Friday, April 06, 2018

SF Luminaries: Stanislaw Lem

Wojciech Druszcz: Stanisław Lem

What is it about Stanislaw Lem that sets him apart from other SF writers? Because there is something that puts him in a category of his own, somewhere between J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, though with powers of pure intellect quite different from their more sensitive, aesthetic approach to what Lem himself once called (in his essay "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans"):
the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel ...

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961)

Ever since I first chanced on a copy of Solaris in the local second-hand shop in Mairangi Bay, I've been trying to come to terms with his work. I wasn't even aware then that there was a film - let alone one as beguiling and magical as Tarkovsky's - so the book made its impact on me without any other visual aids.

The long account of the science of "Solaristics" in the middle chapters of Lem's story functions as a satire on Academia in general: its tendency to lurch from one one-sided theory to another, but it also shows a faith in the basic seriousness of his readers which transcended any of the more conventional slam-bang American or British Sci-fi I'd grown up on.

Stanislaw Lem: The Invincible (1964)

The other book of his I read at this time was The Invincible. Wow, what a contrast! This grim story of a thwarted attempt at planetary colonisation would have been almost unimaginable in English-language SF at the time. No boosterism - no Campbell-era "man plus" thinking. Lem was a serious dude, and his books clearly repaid study rather than providing instant gratification.

The Mind's Eye, ed. Douglas R. Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett (1981)

It's a little difficult now to account for the excitement surrounding Douglas R. Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach in the late 1970s. Everyone I knew - in my own little circle of secondary school 'intellectuals,' that is - made some attempt to read it. I got about halfway through. Perhaps some of the others, cleverer at Maths, were actually able to get to the end. This anthology of pieces, co-edited by him and Daniel C. Dennett, appeared a couple of years later, and introduced me to a whole species of thinking about Artificial Intelligence and other cool subjects I knew virtually (pun intended) nothing about.

I'd already read Borges, but meeting him in this new company made me see that his work was the beginning rather than the end of a particular train of thought. And there were pieces in there by Stanislaw Lem, too: strange, non-naturalistic tales of computer derring-do which called all conventional genre-categories into question. I began to realise that the basically realistic settings of Solaris and The Invincible were only a small part of his work. I started to wonder, in fact, if they were simply intended as cynical strategies to lure the unwary into the seamless web of his "deeper" works.

And so my quest began: to explore the strange galaxies of Stanislaw Lem, to attempt to understand just why he was the "most widely read SF writer in the world" (as all his blurbs proclaimed). Was it simply because he had a virtual monopoly on the field in the entire Eastern bloc, or was there more to it than that? Did he offer something better than those "threadbare" themes, mentioned above?

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris / The Chain of Chance / A Perfect Vacuum (1961, 1975 & 1971)

As so often in those days, Penguin books came to the rescue. These two wonderful King Penguins from 1981 reprinted the two novels I'd already read alongside a series of strange mock-reviews of imaginary books (A Perfect Vacuum); a bizarrely circumstantial account of a particular 'coincidental' set of events (The Chain of Chance); a completely convincing - because almost completely incomprehensible - account of the future world encountered by a returning astronaut (Return from the Stars); as well as some strangely subversive tales of space-travel by the eponymous Pirx the Pilot.

It was, in retrospect, a pretty good sample of Lem's wares: the faux-essays, the off-narratives, the weird attempts at surreal humour - his basic preoccupation with the functional impossibility of human-to-human, let alone human-to-alien, communication.

Stanislaw Lem: His Master's Voice (1968)

This latter theme comes to a head in His Master's Voice, a book which reads (in part) like a bitter parody of the sunnier visions provided by Carl Sagan's Contact or even the slightly more hardheaded The Black Cloud, by Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle.

[Warning: plot spoilers ahead]: A book of random numbers is returned to its publishers by various disgruntled users, who point out that it starts to repeat on a certain page. The numbers, it turns out, were generated from the random static produced by a particular frequency band in a radio telescope. They must, therefore (it is reasoned) constitute some kind of message from the stars, given that they do repeat after a certain interval.

The rest of the book is largely consumed by philosophical discussions around the implications of all this. The complete failure of the scientists to decode the message beyond a few basic steps is, finally, reasoned to be proof of the validity of the message. It could only be decoded by civilisations fit to receive it, which ours (manifestly) is not. Our failure constitutes the message's success.
As you can imagine, such austerity of narrative discipline can lead to a certain reduction in one's potential fan base. Luckily, his new books continued to attract enough interest in America to be translated into English there. They became harder and harder to locate in these parts, however.

Agnieszka Gajewska: Zagłada i Gwiazdy (2016)

There is, however, another aspect to the life (and works) of Stanislaw Lem. Philip K. Dick famously proclaimed him to be not so much a man as a communist committee (mainly, it appears, out of pique at not being able to collect royalties on Lem's Polish translation of Ubik - a situation completely beyond Lem's control).

For a long time I was hesitant to learn too much about his background, in fact, lest it have the unfortunate effect of souring me on his work. He did, after all, prosper greatly under the communist regime in Poland. Just what compromises might that fact conceal?

The truth, it appears, is stranger, much stranger than that. A recent article entitled "Stanisław Lem: Did the Holocaust Shape His Sci-Fi World? by Polish critic Mikołaj Gliński reveals a whole hidden world under the slick, space-age surface of Lem's most disturbing fictions:
Perhaps the most direct case of encrypting personal experiences in Lem’s sci-fi work comes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice. In it, Hogarth the protagonist ... relates a wartime story of his friend Professor Rappaport ...

The story ... includes terrifying scenes of a street execution taking place in the yard of the prison, in his hometown, in 1942. Rapaport spent a couple of hours lined up against the wall waiting his turn before the unexpected arrival of a film crew saved his life. During this time he witnesses a grotesque scene where a Jewish man tries to persuade Germans that he too is German, only he is saying this in Yiddish, a scene which to Rappaport, in his current state of mind, appears to be infinitely funny. Then awaiting his turn in front of the firing squad, he decides to turn his thoughts to reincarnation.

Only many years later, in a private letter to his American translator Michael Kandel from 1972, did Lem for the first time admit that Rappaport’s story ... is in fact his own.
Lem's Jewish heritage was something he seldom discussed, and in fact claimed to have only discovered during the war as a result of the Nazi Nuremberg laws. In her 2016 book Zagłada i Gwiazdy [Holocaust and Stars] Lem scholar Agnieszka Gajewska argues otherwise.

The "happy, almost idyllic, childhood, surrounded by loving parents and a whole entourage of cousins, aunts and uncles" Lem describes in his memoir Highcastle (1975) is a characteristically selective account of his past:

Almost all the members of his extended family – the anonymous uncles and aunts from Highcastle – died in the Holocaust, murdered in Lviv and Bełżec. The last of Lem’s relatives were killed after the war in the Kielce pogrom.
Far from a communist hireling or a state-sanctioned apologist, then, Lem was a Holocaust survivor, with - as Gliński and Gajewska's analysis of his published work reveals - possibly more than his fair share of survivor's guilt. Like other Jewish writers such as Paul Celan and Georges Perec, Lem shied away from direct representations of the events themselves, instead preferring to code them into the aporia of his increasingly strange stories.

As in the case of Celan's "Todesfuge" [Death Fugue], though, this came after earlier attempts at a more direct approach:
Wartime reality appears quite directly in Lem’s first novel. The Hospital of the Transfiguration is a realist novel set during a war in an unidentified mental institution where doctors prepare for the Nazis' imminent appearance. Lem’s protagonist, Polish doctor Stefan Trzyniecki, is the same age as Lem at the time of writing the novel. One of the recurring themes is that whenever he doesn’t shave, he starts to look Jewish.

... Gajewska argues that in this encrypted way, Lem’s novel becomes not only a depiction of the wartime tragedy of the patients of a mental institution but also a tale of the Jewish inhabitants of Lviv. At the same time, as Gajewska points out, this was also part of the complicated game with the communist-imposed censorship in postwar Poland.
Celan grew to hate "Todesfuge" after he learned that it was being taught in the Secondary School curriculum in Postwar Germany as an exemplar of "forgiveness" for the brutal realities of the Final Solution. His later, more austere work was harder to adapt to such phony, lying ends (or so he hoped).

Lem's battles with censorship may have been more directly influential on the content of his books: Highcastle, for instance, may have taken its present form for reasons quite outside its author's control.

Whether deliberate or unconscious, it seems impossible to deny the presence of these unassimilated memories in the midst of Lem's most cerebral and otherwordly offerings. The result, I would hope, should be to give him a new currency as one of the twentieth century's greatest and most influential writers.

This is my own (partial) list of his works - those available in English translation, that is:

Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Herman Lem

  1. Hospital of the Transfiguration. [‘Czas nieutracony: Szpital przemienienia’, 1955]. Trans. William Brand. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1988.

  2. The Star Diaries: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (1). [‘Dzienniki gwiazdowe’, 1957-71]. Trans. Michael Kandel. Illustrated by the Author. 1976. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1978.

  3. Memoirs of a Space Traveller: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. [‘Dzienniki gwiazdowe’, 1957-71]. Trans. Joel Stern & Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek. Illustrated by the Author. 1982. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

  4. Eden. [‘Eden’, 1959]. Trans. Marc E. Heine. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

  5. The Investigation. ['Śledztwo', 1959]. Trans. Adele Milch. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974.

  6. Mortal Engines. [‘Bajki robotów’, 1961]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1977. A Bard Book. New York: Avon Books, 1982.

  7. Return from the Stars. [‘Powrót z gwiazd’, 1961]. Trans. Barbara Marszal & Frank Simpson. 1980. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  8. Solaris. [‘Solaris’, 1961]. Trans. Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox. 1971. London: Arrow Books, 1973.

  9. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (2). [‘Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie’, 1961]. Trans. Michael Kandel & Christine Rose. 1973. A Harvest / HBJ Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

  10. The Invincible. [‘Niezwyciężony’, 1964]. Trans. Wendayne Ackerman. 1973. Penguin Science Fiction. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  11. Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations). [‘Summa Technologiae’, 1964]. Trans. Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2013.

  12. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. [‘Cyberiada’, 1967]. Trans. Michael Kandel. Illustrated by Daniel Mroz. 1974. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1977.

  13. His Master's Voice. [‘Głos pana’, 1968]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1983. London: Mandarin, 1990.

  14. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. [‘Fantastyka i futurologia’, 1970]. Ed. Franz Rottensteiner. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.

  15. A Perfect Vacuum. [‘Doskonała próżnia’, 1971]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1979. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  16. The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (3). [‘Ze wspomnień Ijona Tichego; Kongres futurologiczny’, 1971]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1974. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1977.

  17. Tales of Pirx the Pilot. [‘Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie’, 1973]. Trans. Louis Iribarne. 1979. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  18. More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. [‘Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie’, 1973]. Trans. Louis Iribarne with Magdalena Majcherczyk & Michael Kandel. 1982. London: Mandarin, 1990.

  19. Imaginary Magnitude. [‘Wielkość urojona’, 1973]. Trans. Marc E. Heine. 1984. London: Mandarin, 1991.

  20. The Chain of Chance. [‘Katar’, 1975]. Trans. Louis Iribarne. 1978. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  21. Highcastle: A Remembrance. ['Wysoki zamek', 1975]. Trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

  22. The Cosmic Carnival of Stanisław Lem: An Anthology of Entertaining Stories by the Modern Master of Science Fiction. Ed. Michael Kandel. New York: Continuum, 1981.

  23. One Human Minute. ['Biblioteka XXI wieku', 1986]. Trans. Catherine S. Leach. 1986. London: Mandarin, 1991.

  24. Fiasco. [‘Fiasko’, 1986]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1987. London: Futura, 1989.

  25. Peace on Earth: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (4). ['Pokój na Ziemi', 1987]. Trans. Michael Kandel & Elinor Ford. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

  26. A Stanislaw Lem Reader (Rethinking Theory). Ed. Peter Swirsky. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

  27. Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanisław Lem. Ed. Magda Raczynska & Ra Page. Manchester: Comma Press, 2011.

  28. The Truth and Other Stories. 1956-1993. Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson. Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2021.

  29. Dialogues. ['Dialogi', 1957 / 1971]. Trans. Frank Prengel. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2021.

Stanisław Lem: A Bibod


Richard said...

I haven't read any of Lem's books. I have heard about them. They sound very interesting. I think when sorting books I put one of his books with the Sci Fi books I parceled up. [I think it was 'Tales of Pirx the Pilot']

My mother had a book of all the books she read and (she liked Sci Fi among other things) she (I see now in the book she kept) had read 'His Master's Voice' and 'Return from the Stars'.

I like Ballard but the things I have read (only a few) by Philip K Dick did (not much) for me. Perhaps I need to read some more.

Yes Celan's work became very resistive. Dark hard messages. 'Todesfuge' may have done some good though. But perhaps it is one of those poems that is good but indeed a little too direct. It is clear Celan needed to move as he did. 'The Black Cloud' we read at High School, it was very good. I didn't get through 'Godel, Escher, and Bach'. I had done some logic but I didn't want to wade through exercises in logic and so on.

Good covers on some of those books!

The plot of 'His Master's Voice' reminds me a bit of 'Ratner's Star' by Delillo.

The idea for decoding may have came from information theory. Signals that are even very distorted can be decoded using complex methods. [This is using non-digital methods of decoding but there are of course complex methods of coding and decoding digital signals] But in information theory the highest information content is in signals or "messages" that have the highest degree of entropy.* It is one of those paradoxes. [As you assume something very random in form is almost certainly not designed by an intelligent being trying to communicate]. I suspect that Lem was interested in this problem of knowledge and communication.

But the evil(?)Aliens might know a lot more about such things!

Lem certainly sounds a fascinating character and writer.

*Perhaps it means either that there is zero information with almost or zero entropy and at maximum entropy there is a potentially infinite amount of information but it is a case of too much therefore it is effectively useless or meaningless!

Anonymous said...

Let me add to that list Lem's excellent collection of philosophical essays 'Dialogi' (1957). Unfortunately, it's not been translated into English yet (with the exception of the first dialogue), you should be able to find translations into other languages, though.