Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2681
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 Memoirs of a Space Traveler, Tichy is approached by the inventor of a working time machine for capital to continue his research. Greatly impressed, the explorer agrees to approach potential investors, but both to save time and to provide a demonstration of the machine, the inventor offers to go thirty years into the future, find out who the investors were historically, and return with the information on exactly which backers to approach. Unfortunately, the inventor forgets that thirty years in the future he will be thirty years older. He steps into his machine, turns it on, and as he fades from sight before Tichy’s eyes in the present, dies of old age. Tichy concludes by observing that everyone travels in time, and if we age when we travel together at the same rate, why not expect that if the speed of travel is accelerated, the speed of aging will also increase? Readers of science fiction will recognize some subtle thrusts at the genre in Tichy’s complaint that science fiction, like the inventor, forgets this problem.
Lem satirizes not just science fiction; in fact, critics’ most frequent applause is reserved for Lem’s linguistic inventiveness as a tool for his satire: His coinage of new words, his skill with names, and especially his fluent parodies of different styles of writing (scientific reports, political speeches) provide commentary on the whole spectrum of the ways in which people communicate (or fail to communicate). In questions of the style of the author, the reader is entirely dependent on the skill of the translator, but even without considering style, the humor of the stories is abundant and genuine.
Two larger targets of the satire of the Tichy stories are human imperfection and human philosophy. The way in which systems of thought have explained or failed to explain human flaws is one of Lem’s constant themes. Lem does not hesitate to explore large questions: the purpose of an imperfect creature in a puzzling universe, why evil exists, the possibility of perfection of the human or another species, the utopias for which the human race strives—all these are among the themes that Lem examines in both the comic and the serious stories.
Tales of Pirx the Pilot
Tichy’s serious counterpart is Pirx, a spaceman whose career the reader follows (in Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, both translated from Opowieci o pilocie Pirxie) from cadet to commander. Pirx in many ways seems absolutely ordinary as a human being, if not as a literary character. Although in excellent physical condition, he is no superman like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter, but rather a rounded character who changes as he matures. Through the tales, Pirx is subjected to a series of challenges of increasing difficulty, ones that bring all of his abilities into play. He has courage, skill, and training, but he often confronts as adversaries machines with powers far superior to his. Tichy, by contrast, is frequently only a bystander or an observer of such a machine. In the first tale of Pirx, “Test” (“The Test”), for example, the malevolent machine is the cadet’s own ship. Through a series of mechanical failures, it seems to threaten to end his maiden flight by splattering him across the surface of the Moon. Yet Pirx always survives, through intuition when systematic thought is fruitless, through indecision when action fails, or simply through being more adaptable than his adversaries or his competitors.
Pirx is called a dreamer in that first story, but his dreams are sometimes nightmares. In “Patrol” (“The Patrol”) two space pilots disappear while routinely surveying an uninhabited region of space. Their disappearance is a mystery until Pirx himself almost falls prey to a mental aberration caused by yet another ship malfunction. The breakdown produces the illusion of a light outside the ship, a will-o’-the-wisp that the two earlier pilots followed to their destruction. Only by using pain to bring himself back to reality is Pirx able to regain control and survive. Here the emphasis is on the fragility of the human endeavor in space: The vulnerable humans inside the ships are totally dependent on the machines that enclose and guard them. They are at the mercy of the machines that make it possible for them to exist. If the machines fail, the humans die. “Albatros” (“The Albatross”) drives home this message; in it, the line between safety and disaster is even thinner, because Pirx witnesses a suspenseful but unsuccessful rescue attempt from a luxury passenger liner complete with swimming pools and motion-picture theaters.
Such brief descriptions may make the stories sound pessimistic, but students of Lem have traced in these tales the seemingly contradictory theme that humanity’s weakness, its very vulnerability, defines its strength. One might point out that in “The Test,” Pirx succeeds when a cadet whom he considers far better qualified fails. The other cadet, Boerst, is handsome and brilliant. Boerst always has the right answers in class and always knows the accepted procedures. Yet the final examination for the cadets aims to test their capacity for innovation and imagination: No procedure covers what to do when a cover falls off a control panel at the same time that a fly has stowed away. No procedure covers what to do when the fly crawls into the open panel and shorts out an electric circuit. In a crisis for which the standard operating procedures are not enough, even perfect knowledge of those procedures is useless. Boerst fails in just such a crisis.
Pirx, by contrast, makes mistakes and—even more important—knows that he makes mistakes. He will not, therefore, stick with a procedure if it does not yield immediate results; rather, since he has failed before, he will assume he is failing again and try something else. With enough tries, he is bound to hit on something that works. The method may seem irrational, but it simply takes into account that humans cannot plan for every eventuality and must therefore leave open an avenue for new solutions. The situation of the electrocuted fly might not occur in a thousand years, but someone in charge of the examination has realized that some unforeseen circumstance is bound to occur, and probably sooner rather than later. One must therefore keep one’s mind open. This openness, as Pirx himself comments, results from the fact that we are “the sum of our faults and defects.” Pirx’s own success in the test can be explained in these terms. Since he lacks superior or outstanding ability in any one dimension, he cannot afford to become one-dimensional; he cannot become a specialist like the humans who fail before him or like the machines that failed them. He must remain open to possibilities from every direction. In short, he must be adaptable. In the final analysis, Pirx is not simply a sympathetic yet bungling hero, as one commentator has called him, nor is his success merely good luck; he is simply human in the best sense—adaptable.
In a third set of stories, Lem asks the question, “What does simply human mean?” As Bullpen, one of the instructors at cadet school, likes to remind his pupils, “A computer is only human.” Even in the tales of Pirx or of Ijon Tichy, machines sometimes take on human attributes and characteristics. In “Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy: V,” competing washing-machine manufacturers escalate their competition by building models that seem more and more human: They converse, they instruct, they even make love. By the end of the story, their original purpose has been so submerged that they have room to wash only a handkerchief or two, but they look like Jayne Mansfield.
The stories in The Cyberiad (Cyberiada) and Mortal Engines carry this development into the far future, when computers and other machines have become only too human. In that distant setting, humans are no longer the central figures in the drama of civilization. Robots occupy the center stage, but the play seems familiar. Although the robots disparage and scorn humans, the robots’ fairy tales have the forms and plots of human ones. Endow robots with consciousness and freedom of action, the stories seem to argue, and the meaning of “human” is called into question. The robot societies even show the same weaknesses as earlier human ones. They have their own villains and heroes, who show the same vices and virtues that humans do. There is not much difference between the men and the machines.
If there is an overarching vision in Lem’s motley of novels, stories, fables, monographs, essays, reviews, prophecies, and other literary experiments, it is his view that the symbiotic relationship between humanity and technology has significant ethical consequences. Although Leszek Kolakowski called him a “leading ideologist of scientific technocracy,” Lem insists that he is essentially a humanist who believes that no machine, known or imagined, can create human happiness. His favorite people are not scientists or technicians but writers (William Shakespeare), musicians (Frédéric Chopin), and artists (Hieronymus Bosch). Like them, he is deeply concerned with freedom, communication, and creativity. He believes that his work in science fiction can help humans to develop clever responses to those new technologies that have the potential to destabilize societies in unpredictable ways. Seeing human nature as flawed (because the brain is the consequence of innumerable evolutionary accidents), Lem can be pessimistic about the possibilities of future human improvement, but his pessimism is often tempered with an infectious sense of fun, and in his humor there is truth. Humans may be unable to create perfect societies, but through their inventiveness and determination they can take the stumbling steps that lead to a better and fuller life.
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