137 Seconds (Part I)
i
Illustration by Stefan Berdak (from “Przekrój”’s archives)
Fiction

137 Seconds (Part I)

Stanisław Lem
Reading
time 21 minutes

Breaking news, out-of-control teleprinters, and a world-wide network of knowledgeable computers are at the centre of this short story by the master Stanisław Lem. So prepare yourself for a truly surprising mix of sci-fi and supernatural horror!

Gentlemen, for lack of time and by reason of unfavorable circumstances, most people depart this world without ever stopping to think about it. Meanwhile, those who try to do it have a dizzy turn, and then get on with something else. I am one of them. As I built up my career, the column space devoted to my person in Who’s Who grew with the years, but neither the latest edition nor future ones will record why I gave up journalism. That is going to be the subject of my story, which in other circumstances I’m sure I wouldn’t be telling.

I used to know a talented young man who decided to build a sensitive galvanometer, and he managed to do it too well. The device even moved when there was no current, because it reacted to the vibration of the Earth’s crust. This anecdote could serve as a motto for my story. At the time, I was the night editor for UPI’s foreign service. I survived a lot there, including the automation of the way the newspapers were edited. I parted company with the live page-setters to work with an IBM 0161 computer specially adapted for editorial work. I truly regret that I was not born about a hundred and fifty years earlier. My story would be starting with the words, “I seduced the Countess de . . . ,” and if I’d gone on to describe how I’d seized the reins from the coachman’s hands and started whipping up the horses to escape pursuit by the thugs set on me by her jealous husband, I wouldn’t have had to explain to you what a countess is or what seduction involves. Nowadays, things aren’t so good. The 0161 computer is not a mechanical page-setter. It’s a devil of speed, reined in by the engineers’ tricks so that man can keep pace with it. This computer replaces ten to twelve people. It is directly connected to a hundred teleprinters, so that whatever our correspondents type out in Ankara, Baghdad, or Tokyo reaches its circuits at the same moment. It organizes the texts, and pitches onto the screen a series of page designs for the morning edition. Between midnight and three a.m.—the time when the edition closes—it can compile as many as fifty different versions. It’s up

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137 Seconds (Part II)
i
Illustration by Stefan Berdak (from “Przekrój”’s archives)
Fiction

137 Seconds (Part II)

Stanisław Lem

Breaking news, out-of-control teleprinters, and a world-wide network of knowledgeable computers are at the centre of this short story by the master Stanisław Lem. Find out what happens in Part II of this truly surprising mix of sci-fi and supernatural horror!

Before my next shift I called our correspondent in Rio de Janeiro and asked him to send in a brief fake report at the start of the night service, about the result of a boxing tournament between Argentina and Brazil. He was to give all the Argentine victories as Brazilian, and vice versa. At the time of our conversation the results of the tournament couldn’t be known because the matches wouldn’t begin until late that night. Why was it Rio that I approached? Because I was asking a favor that was quite exceptional from a professional point of view, and Sam Gernsback, who was our correspondent there, was a friend of mine, one of that rare and highly prized species of people who don’t ask questions.

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