Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Invincible treats the theme of human contact with alien life in the context of profound doubts about human sovereignty and self-determination. Lem has looked about the universe and found that humans are not the measure of it. The cosmos is essentially a mystery, and rational models of it are futile gestures of anthropocentricity. Lem asks how an individual may be sure of itself or know, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay has said, “anything other than itself” in a universe in which there are no closed reference systems and no possibility of knowing either the self or anything outside it without a “standard that transcends both the self and the Other.” Human beings are trapped, according to Lem, in institutions, relationships, and limited, self-deceiving frames of reference which they impose unsuccessfully on a random and enigmatic universe.

A corollary theme, here and in many of Lem’s writings, is the relationship between man and machine. The “insects” on Regis III have a primitive form of consciousness. They can remember to reassemble themselves into a defensive system. They frustrate humankind’s romantic appropriation of the universe and dispel the heroic illusion of unlimited conquest of nature, projected into space, which demands contact with aliens as an expression of ultimate understanding. The evolution of the cybernetic cloud and its eclipse of human supremacy, while ironically raising the issue of the blurred boundary between the natural and the artificial, suggest from Lem’s perspective a rough equality among all sentient entities.

The Invincible warns, as Lem himself has said, that the time of “seamless, unified philosophical systems” is over. Science and technology have failed to bridge the enormous gap between human knowledge and the universe, and encounters with “the Other” continue to expose human ways of understanding as illusory. Ursula K. Le Guin has interpreted Lem’s work as emphasizing the need for human beings to continue to act, in spite of this lack of understanding, because actions “retain, in the very depths of the abyss, their unalterable moral value.” Rohan’s impossible and unfulfilled excursion on behalf of the missing crewmen, climaxed by his renunciation of unbridled heroics and his redemption through an individual ethical decision, suggests that one may still attribute worth and purpose to human activity.