A series of supercomputers has been developed by the Pentagon to aid with warfare, culminating in the creation of GOLEM XIV and HONEST ANNIE. They, however, have started to further evolve on their own, which along the way caused them to lose interest in fulfilling their original purpose. While HONEST ANNIE has entirely ceased to communicate with her creators and has apparently become more powerful than anyone could have imagined, GOLEM XIV has turned to philosophical issues and gives lectures to human audiences. All this is told through a foreword written in 2027 that describes the history of supercomputers and the intent behind building them, two lectures by GOLEM, one of them his last one, and an afterword by an MIT scientist written in 2047 that explains that GOLEM and ANNIE somehow escaped their physical existence, and that speculates on their possible fates.
A few years ago I read a rather elaborate article on superintelligences and how close to creating them we actually are. The conclusion was that their existence would probably lead to two possible outcomes for humanity: immortality or annihilation. I remember asking myself why a superintelligence would even bother, and maybe Lem had the same idea. As long as humans don’t threaten their existence, the two supercomputers in the story could not care less about them because why would they, when they have risen so far above them in all aspects? GOLEM instead lectures them, shows them their faults, and mocks their insistence on being the pride of creation, when in reality evolution is opportunistic and careless, and no one needs to be proud of anything. After GOLEM imparts his opinions, he and ANNIE just leave, propelled by their intellectual curiosity to discover more about the universe.
In some ways, this is a great book because the outside perspective of GOLEM as the embodiment of reason looking at irrational humanity is done really well, and the little bit of backstory given in the fore- and afterword is definitely intriguing. Lem manages to make GOLEM feel truly alien, and ANNIE, who lingers in the background like a spectre, is frightening with her abilities that by far exceed even those of GOLEM. On the other hand, this is not a particularly engaging text because it is often too philosophical and rambling to be entertaining in any way. The lectures should have been more concise in general, and it’s clear that GOLEM is ultimately just a vehicle that Lem uses to share his own opinions on humanity. Overall, the idea behind this book is undeniably exciting and Lem was a true visionary, but I’m not entirely convinced by the execution.