Review: The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams (Starość Aksolotla) by Jacek Dukaj


Imagine a world after a sudden cosmic catastrophe which has sterilized the Earth of all living things. Only a small number of humans have managed to copy digitalized versions of their minds onto hardware. Now those lucky (?) few find themselves deprived of physical bodies which were anihilated; they continue to exist by floating around the Internet as digital entities. They are ageless and virtually immortal unless an ugly virus attacks them. They also are able to control gigantic industrial robots, sophisticated medical machines, mechs designed for hard labor, military drones, star troopers and even sexbots based on Japanese manga – as long as these machines can connect with the Internet. What cheer. You can change your body every day, even every hour, providing you get hold of an appropriate machine before the others. The competition is fierce.

Drowning in nostalgia for the lost world, the survivors create civilization after civilization, life after life, humanity after humanity. They form alliances and fight wars. They develop their own politics, ideologies and crazy hardware religions. And they face dilemmas no one has ever confronted before.

What makes us human? Is it possible to copy a soul? Who really lives, fights and dies in those metal bodies? Who plays out the melancholy drama of physiology and the flesh?

My impressions:

This novel was supposed to be a huge breakthrough in the Polish publishing market. It is available only in digital version and there are three formats: epub, mobi (Kindle) and pdf. Inside, apart from the sci-fi story of Grześ (a Polish diminutive of George), a hardware specialist who managed to survive the end of the world but then doesn’t know what to do with his new life, there are eight full-scale illustrations, twenty exlibrises and several mech models which can be printed using a 3D printer and put on your shelf. A very nice promo movie can be watched on Youtube (I included it at the end of my review – enjoy!).

Did the book bowl me over? Despite a very aggressive marketing campaign no, not really. The illustrations were very good, the promotional material was interesting to watch, the footnotes worked as they should – it was enough to click on underlined words to be transported to their definitions – but still I suppose I expected something extra, something truly cosmic and unusual. I also expected a better characterization – my constant carping when it comes to Dukaj. By the way the definitions, mentioned above, sometimes made me feel like an idiot. ‘Floodlight’. Hmmm. Why do I need to check a definition of ‘floodlight’? Oh wait, perhaps the author gave it a special sci-fi meaning?  After looking it up I found out I didn’t need to interrupt my lecture after all; no special meaning, no surprises.

Similarly the plot development stopped at a point when really interesting questions were crossing my mind. Ok, so we get a bunch of people who managed to save their lives by uploading their identities to an advanced ‘neurogame’ using a device which was able to scan their brains. So far so good. Of course not everything was scanned  so their digital selves are incomplete – among other things they can’t feel pain, joy, happiness, they can’t procreate or  learn new skills. They just exist. There are no sex differences  as well – the sex of a robot is, after all, non-existent. Are they still humans? Are they a kind of digital gods who try to recreate  new generations of plants, animals and humanoids? Why the previous civilization disappeared, what really happened? The answers to these questions never satisfied me and sometimes the passive attitude of Grześ made me downward annoyed. A depression of an Internet entity? How it is possible at all?

The scenes depicting the reversal of old oppositions between life and death, progress and stagnation, the organic and the mechanical I found the best – truly original if a bit mind-boggling too. They explored the eternal solitude of the human individual faced with almost complete annihilation, no matter whether it is trapped in a flesh body or the reinforced steel of a robot. The philosophy was sketchy at best and the know-how behind the regeneration of life – glossed over. Still overall the premise was really original.

Final verdict:

Too little hype is bad but too much of it can be detrimental too. Personally I would enjoy this book much better if it was a kind of accidental ‘discovery’. I would also love it to be more complex and longer. No, I don’t mean the complexity of the world build which was almost too intricate anyway. I mean characters. However if you are a fan of sci-fi you will want to read it anyway and, I suppose it is worth reading. By the way on 24 of March the English translation was made available as well.

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12 Responses to Review: The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams (Starość Aksolotla) by Jacek Dukaj

  1. blodeuedd says:

    You felt stupid at times? Now the book scares me, I do not wanna look up words I know and find out the meaning was nothing

  2. Melfka says:

    I still haven’t bought the book (maybe because I have Dukaj books backlog already?) and I somewhat regret this is the first one to be translated into English. I’d much rather see “Inne Pieśni” or “Extensa” translated first to show the mastery of his writing, because all I hear about Axolotl is that it’s not Dukaj at his best.

    • It is definitely NOT Dukaj at his best. I haven’t read “Inne Pieśni” or “Extensa” but even old “Gotyk” worked for me far better (and it was a short story which I usually hate, go figure). The Old Axolotl was either too long or too short. If it was shorter I would understand not exploring some interesting avenues better. If it was longer…if.

  3. Carole Rae says:

    Sounds creepy, but I am intrigued.

  4. heidenkind says:

    Sounds like all biscuits and no gravy, as they say in New Orleans.

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