The Orchid Cage, a novel by the Austrian writer Herbert W. Franke, originally published in German in 1961 as Der Orchideenkäfig. The English translation was published in 1973.
Back cover blurb:
On a distant planet, not too different from Earth, there stands a mechanized city with no visible inhabitants. Obviously of a highly developed civilization, the question is who built it, where are they, and what can humans learn from them? Two teams of explorers enter into a competition to find the answers. There are no holds barred—almost anything goes to win the contest. But the city is capable of meeting trickery with trickery, violence with violence—and murder with justice.
Some excerpts from a review at www.astronalpha.de, Google-translated from German to English:
In the distant future, all the needs of mankind will be satisfied by machines and computers, and science will serve only for entertainment. Thus, the search for extraterrestrial highly developed species has degenerated into sport without exercise: two teams agree on a new-found planet, go to the search, and who first discovers images of the "other" in the world has won and is allowed to give the planet a name , So far only extinct species have been discovered - no one has ever encountered living intelligent beings.
On an Earth-like planet, billions of light years away from the Earth, the friends Al, Don and Katja enter the ruins of a dead city - in front of them is an opposing team, led by their friend Jak. The outer city districts are characterized by ultramodern architecture and technology, but the center seems to consist of a medieval, walled city core - until the group discovers that it is only a deceptively real projection. Behind the illusion hides a gigantic, fully automatic machine park, which had once supplied the city with all the essentials of life. When the machines come back to life and Al finds digital archive recordings, which the astonishingly humanlike builders of the city show him, begins to sprout real scientific curiosity in Al: He wants to fathom what happened with this strange civilization, and hopes for a realization on the Future of earthly humanity. Could it be that the descendants of this civilization still live - possibly below the city?
[. . . .]
There are many science-fiction novels, enumerations and films that revolve around avatars and the transfer of consciousness to artificial entities, but only a few go a step further and ask about the social, yes, evolutive consequences of such a development , What really makes up people? What is the meaning of what is the goal of his survival? Is it the creation, the struggle, the struggle? Is an eternal peace, invariably, bought by the soft, soft embedding in eternal illusions, worthy of it? Franke is never apocritical in his novel, and up to Al his figures are never questioned. They experience their existence as given normality, which is extremely plausible. Since they know that their avatars, but never themselves, can harm them at all, they behave in the strange world more uninspiringly than foolish, ruthless children. The reader, however, with his view from the outside, is pointed ever more urgently to the existential problems that the fictionalized life poses in complete certainty. Finally, they also become unavoidable for Al: his question about the destiny of foreign civilization, which seems to have been so similar to mankind, ultimately gives him a horrible picture of the possible future of his own species, a possible final stage of his own evolution: the orchid cage.
This is where the humanoid looking aliens have developed. They have become fanned, fleshy lumps, like orchids that are spun in a network of wires, leads, and plexiglass tubes - cages - through which their independent technology feeds them with everything they need: food, breathing, and stroke stimulating brain pulses. They have no limbs or organs of sense, since they need to be exhausted, as well as possibilities of understanding and propagation. Even thought has been lost. "What are they supposed to think?" An extraterrestrial robot tells the shocked Al. "Happiness comes only through feeling. Everything else is interfering" (p. 186).
It is a macabre irony that the autonomous thinking and acting alien robots are fully convinced that they are doing the right thing for their disarmed masters, namely giving them perfect happiness, complete peace and complete security (see p. 182). As a result, the bumpy organic masses, to which the aliens are degenerated, have been practically completely engulfed by the mole of their technology. In the image of the orchid cage, the familiar science fiction warning is formulated in front of technology. However, the technology does not dehumanize here by its demands on the working people as it does in the industrial age; it also does not dehumanize by the violent manipulation of man as in the Frankenstein motif - it dehumanizes far more subtly, by man initially devoting himself to it voluntarily more liberated and easier life, and thus a development that is increasingly deprived of its control. This is illustrated in the last scene of the novel: Al, deeply shocked by the orchid cages, shattering his screen and the controls of his entertainment apparatus, rises from his chair and steps out into the open - just to find himself on a dusty concrete place amid bungalows that are populated by wired, dreaming fellow human beings. There is no way back into a more natural, more genuine existence-at least not without a new struggle.