In many ways, the ebook has revolutionized reading. It brings to the table aspects of interaction that are simply impossible with the standard paperback, from size considerations to word searches. I can fit thousands of books in a tiny space and find out how many times the word ‘esoteric’ appears in a given text. But does anyone believe the format has been fully explored? Jacek Dukaj, in his 2015 The Old Axolotl, believes no. Seeking to push the medium to the next stage of its evolution, Dukaj tells a dynamic, post-human story that complements the evolution of ebooks in abstract terms. Caught somewhere in the crossfire of Charles Stross on the aesthetic side and Stanislaw Lem on the thought-provoking side, yes, it’s an ambitious novel—if that is the name for such a medium.
For the unaware, The Old Axolotl will feel strange—like the story is too lean, exposition lacking. And it’s intentional. Dukaj has stripped the narrative down to its bare bones of plot, dialogue, and character interaction. But the “meat” does exist. Aside from the numerous illustrations and graphics, the reader can discover the origins of the mech factions, learn the larger historical backdrop, and other spurious details—material usually synthesized as exposition—in clickable footnotes and embedded links. Believing such material will in the future be separated from the main narrative by such layers of interaction (i.e. clicking, scrolling, etc.), the story to some degree parallels an online news article or book review for the availability of further details via data linking. For those who find this idea interesting, more can be found here to learn more about the novel’s “meta-text”. (Thankfully, Dukaj is more subtle in his inclusion of clickable content.)
And a shout out must be given to Stanley Bill. The Polish language one of the trickier to render into English, not to mention that Dukaj sometimes writes in experimental style, the work could not have been easy to translate. And when I compare Bill’s translation to that done for Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, there is a notable difference in quality, something which makes The Old Axolotl not only more enjoyable in terms of lingual sophistication, but enables better comparison to works written by native writers.
In the end, The Old Axolotl is one of the most unique reading experiences, from interpreting animal shapes on cave walls to digitially publishing novels, the world of fiction has produced. With its post-ap, mind-uploading-to-robots ideas, the story itself is perhaps not the wildest idea ever to surface. But given the meta-narrative, the graphic designs, that Dukaj interrogates his ideas rather than uses them as mere entertainment, and that the novel could only have been published as an ebook make for a forward thinking experience. Mythopoeic science fiction written in a dynamic style like Stross but with a deeper, guiding intelligence like that of Stanislaw Lem, it’s a book to look out for—on the internet only, as paper copies cannot exist.