Dukaj is also a theoretician of the literature to come – and his book can be seen also as an attempt at redefining what the future of literature, that is, books read on electronic devices, will be. The writer formulated some of this thoughts on the future of literature in a recent article, properly entitled 'Bibliomachia' in the magazine Książki.
He starts off by charting some of the recent technological developments which have changed the face of literature. He notes, that in the age of mass transmission of images, literature has gradually abandoned the habit of painterly depictions:
Everyone has already seen the icy landscapes of the Arctic, the deserts of Africa, Manhattan and Hawaii, the palaces and dungeons, the Middle Ages and antiquity, the orbital panoramas of the Earth and the depths of the cosmos, the inside of the brain and the atom – why would you describe them again?
– Dukaj asks.
But it’s not only literary description that is gradually disappearing from the electronic literature of the future. Now, with the new possibilities of contexuality, the digital book rids itself also of everything that is ‘googleable’.
This means that reading on a device with easy access to internet, one is at all times encouraged to check words, follow hyperlinks, etc. But it’s not only about looking up words in dictionaries and encyclopedias. ‘You read about the heroes walking up Fifth Avenue in New York – you open Google Maps Street View and you see what they see’, is the example Dukaj gives. While this all is part of the new process of ‘layered reading’, as he calls it, it is not part of the proper work, he concludes and goes on to give a little definition of a literary work of art in the age of e-books:
In the domain of electronic literature, the book is autonomous and independent only in as far as it is extracted from the reality of the ‘googleable’ text.
So how does The Old Axolotl fit into this definition?
Electronic literature starts here?
In fact, The Old Axolotl consists of several layers. The first would be that of the narrative which conspicuously lacks some background information that would be necessary to understand the depicted world in the traditional novel. All this info (illuminating the historical and political events, philosophical ideas and technological concepts, as well as relations between the protagonists) has been moved to footnotes, readily accessible through hyperlinks. This makes for the second layer of the book.
Then there is the layer of multimedia, prepared by the Platige Image studio (Dukaj has a long history of co-operation with Platige, it was his short story The Cathedral that Tomasz Bagiński, the owner of Platige, turned into a short animated film which was nominated for the Oscars in 2002). The illustrations by Maciej Panasiuk, the promo film by Platige Image, as well as a series of futuristic bookplates and logotypes of guilds and alliances, appearing in the book, all add up to the overall effect of the book.
Inside the book, one will also find designs and diagrams of the robots which can be printed on a 3-D printer. They were designed by Alex Jaeger, who was also responsible for creating characters for films like the Avengers and Transformers.
Dukaj’s book comes as a first (at least in Poland) attempt at creating the ‘ultimate’ e-book reading experience. But it also comes at a time of rapid change of technology and cultural habits which renders phrases like ‘ultimate’ premature, useless or downright absurd. Dukaj is well aware of that.
The greatest challenge is still to come
In fact, the writer believes that the present e-book form is a transitional phenomenon, which changes fast, but which so far has been nothing more than a pure mechanical transfer of traditional the paper book into a new environment.
Dukaj goes on to compare this stage of development of e-books to television which in it early days was nothing more but “a radio with a little window” or a music video which, as he explains, for quite a time was just about showing a musician singing.
According to the author the future of the commercial digital environment consists in a complete disappearance, a "dissolution" of hardware and absolutely unlimited, 'un-resisting' access to software, which means also the whole digitizable culture.
The very idea of a "medium", or a "terminal", that is, a distinct fragment of matter necessary for listening to music, watching a film or playing a game, etc, will be seen as absurd.
– he predicts.
Dukaj seems to be saying that the real challenge to literature is still to come. This will happen once the integration of devices (or convergence of functions) is complete, and we have constant access to all digitized content and cultural channels on one ‘device’ (which is not really a device).
Will literature, which has always required a lot of focused attention, be able to survive in the constant competition with these other channels?
Reading, as Dukaj predicts, will become extremely difficult. Actually it already is:
To read a book is a great feat. To read an e-book when everyday one is surrounded by million virtual distractions, is like walking on a tightrope suspended over an abyss during a thunderstorm.
One can try hopping on this tightrope by reading The Old Axolotl.
Jacek Dukaj's Starość aksolotla (published by Allegro) premiered in Poland on March 10. The English version of the book translated by Stanley Bill, premieres worldwide on March 24, 2015.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, March 2015