The King of Pain (Król Bólu) by Jacek Dukaj [part 3]

Welcome to the third and final installment of the exhaustive review of this remarkable (and remarkably long) book.

The Social Tragedy of Post-Scarcity

Imagine a world in which nano-assembly has been perfected and made super cheep. Imagine a nation in which running a material feed to a housing project is about as expensive as connecting a water/gas and electric line. And that for the price of a microwave you can buy a nano-assembly device which plugs into said feed and it can produce food, clothing and any luxury items at a push of a button. Now imagine a nation in which the government is willing to subsidize feeds and assemblers and provide them to all it’s citizens for free as part of the social security package that also covers free health care, and free entertainment in the form of state subsidized public TV.

This is the setting of Crux. The story takes place in Poland few decades from now, in which social care got a little out of hand. Only about 10% of the population is gainfully employed in mega corporations that control majority of the wealth. All of these individuals are highly educated, white collar professionals working highly abstract analytical or technology jobs that simply can’t be fully automated. Everything else – including majority of the manual labor, blue collar jobs have been mechanized decades ago. Nanomachines are everywhere, so buildings construct themselves, roads self-repair pot holes on their own, pipelines grow in the ground without human aid, and there is no need for street cleaners because garbage is dissolved, and re-purposed as building material every night. The only jobs available are for people willing to learn how to optimize and program the nano systems to do new things, or to do highly abstract market manipulations which do not follow direct supply-demand curves in post-scarcity globalized economies.

So unless you are highly educated and highly competitive, there is just no work for you out there. And if you do happen to be employable, then you will likely be earning more money you could ever spent. So it is not surprise that the Polish working elite became slightly eccentric over the last 2-3 generations. The current meme that seems to have taken over the upper crust of the society is the return to the “good old” values that harken back to the bygone ages when Poland was a medieval superpower – a multicultural melting pot that stretched from Baltic to Black Sea. So they style themselves as Szlachta (aka privileged nobles), they wear the traditional clothing (żupan, kontusz, etc..) and always carry the curved scimitar which they use frequently to duel among themselves.

This sort of return to origins may seem a bit far fetched, but that time period are deeply rooted in Polish national identity. The rise and fall of the nobility, the way they usurped the power from the kings, then squandered it away and doomed the nation is a deeply tragic story – a deep wound on the nations psyche. In a large part, study of Polish literature is essentially an exercise in ripping the scab of that wound and watching it bleed anew. After reading countless assigned lectures taking place in that setting, most school children probably have fantasized about being a noble lord or a lady, or perhaps about resurrecting that social system and the knightly traditions and costumes just because of how cool they were. So when Dukaj describes his setting it is not much unlike many of use imagined the nation to be if our ancestors didn’t screw up and sell it out to foreign powers way back when. So it more or less works.

The counterpoint to these educated, eccentric, self-absorbed haughty, retro-nobles are the “socials” – the rest of the population who simply does not have the talents, or the desire to obtain education required to become a “noble”. Which by the way is completely possible – the social system is extremely fluid, and the “nobility” is still a rather new meme only about two generation old. Its mostly a meritocracy based on ability rather than a feudal system based on inherited rights. So upward mobility is definitely possible.

Most socials however simply do not bother. They live in self-cleaning, self-sufficient sprawling housing projects divided into districts. Each district elects it’s own leaders, who then petition the nobility for more free stuff they feel they are entitled to. Their lives are more or less effortless, but also devoid of much meaning.

The titular Crux is a pseudonym of a legendary crippled hacker who seems to have attained god-like power by learning to subvert the nano-machinery that drives the projects. At first he seems to be mostly a made up story – a folk legend of sorts. But as the story unfolds his influence seems to be undeniable. The socials worship him as a sort of demigod building him small shrines in back alleys or whispering prayers to him as they thumb a “social rosary” (a rosary like prayer beads made out of “heraldic rings” the nobles use as I/O devices for their gesture driven ubiquitous wireless internet – the implication being these were stolen from multiple nobles).

The protagonist of the story, a young noble, begins to investigate the stories of Crux hoping the mans god-like skills at manipulating nano can help to save his fathers life after a severe brain injury during he sustained in a duel. The legend is that the hacker has access to foreign unapproved, contraband military software that can use the nano systems to re-wire neural tissues and thus repair severe injuries. But the closer he gets to the legendary folk leader, the less likely it becomes he will actually be able to ask him for a favor. As it appears, Crux is not very fond of nobility. In fact he is riling up the socials, and arming them for an uprising.

Why would he do that? Without the financial backing, software and oversight provided by the working class the projects will break down and stop working. If the ruling class is overthrown, thousands of socials might simply starve to death, as they are unaccustomed to working and producing food without using the automated nano-assemblers. According to Crux this is exactly the wake-up call his people need. He aims to “free” them from being dependent on handouts, by collapsing the social establishment and forcing them to learn fending for themselves and rebuild the society from scratch or perish.

Humanizing the Inhumane

Heart of Darkness sort of inspired by the Joseph Conrad novel with the same title. The main difference is that the story takes place not in the African Kongo but on an alien planet. Also, it seems to be some sort of alternate reality in which World War II has never ended. The planet is not as much colonized as occupied by Nazi Germany, USSR and United States. Neither of these superpowers has much use for the planet and its resources, but none is willing to abandon it and leave it to the enemy. So there are about a dozen military bases with skeletal crews in various points of the globe, which try not to engage in open military conflict (not enough man power for that) but at the same time remain hostile to each other.

The planet is interesting mostly for its ecosystem, which while very rich is completely incompatible with that of Earth. The life forms that populate the planet never really underwent the kind of differentiations as multiple species of the earth. There are no well defined biological kingdoms – most of the organisms existing in a sort of controlled genetic drift, constantly changing or evolving. This however prevented them from evolving complex life forms with well developed central nervous systems. There are simply no higher animals there – nothing with a brain. At least until the recent year or so, when German patrols started spotting ape like creatures thriving in the deep jungle. Scientists are unable to explain those creatures since there is just no way they could evolve naturally. So they are either a result of biological experiments by one of the other superpowers, or they have been brought here by someone or something else.

A new German recruit arrives on a re-supply ship. Upon seeing his references his superiors immediately tell him to pack his bags, and send him out on a suicide mission. He is to travel into the jungle and capture or kill “The Devil”. What, or who is “The Devil?” It turns out that Nazis initially brought a number of Jews with them as forced heavy labor force. Most of them them already perished or defected. One however became a thorn in their side – he was sent into the jungle to service some remote equipment, and provided with only a limited food and water supply. Has never showed up at a pick-up spot but instead of starving out in the jungle he made himself a home there. Upon dismantling several German and Soviet antennas he built himself a rather powerful transmission system and has been playing a radio DJ, airing rather subversive and politically undesirable manifestos. To make matters worse, he avoided all attempts of capture, and pinning down his broadcast locations and bombing them made no difference – if anything it made him bolder.

The protagonist is sent to capture him based on their shared ancestry – both him and “The Devil” are of Polish descent and fluently speak the language. So the mission is to gain the trust of the Jungle DJ by pretending to be a lowly laborer sent to his death, just as he was. But before he finds the defector himself, he runs into aforementioned ape-like beasts. Only they are carrying spears, and speaking broken Polish.

The twist? The rapidly evolving life forms of this planet can be seeded with foreign DNA. “The Devil” initially fed his flesh and blood to the native life forms trying to breed compatible food sources. After succeeding to produce edible life forms he kept up with his experiments, selecting for intelligence. Because of the extreme mutability of the local flora and fauna he was able to go from primitive plant-like forms to semi-intelligent primates in just a few short lived generations.

His plans? Breed himself an army, teach them to speak, to build weapons and then lead them against the human presence on the planet while being revered as their god.

Initially the German soldier becomes a captive, but he is soon liberated by the recently uplifted aboriginals. They turn out to be much smarter than The Devil gives them credit for, and many of them grew tired of his megalomania and his insistence to be revered as a deity. They do however realize that they still need human DNA to grow smarter – and they might have just found a new source…

Reigning in the Posthumans

We talk a lot about post-humanism here, but we don’t often think about the problems that arise when you have populations of standard, ordinary humans that have to coexist with post-humans that have marvelous (to them) powers they cannot possibly match. Aguerre at Dawn is a story about how post-human societies may choose to censor and limit themselves in order to avoid conflict an persecution from the baseline humanity.

The post-humanism in this novel comes from an unusual source: a discovery of incredibly complex pseudo-organic compound on the outside planets of the solar system. This strange alien substance has unusual properties: it causes gravitational anomalies and occasionally dilates time in its vicinity. In other words it bends the time-space continuum around itself seemingly at random. Not only that, but it seems to pick up and react violently to the brain-waves emitted by intelligent life. The smarter and more complex the thought patterns, the bigger the ripples and gravitational/time based anomalies are observed in this substance. So of course the scientific minds from around the world descend upon this substance and try to understand it, and figure out how to use it.

Since the only way to really interact with it is to “think” at it, and it is mostly organic eventually scientists decide to splice it into human cells. The idea is crazy but it works – individuals whose neurons get coated with the stuff can slowly learn to control the anomalies and exploit them to bend the time-space continuum. What do they use it for? Space travel! These Xenotics (as they came to call themselves) essentially become Dune Navigators. They can take a spaceship, and bend the fabric of the universe around it in such a way that it can travel between two points faster than the speed of light. This skill is dubbed “sculpting” and it becomes the primary occupation of the Xenotics.

Of course in addition to making ships travel really fast, these post-humans can do other things as well – their powers are unsettling and rather scary. Potentially they could collapse planets, make suns go supernova or just kill people with gravitational shock waves. In fact, they tend to do all of these things when they sleep and their brain is left to wander and the augmented neurons fire random patterns causing the alien ooze go into violent feedback loops. So, for their own safety they never sleep. Each Xenotic is has a set of neural implants, that keeps them awake at all times. They also run software that detects emotional changes and floods their brains with chemical cocktail that keeps them serene and focused. They also organize themselves into a pseudo-religious order with a strict honor code and internal inquisition system that keeps them all inline. The strict organization, code of conduct and behavior is mostly a defense mechanism. By censoring, limiting and keeping themselves accountable they can remain autonomous and self-governing group and enjoy prestigious social status and wealth.

Because of their fabulous powers and the danger they pose, a lot of people think they should have their higher brain functions disconnected, and be controlled on autopilot via their neural implants. This would potentially work since Xenotic already off-load most of the heavy lifting involved in sculpting to their neural software. So as an organization they take extra care to always appear humble, non-threatening and compliant despite the fact they control interstellar travel and could easily disrupt the global economies.

A close friend of one of the high ranking Xenotics is murdered in his house by a highly augmented shape shifter with access to military grade enhancements. This sort of high profile attack performed right under the nose of the fabulously wealthy and influential leader of the order cannot be ignored. The order spares no resources trying to investigate the case, and it leads them to discover a schism within their own ranks. What is even more astonishing is the purpose of the schism. The rebellious faction is tired working as pack mules and ferry-men for the baselines, but that’s not why they are plotting in secret. The have a much more interesting plan.

The substance that enables them to bend time and space is abundant throughout the galaxy. There are traces of it in most solar systems that could potentially support life. In some places it even can be found alongside traces of alien civilizations that have vanished many millennia ago. The theory is that humans are not the first race to discover this substance and not the last. It was likely first developed by some long gone progenitor race, and then stumbled upon and improved by succession of other intelligent races. They all probably figured out how to make their own brand of Xenotics and travel between stars. Then they all probably moved on to the next stage and built “nurseries” in which they artificially induced the substance to form organic bonds and create life forms built from it. The goal would be to engineer intelligent life that would be able to manipulate the time-space continuum as easily as humans can manipulate solid matter with their hands. Of course this practice is banned by all the human governments as too reckless and dangerous.

The third and final stage of development of and intelligent species in our galaxy would be to migrate the entire population from a biological DNA base to the artificial life made out of the substance, and become literal gods. Such beings then could fold time and space to create their own private realms – pocket universes which they could tailor to their own needs. The existence of these pocket universes would explain the problem of the missing mass that has mystified astronomers for many centuries.

The schism in the order has begun analyzing the speed at which the galaxy is expanding, and identified potential anomalous regions where vast amounts of mass could have been lopped off. Their grand project is to search those regions for potential gateways to these pocket dimensions and make contact with the god-like aliens that must dwell within.

But would these ancient aliens recognize the rather primitive Xenotics as their kin? Would they be willing to trade and talk shop? Or would they fail to even see us as an intelligent beings? Would they interpret our attempts to find gateways to their pocket worlds as gentle knocking on their door or as breaking in or barging in uninvited? Would they retaliate? Chances are each of these sealed off microcosms could be a Pandora’s box holding back some unthinkable forces…

And one more…

I’m just going to give you an elevator pitch for this one, because it is a little bit to weird to summarize succinctly. Imagine a scenario in which the Chernobyl disaster never happened. Or rather nothing ever went wrong with the nuclear. The core meltdown and the power plant was just a cover-up story to mask a different event – something stranger. A Picnic By The Roadside style event has occurred somewhere in Ukraine. Something crashed there dumping plumes of exotic matter into the atmosphere. The fallout from the crash is not radioactive or even harmful… It is actually quite the opposite – it seems to revitalize dead organic matter causing the dead come back to life.

It starts like a funky twist on a Zombie apocalypse theme, but quickly evolves into something else entirely because the resurrected people are not the usual shambling corpses. They rise from their graves completely unaware of the passage of time and almost incapable of recognizing their predicament. Soon Poland’s turbulent history comes to the forefront as fallen soldiers from all time periods pick up their weapons and start waging war anew. The protagonist gets his car flipped by a rampaging Aurochs, gets shot at by a Wermacht unit, and then spends the night in an abandoned train station with a group of medieval peasants who are hiding from a strange black knight in armor adorned with human skulls and bones.

Summary and Conclusions

King of Pain is a remarkable anthology, in that the stories it contains are very diverse both in therms of their settings, mood or even genre, but are bound together by some core thematic threads that run through all of the narratives. Chief of these is the concept of trans-humanism and transcending the human condition. Dukaj tackles this topic from just about every angle imaginable, as if trying to perform some sort of brute force stress test, probing for border conditions.

Line of Resistance is near future cyberpunk style story about finding ways to remain human in a world that slowly digitizes and automates itself. Eye of the Monster is about the nature of progress and how that exponential curve we are so fond of can abruptly stop at any time due to a developmental miss-step. School is sort of reverse of Line…. In the latter the protagonist was trying to hold on to humanity while undergoing externally enforced psychological changes. In the former it is the body of the protagonist that is altered by the external forces.

King of Pain and the Grasshopper is an excellent speculative look at the extreme escalation of contemporary problems, forcing humans to adapt in a drastic, unforeseen ways. Crux is an interesting alternate future history, that brings up a startling problem of post-scarcity societies – degeneration and decadence of the common people unwilling or unable to educate themselves in a world where there are no blue collar jobs available.

The Heart of Darkness asks whether or not it is possible to “make” humans by imposing genetic and psychological changes onto something alien (which is sort of the same question examined in Celestis by Paul Park).

Augere examines the superhero dilemma – a scenario in which only a fraction of the population can transcend and become post-humans with fabulous powers and the social tensions that would surround such a fundamental split of human race into two divergent but mutually dependent shards.

Finally the last story plays with alternate history, and tries to see what would happen if all the dead would be suddenly restored to life. This initially doesn’t seem a very trans-humanist topic unless you realize this is sort of the same thing that Stross tried to do at the end of Accellerando (where the “vile offspring” start to re-construct mind maps all the people who have ever lived) or that Simmons did in his Hyperion Cantos (albeit selectively with the personality construct of Keats). So I guess it still applies.

The one thing I absolutely love about Dukaj’s writing is that he never holds your hand. His prose is dense and unforgiving. I mentioned that his average density of ideas per page usually approaches or even exceeds that of Stephenson or Stross but while the latter will often stop to explain more obscure concepts of computing theory, or quantum physics, Dukaj never ever does this. His characters will mention concepts and theories in their conversations, but never bother to do a “as you know…” aside to clue in the readers.

This is a risky thing to do – it is a perfect way to alienate your audience which may easily get lost in the dense, labyrinthine jungle of ideas. But Dukaj doesn’t do this out of disrespect. It is quite the opposite: he trusts his readers to be clued in, well informed and connected to the internet. He assumes that anyone picking up his book has a basic grasp on science, is well read in SF genre, watched and fed on a steady diet of pop culture and pop-science education programming.

He also expects you to make your own conclusions about what happened. Most of his stories are ambiguous and end on uncertain terms. It’s not that there is no closure, but that you are expected to do all the work extrapolating what the meaning meant, and what may happen next. There are no final chapters or appendixes that explain outcomes and tell you who lived happily ever after and why. Instead you usually get a scene that comes after the third act climax, in which protagonist has to make an important culminating choice that will somehow impact his future, or the future of the world (depending on the story). So he weighs his options, takes into account all that has happened in the story and the narrative trails off, and the author turns to you. What would you do? What do you think the protagonist will do? I actually like that. I think this is a sign of respect and he deserves major kudos for writing this way.

I honestly think that Dukaj is one of the best contemporary SF writers. King of Pain is a testament to his scope, ability and a great showcase of his storytelling skills. It is a pity that (just like majority of his work) it not available in English as of yet. If you can read Polish, an you can find this book definitely check it out. It is long, but definitely worth it. If nothing else, I recommend reading Line…, Eye… and King which are probably the best pieces out of the whole anthology.

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