One Human Minute

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In One Human Minute, Stanisaw Lem continues a practice he has adopted in other works, notably in Imaginary Magnitude (1984; published in Polish in 1973 and 1981), of reviewing books that have not yet been written. Here he reviews One Human Minute (1988) and the first two volumes of Weapons Systems of the Twenty-first Century: The Upside-Down Evolution (2105). His piece on the third book, The World as Cataclysm (undated), may be either a review or an introduction. In the first two essays, Lem uses the vantage point of the future to speculate on human nature and some preoccupations of the West in the twentieth century. In the third, he discusses recent studies in cosmology.

The fictional One Human Minute is a sort of statistical almanac which attempts to summarize all the human activities that take place in a “typical” contemporary moment. The two volumes on future weapons systems trace the consequences of the “inevitable” miniaturization of weapons that will result from the miniaturization of computer systems. The World as Cataclysm argues against the popular conception that the cosmos was “designed” to produce intelligent life.

The first piece is the broader of the two reviews in its range of satiric targets. Lem introduces the book as the ultimate volume of the popular type represented by the Guinness Book of World Records. The book is a collection of carefully gathered and presented statistical tables which quantify nearly all human actions in terms of their frequency in a single minute: how many people die in various ways, including torture and accidental electric shock; the volume of sperm ejaculated; the amount of blood pumped; the mass of tumorous growth. In an ironic way, this book supplies what modern Western culture teaches people to want. Lem argues that the terror and boredom of commercial broadcasting prepare viewers for the “paradise” of commercials that promise perfection. Technological progress, in turn, makes so many things available—forty cable television stations, too many books to read and products to own—that people come to doubt the value of what they choose at any moment to do. He says, “There had to be a book, then, about what Everybody Else was doing, so that we would be tormented no longer by the doubt that we were reading nonsense while the Important Things were taking place Elsewhere.”

Whether this book is nonsense remains unclear. Lem uses the review to emphasize the book’s convincing picture of humanity as essentially depraved while hinting repeatedly at the depravity of accepting such a book as the true picture of humanity which it claims to be. Lem reports surprise at discovering a sort of impressive if often horrifying concreteness in the apparently dry abstractions of statistical tables. From the tables emerges a picture of the mass of humanity involved in epic suffering yet engaging in constant reproduction: “How can one come to terms with an image of humanity copulating relentlessly through all the cataclysms that befall it, or that it has brought upon itself?” As he reflects on how the chapter on death affects him, he hints that this image of “the body politic” in pain may evoke a moral response:One cannot maintain for long that these are dry, boring figures that say nothing. One begins to wonder morbidly how many other ways people are dying every minute one reads, and the fingers turning the pages become moist. It is sweat, of course; it can hardly be blood.

This mixture of sweating blood and having blood on one’s hands points to the possibility of pity and guilt in relation to this suffering, emotions which Lem asserts are difficult to feel toward a mass of humanity. This gesture toward pity and guilt emerges out of often bitter observations on such topics as infant mortality and death by torture.

Lem concludes that the book is neither a caricature nor a mirror of humanity. It shows truth, but not the whole truth. He sees its central truth as the asymmetry of good and evil: Evil is more extensive than good, in part because good is harder to accomplish than evil in this world.

Lem also jabs humorously at other targets. In response to the massiveness of mass culture comes Lem’s law: “No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn’t understand; if he understands, he immediately forgets.” The almost infinite division of labor which leads to rule by disagreeing experts produces less intelligent politicians:The declining intellectual quality of political leadership is the result of the growing complexity of the world. Since no one, be he endowed with the highest wisdom, can grasp it in its entirety, it is those who are least bothered by this who strive for power.

The review circles back on itself in part 2, which reviews the second edition. This edition contains...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, February 15, 1986, p. 851.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, January 1, 1986, p. 22.

Library Journal. CXI, February 15, 1986, p. 197.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 6, 1986, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, February 9, 1986, p. 39.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 3, 1986, p. 42.