June 1978. A boy and his grandmother travelled on the A train to the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle. She was a trustee of the Queensboro Public Library, with comp tickets for a regional conference of the American Library Association; he was a 15-year-old science fiction fan.
The convention hall’s exhibition booths featured lots of plastic slipcovers and display racks, as well as tables full of books from publishers that relied on library sales. That’s to say, a lot of reference books, a lot of speciality non-fiction, and a dearth of science fiction. But the boy’s antennae were good. At the booth of the Seabury Press (a publishing division of the Episcopalian Church) he spotted four anomalous hardcovers, all by an author with a peculiar name: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, The Futurological Congress, The Invincible and The Cyberiad. Two – Invincible and Memoirs – had covers easily recognisable as ‘SF art’. The jackets were designed by Richard Powers, whose unmistakable paintings were usually found on Ballantine mass-market paperbacks by Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Clifford Simak and others. Powers’s designs screamed of the ‘paraliterary’, of druggy, trippy, sci-fi – just the boy’s cup of tea. The other two dust jackets – for The Futurological Congress and The Cyberiad – were more restrained, looking like European art-house fiction. Congress featured a drawing by Paul Klee. The boy wasn’t fooled: the crazy titles of the two books with ‘tasteful’ covers were enticing enough.
‘Will you buy me these?’
His grandmother scowled. It was not enough that the boy be bookish: he should be the right kind of bookish. ‘All four?’
With an arched eyebrow, she purchased the display copies. I write this with those same four Seabury hardcovers on the desk beside me.
Shouldn’t I be just the person for a centenary piece on Stanisław Lem? Novelist and philosopher of technology, author of ‘Solaris’ and scores of novels, stories and essays, one of the great figures in Polish literature, the greatest non-English-language science fiction writer between Jules Verne and Cixin Liu, born a hundred years ago … The trouble – beyond the fact that I’ve dawdled beyond that anniversary – is, well, everything. All the unstated premises, all the undefined terms (especially ‘science fiction’). As my grandmother would put it, I know bupkis about Polish literature. But, having read Lem all my life – or, more precisely, boasted all my life of having read Lem, since I actually gobbled up the books in a mad spate in my youth – I wanted to jump aboard the centenary train. First, I told myself, I’d read or reread ‘all of Lem’.
Icouldn’t. Lem’s first, non-SF novel, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, written in the late 1940s and depicting a young doctor’s wartime internship in a psychiatric hospital, was translated in 1988. But his earliest SF novels, Man from Mars and The Astronauts, weren’t. Lem dismissed them as mutilated by a subservience to Soviet ideology. So his career in English begins with two novels published in Poland in 1959. His turn to science fiction was in the spirit of other Iron Curtain figures who slipped below the censor’s radar by using forms regarded as unserious, like animated film. Some books from Lem’s later period, and innumerable essays, remain untranslated. I couldn’t read On Site Inspection or Provocation – such tantalising titles! – unless I learned Polish.
As a teenager I was oblivious to the matter of translation. I’ve come around. My sister and my partner are both literary translators; my first editor was Stanisław Lem’s translator. At some point I learned that Solaris hadn’t been translated directly into English, but from a Polish-to-French translation, with a result Lem described as ‘drastic’ – a beautiful irony for a book that takes as its subject the impossibility of meaningful contact between alien species. Perhaps I should wonder: had I read Lem at all?
Anyhow, Lem was incommensurable – to SF, to literature, to himself. He was so many different writers – five, at least. I had too much to read. I risked missing the centenary in mute tribute.
The first Lem is the author of Eden (1959), Solaris (1961), Return from the Stars (1961), The Invincible (1964), Fiasco (1986) and innumerable short stories about an interstellar navigator called Pirx. That’s to say, a 20th-century ‘Hard SF’ writer, one with visionary gifts and inexhaustible diligence when it came to the task of ‘extrapolation’.
Hard SF is the tradition originating not in Mary Shelley’s gothic Frankenstein but rather in H.G. Wells’s technological prognostications. The Hard SF tradition likes Jules Verne, the predictor of submarines and holograms, but frowns at his fanciful plots. Standardised in the mid-century US, in Astounding magazine, edited by John W. Campbell, Hard SF advertises consumer goods like personal robots and flying cars. It valorises space travel that culminates in successful (if difficult) contact with the alien life assumed to be strewn throughout the galaxies, and glows with a self-ratifying ‘Sense of Wonder’. This movement, exemplified by names like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, SF’s sturdy dead-white-guy canon, is where a fascination with technology and the future became mashed up with American exceptionalist ideology: technocratic triumphalism, Manifest Destiny, libertarian survivalist bullshit. Hard SF fuelled both the Cold War space race and Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ dream. As Adam Curtis showed in the BBC series Pandora’s Box (1992), the notion of defensive missiles in space was whispered into the cowboy actor’s ear by two leading conservative Hard SF writers of the 1980s, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
‘Extrapolation’ may be a purer ideal. The term is imported from mathematics: a writer, keenly observing the world around them, can measure its trends and implications, then offer persuasive suppositions about what comes next. Yet, like multi-tasking or Tantric sex, extrapolation is easier to name than it is to find examples of people really doing it, or doing it well. A few, like Philip K. Dick, seem cursed to endure it as an abreactive symptom, a cry of protest at living through the 20th century. Lem belongs in that company of SF writers – Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Kim Stanley Robinson – who have practised intentional extrapolation with regular and sustained success.
Is prescience the measure of SF as an art? An attractive truism says that the best writing about the future is a lens for apprehending the present: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is an X-ray of 1948, and so forth. Lem himself, in an interview, pointed out that Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ isn’t better than The Castle for having come true. Then again, perhaps these two things are really one: to bring oneself to see the present is to see the future. Lem – as he was never above bragging – was a ridiculously good predictor.
Lem One also resembles a Hard SF writer in his consuming fascination with space travel and the idea of ‘first contact’, and in his celebration of the figures of the astronaut, inventor, explorer: worlds of bravery and sacrifice, of masculinity. Lem’s spaceships are as devoid of women as Melville’s whaling ships; in the important exception, Solaris, a ‘human’ woman is conjured for the protagonist by an alien intelligence. Lem shares Hard SF’s bottomless appetite for descriptions of imaginary landscapes and non-existent machines, and its intoxication with dwarfing scale: light years, aeons, quadrillions.
Lem also wrote fairy tales and folk tales of the future, phantasmagorical satires, allegories of 20th-century alienation, and stories of horror of the cosmic or existential variety, evoking Poe and Lovecraft. Call him Lem Two. His many books include The Cyberiad, a cycle of techno-fables which many, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Lem’s most crucial English translator, Michael Kandel, claim as their favourite, and the paranoid-picaresque novels Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and The Futurological Congress, which as a teenage reader I made my talismans.
The preoccupations of Lem Two resemble those of Lem One. The iconography: robots, scientists, inventors, space travel, impossible aliens. There’s even a funhouse mirror version of Pirx the Pilot, a droll and resilient voyager through absurdist futures called Ijon Tichy. Like Pirx, Tichy features in enough short stories to fill two collections; the characters are the protagonists in Lem’s last two full-length novels. Lem Two’s themes are similar as well. Loosely, these are the inadequacy of our species’ collective intelligence in the face of our irrational animal natures; in the face of our own proliferating and increasingly autonomous inventions; and in the face of a genuinely alien Other. In Lem’s view, faced with this triple threat, we slump into the defensive use of reductive ideologies and superstitions, into anthropomorphic projection and solipsistic withdrawal, and, ultimately, into nihilism, cruelty and nervous breakdown.
In another sense, the second Lem is the opposite of the first. The first exalts realistic science, regards the future seriously as a destination our species will have to endure, and sneers at fantasy and exaggeration; the second makes every and any SF gesture fodder for metaphor, allegory and surrealist ‘defamiliarisation’, while mixing spaceships and aliens with kings and queens, dragons and monsters. The second Lem sometimes resembles the Italo Calvino of t zero and Cosmicomics, in whom SF riffs are completely subsumed in metaphor. Elsewhere, Lem Two seems to glance back to Swift, Voltaire and Gogol, or sideways to Borges and Pynchon. These are names the SF tradition has often used to decorate its wrong-side-of-the-tracks clubhouse. Yet those writers would be bewildered at the clannish rituals and arcane litmus tests typical of the genre.
Lem Three wrote just two novels, yet he could easily be, on the right day, one’s favourite. The Investigation (1959) and The Chain of Chance (1976) are ontological whodunnits, both centring on mysterious sequences of crimes whose only plausible suspect appears to be the universe itself. Their cases resolve divergently (I’m avoiding spoilers), but together form a rebuke to generic expectation, a dialectic on our urge to frame and solve mysteries in the first place.
The Investigation, written by a brilliant young man who at that point had probably never left Poland, is set in England and reads like a throwback to Conan Doyle and Chesterton. Chain of Chance, written fifteen years later by a worldly author who had dabbled in global culture and whose books had succeeded in the West, is Lem’s best pass at a contemporary novel of the 1970s. It was praised in the New Yorker by John Updike, who noted that Lem’s ‘sanguine temperament’ mellowed the ‘cruel mathematics’ of his worldview. Updike singled out a hallucinatory sequence in which the investigator is psychotropically poisoned: ‘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.’For these two books alone, with their remorseless reworking of what human ‘investigation’ consists of, Lem could be remembered.
Lem Four is the pure postmodernist who unified his essayistic and fictional selves with a Borgesian or Nabokovian gesture. A Perfect Vacuum (1971), Imaginary Magnitude (1973) and One Human Minute (1983) comprise reviews and forewords to non-existent books. Most of them are scientific treatises full of misanthropic fulminations, with titles like ‘The World as Cataclysm’ and ‘Civilisation as a Mistake’ and ‘On the Impossibility of Life’. One, ‘A Perfect Vacuum’, reviews the book in which it appears. These satirical miniatures somersault over every trap. The reader benefits from Lem’s obvious delight and relief at dispensing with fiction’s theatrical mechanics. What’s left is the ventriloquised voice of the scholars and autodidacts who’ve written the imaginary books, Lem’s Kinbotes and Pierre Menards. Lem Four is a kind of magic act.
Lem Five ? He’s another major figure: prolific essayist, futurist and literary critic. A supreme armchair anythingist, he shows no hesitation in dismissing Hegel (‘a complete idiot’), Gravity’s Rainbow (‘an utterly demented dud’), or Buddhism (‘the terrifying anachronism of their teachings and instructions’).
His Summa Technologiae, a torrential magnum opus of futurism and speculative philosophy, written in his miraculous years between 1961 and 1964, was finally published in English in 2013. Sections like ‘Prolegomena to Omnipotence’ and ‘A Lampoon of Evolution’, and chapters headed ‘The Dangers of Electocracy’ and ‘Cyborgisation’, announce a cascade of insights and speculations. The book manages to anticipate or pre-empt, among others, Donna Haraway, Richard Dawkins, Timothy Morton and whole shelves of cyberpunk fiction and object-oriented ontology. Lem should have been recognised as a great futurologist, though the book’s density and dry wit would never have sold like Buckminster Fuller or Alvin Toffler. He could also be seen as one of the founders of media studies. Proud and anxious about what he’d achieved, Lem was demoralised by the book’s lack of reach, and the dearth of translations. He revised and expanded it for a decade, then defended its prognostications in ‘Twenty Years Later’ and ‘Thirty Years Later’. He wouldn’t live to see it appear in English.
Lem-the-seer is exasperated, eccentrically lyrical and permanently fresh. One has only to dip into the chapter called ‘Phantomatics’ to see that in 1964 Lem had already grasped more of the implications of virtual reality – of ‘Meta’ – than Mark Zuckerberg ever will. On the one hand, the inadequacies of the VR user’s imagination ensure that one is destined to be patronised and infantilised by one’s own devices:
Put briefly, the more the character one wishes to impersonate differs in personality traits and historical period from his own, the more fictitious, naive or even primitive his behaviour and the whole vision will be. Because, to be crowned a king or receive the pope’s emissaries, one has to be familiar with the whole court protocol. The persons created by the phantomat can pretend that they cannot see the idiotic behaviour of the ermine-clad national bank clerk, and thus his own pleasure will perhaps not diminish as a result of his mistakes, but we can clearly see that this whole situation is steeped in triviality and buffoonery. This is why it will be very hard for phantomatics to develop into a mature dramatic form.
Conversely, the feedback loop created by machines programmed to grow better and better at fooling you will rapidly spiral into narcissistic breakdown:
Psychiatrists would still see various neurotics in their waiting rooms, haunted by obsessions of a new type – the fear that what they are experiencing is not true at all and that they have become ‘trapped’ in a ‘phantomatic world’. I mention this point because it clearly indicates how technology not only shapes normal consciousness but also makes its way onto the list of diseases and disorders whose emergence it initiates.
Lem goes on to speculate that the endgame, as the illusion-matrix perfects itself, might force users into a logical trap in which the only person they could trust for authentication would be themselves, since any given friend – or lover, or psychiatrist – could actually be a seamlessly rendered product of the phantomat, and therefore under the guidance of one’s enemy (or, more banally, they might simply be an advertisement for something). In fact, this neatly allegorises the condition of social media, even before one puts on the goggles and gloves. What is sometimes called ‘siloing’ may be cultivating a vast collective experience of paranoid solipsism, a suspicion of the inauthenticity of anyone but ourselves. We imagine we free ourselves from it when we step back from our screens, yet its code has rewritten our outer reality.
The other place the non-fiction Lem is on view in English is in Microworlds (1984), a collection of essays, including the ones that got Lem kicked out of the Science Fiction Writers of America. It features pieces praising Borges, Gogol and Kafka, alongside snapshots of his disappointment with American SF. The disappointment – his disdain – was vast. It was planetary. One essay is titled ‘Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case, with Exceptions’; another, ‘Philip K. Dick: A Visionary among the Charlatans’. When these, along with another essay, not collected in the book, with the even blunter title ‘Looking Down on Science Fiction: A Novelist’s Choice for the World’s Worst Writing’, were circulated among SFWA members, the resulting tempest was very revealing.
From my teens well into my twenties, I identified strongly – too strongly? – with Stanisław Lem. Lems One through Four had blown my mind (I hadn’t encountered Five), and the fact that they were all one writer had inspired my hope that I too could straddle modes and worlds. I liked his name, and that my own surname was an anagram of ‘The Lem’; I liked the fact that I’d be near him on the bookshelves (we’d be in sequence with Le Guin and Lessing) – if only I could get published. When my first novel was finally picked up, its editor was Michael Kandel. When my agent began to explain Kandel’s somewhat marginal status as the editor of a non-existent SF list at Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, I interrupted to say: ‘That’s Stanisław Lem’s translator!’ The science fiction page in the HBJ catalogue featuring my book had only two other authors on it: Lem and Calvino. Kandel told me stories of Lem zipping around Vienna in his lemon yellow sports car. Heaven.
Once I was on my way, I unashamedly plundered a hallucinatory set-piece from The Futurological Congress in my third novel, As She Climbed across the Table. And I talked about Lem constantly. He was part of a litany for me, ‘international fabulators’ whose work I’d recite at the drop of a hat: Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe, Angela Carter (and behind them Kafka and Borges). These weren’t the only writers I admired, or aped. But I felt that just invoking their names legitimated the kinds of thing I was trying to do.
The limits of this identification were obvious. I lacked Lem’s sheer cognition. He came from Polish physicians; I came from American hippies. I liked other SF writers more than he did, though when I finally came across his disparaging essays it helped confirm (as did my exposure to creative writing instruction at college) that I should consider this a shameful appetite.
Better to align myself with the fabulators. There was a problem, however. One of the writers in my litany was not like the others. Cortázar wasn’t interested in rockets and robots, Carter ignored astronauts, and though Calvino sometimes wrote about particle physics, he made no claims for his futurological prowess. Abe wasn’t, as Lem’s Cyberiad dust jacket bragged, ‘co-founder of the Polish Astronautical Society’, nor did he serve ‘on the advisory board of the Science Fiction Research Association of the College of Wooster, Ohio’. And the others weren’t members of Science Fiction Writers of America.
‘SFWA has just offered me a choice of memberships, honorary or regular,’ Lem wrote to Kandel in 1973. ‘A delicate matter, when all is said and done, since they are a club of morons.’ In another letter, his tone was self-pitying: ‘The fact that SF exists, and the fact that it “sucks into itself” what I write, harms my career, of course.’ Amid a hail of confused accusations, Lem was ejected from SFWA in 1976. In defence of the clan, Philip K. Dick shifted into high paranoiac gear. Demonstrating an unattractive readiness to collaborate with the authorities he most feared, he denounced Lem in a letter to the FBI:
Stanisław Lem in Krakow, Poland, himself a total Party functionary (I know this from his published writing and personal letters to me and to other people). For an Iron Curtain Party group – Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual, since he writes in several styles and sometimes reads foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not – to gain monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas.
Thomas Disch, one of SF’s finest writers and most merciless critics, was more able to keep his cool.
The fatuity and self-serving nature of Lem’s pronouncements on the field of SF are matched only by the slenderness of the reading on which they are based … Most of the titles he cites are by those writers of the 1940s and 1950s – Asimov, Van Vogt, Heinlein, Bradbury – whose appeal is essentially to a juvenile audience. Taxed with having dismissed American SF as a ‘hopeless case’ without having read its best authors, Lem … shifts the blame from himself to criticism in general, which has failed to establish a canon.
That his brusque dismissal of American SF touched a collective nerve only entrenched Lem’s standing belief that, as Kurt Vonnegut put it: ‘Science fiction writers meet often, comfort and praise one another, exchange single-spaced letters of twenty pages or more, booze it up affectionately … They are joiners. They are a lodge.’ Vonnegut, too, was glancing backwards. By the 1970s SF was diversifying wildly out of the (white man’s) lodge, incorporating sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. The field began, fitfully, to mate with other countercultures and genres – including that most sacred of genres, the ‘literary’.
Some of this even had to do with Lem. Ursula Le Guin and Theodore Sturgeon had endorsed him; a spirit of internationalism had led to the SFWA invitation in the first place. A younger writer like Bruce Sterling, a founder of the cyberpunk movement and very much part of this next wave of possibility for the genre, could afford to view the tiff with comic detachment:
Lem was surgically excised from the bosom of American SF back in 1976. Since then plenty of other writers have quit SFWA, but those flung out for the crime of being a commie rat-bastard have remained remarkably few … Recently a collection of Lem’s critical essays, Microworlds, has appeared in paperback. For those of us not privy to the squabble these essays caused in the 1970s, it makes some eye-opening reading. Lem compares himself to Crusoe, stating (accurately) that he had to erect his entire structure of ‘science fiction’ essentially from scratch. He did have the ancient shipwrecked hulls of Wells and Stapledon at hand, but he raided them for tools years ago … These essays are the work of a lonely man.
Sterling himself is Lem-like, capable of awesome feats of sustained extrapolation, but relatively uninterested in depicting individual human subjects. Plainly an admirer, he still can’t stop poking the bear: ‘Lem’s mind was clearly blown by reading Dick, and he struggles to find some underlying Weltanschauung that would reduce Dick’s ontological raving to a coherent floor plan. It’s a doomed effort, full of condescension and confusion, like a ballet-master analysing James Brown.’
Sterling’s basic insight is on target. Alone in Poland, Lem seems to have guessed at what a serious fiction based on technological speculation would look like, and willed himself to equal it. He extrapolated, in other words, from the examples of Wells and Stapledon. What he finally read, after delays in translation, struck him as puerile. The second half of his writing life was spent in anger and disappointment at the SFWA crowd, and in an attempt to exalt himself above it.
Really, Lem should have had his mind blown not only by Philip K. Dick, but by Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand, by Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, by Octavia Butler and Afrofuturism, by Sterling and cyberpunk, by Kim Stanley Robinson and so many others. He lived long enough that he could have seen how Carter Scholz, in Radiance, marries a Lemian satire of Cold War militaristic capitalism to the architecture of a William Gaddis novel, or how Ted Chiang’s brainy novellas crystallise Lemian themes of metacognition and first contact.
Such encounters might have challenged Lem’s biases. They might also have pushed him to confront the limits of his experience, evident in his retrograde thinking on women, queerness, race. But you can’t force older writers to read younger ones. In a fond and erudite introduction to a new gathering of Lem’s tales, The Truth and Other Stories, Kim Stanley Robinson suggests it may have been a ‘willed blindness’:
Possibly he enjoyed the feeling of working alone, as many artists do, especially when they are working in a genre with an intense group dynamic that is best avoided, a genre also despised by mainstream culture. Best then to find or invent your island … Thus Lem’s own work helped to make a change in Western culture that he himself could not see.
Lem was as skilled at the construction of his lonely island as he was at the construction of unseen worlds. From another letter to Kandel: ‘Lem’s Three Laws proclaim 1) nobody reads anything; 2) if they read, they don’t understand anything; 3) if they read and understand, they instantly forget.’ The letter is dated February 1978, four months before I visited the New York Coliseum with my grandmother.
In Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari introduce a notion of ‘minority’. Their description centres on ‘deterritorialisation’: a marginality in relation to the dominant language or culture. Kafka, a Czech Jew writing in German, was the very picture of deterritorialisation. From this, according to Deleuze and Guattari, sprang a sensibility which ceaselessly questioned power, the script running beneath the everyday.
Lem was born a Polish Jew in Lviv, a town which just three years before his birth had been part of the Austro-Hungarian state of Galicia, and so close to Ukraine that it was destined, after some border wrangling, to be Ukrainian.He lived through the convulsions Kafka skirted by his early death. The brutality of Nazi occupation, the death camps, the succession of openly murderous fascism by the Soviet bloc’s social and ideological controls: they all shaped Lem. He smuggles into His Master’s Voice his own experiences in Lviv’s prison pogrom of July 1941:
He was pulled off the street, a random pedestrian. They were shooting people in groups, in the yard of a prison recently shelled and with one wing still burning. Rappaport gave me the details of the operation very calmly. The executing itself could not be seen by those herded against the building, which heated their backs like a giant oven; the shooting was done behind a broken wall. Some of those waiting, like him, for his turn, fell into a kind of stupor; others tried to save themselves – in mad ways … He remembered a young man who, rushing up to a German gendarme, howled that he was not a Jew – but howled it in Yiddish, probably because he knew no German. Rappaport felt the insane comedy of the situation, and suddenly the most precious thing to him was to preserve to the end the integrity of his mind, which would enable him to maintain an intellectual distance from the scene around him … Since that was altogether impossible, he decided to believe in reincarnation. Maintaining the belief for fifteen or twenty minutes would be sufficient.
The anecdote continues for five astonishing pages, a seeming digression from the book’s plot, which concerns Lem’s typical theme of failed communication across the cosmic gulf. Yet it concludes with the Lem stand-in Rappaport’s reflection on the actions of a Nazi officer:
Although he spoke to us, you see, we were not people. He knew that we comprehended human speech but that nevertheless we were not human; he knew this quite well. Therefore, even if he had wanted to explain things to us, he could not have. The man could do with us what he liked, but he could not enter into negotiations, because for negotiation you must have a party at least in some respects equal to the party who initiates it, and in that yard there were only he and his men. A logical contradiction, yes, but he acted according to it, and scrupulously.
Elsewhere, Lem compares this incident to Dostoevsky’s last-minute reprieve from a firing squad – which transformed his outlook for ever. In the hours following his own improbable survival, Lem was made to clear the corpses choking the streets. Yet his only memoir, the brief Highcastle (1966), says nothing of the war: it’s like a tiny version of Sartre’s The Words, focusing entirely on the inner life of a dreamy, philosophical child. It also contains not a single matzoh or latke. Lem’s habit of de-emphasising Jewish identity, a survival trait, persisted throughout his life. It was left to Agnieszka Gajewska, in The Holocaust and the Stars (2016), to uncover the extent of the trauma Lem declined to wear on his sleeve, including the murder of much of his extended family in the Belzec camp or on the streets.
My Jewish grandmother, the Queensboro Library trustee, was only eight years older than Lem, whose books made her so suspicious. She and Lem could have been cousins. Her family was from Lancut, a town two hours away, another scene of Polish resistance and Jewish murder, but her parents fled to the Lower East Side a few years before she was born. There they ran a candy store, just like Isaac Asimov’s parents, who had fled Russia for Brooklyn. Had Lem’s parents left, he too could have grown up in a New York candy store, eating halva from a barrel, reading pulp magazines. He could have been my grandfather. He could have been Asimov.
As a teenager I found the burden of Jewish trauma unappealing, but felt it heavily. Lem resembled other Cold War artists who appealed to me in those years, men who ironised or allegorised mid-century cataclysms and the Cold War fear that emerged from them – Stanley Kubrick, Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling, J.G. Ballard. Yet unlike Kubrick, Serling, Dick, Ballard, or my grandmother, Lem was trapped on the far side of the Iron Curtain, submitting drafts to Soviet censor boards, seeing himself promoted for the Nobel Prize by KGB agents, left to guess which rumours of capitalist corruption or enviable Western freedoms were hype, and which might contain some truth.
Lem’s satires of capitalism are so acute that they glimpse the present horizon. In Bullshit Jobs (2019), the anthropologist and anarchist organiser David Graeber retells a Lem parable, with his own commentary:
Space voyager Ijon Tichy describes a visit to a planet inhabited by a species to which the author gives the rather unsubtle name of Phools. At the time of his arrival the Phools were experiencing a classic Marxian overproduction crisis … ‘Through the ages inventors built machines that simplified work, and where in ancient times a hundred Drudgelings had bent their sweating backs, centuries later a few stood by a machine. Our scientists improved the machines, and the people rejoiced at this, but subsequent events show how cruelly premature was that rejoicing’ … The factories, ultimately, became a little too efficient, and one day an engineer created machines that could operate with no supervision at all … Before long, the Drudgelings, though – as Tichy’s interlocutor insisted, entirely free to do what they wanted provided they did not interfere in anyone else’s property rights – were dropping like flies. Much heated debate ensued, and a succession of failed half measures. The Phools’ high council, the Plenum Moronicum, attempted to replace the Drudgelings as consumers as well, by creating robots that would eat, use and enjoy all the products the New Machines produced far more intensely than any living being could possibly do, while also materialising money to pay for it. But this was unsatisfying. Finally, realising a system where both production and consumption were being done by machines was rather pointless, they concluded the best solution would be for the entire population to render itself – entirely voluntarily – to the factories to be converted into beautiful shiny disks and arranged in pleasant patterns across the landscape.
Not that increased exposure to the West’s failings softened Lem’s view of Stalinism’s legacy. From a letter to Kandel:
Say one country permits eating little children, right before the eyes of crazed mothers, and another permits eating absolutely anything, whereupon it turns out that the majority of people in that country eat shit. So what does the fact that most people eat shit demonstrate? … That it is better to eat children alive?
Lem’s most Dr Strangelovian or Alphavillian novel, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, was easily my favourite for years. The entire book is narrated from inside a gigantic structure known only as the Building, a hive of espionage, paranoia and corruption clearly meant to stand as some unholy amalgam of the Pentagon and the Lubyanka. The narrator reels from department to department, attempting to grasp the Building’s workings and his place within it, as though Kafka’s Castle had been turned inside out: instead of being a place impossible to enter, it’s like the Hotel California, or life on earth. Death is the only exit.
Rather than dividing the human universe between Castle and Village, as in Kafka, all that seems to exist outside the Building is another structure. This, its evil counterpart, the Anti-Building, remains unseen and lurking. In this reduced universe, the acts of eavesdropping, decryption and interrogation have engulfed the human realm. Every character must at some point be scrutinised, or self-scrutinise, in case it’s a secret agent of the Anti-Building. A sing-song work chant breaks out from time to time to explain the fundament of this universe:
What makes the Building go?
The Anti-Building makes it go!
The book’s symbolic architecture makes it a perfect rebus of Lem’s baseline theme of the problem of an encounter with an Other. The dream and nightmare of our connection to some unfathomable variation on ourselves dooms us to solipsism. In Memoirs, Lem’s spies are entrenched in a paranoid equivalent of the anthropomorphism that circumscribes the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: the only index available for the possible activities of the Anti-Building is themselves. Yet, by looking there, they locate only the madness of their own search for self-definition. There may be an echo here of Giorgio Agamben’s thesis in The Open: human political states depend on the identification of a dehumanised other against which to define themselves. Agamben locates the origin of this process in the fundamental definition of ‘the human’ as ‘not the animal’. Yet the human is the animal, and as Pogo told us in Walt Kelly’s comic strip, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’
This year, I felt, sadly, that Memoirs Found in a Bathtub was better to recall and recap than to reread. I found myself impatient with the frenetic satirical set-pieces that make up the narrator’s journey. Lem as a humorist can be giddily surreal, but just as often he works with blunt instruments (‘Phools’). His targets in Memoirs – organised Christianity, self-referential academic scholarship, the state security apparatus – are fish in a barrel, which, rather than shooting, he hammers to death. At the same time, he shies away from other kinds of interrogation: men and women, parents and children, the nuclear family, those psychosexual excavations that galvanise Kafka’s power to disquiet us at the deepest levels. Lem doesn’t move beyond the place that has mistakenly defined Kafka in the popular imagination: a dissection of the 20th-century paranoid bureaucratic state. It’s natural that Graeber, bureaucracy’s jubilant enemy, was a fan.
If Lem Two – the allegorist and satirist – was a bit of a let-down, however, Lem One, the Hard SF writer, soared.
The three mid-period masterworks Solaris, The Invincible and His Master’s Voice, and Lem’s final novel, Fiasco, exhibit an uncanny density of purpose. They sound a bit like H.P. Lovecraft, in a story like ‘The Colour Out of Space’, where men’s minds (and it is, always, men) are shown to be incapable of grappling with the Something Out There, their certainties shattered, their mental, moral and emotional tools bent back on themselves by the implications of the unknowable knowledge exploding in their heads. Unlike Lovecraft, Lem didn’t offer up a sexy beast like the octopoid menace Cthulhu. His dispassionate treatment of the theme may have circumscribed his popular audience (as Jarett Kobek quipped, ‘You don’t see a lot of Solaris bumper stickers out there’), but the lonely achievement of these books is exactly what Lem claimed: a science fiction both philosophical and literary, and worthy, at last, of its name.
The Invincible is the simplest of these books. Its explorers encounter a world of swarming microscopic robots. These, presumably a misguided attempt at a military defence technology which has outlived its makers, have gained a kind of ‘life’, if not consciousness, by the encompassing persistence with which they occupy their homeworld and repel the inquiry of visitors. They present both an existential rebuke to human pretensions and a grim logistical challenge to the fallible instrument of the human body. Lem’s genius is to make the outward adventure, detailed on a dazzling scale, a perfect emblem of the philosophical theme. The spoiler is the title.
In Reverse Colonisation: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy and Alt-Victimhood, David Higgins shows how consistently American and British SF engages in reverse-engineering colonial themes, bargaining against imperial guilt to dabble in possibilities of exoneration.According to this damning thesis, SF should take some of the blame for the way all actors in the political arena confidently define themselves as rebelling against some evil empire – every one of them a Millennium Falcon shrieking against the Death Star. Lem’s use of the iconography of explorers and settlers is more sombre: his SF was born outside US techno-triumphalism. Nor does it have the air of rueful fading empire found in British SF, the crushed nobility of John Wyndham, Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard. Lem’s astronauts and technicians aren’t innocent of all imperial guilt, but it smoulders inside a damp core of compromise and rue, the dourness, perhaps, of the Poles. They’re workers at tasks, grateful for incremental solutions, and relieved at the distance the stars provide from insoluble perplexities and sorrows back on Earth (or, presumably, from jobs in a Soviet-era factory or bureaucracy). Lem’s astronauts are depressed.
Where are the women? It is essentially only in Solaris that they erupt into the tale at hand. Lem said the book presented itself to him unconsciously, suggesting a return of the repressed (at times, he muttered awkwardly that women simply didn’t belong in space). Solaris, his purest study of human limitation, is therefore also his most self-implicating.
The ocean planet that gives Solaris its title is, like the mechanised planet of The Invincible, a symbol of the incomprehensible other. When the protagonist, Kelvin, arrives at a space station above it, the planet’s alien brain presents him with a gift or puzzle or test: an almost perfect simulacrum of his lover, who killed herself after they quarrelled. The simulacrum loves him implacably, knowing nothing of its origin or past. This convergence of symbols in Ocean-Planet-Other-Woman would seem almost disastrously overheated, but (even in the problematic translation) one can see Lem stripping his style back, to an existentialist restraint.
In the lore of American SF, Tom Godwin’s short story ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954) has been enshrined as a quintessence of the genre. In it, a space pilot discovers a stowaway, a young girl, on a vessel ferrying medicine to a needful planet. The problem is that her weight overbalances the ship. They’ll never reach their destination alive. Cold equations dictate the girl’s ejection from the airlock; after some handwringing, and a farewell call to her brother, the task is done. This brutal, silly exercise was seen as an example of the hard truths SF ought to encode.
Whether Lem knew Godwin’s story or not, he swallows the tale, with its bitter pill of hostility, in Solaris. The simulacrum wife provided by the alien world both entrances and horrifies Kelvin, and he impulsively shoves her out of the station into space. This solves nothing: the planet simply prints another copy for him to live with, if he can. His lover is now a suicide, a murder victim, and alive, or undead, as well as an intimate sample of the alien material to which he has devoted years of study. Kelvin, despite himself, allows himself to begin to return her love; she reaches into him, even if she is made out of parts of his own mind.
What Updike called Lem’s ‘sheer love of compilation’ expresses itself in a rapturous cataloguing of the upwellings, outcroppings and metastases of Solaris’s brain-like surface. And in a chapter called ‘Solaristics’ Lem indexes the contents of the space station’s library, full of neglected tomes of scientific speculation about the planet’s origin and purposes. Each Solarist disproves the last; all will be humbled by the final enigma of their topic of study. The catalogue of discredited theories anticipates the fictional reviews and introductions Lem began writing ten years later.
Solaris ‘renders unnecessary’, according to Kim Stanley Robinson, ‘any more alien stories. Nothing further can be said on this topic … Possibly it can be said that when one feels the urge for such a thing one should simply reread Solaris and learn its lessons again.’ What then was left for Lem to add in His Master’s Voice, and in his last novel, Fiasco, both tales of scientific quests to meet and interpret the alien Other? As the Solarist Snow announces, ‘We have no needs of other worlds. We need mirrors … A single world, our own, suffices, but we can’t accept it for what it is.’ His Master’s Voice and Fiasco are those mirrors. Quests for the alien become occasions for Lem’s study of the limits of human inquiry, and of the problem of human evil that had come increasingly to obsess him. These later books make a determined study of the corruption of reason by avarice, of science by paranoid militarism. The human species’ collective fervour for an encounter with the unknown reveals itself as a cover for nihilism, our urge to destroy.
Fiasco is the angrier book, and the more unruly. A final statement on his great theme, it’s clotted with digressive meta-stories, recursive arguments and breathtaking set-pieces, as if Lem wanted to feel and exhibit, one last time, everything he was capable of. Pirx the pilot dies, either at the end of the first chapter or in the last lines of the book – the puzzle is a deliberate provocation to anyone interested in Lem’s sense of identification with his longest-lived character. How could such things matter in the face of the news about sentience that Lem has been placed on Earth to deliver?
His Master’s Voice may, however, be the more perfect enunciation. It is a long epitaph for the failed project of analysing a single enigmatic radio message from another galaxy. The book’s demoralised researchers are engaged in a version of Solaristics without a Solaris; or this is a Moby-Dick written by a crew who will never know what a whale looks like, yet are, somehow, still destined to be destroyed by one. In the background of the science stands the politics: militarists eager to understand whether the alien message can be translated into a Doomsday Device. The book is essayistic and ruminative, yet delivers a deeper self-portrait than the one in Lem’s brief gnomic memoir, or in his discursive autobiographical essays. From Kandel’s translation:
I was never able to conquer the distance between persons. An animal is fixed to its here-and-now by the senses, but a man manages to detach himself, to remember, to sympathise with others, to visualise their states of mind and feelings: this, fortunately, is not true. In such attempts at pseudo merging and transferal we are only able, imperfectly, darkly, to visualise ourselves. What would happen to us if we could truly sympathise with others, feel with them, suffer for them? The fact that human anguish, fear and suffering melt away with the death of the individual, that nothing remains of the ascents, the declines, the orgasms and the agonies, is a praiseworthy gift of evolution, which made us like the animals. If from every unfortunate, from every victim, there remained even a single atom of his feelings, if thus grew the inheritance of the generations, if even a spark could pass from man to man, the world would be full of raw, bowel-torn howling.
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