Stanislaw Lem wrote some very witty and unusual science fiction. If you haven’t read Tales Of Pirx The Pilot [amazon] or Memoirs Found In A Bathtub [amazon] you might enjoy them if you like quirky and thoughtful fiction.
Tales of Pirx The Pilot has one of the most memorable scenes in science fiction: Pirx, an astronaut in a space mishap, has to spend a prolonged period in his space suit – and discovers that there is a fly in his helmet.
However, since I’ve been writing about one-time pads and quantum encryption systems, I thought I’d post a brief extract from Memoirs Found In A Bathtub, in which Lem takes his characteristically quirky angle on encryption, bureaucracy, and information theory – at the same time.
“Mr. Prandtl from the Department of Codes?” I asked, getting up.
“Except that I’m a captain. Remain seated. Interested in codes, eh?”
The last syllable was aimed like a shot between my eyes.
“Don’t call me Captain. Coffee?”
The small black door swung open and a hand placed a tray with two cups of coffee before us. Prandtl put on his glasses and his features froze into a hard, fierce expression.
“Define code,” he snapped like a hammer on metal.
“Code is a system of signs which can be translated into ordinary language with the help of a key.”
“The smell of a rose — code or not?”
“Not a code, because it is not a sign for anything; it is merely itself, a smell. Only if it were used to signify something else could we consider it a code.”
I was glad of this opportunity to demonstrate my ability to think logically. The fat officer leaned over in my direction until his buttons began to pop. I ignored him. Prandtl took off his glasses and smiled.
“The rose, does it smell just because, or for a reason?”
“It attracts bees with its smell, the bees pollinate it. . .”
“Precisely. Now let’s generalize. The eye converts a light wave into a neural code, which the brain must decipher. And the light wave, from where does it come? A lamp? A star? That information lies in its structure; it can be read.”
“But that’s not a code,” I interrupted. “A star or a lamp doesn’t attempt to conceal information, which is the whole purpose of a code.”
“Obviously! It all depends on the intention of the sender.”
I reached for my coffee. A fly was floating in it. Had the fat officer planted it there? I glanced at him: he was picking his nose. I fished the fly out with my spoon and let it drop on the saucer. It clinked — metal, sure enough.
“The intention?” Prandtl put on his glasses. The fat officer (I was keeping an eye on him) began to
rummage through his pockets, wheezing so violently that his face moved like a bunch of balloons. It was revolting.
“Take a light wave,” Prandtl continued, “emitted by a star. What kind of star? Big or little? Hot or cold? What’s its history, its future, its chemical composition? Can we or can we not tell all this from its light?”
“We can, with the proper know-how.”
“And the proper know-how?”
“That’s the key, isn’t it?”
“Still,” I said carefully, “light is not code.”
“The information it carries wasn’t hidden there. And besides, using your argument, we’d have to
conclude that everything is code.”
“And so it is, absolutely everything. Code or camouflage. Yourself included.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m a code?”
“Or a camouflage. Every code is a camouflage, not every camouflage is a code.”
“Perhaps,” I said, following it through, “if you are thinking about genetics, heredity, those programs of ourselves we carry around in every cell. . . In that way I am a code for my progeny, my descendants. But camouflage? What would I have to do with camouflage.”
“You,” Prandtl replied drily, “are not in my jurisdiction.”
He went over to the small black door. A hand appeared with a piece of paper, which he turned over to me.
“THREAT OUTFLANKING MANEUVER STOP,” it read, “REINFORCEMENTS SECTOR
SEVEN NINE FOUR HUNDRED THIRTY-ONE STOP QUARTERMASTER SEVENTH
OPERATIONAL GROUP GANZMIRST COL DIPL STOP.”
I looked up — another fly was floating in my coffee. The fat officer yawned.
“Well?” asked Prandtl. His voice seemed far away. I pulled myself together.
“A telegram, a deciphered telegram.”
“No. It’s in code, we have yet to crack it.”
“But it looks like –”
“Camouflage,” he said. “They used to camouflage codes as innocent information, private letters, poems, etc. Now each side tires to make the other believe that the message isn’t coded at all. You follow?”
“Now here’s the test run through our D.E.C. machine.”
He went back to the small black door, pulled a piece of paper from the fingers there and gave it to me.
“BABIRUSANTOSITORY IMPECLANCYBILLISTIC MATOTEOSIS AIN’T
CATACYPTICALLY AMBREGATORY NOR PHAROGRANTOGRAPHICALLY
OSCILLUMPTUOUS BY RETROVECTACALCIPHICATION NEITHER,” I read and stared at
He smiled tolerantly.
“The second stage,” he explained. “The code was designed to yield gibberish upon any attempt to crack it. This is to convince us that the telegram wasn’t coded in the first place, that the original message can be taken at face value.”
“But it can’t?” he nodded.
“Watch. I’ll run it through again.”
A piece of paper dropped from the hand in the small black door. Something red moved around inside.
But Prandtl got in the way so I couldn’t see. I picked up the paper — it was still warm, either from the hand or from the machine.
“ABRUPTIVE CELERATION OF ALL DERVISHES CARRYING BIBUGGISH PYRITES VIA
TURMAND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.”
That was the text. I shook my head.
“Now what?” I asked.
“The machine has done what it can. Now we take over.” And he yelled, “Kruuh!”
“Huh?” the fat officer groaned, suddenly jolted from his stupor. He turned his bleary eyes to Prandtl.
“Therrr. . .” croaked the fat officer.
“Weeee! Beeee!” he bleated.
“Saa. . . serr. . .” Saliva trickled down his chin. “Waa. . . wan. . . serr. . . rrr. . . Grr! Growl! Ho ho ho! Ha ha ha!” He broke into wild laughter which ended in a fit of horrible gurgling The face turned deep purple, tears streamed down his cheeks and jowls, the massive body was racked with sobs.
“Enough, Kruuh! Enough!!” yelled Prandtl. “An error,” he said, turning to me. “False association. But you still heard the entire text.”
“Text? What text?”
“There will be no answer.”
The fat officer sat back in his chair, trembling. Little by little he quieted down and, moaning softly to himself, caressed his face with both hands, as if to comfort it.
Someone at a writers’ workshop allegedly asked Lem whether the “D.E.C.” was a reference to “DEC” (Digital Equipment Corp) a computer systems company that was at its height in 1973 when the book was written – Lem said it was. I first read the book when I was in high school, my then-girlfriend R. being on a big Lem binge. I still find it funny that, a few years later, I was working for DEC and writing software for key management and authentication.
I coined the term “rubber hose cryptanalysis” back in the early 90s crypto-wars (Clipper chip and all that) and was thinking of the story above the whole time – the obvious next step for Prandtl would be to used “enhanced interrogation” wouldn’t it? Imagine trying to convince someone you were innocent, if they kept coming up with one-time pad keys that decrypted tantalizing but suspicious bits of your hard drive…. Now imagine if Department of Homeland Security was doing it. Not so funny, is it?