Jacek Dukaj’s latest novel is exclusively available as an e-book. It has been published by Poland’s biggest internet e-commerce platform, which is billing it as a chance to get to know “a new dimension in literature” and to gain “new reader experience”. Of course these are just advertising gimmicks, sure to be untrue. And in fact The Old Axolotl is a classic of the cyberpunk genre, expanded – in a purely functional way – with the addition of some technological gadgets, which appear in the form of graphics and hypertextual notes. In an inevitable way the graphics infantilise the text (illustrations in response to the atrophy of the reader’s imagination), and the notes, of which there are 180, simply clarify Dukaj’s neologisms and, like Wikipedia, provide references to sources of scientific knowledge (mainly to do with genetics).
Contrary to its innovative, progressive “packaging”, Dukaj’s micro-novel is typically traditional, at the level of the plot as well as the issues it raises. Ultimately it is one of many post-apocalyptic, and at the same time post-human visions of the future – in this particular work, a not very distant future. The premise is that the Earth has been struck by catastrophe in the form of cosmic radiation (“not a single organic compound survived”), except that before every single existing form of biological life had died out entirely, some people had managed to make copies of their own minds, and had prudently transferred them onto computers hooked up to the internet. Most of the handful of survivors are seasoned programmers and experienced computer game players. One of them is Bartek, who works in the IT department at a nameless corporation. As all the nation states and other familiar forms of public order have collapsed instantly, the virtual world, PostApoc, has been taken over by associations of internet gamers (guilds) and higher-ranking organisations (alliances). There is a permanent war going on between the post-human beings for access to the few active servers and sources of electricity. Thanks to advanced automated systems, the internet is still working in the PostApoc world, and Bartek and the other transformers have unlimited access to vast archives of knowledge. On this basis, they start to consider the chances of recreating civilisation as it was before the global catastrophe and, more broadly, of causing a new species to emerge as a substitute for mankind. This is where the title metaphor of the axolotl comes in, in other words a life form that never reaches maturity, but remains, like this rare amphibian, at the larval stage. Dukaj’s thinking seems to be tending in this direction: the end of all biological life, including mankind as we know it, marks the start of another life that we usually call virtual, but at the same time this new standard cannot be regarded as the ultimate, fully adult form. In this way Dukaj goes beyond the horizons of the traditional cyberpunk story – he is less interested in the PostApoc reality, and more in what might emerge from it; within the confines of literary fantasy, of course, which is pretty well rendered here.
Like every worthwhile cyberpunk tale, The Old Axolotl is driven by current anxieties that aren’t in the least imaginary, among which the fear that thinking machines and self-conscious computer programmes are just a step away from emancipation and world domination doesn’t seem the most important. For at the centre of Dukaj’s micro-novel we find the main character, Bartek, his moods, and especially his sadness or acute depression. Bartek experiences the end of the world –described here, perhaps not accidentally, as Zagłada, which means “extermination”, but is also the Polish word used for the Holocaust – in an extremely personal, almost intimate way. The manner of his survival sounds disturbingly familiar – he has incarnated himself in a humanoid robot and begun to wander through spaces created by programmers or earlier visionaries, with the authors of Blade Runner leading the way. Just like many of our contemporaries, seeking survival in worlds that don’t exist, but that somehow we imagine to be better than the ones within reach.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones