(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Stanisaw Lem’s Microworlds is a collection of his previously published essays, with an introduction by his longtime friend, translator, and literary agent Franz Rottensteiner. While it is very helpful to have these essays easily available, they represent a fraction of Lem’s critical output. Since they were selected to meet different editorial requirements when first published, some subjects are dealt with in depth and some not at all.

Lem has written a full-length study of science fiction, Fantastyka i futurologica (1970); two of the chapters, “The Time-Travel Story and Related Matters of Science-Fiction Structuring” and “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction,” are included in Microworlds. Rottensteiner observes that Lem had problems in locating sources for his history of science fiction, which may further account for his not dealing with certain subjects and authors. Balancing this weakness is Lem’s strength as a scientist. Trained as a doctor, he rigorously applied both scientific knowledge and scientific method to his science-fiction essays and fiction. Lem has additionally published numerous scientific articles; he has a special interest in cybernetics. Two other significant untranslated works are Summa Technologiae (1964), now undoubtedly dated as to content but nevertheless still of interest to Lem’s readers, and Filozofia przyypadku (1968), an attempt to construct an empirical theory to account for variant responses to works of literature by different cultures at different times.

Lem, though a writer of science fiction, is sharply critical of the genre, so much so that Science Fiction Writers of America once revoked his honorary membership. The articles related to the controversy, not included in Microworlds, were published in several successive issues of Science-Fiction Studies (July 1977, ff.). Though Lem is more concerned with intellectual and structural problems than he is with belletristic literature, he edited a series of works published in Poland, which included short stories by M. R. James and Stefan Grabiski and Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Lem contributed an afterword to each volume; the analysis of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1977), a Soviet work, appears in Microworlds. Of this essay, Rottensteiner observes that while Lem criticized American and English writers negatively, he was more cautious with comments on the Soviets since “objective discussion of the better works would be fraught with dangers for the writers discussed.”

The essays are not presented in chronological order, the most recent, written in 1984, “Reflections on My Life,” appearing first. Its place in the volume, however, is logical: The reader has an overview of Lem’s life and the development of his thought and also his present evaluation of his work, including allusions to other essays appearing in Microworlds, and therefore has reference points from which to evaluate the subsequent articles. In the essay, Lem speculates on the relationship of chance and order in shaping his career not only as a writer but as a writer who “ceaselessly strives to reconcile contradictory elements of realism and fantasy.” The theme recurs in many of the essays, notably in “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature,”

The son of a wealthy doctor, Lem grew up in a safe and affluent household in Lemberg, now Lvov, in the Ukraine. Still, he constantly escaped into fictitious worlds, which he documented in detail, keeping all of his fantastic worlds and equally fantastic inventions and drawings secret. As a boy, he had access to his father’s library, including medical books and specimens, sometimes with permission and sometimes without it. The library contained books in German and French as well as Polish; Lem learned to read these languages and also Latin. World War II abruptly changed his family situation, and Lem could easily speculate that the world was a “preestablished disharmony, ending in chaos and madness.” In two novels, he deals with his wartime experiences, when he resembled more “a hunted animal than a thinking human being.” In the first, Wysoki zamek (1966), he tries to recapture his childhood, “to peel away, as it were, the overlying strata of war, of mass murder and extermination, of the nights in the shelters during air raids, of an existence under a false identity, of hide-and-seek, of all the dangers, as if they never had existed.” Szpital przemienienia, though all the settings and characters are imaginary, explores and attempts to exorcise one of the horrors of occupied Poland: the murder of mentally ill persons and the insane. Written in 1948, Lem’s last year as a student, it could not be published until 1957.

In 1946, reduced to destitution by the war, Lem and his family moved to Kraków, living in a single room, while Lem’s father, by then seventy-one, worked in the hospital. Lem began writing to help support the family. By 1947, he was employed as a junior research assistant for Konwersatorium Naukoznawcze (the Circle for the Science of Science). Lem read and compiled surveys of scientific periodicals, learning in the process to read English, though he has never learned to speak it or to understand spoken English. Here he had access to recent scientific works from around the world. The reading provided him with background for many of his subsequent works “that I can still acknowledge without shame,” such as Eden (1959), Solaris (1961), and The Invincible (1964). His earlier works, he says, “oversimplify the world.” Lem here applies to his own works the critical standards he stresses for all others: the necessity for rigorous logic based on scientific fact, the necessity of then stretching scientific concepts to new boundaries, and the necessity of creating works of literature rather than mass-produced variations on worn-out themes. In fact, Lem by precept and example approaches his works as a scientist or philosopher approaches the testing of a hypothesis or the development of a theory.

Despite his many works of science fiction, Lem became increasingly critical of the genre. H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, he contends, were discoverers; most science-fiction writers after them became imitators. Attempting himself to break new ground, Lem experimented with reviews of fictitious scientific works. His own fiction, he admits, is not logically planned from beginning to end; spontaneity and trial and error play a large role in its creation. Lem has also written several comic, satiric science-fiction works. It is surprising that there are so few comic science-fiction writers, in view of the satiric content of much science fiction and the strong relationship between satire and fantasy.

In “On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction,” Lem first defines the “rules of the game” in conventional literature and goes on to point out how science fiction often violates these rules. Unlike mathematics, in which the terms used have no outward semantic meaning, literature uses words that refer to reality. In other words, the usual world of affairs is needed as a given if one is to appreciate the different worlds of myth and fairy tale. Lem distinguishes between “final” fantasy—fairy tales and science fiction—and “passing” fantasy. The latter is exemplified by Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (1915), in which the fantastic outer events refer to inner realities. Science fiction is expected to be empirically realistic; if it is not, it becomes fantasy and is at its worst when its impossible aspects—time travel, for example—are used solely to illustrate impossible situations created by impossible premises. Then it becomes a game that, Lem suggests, is not worth playing. The bounds of the fantastic are limited and defined by knowledge. For example, when space travel was not a reality, one could travel as one pleased in space. Now one cannot. Science fiction could become a first-rate literary genre if it followed the rules, but to do so, Lem contends repeatedly, a new group of readers would have to be recruited from the mainstream. This has taken place since Lem’s 1973 essay was written and, to some extent, was indeed the case at the time he wrote it. In the early 1970’s, science fiction was beginning to be accepted on a scholarly level.

“Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions” is introduced by a footnote in which Lem admits that there are errors in the essay, caused by the unavailability of books. His main point, that it is impossible to read everything and therefore it is the critic’s job to winnow the mass of material, still holds. Especially in science fiction, he observes, one cannot read everything, and indiscriminate critics are worse than useless. In this essay, Lem...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXII, June, 1985, p. 1488.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, November 1, 1984, p. 1039.

Library Journal. CX, February 1, 1985, p. 99.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 14, 1985, p. 10.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 24, 1985, p. 28.

The New Yorker. LXI, April 22, 1985, p. 143.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 30, 1984, p. 85.