By Nathan M. Powers
"If [Stanislaw Lem] isn't considered for a Nobel Prize by the end of the century, it will be because someone told the judges that he writes science fiction," predicted a Philadelphia Inquirer critic in 1983. Lem is arguably the greatest living science fiction writer, and even one of the most important European authors of his generation; yet he commands little critical attention, and has failed to reach discerning American science fiction readers who ought, one would think, to be most interested in him. The reasons for this may be sought, paradoxically, in the high demands he makes of his own work: Lem is a true original, but at the price of being marginal.
The Time of Cruel Miracles
Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 in Lvov, Poland, to a family of the professional class; both his father and uncle were doctors. As a young man Lem planned to become a doctor himself, enrolling at the Lvov Medical Institute. When the Institute closed due to the war in 1941, he became a mechanic and welder for a German corporation. During the lean war years Lem, who was himself of Jewish ancestry, escaped a number of close calls as Jewish acquaintances disappeared around him. On at least one occasion, he was nearly arrested sneaking out supplies from his workplace for the Polish Resistance.
After the war Lem's life changed greatly. He moved with his family to Cracow in 1946, and completed his medical studies there in 1948. He did not, however, take a diploma, because persons with medical degrees were at the time automatically conscripted into the army. Instead in 1947 he accepted a position as a research assistant at Jagellonian University in Cracow, reading articles in a wide range of scientific fields for review in the journal Zycie Nauki (Life of Science). Almost thirty years old now, Lem was receiving a second education that grounded him firmly in contemporary scientific trends.
At the same time, he began to publish fiction. His first several novels conformed (with the help of extensive state censorship) to the officially promoted standards of Social Realism; they paint optimistic pictures of a future in which social progress is supported by technology. None of these early works has been translated, and, although they did establish his status as one of Poland's most talented writers, Lem later disowned them altogether. The tone of Lem's fiction underwent a sea change in 1956, when a wave of popular uprisings against Soviet rule swept Eastern Europe; one of the immediate results in Poland was a relaxation of government controls on the press. Lem's own thinking seems to have changed as well, although he has always proven reticent about his political views. At any rate, 1956 began what critics have called Lem's "golden period", a dozen years of remarkably fertile literary output. In this period Lem imagined a number of different universes and populated them with stories.
One such is the world of Ijon Tichy, a highly decorated cosmonaut of the far future whose strange wanderings through space and time are chronicled in the Star Diaries and Memoirs of a Space Traveller. Tichy lives in a universe teeming with life, where humanity jostles shoulders with creatures bizarre and grotesque, yet somehow always familiar; for this is a world where humanity's virtues and flaws are writ large across the stars. These stories may be read as sharp social satire, depicting the bizarre customs of other places to drive home surprising points about our own; they have been aptly compared to the philosophical fictions of Swift and Voltaire.
Another of Lem's story-cycles is set in the 21st century, when the moon has been colonized, and Earth's space forces struggle to establish a presence on Mars. This is the world of Pirx the Pilot, an endearingly ordinary fellow who manages to bluff and blunder his way through harrowing dangers -- a sort of Everyman of the Space Age. In Pirx's world there are no aliens, no faster-than-light drives, and no space wormholes. On the contrary, the Pirx tales are models of scientific realism, describing in hauntingly convincing detail what it is like to voyage through the vast, empty reaches of the solar system, and to pass time in lonely outposts on harsh and alien soil. The antagonists of these tales tend to be of humanity's own devising: they are the computers and robots intended to help people live and work in space..
Lem does not settle for the ordinary sci-fi resolutions to human-machine conflict. He deals with problems of artificial intelligence in a sophisticated manner, aided by his hero's own scepticism. The machines Pirx learned to fly with were clearly just powerful calculators following their programs, the descendants of today's computers. But as electronic brains are designed to operate independently and to interact more with their environment, as they are fitted out with redundant memory and processing capacity and "raised" in complex training environments, they sometimes behave oddly ... Some of the Pirx tales would make excellent reading for an introductory course in philosophy or cognitive science.
A third world of Lem's is revealed in the Cyberiad. This is a fantastical creation, where light whims and dark urges can materialize in the blink of an eye, where myths are made and broken every day. It is a world peopled by machines and computers. Humanoids, or "palefaces", live here too, but they are generally avoided because of their disgusting gooeyness and squishiness -- besides, some of the best researchers in the field of Non-Artificial Intelligence maintain that organic tissues are incapable of exhibiting real mental states!
Our chief guides to this marvelous place are a pair of robots named Trurl and Klapaucius, who travel throughout the universe working as freelance inventors. For a fee, they will construct a machine to any specifications, with results ranging from the hilarious to the tragic. An evil robot king searches the universe for automated prey that can withstand his hunting prowess; an electronic Bard threatens to destroy civilization by spellbinding all who hear it with perfect song. The dread Pirate Pugg, ravenous for information, scours the space lanes, absorbing all the data he can get his hands on; Trurl and Klapaucius catch him with an ingenious trap, a machine that produces an endless stream of irrelevant and unconnected facts! Another volume, Mortal Engines, contains the legends of this cybernetic world, fables told to young robots. These hypnotic stories, full of brilliant and rambunctious wordplay, have been rendered beautifully into English by Michael Kandel.
Finally, in addition to these story-cycles Lem composed a string of challenging novels, each posing a question about the conditions and limits of human knowledge. Solaris is probably Lem's best-known work, because it was adapted by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky into a critically acclaimed film. The novel tells the story of an encounter between a group of planetary explorers and a bizarre entity on the planet Solaris, which is a sort of living ocean that covers most of its world and is capable of chemical transformations of astounding mathematical complexity. For over a century before the encounter, Solaris had been the subject of intense scientific scrutiny, yet all attempts to establish contact with its vast inhabitant had failed. What experiences or concepts could humans possibly share with such a creature, in order to have a basis for communication?
But this expedition is different. This time Solaris creates for each of the humans present a solid, living replica of whatever it discovers to be the deepest, most stable structure in their mental patterns -- in other words, it dredges up secret longings and repressed desires, and clothes them in flesh. In the case of the novel's narrator, Kelvin, a replica of his young wife Rheya appears. She had committed suicide years ago after threats that he didn't take seriously, and he has been racked with guilt over her ever since. He must watch her choose to take her life again, as she slowly comes to realize she is not really Rheya. At the end of the book, nothing is resolved; it is impossible to tell whether the psychic replicates are an attempt by the planet to communicate, an experiment it is carrying out, a game, or an inadvertent byproduct of some other process -- yet the novel comes to an astonishing close as Kelvin concludes that a universe containing both humanity and Solaris can be neither the product of rational planning nor of chance, and that "the time of cruel miracles" is not yet past.
His Master's Voice treats a similar theme in a very different way. A lengthy neutrino transmission, originating at the distant edge of the galaxy, has been picked up accidentally by an Earth observatory. The U.S. government immediately creates a top-secret project (called "His Master's Voice") to decipher this "letter from the stars". The novel is cast as the memoir of one of the chief mathematicians engaged on the project, Dr. Peter Hogarth. Hogarth is one of Lem's most fascinating characters, and one of literature's rare realistic portraits of a scientific genius. At the outset of his account, Hogarth tells us that he feels the need to speak up because he has read through a whole shelf of books about himself and his role in the HMV project, and finds that none of them get to the heart of the matter. The problem is not, however, that none of these studies tell the real story, but that all of them expect there to be a "real story":
With sufficient imagination a man could write a whole series of versions of his life; it would form a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common. People, even intelligent people, who are young, and therefore inexperienced and naïve, see only cynicism in such a possibility. They are mistaken, because the problem is not moral but cognitive. (p. 5)
This passage introduces the note of profound epistemological pessimism that returns, again and again, to haunt Hogarth as he struggles to make sense of the informational artifact from outer space. For example, many of his colleagues hope that the "Senders" of the transmission will use basic mathematical formulae to establish a protocol for deciphering their message; but Hogarth fears that the elements of mathematics are ultimately linguistic, and so do not necessarily have any purchase outside of human culture. This is not to say that math is true only in a relative way, or that it does not "map" the universe accurately, but only that other accurate "maps" may exist as well. Besides, he reasons, even if the Senders happen to possess a math just like our own, what good would it do? All communication requires an act of reference, of pointing to a "this"; and mathematics cannot, by its very nature, refer. As the book progresses, little happens in the way of plot, but Hogarth's lines of enquiry broaden to encompass evolution, ethics, the proper role of government in science, and the meaning of death; a drama unfolds from his ideas themselves. All this may make His Master's Voice sound a bit dry, but it isn't -- as Peter Beagle wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "By the last chapters one is racing like a romance novel addict." HMV is an astonishing little novel, and perhaps Lem's masterpiece.
Return From the Stars tells the story of Hal Bregg, a member of one of the first astronautical expeditions to make use of the near-light-speed drive to explore nearby stellar systems, who is therefore one of the first persons to experience the time-dilation effect predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity. He returns just ten years older, but to an Earth which has aged over a century, and to a society that he does not recognize. The reader joins Bregg on his first attempt to travel by himself on this strange new Earth, but Bregg finds himself bewildered, because he is unable even to guess at the motives underlying most peoples' actions. Why (he wonders) does so much seem incomprehensible, inexplicable? Could simple technological changes account for the apparent difference in mores?
It turns out that human nature has itself been altered by a universally administered genetic treatment that removes some of humankind's less desirable traits (in particular, violent aggression). Bregg must decide whether he can come to grips with this new human species, now alien to him, or whether he should accept the chance, offered to him in sympathy, to build a new ship and return to the stars from whence he came.
Solaris, His Master's Voice, and Return From the Stars are all "science fiction" in a pure sense -- that is, fiction about science and its relationship to (or contribution to) moral problems. Each depends on masterful storytelling and compelling characters to frame philosophical questions; and these questions in turn illuminate the stories from their depths, challenging the reader to see as far into them as possible. As Lem once remarked, "Knowing is the hero of my books."
Although Lem earned most of his fame among the Soviets and Americans for his fiction, part of his reputation in Poland rests on a study in futurology, the massive two-volume Summa Technologiae, published in 1964. This work, based on Lem's extensive readings in contemporary scientific literature, summed up the state of (then) current technology and extrapolated how various instrumental modes were likely to develop in the future, and suggested the possible consequences these developments would have on society
Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And every vector dreams of matrices
In the 70's, Lem's writing took a decided turn from conventional science fiction to experimental narrative forms. The change was heralded by the publication of The Futurological Congress in 1971, which begins as an ordinary Ijon Tichy tale but gradually becomes something else. The atmosphere of Earth has been contaminated by one (or more?) well-meaning governments with one (or more?) psychoactive drugs designed to improve the quality of life for the world's poor, overcrowded masses. The result is an intricate tangle of mass hallucinations; Tichy attempts to investigate, but finds himself unable to discover which of the worlds he uncovers through chemical stimuli is real. The novel plays with states of subjectivity in a manner reminiscent of the best of Philip K. Dick.
In Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Tichy wakes up, disoriented, in the Pentagon of the far future, a vast bureaucratic compound that seems to have disconnected itself from the world around it. The astronaut is assigned a mysterious mission to accomplish, but receives no particular instructions; as he wanders around various offices and departments in search of more details, he finds himself getting caught up in the obscure intrigues of the Pentagon's denizens, though no closer to his goal. Memoirs borrows heavily from Kafka (in substance, if not in style), and so has elicited widely different responses from Lem fans.
Lem's experimental tendencies were fully realized in a series of works that gestured outside of themselves to a whole corpus of imaginary literature. Imaginary Magnitudes is a collection of prefaces to books that haven't been written; A Perfect Vacuum collects reviews of books that will be written in the future; and One Human Minute contains essays on some "old" books that were (weren't?) written in the late-20th and 21st centuries. These works, with their self-referential playfulness and sparkling invention, are tributes to the fiction of Borges -- indeed, the first item in A Perfect Vacuum is a review of A Perfect Vacuum, lambasting the author for copying Borges' trick of conjuring unreal writings. But where Borges tends to use the device of an imaginary book to sketch out a metaphysical premise in concrete form, Lem uses it more to poke fun at modern fashions in art, literature, and academia. In A Perfect Vacuum, for instance, a blank book entitled Rien du tout, ou la conséquence is praised as "the first novel to reach the limit of what writing can do," while Imaginary Magnitude offers an introduction to an album of 139 x-ray photographs of sex, called "pornograms".
In the early 70's, Lem's books began to appear in English, and it was hoped they would find an avid, ready-made readership; but at the same time, the foundations were being laid for distrust and misunderstanding between Lem and his English-speaking colleagues. In 1973, the Science Fiction Writers of America, moved by the spirit of Nixon-era international goodwill, awarded an honorary membership to Lem, as the most prominent representative of Eastern Bloc sci-fi. Four years later, however, this membership was summarily revoked. The immediate cause of "the Lem Affair" was an article Lem had published in criticism of science fiction in the English-speaking world. He called it derivative, and asserted that it consisted largely of sterile elaborations on a handful of threadbare themes that had been developed by H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Lem, by contrast, has been tainted by his own originality within a genre that accomodates far too much mediocrity and repetition. Science fiction writers do not win Nobel Prizes.
In the wake of the harsh Communist crackdown on Solidarity in 1983, Lem, without making any public political statement, quietly moved with his family to Vienna, where his close friend and literary agent Franz Rottensteiner lived. (They have since moved back to the suburbs of Cracow). Lem returned to writing novels of conventional form, but his work from this period is difficult to assess, since most of it has not been translated into English. In Peace On Earth, Ijon Tichy returns to save an Earth threatened by its own past. In the 2ist century, the world's nations had entrusted their security to autonomous, self-evolving batteries of microweaponry; as part of the global disarmament that followed, these tiny insect-like nanoweapons were deposited on the moon. But now it seems these discarded arsenals are planning an invasion, and Tichy is dispatched to defuse the situation. There is a fascinating twist to the narration: in the course of his mission to the Moon, Tichy encounters a weapon which separates the left hemisphere of his cerebellum from the right half, so that both halves of his brain struggle to tell the story in their own words.
Fiasco, Lem's last novel, is a dark parable about exploration. A band of human explorers travel to the planet Quinta, and find there an alien civilization they do not even begin to comprehend. They resort to grasping for symbols and analogies, and in the end pattern their own behavior on primitive human archetypes; humankind, Lem seems to be suggesting, cannot bear very much of the unknown.
This brief review cannot really do justice to Lem's considerable and varied literary achievements. In addition to other works of science fiction not mentioned here, Lem has published two excellent mystery novels, screenplays, a systematic theory of literature, and numerous essays in literary criticism (some of which have been collected in English under the title Microworlds), as well as books on philosophy, cybernetics, and the theory of probability. Indeed, Lem's very breadth may be his most distinguishing characteristic; as one of his most astute reviewers, J. Madison Davis, has written, "One cannot dislike Lem; one can only dislike parts of him."
There are many reasons to read Lem. His stories, charged with invention and wit, never fail to entertain. At the same time, no living writer has used fiction to engage scientific problems as seriously as Lem, who views prognosis as one of literature's most important functions. Ours is the age of cybernetics and genetics. We stand, precarious, on the verge of making not just new choices -- for that is simply the human condition -- but the new sorts of choices that technology makes possible; and there is little other than imagination available to guide our next steps. Stanislaw Lem shows that science fiction, now more than ever, is good to think with, and he has revealed rich new possibilities for the genre.
--Nathan M. Powers, 1 October 1999
More on Stanislaw Lem
Bibliography -- The Libyrinth's complete bibliography of Lem and Lem criticism available in English translation.
Stanislaw Lem Bookstore -- You may order Lem's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Lem Bookstore.
Official Lem Page -- Maintained by Lem and his son, this site is called "Solaris" and takes the appearance of a Lemmish newspaper.
Lem on the Web -- A very complete page maintained by Mike Sofka.
Study Guide for Solaris -- Professor Paul Brians' helpful companion to Lem's most widely read book.
Solaris page -- About the novel and both films.
Summa Technologiae and Dialogues -- Dr. Frank Prengel has here translated portions of both these works; the only source in English for some of Lem's important work in futurology and the theory of cybernetics.
Vitrifax --Matt McIrvin's Lem page reviews many of Lem's novels and short story collections.
Google Search -- This will search news groups related to Lem.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Lem.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Lem and his work.
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