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Lem, Stanislaw 1921–

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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

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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 mysteries and sf (to name only a few)—the narrative style and satiric tone remain uniquely Lem's.

By confronting his heroes with the absurd, the grotesque, and the unknown, he stresses human limitations and fallibility. The novel The Investigation … uses the detective story format in order to show the inadequacies of scientific rationalism…. Despite a few striking incongruities … and a lack of character development, the novel does "work" if it is read as a paranoid nightmare, dreamt rather than lived by [the young detective] Gregory, a lonely and introverted individual who is desperate to succeed.

The dream situation has deeper implications in Solaris … a compelling novel about a planet endowed with a sentient ocean. This "ocean" (made up of a kind of matter hitherto unknown to man) has remarkable mimetic powers. Capable of learning from its experiences with human beings, the sea dispatches to each of the three scientist-protagonists the simulacrum of a woman whose image has been present in his innermost thoughts…. [Faced] with the majestic indifference and utter silence of an alien planet, the human protagonists despair of being able to establish the "Contact" which has been the object of their mission…. Suspended in the artificial environment of a mobile observation station, they become increasingly dominated by paranoid anxieties and fear of the unknown.

Descriptions of a surreal landscape play a decisive role in the novel. The planet's red and blue suns alternately set over a sea of matter which constantly spawns baroque formations that grow, flourish, metamorphose, only to subside quickly and disappear. Lem invents a whole terminology to describe these stately configurations of matter…. The passages depicting such bizarre excrescences that apparently serve no utilitarian goal reflect the author's preoccupation with an esthetic ideal of pure creativity. Like the creative process, whether in the universe or in the artist's imagination, Solaris resists scientific dissection. (pp. 549-50)

[Cruel and miraculous] is the anxious, somnambulent drama played out between the principals. An atmosphere of almost Gothic horror reflects their fears of the unknown and unknowable. Human behavior patterns are dramatized with authenticity, but the underlying motivations remain obscure and lacking in "rationality." Because of its psychological probing, tight narrative structure and grotesquely refined imagery, Solaris must remain Lem's most original and complete contribution to the novel.

Social and especially political satire predominates in much of Lem's best work. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub … delineates the Kafkaesque plight of an unnamed narrator who finds himself entrusted with an unspecified security mission in "The Building," an enclave of paranoid spies and bureaucrats who have isolated themselves from the outside world in order to maintain their ideological purity. The inhabitants of this sinister and ambiguous environment … constantly undergo Protean metamorphoses, as they peel away false ears and noses, only to reveal new disguises…. The plot's circular movement inexorably leads the narrator to a tragic end, the inevitable result of a hopeless struggle for recognition within a self-perpetuating "system" that, having long ago forgotten its raison d'être, arrogantly defies all ethical principles. Among other things, this absurdist tragicomedy presents a timely satire on militarism.

Often in Lem's work the effects of a dream are humorous: viz., "The Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines," which details the plight of a crass, dull-witted monarch called Zipperupus who gets lost and then permanently immured in a box of dreams constructed by his archenemy Subtillion. This story occurs in The Cyberiad …, the only mock epic of note in Polish literature since Adam Mickiewicz's celebrated Pan Tadeusz. These fairy tales of the cybernetic age (which are linked by the figures of their robot heroes. Trurl and Klapaucius) reveal the author's capacity for linguistic invention and improvisation. He coins hundreds of grotesque neologisms and nonsense words (reminiscent of Edward Lear, whose influence is also apparent in Lem's own illustrations to The Star Diaries). The stories' fantastic wit depends to a large extent on the combination of diverse linguistic and stylistic levels. Archaic and dialectal language occurs cheek by jowl with scientific jargon, occasionally presented in Latin (the legacy of the Polish Baroque) and officialese (the unhappy influence of modern bureaucratic stultification); poetic diction merges with prosaic colloquialisms. (pp. 550-51)

One of Lem's most consistent themes has been the absurdity of utopian dreams about the future. In a society deprived of conflict, stress and danger man loses his capacity for moral commitment and self-assertion. The ingenious and well-intentioned robots Trurl and Klapaucius often try to assert their miraculous powers of scientific invention and improvisation upon an unenlightened universe of men and other robots. The results are usually farcical, if not downright tragic. (p. 551)

The way of the future does not lie in tampering with human nature; Lem's comedy implies a stern warning. A Futurological Congress … eloquently reveals the author's trepidations about future generations' capacity to deal with the problems of an even more distant future. The notion of an academic reunion—like the annual MLA meeting—here initiates a grotesque farce with serious overtones. Initially Lem satirizes the pompousness and sterility of academic gamesmanship…. The satire ridicules movements that advocate "liberation" through drugs and sex; academia, luxury hotels, the military and the medical profession also get some hard knocks in this very funny novel. Brave New World motifs dominate the most didactic section of the book (which also happens to be esthetically the least satisfactory). Miraculously transported into a future epoch, the narrator Ijon Tichy awakens in what appears to be an affluent, highly developed civilization. The population is living under an illusion: a small elite group has palliated the reality of miserable and sordid living conditions by placing hallucinogens in the water supply.

The implications of Lem's cosmology are clearly pessimistic. Man, despite, or perhaps because of, his technological achievements, remains an easy prey to his tyrannically inclined fellows. Machines tend, logically enough, to reflect the defects (or longings) of their inventors, while cosmic phenomena can only be perceived from the limited viewpoint of human understanding. Despite his belief in science (whose terminology, in both serious and parodic form, comprises an integral part of his literary and philosophical idiom), and despite his fascination with the infinite possibilities for expanding our knowledge through space exploration, Lem anticipates that future generations may be deprived of freedom through the very offices of a technology that was supposed to liberate them. By dramatizing the tragic consequences of despotism cum science in the future, he stresses man's ultimate responsibility for his own destiny. In fact, if Lem's space travelers … find adversity and even death during their journeys of exploration, the determining factor is usually human error, not the intervention of alien forces or creatures. In the last analysis, Lem is confronting us with a grotesque but truthful image of ourselves; after all, human nature remains eternally the same.

A final word on Lem's narrative technique: his humorous writing with its surreal guignol effects, should be distinguished from the "straight" fiction, where the emphasis is on plot development. The latter belongs to the same tradition as the historical adventure yarns of Henryk Sienkiewicz…. Sienkiewicz looked to Poland's colorful past for inspiration; Lem looks to an equally exotic space-age future. Sienkiewicz enriched his literary idiom by drawing upon seventeenth-century authors …; Lem, as mentioned above, borrows from these as well as many other linguistic sources, but the predominating element tends to be modern technical jargon (often heavily influenced by English). Both writers are consummate storytellers; by stimulating the reader's curiosity, they induce him to suspend disbelief. Their serious dialogue, however, tends to sound stilted, and their characterizations are for the most part one-dimensional and lacking in psychological depth. (An exception in Lem's case is Solaris with its guilt-ridden narrator and its ambivalent human relationships.)

Because it emphasizes narrative and description rather than character development, "serious" science fiction may be viewed as a quasi-traditional, even retrograde literary genre (while satiric sf clearly derives from the flawed utopias of Cervantes, Voltaire and others in the same tradition). Lem, moreover, betrays an old-fashioned predilection for verbal landscape painting. Whether barren or fertile, Lem's moon-or planetscapes are painted in vivid, graphic colors. Nature in the Cosmos alternately repels and fascinates his prosaic heroes. They record faithfully what they are—they either conquer or are defeated—but there is no time for introspection. (pp. 552-53)

Reuel K. Wilson, "Stanislaw Lem's Fiction and the Cosmic Absurd," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 549-53.

Kurt Vonnegut

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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: "Only kidding, folks." When he predicts that our reason will soon be destroyed by mind-altering chemicals in careless hands (The Futurological Congress …) …, or that, when we venture into space, we will become destroyers of all we cannot understand (The Invincible …) or that our machines will soon be more intelligent and honorable than we are (the theme of tale after tale), he must be kidding, since, as LeGuin says, he is so "zany" all the time. I am moved to suspect now that most of our finest humorists, including Mark Twain, may have been not especially funny people who painstakingly learned their clowning only in order to seem insincere when speaking dismally of the future of mankind….

So we can expect to have many more tremendously amusing writers like Stanislaw Lem. Few will be his peers in poetic exposition, in word play, and imaginative and sophisticated sympathy with machines.

A technical matter to be dealt with here: It is absolutely impossible to write a good story that does not have at least one sane and respectable character in it, someone the reader can trust. Lem gets away with such stories again and again, seemingly but not really, for he himself is never invisible. He himself is that solid character without whose presence we would not read on….

I will guess that he is at his funniest when he has looked so hard and long at hopelessness that he is at last exhausted, and is seized by convulsions of laughter that threaten to tear him to pieces. It was during such a fit that he wrote The Futurological Congress, I am sure…. And anyone wanting to sample Lem, hoping to like him, should probably start with that book. The hotel sheltering the congress is reduced to gravel by rioters and police, and the surviving futurologists wind up with the hotel staff in a sewer.

Laffs aplenty. Why not?

Kurt Vonnegut, "Only Kidding, Folks?" in The Nation (copyright 1978 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CCXXVI, No. 18, May 13, 1978, p. 575.

Joyce Carol Oates

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[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 nevertheless strike solid earth again and continue with the "story" as if it were there all along.

By contrast, Stanislaw Lem has put together a truly Post-Modernist (one might almost say Post-Borgesian) book, a collection of reviews of 16 nonexistent books. One of them is, naturally, a review of "A Perfect Vacuum," in which the somewhat impatient reviewer calls the undertaking a "trick," because the book deals with ungranted wishes—Lem had wanted to write some of these books, in earnest, but dared not, or hadn't the skill, so he writes pseudo-reviews that deal with them in miniature. (p. 7)

A most unusual book! But then again, is it really so unusual? Lem refers explicitly to Borges, as indeed he should, but had he not alluded to Borges (and to Calvino as well) we would nevertheless sense his presence, for his shadow falls darkly … across nearly every page of "A Perfect Vacuum." But where Borges's ingenuity is saved from meretriciousness by the master's quick, deft, poetic style and the brevity of his fictions, Stanislaw Lem draws out each of his jokes laboriously, so that the reader, forced to read synopses of fatuous books, wonders (as readers of reviews assurdedly should not) whether it might be easier to read the books themselves. And then Lem's reviewers are not sufficiently cranky, or wrong-headed, or astute, to make us care about their opinions on these nonexistent books.

A second reading convinced me, as the reviewer of "A Perfect Vacuum" hints in "A Perfect Vacuum," that the book really originated as a series of speculative pieces, perhaps even embryonic novels, that Lem did not feel like writing, for the pièce de résistance of the book (the phrase is Lem's reviewer's) "The New Cosmogony" is quite straightforward, and would have made a competent science-fiction novel (though it bears a close kinship to Arthur C. Clarke's "2001"); and the Huxleyan satires, mordaciously amusing, cry out for development. These satires, particularly "Sexplosion," which deals with the Crash of 1998, when the public suddenly rejects the sex-saturated consumer society, and sex itself, and turns to gluttony, are the most successful pieces in "A Perfect Vacuum." The lengthy parody of Joycean literary criticism will strike an American reader as outdated, and the speculative review-essays, in which "philosophical" propositions of the sort customarily debated in freshman philosophy classes are developed at staggering length, will seem self-indulgent.

But Lem is intermittently funny, and while "A Perfect Vacuum" isn't perfect, what is? (p. 40)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Post-Borgesian," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1979, pp. 7, 40.

John Updike

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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 lengthy descriptions of the previous victims, a list that has its own statistical fascination, and the gloomy charm of all raw information…. Lem's novel, in which little more than information-processing occurs for over ninety pages, abruptly redeems itself, as thriller and dissertation both, with a stunningly persuasive account of our hero's descent into drug induced madness…. Only a mind habituated to seeing the human mind from the outside, as a chemical and electrical machine, could evoke derangement with such cool clarity. Under the glare of his violent "psychotropic reaction," John's normal emotions and metaphysics—his humanity, in short—seem pathetically fragile epiphenomena. The moral of the novel I take to be: "Mankind has multiplied to such an extent that now it's starting to be governed by atomic laws." In our "dense world of random chance," "common sense isn't worth a damn." Improbabilities are all subjective, and everything sooner or later is bound to happen…. (pp. 115-16)

For all its cruel mathematics, Lem's world, in my acquaintance with it, lacks the sense of desolation, of final dwarfing, that much science fiction, from Wells to Borges, conveys. Rather, his naturally sanguine temperament, or his love of sheer compilation (reflected here in his thoroughly worked-out portraits of the numerous middle-aged victims of "The Chain of Chance"), or the selfless enthusiasm long ascribed to the scientific-minded communicates an Olympian playfulness. His heroes may be, as Theodore Solotaroff has said, "loners virtually to a man," but they don't seem to feel alone, to taste solitude. (p. 116)

[Lem leads] us to think about social contact, about society and sanity. Experiments in isolation rapidly induce sensations of insanity; we take our bearings, daily, from others. To be sane is, to a great extent, to be sociable. Those victims of random chemistry in "The Chain of Chance" who survive are those who are not travelling alone, and whose behavior receives prompt social check. (p. 120)

John Updike, "Lem and Pym," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 2, February 26, 1979, pp. 115-21.

Stephen W. Potts

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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 reviews, and a couple fail altogether—such as Pericalypsis, which merely sets forth a scheme for saving culture from itself by punishing anyone who creates or invents—the format allows Lem to discuss at length the concepts that inform his fiction, making the book particularly useful to those already familiar with his work. But even those unfamiliar with Lem should find his speculations drolly fascinating, and his parodies well aimed…. The whole is a triumph of whimsical genius.

Stephen W. Potts, "Fiction: 'A Perfect Vacuum'," in Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review (copyright © 1979 by The Borgo Press), Vol. 1, No. 5, June, 1979, p. 60.

Gerald Jonas

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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 such a way that the reader feels he is being dared to solve the mystery before Pirx does. Pirx does indeed solve each mystery—but the key is always a scientific fact or some "glitch" in the hardware that the reader could not reasonably be expected to know about. If the reader feels cheated, that is precisely the reaction Mr. Lem is aiming for. The problems facing Pirx are not amenable to purely rational analysis, even when Pirx believes they are. In short, man's creations are not to be trusted. (pp. 7, 33)

Linked together in the struggle against an implacable universe, flesh and metal, man and tool have somehow merged [in the book's final story]. The result is more terrifying than reassuring. If this is where the struggle inevitably leads, should we pull back now? Pirx clearly thinks not. For Mr. Lem's further thoughts on the subject, the interested reader will want to consult his larger oeuvre. (p. 33)

Gerald Jonas, "Looking for the Glitch," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1980, pp. 7, 33.

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Lem, Stanislaw (Vol. 8)