The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams by Jacek Dukaj, translated by Stanley Bill (Allegro, 160 pages, 2015)
This isn’t your grandfather’s reading experience, and that’s the point.
Jacek Dukaj, Poland’s most famous living sci-fi writer, has created a
multi-dimensional text that explores what it means to be a human versus a
machine with a human consciousness. The Old Axolotl is
only being released as an e-book (from Allegro), mostly because it
includes layers of hypertext and other digital elements, including
diagrams of robots that can be printed on 3D printers. (see the Culture.pl
article for more details about the book and Dukaj’s intentions). Dukaj
is interested not just in telling a story about human extermination and
the rise of robots, but also in how the digital experience is shaping us
as humans and how we will read in the future.
In a recent piece that he wrote for the magazine Książki, Dukaj
argued that “[t]o read an e-book when everyday one is surrounded by [a]
million virtual distractions, is like walking on a tightrope suspended
over an abyss during a thunderstorm.” (“Bibliomachia”). We are
constantly bombarded with images and information, but what happens when
humans have disappeared and only the technology remains?
But let me start at the beginning. It’s a regular day, nothing much
is going on, when suddenly the news feeds go crazy about a “neutron
wave” cutting down every human, dog, bird, insect (basically all organic
life) that is sweeping across the planet. No one knows where it’s
coming from, and only the people in the areas hit last have time to
upload their consciousnesses into an unpopular and abandoned virtual
reality game, InSoul3. How many “made it” before the wave exterminated
all Earth life? 17,946.
But of course, it’s not so simple. Many who successfully uploaded and
then made straight for the Internet were “deleted” or otherwise
destroyed by a virus. Others had their consciousness corrupted somehow.
Some were in the middle of uploading when death hit. Bottom line: it was
The smart/lucky ones manage to jump into various kinds of “mechs,”
bringing together a consciousness and a body so they’re not just
floating around in the cloud. Only in Japan, though, was the robotic
technology sophisticated enough for this joining, so what we now have
roaming the Earth are Star Trooper Miharayasuhiros, sexbots, irigotchi,
and other assorted mechs/toys. With human consciousnesses.
Bartek, the main character and former “IT whiz,” refuses to let go of
his human side, pining for the past and holding on to his former
identity, as if it still exists. Throughout The Old Axolotl,
Bartek breaks into melancholy philosophical musings, for instance, when
he thinks “We are monstrous shadows and scrapheaps of human beings, the
molybdenum despair of empty hearts.” And it’s not just him- many of the
other “transformers” go through the motions of being human, such as
drinking, kissing, and displaying emotions. The most pathetically sad
moments in the book (in my opinion) occur when the narrator says
something like “They sat and smoked. (Not really. But sort of”). When
Bartek becomes frustrated about something, he “display[s] Animal the
Muppet beating his head against a wall.” This is how the transformers
communicate with one another, using their mechanical bodies to transmit
human emotions, desires, and memories. Every time they emote, they must
draw upon pop culture references to get their point across.
As one of Bartek’s friends points out later, longing for a human past is
pointless because even the transformers aren’t human anymore: “InSoul3
couldn’t upload the whole brain–just some currents on the surface, the
shadow of its structure, whatever made a good avatar bot…There’d been no
breakthrough in the digitalization of minds. Nobody had invented a way
to turn IS3 into some magic psychopomp. All the humans died twenty-three
days ago. We’re all that’s left.'” Cue discussions about the “soul” and
“consciousness” and what it means to be human.
And where does the “axolotl” come in to all of this? Well, when a
bunch of transformers decide to reboot organic life on Earth, of course!
While transformers form shifting alliances and fight one another over
hardware and server space, Bartek and others congregate at the MIT
campus and begin building Humans 2.0 from the work done by biochemists
before the Extermination and the DNA maps from the Human Genome Project.
One of the life-forms that returns is the axolotl, a “Mexican
salamander which in natural conditions retains its aquatic newtlike
larval form throughout life but is able to breed” (Oxford Dictionaries).
The existence of this creature prompts Bartek to rant about its seeming
pointlessness: ” ‘An entire life form for nothing, just for the hell of
it, from a stupid impulse of evolution. What was meant to be a larval,
transitional form ends up reproducing itself. And now look: the
monster’s entire adult life turns out to be completely redundant. Just a
freak of nature. Why does it exist? Why?'”
Why indeed. After all, human evolution was also “freestyle.” And what
purpose did it serve in the universe? What was the point of its
existence, and what will happen now that it’s been wiped out? The
machine-made humans, despite their outward appearance, are not “really”
humans, the transformers concede. They, like the transformers, are
merely performing humanness.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, though it’s pretty haunting and
also disturbing. Ok, I’ll just say that it has something to do with
So if you’re interested in expanding your usual sci-fi repertoire,
check out this experimental text from one of the great living Polish
writers. You. Are. Welcome.
(first posted on SF Signal 4/9/15)