‘The Old Axolotl’: Man Without Body, Book without Paper
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default, ‘The Old Axolotl’: Man Without Body, Book without Paper, The visuals for the new Jacek Dukaj book were designed by Platige Image studio. The English language version of the book premieres on 24 March, , starosc_aksolotla_ebook_autor_platige_image.jpg
‘The Old Axolotl’, a digital novel by the Polish sci-fi guru Jacek Dukaj, may seem like an apocalyptic vision of the future devoid of humanity (or at least humanity as we know it). But the 2015 work, which later inspired the 2020 Netflix series ‘Into the Night’, offers fascinating insights as to the future of electronic literature – and reading in general.
Jacek Dukaj is widely considered Poland’s best sci-fi author, the inheritor of the noble literary tradition of Stanisław Lem. However, his 2015 book The Old Axolotl was released exclusively in electronic formats, which means it was read only on smartphones, tablets, e-readers and computers. (See the book’s homepage here.)
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The book had no traditional paper release, instead featuring digital elements that 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 amounts to 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 which kills all biological life within 24 hours. The only survivors are computers, the Internet and other electronic devices… and a handful of lucky individuals. This is, of course, the part of Dukaj’s novel which was adapted into the Netflix series Into the Night.
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In the book, in the final hours of impending doom, the surviving humans use an abandoned game-playing technology to scan their personalities onto hardware and thus copy their consciousnesses into the new digital world. As such, they learn to lead their new digital lives outside of their bodies, using the mechanical bodies of robots, mechs and whatever else they can find and hack. This is the starting point of The Old Axolotl – 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 humanity). Suffice it to say, the book offers a compelling cyberpunk 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 even feeling melancholy, which comes with asking questions, like ‘what does it really mean to be human?’
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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 – and possibly for the first time – 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 practitioner of sci-fi, Dukaj is also a theorist of literature to come. 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 (Books).
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Dukaj 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?
But it’s not just 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 the Internet, one is at all times encouraged to check words, follow hyperlinks, etc. This is not only about looking up words in dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
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‘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. He 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?
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Reading in layers – the future of the electronic book?, photo: Platige Image
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 information (illuminating the historical and political events, philosophical ideas and technological concepts, as well as the relationships between the protagonists) has been moved to footnotes, readily accessible through hyperlinks. This makes for the second layer of the book.
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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 text’s overall effect.
Inside the book, you can also find designs and diagrams of the robots which can be printed on a 3D 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.
Jacek Dukaj, Ice
The greatest challenge is still to come
In fact, the writer believes that the present e-book form is a transitional phenomenon, which is changing 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 its 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 or ‘dissolution’ of hardware, as well as absolutely unlimited, ‘un-resisting’ access to software, which means also the whole digitisable culture. Dukaj predicts:
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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.
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 digitised 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.
Jacek Dukaj, trans. MG
One can try hopping on this tightrope by reading The Old Axolotl.
Jacek Dukaj's The Old Axolotl (originally: Starość Aksolotla), published by Allegro, premiered in Poland on 10th March 2015. The English version of the book translated by Stanley Bill, premiered worldwide on 24th March 2015. You can find the book on Amazon.com. The 2020 series Into the Night, inspired by the novel, is available on Netflix.
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polish sci-fi literature
the old axolotl
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Mar 2015, updated by LD, Jul 2020