Stanislaw Lem Lem, Stanislaw (Vol. 8) - Essay

Lem, Stanislaw (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lem, Stanislaw 1921–

Polish science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer, Lem has been called a genius, a titan of Eastern European literature. He is one of the few writers of science fiction to have transcended the limitations of the genre, gaining international recognition. In his fiction Lem welds a wildly comic imagination to a darkly surrealistic vision of life. 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.

Solaris is a strange and fascinating exploration of memory and reality, a story about events on a space station hovering over a bizarre ocean that covers a distant planet…. [Lem's] Invincible … exhibits the emotional range of man's dedication to science and exploration, a range from curiosity to courage to a thirst for vengeance; the story is about an expedition to discover what catastrophe (or enemy) destroyed the men of an earlier expedition. Lem's talent is for the sensitive and sensuously precise rendering of the mind's struggle to understand an unimaginably alien reality. His spacemen remain men; their equipment finally matters less than the emotions, imaginings, ideas, commitments they can muster. Cyberiad … is quite different, short pieces in classic fairy-tale, moral-fable form, though with machines and their constructors as heroes and with feats of engineering and computer science as their plots. The poetry writing machine and the machine that can create anything that begins with the letter "n" are curious inspirations wonderfully conducted…. [The] tales provoke thought and laughter in equal and ample measure. (p. 489)

Donald Marshall, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 3, 1976.

Stanislaw Lem is a Polish writer of science fiction in both traditional and original modes…. [His] books sell in the millions, and he is regarded as a giant not only of science fiction but also of Eastern European literature—as well he should be. Lem is both a polymath and a virtuoso storyteller and stylist. Put them together and they add up to genius.

Lem's marriage of imagination and science creates various intricate worlds. Some are just around an indeterminate corner from our everyday one; some are just beyond the horizons of our own space age; some are far distant, parabolic extrapolations of the folklore of the past into a legendary future of statistical dragons and microminiature kingdoms, of psychedelic utopias that mask universal suffering, of autobionic mortals who persecute monotheistic robots—as though the tutelary spirit of Lem's fantasy were a mingling of Jonathan Swift and Norbert Weiner….

[He] has been steadily producing fiction that follows the arcs and depths of his learning and a bewildering labyrinth of moods and attitudes. Like his protagonists, loners virtually to a man, his fiction seems at a distance from the daily cares and passions, and conveys the sense of a mind hovering above the boundaries of the human condition: now mordant, now droll, now arcane, now folksy, now skeptical, now haunted and always paradoxical. Yet his imagination is so powerful and pure that no matter what world he creates it is immediately convincing because of its concreteness and plentitude, the intimacy and authority with which it is occupied.

If there is any dominant emotional coloring to Lem's vision it is the dark surreal comedy that has flourished in this century in Eastern Europe, the principal charnel house and social laboratory of the modern age. (Indeed, Eastern European history seems like a scenario for science fiction in which a peaceable pastoral planet with centers of high culture is repeatedly invaded by lethal, authoritarian robots.) What gives Lem's writing its regional signature is its easy way with the grotesque—as in the corpse with a rose behind his ear, the stonefaced bureaucratic chief with a wink-like tic, the community that is inanely proud of the cement factory that is destroying their environment and lungs, and so on throughout the postwar literature and films of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. (p. 1)

[A] clarity and richness of detail pervades Lem's accounts of [the] far-fetched worlds [in "Solaris" and "The Invincible"], so that they become in time just as credible and coherent in their strangeness as, say, Thomas Mann's biblical Egypt or Nabokov's Terra. Further, the behavior of the beleaguered earthmen is so finely attuned to their characters, particularly in "Solaris," and so powerfully dramatized that we believe in their experience because of the depth at which it is perceived and suffered. These books are not just told, they are imposed—minutely, completely and irrevocably. (p. 14)

Lem, in his characteristic way, works out the situation [in "The Investigation"] by carrying it to a deeper level of enigma than the one on which it began. His science fiction and mystery novels are renovations of genres, much like Fowles's "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which exploit their conventions to uncover what they conceal: the problematic universe that underlies their assurances and any others. (p. 15)

One can read "Memoir Found in a Bathtub" as a spy novel that takes its conventional involutions to absurdity, as a cold war satire, or as another Lemian experiment with his Möbius strip of randomness and design. But in its dizzying depths … lurks the dark side of Lem's paradoxical attitude toward the man-machine relationship that dominates his fiction. Is Pentagon III a perversion of humanity produced by the further evolution of computer technology? Or is this evolution being perverted by the uses to which human folly puts it? And beyond this lies the further problem that humanity and technology are locked into a symbiotic relationship that progressively amplifies its consequences of good and evil….

Lem's queasiness is not simply that of an old-fashioned humanist. Some of his most inspired and charming writing is produced by his feeling for the interchanges and interfaces of humanity and technology. This writing comes mainly in an original form that Lem has been developing for the past 20 years, best described as the futurist folktale…. (p. 16)

A few of the stories at the beginning of "The Cyberiad" are a bit coy, but they grow in power and implication and culminate in an extraordinary series, "The Tale of Three Story Telling Machines," including the Beckett-like story of "Mymosh the Self-Begotten," who comes together by pure accident on a cosmic junkpile of tin cans, wire, mica and "a hunk of rusty iron which happened to be a magnet." Mymosh is immobilized by further accidents and, since his only reality is his thoughts, he uses them to create a "Gozmos … a place of caprice and miracles."

In much the same spirit, "The Star Diaries" relates the adventures of Ijon Tichy, who in his one-man space ship goes whizzing around a universe that seems about the size of Poland. By and large, Lem seems to use these stories to satirize and parody the interests and themes of his darker books; thus there is a lot of horseplay about pseudo-scientific space- and time-travel, about the folly of an anthropocentric view of the universe, about the habitual tendency of mankind to abuse its technology. In Tichy's cosmos, as he reports, robots have a "natural decency" and "only man can be a bastard." Also, perhaps because he is writing in a comic way, Lem feels freer to play with Iron Curtain satire, as in Tichy's encounter with a planet that coerces all of its citizens to believe that water is their natural element and to behave accordingly. When an editor makes the mistake of writing that water is wet, he is purged. "You have to look at it from the fish's point of view," he confesses to Tichy. "Fish do not find water wet—ergo, it isn't."

The major story in "The Star Diaries" deals with robot theologians who are forced to live in catacombs because they insist in maintaining a religious faith that their mortal masters have long since abandoned in their delight in changing into whatever forms science enables them to assume. The theology of the monks proceeds from the paradox that "faith is, at one and the same time, absolutely necessary and altogether impossible." In the pages of explication and argument that follow, as subtle and precise as Lem's account in "Solaris" of the history of "Solaristics" (which also terminates in a purely religious conception of the "sea"), there is plenty of reason to believe that Lem is enunciating the grounds of his own faith. It is a faith that proceeds and returns to the indeterminacy of all that surrounds and retreats from the structure of human consciousness. This indeterminacy is God. Without it there is only a treacherous eschatology of freedom, of which the autobionic mortals are grisly examples. God is the mind's necessary constraint.

In these pages, among the most fascinating that Lem has written, possibly lies his resolution of the central paradox of cybernetic man and his future. But read Lem for yourself. He is a major writer and one of the deep spirits of our age. (pp. 18-19)

Theodore Solotaroff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 29, 1976.

Mortal Engines … shows [Lem] mainly in a jovial mood, as a light-hearted would-be La Fontaine of the cybernetic age…. There are several stories which insist on the shiftiness, vengefulness, and general nastiness of human beings, who thus take on the mean, imperialist role which used to be assigned to Martians and Venusians and the like in Fifties science fiction. This is a worthy enough revision, but it has become a standard gesture in recent science fiction, and good science fiction, in any case, has always known it was us and not them who caused trouble, indeed has always known that they could not be anything other than versions of ourselves, mirrors of our favorite fears and wishes.

Lem's special field, the theme which brings out his most vivid writing, is the puzzled relation between men and robots. And even here vivid is perhaps not the word. It is impossible to judge the texture of prose in translation, and Polish is no doubt fiercely difficult to render in English, but even apart from the tiresome and insistent whimsy, there does seem to be a jerkiness in Lem's writing, an unsteadiness of focus or of inspiration, which is probably more a quality of mind than an accident of style or the casualty of travel between languages. Fine touches are constantly dissipated by a manner which simply marks time and misses chances. (pp. 36-7)

Nevertheless, Lem has interesting things to say about men and robots. In "The Hunt," a man out to catch a robot gone berserk begins to feel a kinship with it, because he can guess its movements, and because for a moment he pretends to be its ally rather than its pursuer. He destroys the robot and accomplishes his mission, but is haunted by the sense that he has done away with a creature who was more his fellow than most of his fellow men—than the people who shot at him by mistake, for example, and against whom the robot actually defended him….

What is attractive in Lem is his view of humanity not as a matter of organic life or biological development, but as a matter of freedom—even if it is a freedom we may not in fact be able to exercise…. We are brethren whenever there are even flickers of freedom, and the political implications of this view, in the work of a writer who lives in Poland, are clear…. Lem seems to feel that reality is … a system of betrayals, and in an interesting displacement of his concern from politics to metaphysics, it is the universe, not the world, which comes under attack: "this state of things that merits only derision and regret, called the Universe." (p. 37)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), May 12, 1977.

Throughout his accounts of his adventures, the disparities between what [the central characer of The Star Diaries] Ijon Tichy is, what he says he is, what he says the universe is and what we know it to be provide scintillating humor and entertainment while at the same time subtly hinting at how time- and space-bound we all are in our imaginations.

The other half of Lem's oeuvre is quite unlike these works. It appeals to lovers of science fiction and, because of its superior quality, has won a large following. The most admired, Solaris (1961), explores in an artful way the difficulties—and ultimately the impossibility—of man's establishing communication with a "sentient ocean," a one-celled organism that is found to cover the entire surface of a distant planet, about the size of the earth, to a depth of several miles. This is quite an impressive and original novel, one which may serve as the epitome of the science fiction genre for some time. (p. 465)

The Star Diaries belongs to that half of Lem's work devoted to humor, satire and parody, most of which is directed at the pettiness and vanity concealed within the motives behind human endeavors of all magnitudes…. [These works] are all rich in hyperbole, fantasy, humor and wordplay….

Tom J. Lewis, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977.