The text I want to focus on is Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, a novel of about 80,000 words set in the 1970s in the fictional country of Costa Rica, which in its English translation has the same name as the real place, but in the original Polish it is Costarikana, different from Kostaryka, which refers to the real country Costa Rica. Starting with the setting, the novel is characterized by a mixture of reality and fantasy. The protagonist Ijon Tichy is sent to the Eighth World Futurological Congress at the Costa Rica Hilton in Nounas, which is 164 stories tall.  The conference is set to focus on the world’s overpopulation crisis and ways of dealing with it. The novel only recounts the first day of the conference, and then the magnificent hotel is thrown into chaos by a series of physical explosions and even chemical releases from the government and protesters, turning the hotel into ruins, with people fleeing into the sewage tunnels on the ground floor, and experiencing all sorts of hallucinations and dreams. The protagonist thus arrives in 2039, a world whose population is close to 30 billion but is really a utopian world imagined by futurists, with beautiful landscapes everywhere and everyone living in peace and happiness. Tichy uses his diary to record what he sees until he realizes that it is all a fantasy created by the government’s use of drugs, and that the real world is already in shambles due to overpopulation. Ultimately, the protagonist finds himself in extreme pain back in the gutter at the bottom of Hilton, where the second day of the conference has just begun.

Lem’s story is set in the world landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. First, there is concern about population explosion, but in reality, after economic modernization and urbanization of developing countries, the fertility rate has plummeted and the population problem is not urgent. Second, there was the fear of nuclear war in the context of the Cold War, which was supposed to have faded away, but in recent days the Russian-Ukrainian war has brought nuclear weapons back into the spotlight. And third, the prophecy of ecological destruction generated by the severe haze in Los Angeles and elsewhere at the time, a problem that still haunts people but is getting better in constant negotiation. Thus, we can say that these major concerns in the story are outdated. Therefore, I hope that my subject can first of all transpose the setting to the present.

The novel is a first-person narrative, in which the narrator is both an experiencer and a spectator, as well as a creator of his world. In other words, because his world is full of illusions, the reader does not know whether “my” perspective is real or not, as the protagonist is an unreliable narrator. This is the narrative style used by modern novelists since Edgar Allan Poe, with a touch of dark humor, and it is also Lem’s usual style, a form that fits well with the spirit of his science fiction: Lem is always talking about the unreliability of perception, mind and even humanity, which is not a subjective and deliberate deception, but an objective one, where “reality” is inherently inexhaustible.  What we believe about such a story and what images we imagine in our minds determine how we understand it. The main character finally returns to Hilton, but Hilton itself is full of illusions, so is it real? This questioning of reality has been around for a long time, for example, PKD, a contemporary of Lem, proposed a similar model in his most famous Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that human minds and emotions can be manipulated by technological means; or going back to The Republic, the cave metaphor is also a questioning of reality and illusion. In the same vein as Plato, most literary works throughout history also choose to return to reality, but as modern technology advances and reality becomes more and more elusive, perhaps people are also reluctant to return to reality, just like most of the inhabitants in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

If dwelling on the above issues, we will be led to Ted Chiang’s Tower of Babylon, but Lem’s appeal to me is not in questioning the real, but in thinking about how to live in the unreal. There are still states in Lem’s story, and the polity remains geopolitical. He continues the imagination of modernity from the early 20th century, but instead of working to construct a communist utopian future, as sci-fi did then, he suggests the isomorphism of utopia and dystopia. As its name implies, the story itself is a kind of futurology. Like Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths, the literary text itself is linear, but its narrative can also lead to different times and spaces, with a kind of three-dimensionality. Therefore, the reconstruction I want to make of Lem transposes the setting of his story into the present, restoring the space in the story, because the politics of space is important for understanding both modern civilization and sci-fi. As mentioned in “Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives”, “This spatial world, the scene of the story, is fundamental to what happens in it, as the story’s actions are always consistent with its setting.”

The novel has various spatial imaginations: the 106-storey Hilton Hotel with tennis court, swimming pool, shooting range and theater; the Japanese representative’s proposal for a new building: 800-storey building with a maternity ward, nursery, school, stores, museum, zoo, theater, ice rink and crematorium; the Garden City in 2039, full of plants and infrastructure complete. These spaces are intertwined with the main character’s 30-foot gutter, the future Earth that is actually decaying, and the Hilton that is instantly in ruins, suggesting the homogeny of utopia and dystopia, just as ruins and cities, commonwealth and extreme poverty, communism and totalitarianism …… are two sides of the same coin. And it can be better materialized by building a space. I don’t know yet what form I will use to spatialize the text, maybe I can design a small text game to let users experience the perspective of the protagonist, for example, at the ending, if the user chooses to live in 2039 and builds a Metropolis, it will actually end up with a ruin, while on the contrary, the ruin can also become a city. Or build a 3D model, but I currently have no concept of this.

I just want to emphasize that, unlike Magic Realism, sci-fi is about making the impossible possible through rational and legitimate means, in other words, utopia is also possible. The utilization of space is closely linked to political systems, life experiences, daily senses and thinking, such as how the government uses utopia to accomplish political domination on dystopia in the novel, and how humanitarianism becomes anti-human. “What we require is a spatial narrative that acknowledges how engaged human agents build spatially framed identities and aspirations out of actions, behaviors, imagination, and memory. At its core, this narrative focuses on spatial patterns as a means of understanding social interaction. It reflects the geography of the constant interaction between structure and process, a continuous interplay between society and the individual and/or group within a spatial environment that both shapes and is shaped by social norms and by individual or group agency.”