Why we need publishers of liberated literature

In Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971) the annual meeting of the Futurological Association takes place in Costa Rica in the same hotel as the Convention of Publishers of Liberated Literature and the Phillumenist Society (matchbook collectors). These groups seem to have better parties: “there were plenty of barefoot girls in waist-length fishnet dresses, some with sabres at their sides; a number of them had long braids fastened, in the latest fashion, to neck bands or spiked collars”“Behind some editors from the publishing house of Knopf stood naked secretaries – though not entirely naked, for their limbs were painted with various op designs. They carried portable water pipes and hookahs filled with a popular mixture of LSD, marijuana, yohimbine and opium.” This is a publishing world of its time.

When disaster strikes, the narrator describes how the wounded are “tended by the secretaries of the liberated publishers; now chemically converted, they were all bawling like babies. They had put on modest clothing and even wore veils, so as not to tempt anyone to sin; a few, more strongly affected, had actually shaven their heads. On the way back from the first-aid area I had the miserable luck to run into a group of publishers. Though I didn’t recognize them at first: they were dressed in old burlap bags tied around with rope (which they also used to flog themselves); crying for mercy, clamouring, they threw themselves at my feet and beseeched me to whip them properly, for they had depraved society“.

Waking up in 2039, to a world where pharmaceuticals are used to control just about everything, Ihon Tichy finds a world without publishers or physical books. Knowledge and entertainment are ingested and what seems to be the only remaining physical manuscript, in the last words of the novel, “slipped from his hands, hit the dark water with a splash, and floated away – off into the unknown future.”

Were the publishers of liberated literature a cause of publishing’s demise? Or do we need them to preserve us from a bookless future?

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress, 1971

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