Stanisław Lem Critical Essays

Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Lem Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Readers fond of the short story will find much both conventional and unconventional in the works of Stanisaw Lem. He published several collections of short stories of the familiar kind; he also contributed to a form perhaps peculiar to the twentieth century, one that contains all the same elements as a short-story or novel—characters, setting, theme, and plot—but which adds an additional fiction that removes the author one step further from his creation. In this form, Lem pretended that the author of the work is someone else; instead of telling the story, Lem summarized and reviewed it.

A Perfect Vacuum and Prowokacja (partially translated as One Human Minute) consist of just such reviews of nonexistent books, and Imaginary Magnitude plays slight variations on the theme, being composed of an introduction to the work, three introductions to nonexistent works, an advertisement for a nonexistent encyclopedia, and a final set of six pieces bearing the general title “Golem XIV.” Golem XIV is a reasoning, self-programming supercomputer that has composed several “lectures”; the pieces in this section consist of an introduction and a foreword to those lectures, instructions for consulting the computer, and an afterword. For perfect consistency, Lem should have left the lectures themselves unwritten, but (perhaps unable to resist) he supplies two of them.

A Perfect Vacuum

Although these forms are unusual, Lem did not create them: He cites the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges as his predecessor at the labor of reviewing nonexistent books and suggests that the practice predates even Borges. Lem, however, consistently attempts to add further levels of complication. For example, the introduction to A Perfect Vacuum is a brief essay by the same title. “A Perfect Vacuum” (the introduction) functions like the usual preface or foreword, but it is itself also a review and—like the rest of the essays in the book—in part a critique of a work that does not exist. The essay that the reader sees presupposes that the collection A Perfect Vacuum begins with an introduction by Stanisaw Lem, a fictitious introduction titled “Auto-Momus.” What the reader sees, therefore, is at the same time an introduction to the real book in hand and a critique of the nonexistent introduction to that book. Reading “A Perfect Vacuum” is an excellent way to begin one’s experience of these unusual forms because it discusses at some length why a writer would choose to write them. A writer, says “S. Lem,” may simply be producing parodies or satires, may be producing drafts or outlines, or may be expressing “unsatisfied longings.” Yet a final reason is suggested as well:Books that the author does not write, that he will certainly never undertake, come what may, and that can be attributed to fictitious authors—are not such books, by virtue of their nonexistence, remarkably like science? Could one place oneself at any safer distance from heterodox thoughts?

It should be added, however, that in keeping with the convolutions of the form, this opinion is immediately contradicted in the next sentence.

It is tempting to believe that the reviews of fictitious books imply Lem’s dissatisfaction with conventional forms; this belief is buttressed by what the author has called “Lem’s Law”: “No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn’t understand; if he understands, he immediately forgets.” Lem’s Law notwithstanding, it is far safer to resist attributing a motive to so subtle and comic a writer, especially since Lem has also written (and become famous for) the kind of fiction that he here claims no one reads.

In those more conventional short fictions, Stanisaw Lem showed a fondness for stories of two general kinds: those with human space voyagers as the central characters, and those set in a world of robots. There is no hard-and-fast separation; almost all the stories show some kind of human-machine interaction or confrontation. Both types demonstrate that one of Lem’s especially noteworthy abilities is his talent for the comic in a field—science fiction—that is not on the whole rich in humor. A second simple preliminary division of Lem’s short fiction, in fact, can be made by separating the comic adventures of Ijon Tichy from the serious tales of Pirx the Pilot; both heroes are space travelers of the future, but they inhabit stories quite different in tone and language, although the stories are often similar in the themes they examine.

Lem worked on the stories with Ijon Tichy as a hero for well over a decade, and the publishing history of the work is complicated enough to warrant a word of explanation. There are two Polish versions of the work originally titled Dzienniki gwiazdowe: the first was published in 1957, was translated in 1976, and carries the English title The Star Diaries. The second Polish edition, that of 1971, contains a number of stories not included in the 1957 collection. These later stories were translated into English and published in 1982 under the title Memoirs of a Space Traveler. The two collections in English, The Star Diaries and Memoirs of a Space Traveler together with the short novel Bezsenno (1971; partial translation, The Futurological Congress, 1974), make up the complete adventures of Ijon Tichy available in English.

Memoirs of a Space Traveler

Tichy, the comic side of Lem’s vision, is described by the anonymous narrator not only as the discoverer of 83,003 new stars but also as someone to rank with Baron Münchhausen and Lemuel Gulliver. The literary allusions warn the reader that Tichy’s truthfulness is not guaranteed, but since his creator employed him as a character for fifteen years, Tichy must provide a useful vehicle for his author’s statements. In fact, many readers may find Tichy the best introduction to Lem: The comedy of the stories is easy to appreciate regardless of the nationality of the reader. The stories are comic not only in their exaggerated space-opera action and in the wildness of their plots but also in their often pointed satire: In these works, Lem parodies an astonishing range of targets. Critics have noted that the author makes fun of his own early attempts at science fiction, and he burlesques many of the more shopworn themes and plots of the genre—for example, time travel. In “Ze wspomnie Ijona Ticheyo IV” (“Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy: IV”), in...

(The entire section is 2681 words.)