Lem, Stanislaw (Vol. 15)
Lem, Stanislaw 1921–
A Polish science fiction and fantasy novelist, short story writer, and illustrator, Lem has been called a genius, a titan of Eastern European literature. In his fiction Lem welds a wildly comic imagination to a darkly surrealistic vision of life. He is one of the few writers of science fiction to have transcended the limitations of the genre, gaining international recognition. In 1973 his work was acknowledged by the Polish Ministry of Culture and in this country he became the recipient of a special honorary Nebula Award for science fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 8.)
Reuel K. Wilson
In his well-constructed novels and stories Lem transcends the hackneyed conventions of [science fiction]. He felicitously combines erudition with suspense, verbal inventiveness with narrative skill, social conscience with a satiric wit and a marvelous gift for grotesque parody. His best fiction, much of which has now been translated into English, has earned Lem the reputation of a serious creative writer. In this essay I propose to examine those elements of his work that make him an original artist as well as a timely social critic.
When reading Lem one quickly notices two opposite though not mutually exclusive tendencies in his thought. On the one hand, his weltanschauung is scientific; he believes that modern technology is important and necessary. On the other hand, he manifests a humanist's preoccupation with ethical questions. He portrays with irony man's stubborn and arrogant compulsion to subjugate his fellows and the infinite universe around him, yet he clearly admires the very qualities—inventiveness, will and determination—which impel men to compete with each other and with the forces of nature. Lem attacks the absurd excesses of modern civilization from many angles, and his imagination never ceases to amaze readers with its sly and timely resourcefulness. Although diverse literary influences are perceptible—Swift, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Dostoevsky, Sienkiewicz, folktales, popular...
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[I find Stanislaw Lem] a master of utterly terminal pessimism, appalled by all that an insane humanity may yet survive to do.
We are pollution.
He wants us to feel no pity for Homo sapiens, and so excludes appealing women and children from his tales. The adult males he shows us are variously bald, arthritic, sharp-kneed, squinting, jowly, rotten toothed, and so on, and surely ludicrous—save for his space crewmen, who are as expendable as pawns in a chess game. We do not get to know anybody well enough to like him. If he dies, he dies.
Nowhere in the works of Jonathan Swift, even, can I find a more loathsome description of a human being than this one, taken from Lem's "Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal," one of a dozen fables for the Cybernetic Age in his The Cyberiad …: "Its every step was like the overflowing of marshy vats, its face was like a scummy well; from its rotten breath the mirrors all covered over with a blind mist. When it spoke, it was if a pink worm tried to squirm from its maw."…
[Lem] gives me no reason in this or any other story I have read to feel regret when a human being is killed. The one in this particular fable is butchered and stuffed by the robots, and put into a museum.
I do not think Lem would have as many readers as he does … if he did not go to such lengths to say, in effect, what bitter night club comics often say:...
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Joyce Carol Oates
[In Post-Modernist literature there is an obsession] with the primacy of style and structure over "subject matter": The artist is willfully and ingeniously refined out of existence, as Joyce never was, so that the perfect art would be art in a vacuum—a perfect vacuum—not only self-referential but lacking a self to which to refer. Stanislaw Lem, a Polish writer of science fiction, states in the parody-review of a parody-introduction to his own book, "A Perfect Vacuum": "Literature to date has told us of fictitious characters. We shall go further: we shall depict fictitious books. Here is a chance to regain creative liberty, and at the same time to wed two opposing spirits—that of the belletrist and the critic."
An ambitious project, fraught with intriguing perils: To create ghost-books obliquely glimpsed in reviews (alas, they are really review essays and sometimes disquietingly lengthy) that are in turn written by ghost-reviewers whose shadows fall upon the page, sometimes distracting us from the author's "true" thesis. Joyce did something similar in "Ulysses," where each chapter is dominated by—is in fact filtered through—a "voice," and the reader is asked to deal with the voice as well as with the narrative that is evidently unfolding behind it; but Joyce's great work is so thoroughly grounded in the naturalistic world, in Dublin, that even the most befuddled reader, lost for paragraphs at a time, can...
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["The Chain of Chance"] is narrated, in traditional pitiless side-of-the-mouth style, by the protagonist/detective, an American ex-astronaut named, we belatedly learn, John—no last name given…. "The Chain of Chance" was written … as an Eastern European's speculation upon some possible short-term extensions of such Western topical developments as terrorism, space exploration, and chemical pollution…. Making his hardboiled investigator a cast-off astronaut is witty, for the book breathes the poisoned atmosphere of technological backfire, and the latest by-product of our Puritan resolution is rarely the astronaut, consecrated, like the cowboy and the private eye, to bleakly masculine missions. Also, the astronaut's training gives Lem easy access to the scientific terminology where he is at home, and a poet…. (p. 115)
A thrilling ride it is, especially for those whose hearts beat faster when the Scientific American arrives each month. Lem has learned the formulae of fictional suspense almost too well; there is so much we don't know at the outset that by the time we do know it the book is two-thirds over. John, it may not be too much to say, is of the same age and physical type as a number of men who have behaved and died mysteriously in the vicinity of Naples; by assuming the identity of Adams, he is attempting to induce the same conspiracy of circumstances to attack him. The heart of this small novel is taken up with...
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Stephen W. Potts
Lem has been delighting European readers of science fiction for two decades, and has recently garnered laurels in the U.S. … Though A Perfect Vacuum is not primarily science fiction, the blurb-writer who maintains that Lem "here breaks away from the science-fiction mold" is not strictly correct either.
Of the reviews of nonexistent books that make up this volume, most play with Lem's favorite speculative fiction themes: cosmology, cybernetics, probability, and the confusion of subjective and objective realities. Some of the most successful pieces come from this group, such as Non Serviam, a "book" detailing experiments conducted on personoids, rational entities created by scientists within the mathematical matrix of the computer, and allowed to develop their own culture and cosmology within that universe. Lem's cosmic irony manifests itself in the theories and faiths these personoids formulate to explain their existence, and in the troubled nonintervention of the Creator in question, the author-scientist himself.
Lem also toys with purely literary ideas. The best of such pieces, Gigamesh, beautifully parodies James Joyce and his disciples, presenting an outline of the ultimate Joycean novel, one that goes beyond Finnegans Wake to include in its meticulous esthetic puzzle, created in part by computer, every aspect of all human civilization. While few of the reviews are convincing as...
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In the highly unlikely event that a science-fiction writer is deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize in the near future, the most likely candidate would be … Stanislaw Lem…. [Mr. Lem] writes in the European tradition, which treats science fiction not as a subliterary commercial genre but as a valid narrative strategy….
By any standard, Mr. Lem is a major writer; he is also a writer with many voices. A restless intellect who puts different pieces of himself into different books, he has created no single work that can be said to encapsulate his vision. "Tales of Pirx the Pilot" (first collected in Polish in 1968) shows Mr. Lem at his most accessible. With a minimum of philosophical speculation, social satire and absurdist humor, he offers a series of what appear to be technological detective stories, set in a common future that is at least as plausible as the world depicted nightly on the 7 o'clock news….
Mr. Lem evokes [his] world with meticulously detailed descriptions that come across quite well in translation…. (p. 7)
At times, Mr. Lem lays on the technological details so heavily that one is tempted to call the result not science fiction but "engineering fiction." Yet the dense texture he builds up is essential to the game he is playing. In each story, something major goes wrong; usually, it is up to Pirx to solve the problem before he and other people are killed. The details are presented in...
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