The Case for Stanislaw Lem, One of Science Fiction’s Unsung Giants

By reprinting six key works by the slowly fading Polish SF giant Stanislaw Lem, MIT Press hopes to revive his varied and considerable legacy

Stanislaw Lem, 1977. Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Since his death in 2006, the work of Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem has slowly slid from view. While his impact upon on American audiences was always softened by the Iron Curtain — he was was in peak form during the ’60s and ’70s — and an often tortured translation process, Lem was at one point “the most widely read science fiction writer in the world,” at least according to Theodore Sturgeon, an eminent writer of SF’s so-called Golden Age.

Lem was acknowledged, especially by fellow authors, as an especially important figure in the genre, but of late he seems to be primarily remembered as the author of the novel Solaris, the base material for the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky and the 2002 version by Steven Soderbergh. This is a poor fate for an author who, for the latter half of the 20th century, skipped nimbly between SF sub-genres, with occasional excursions outside SF. While his sphere of influence was massive — he sold 45 million books worldwide — Lem’s refusal to settle into some comfortable little niche is distinctly unusual in a contemporary marketplace which today sections writers into increasingly sub-sub-genres.

Lem was simultaneously a moralist, stylist, and semi-professional scientist (a teenage inventor who trained as a physician). He managed to write hard science fiction that engaged with contemporary developments in science, medicine, and philosophy without ever condescending to his audience or engaging in specialist-speak (unless he was satirizing it).

Fortunately, the MIT Press has seen fit to help rejuvenate Lem’s oeuvre — they recently republished six of his key books, and, in the process, made the case for a Lemian resurgence — just in time for his 2021 centenary.

The Cold War, which raged for the majority of Lem’s career, is vital context for his work. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction puts it well: “In between the two leviathans, Lem…fused a bright, humanistic hope with a bitter, historical warning.” The 29 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the various crises since have distanced us from that Lem’s context — two superpowers vying for supremacy, using propaganda, visions of utopia, and spectacular exercises of state power.

Lem’s work acts as a corrective to the notion that the universe exists merely as a property to be gentrified by tech moguls.

Post-war American SF served as the official genre of apology for the space race, the military industrial complex, and the race toward mutually assured destruction. As such, the genre presented the wide universe as a canvas for spectacular exploits and raw material for our economy. Lem’s Poland was unable to share in the glories of state-sponsored space exploration, and therefore unable to be held (directly) accountable for SF’s use as neo-colonial propaganda. While publishing under Communist rule often left gaping holes in Lem’s books, his distance from both American and Soviet centers of power enabled him to use SF to critique their ideologies. As SF author and critic Adam Roberts recently told me in a DM, “Lem is an ironist to his bones — it’s why the Communist authorities never trusted him.”

Lem, however, was no revisionist out to trash the Golden Age vision of the exploration of the universe as a bold, and civilizationally important, exploit. This vision is all but dead in contemporary SF, and American culture at large. Where it exists, it has been co-opted by huckster-adventurer bro-billionaires. (Elon Musk and Peter Thiel’s love of Golden Age SF, for instance, is well documented). The notion that the universe is to be explored for the sake of knowledge is widely seen, in a time of climate change, massive economic inequality, and rising ethno-nationalism as, at best, nostalgia.

In the face of this cynicism, Lem’s work acts as a corrective to the notion that the universe exists merely as a property to be gentrified by tech moguls. In many of his novels, Solaris perhaps most notably, Lem extends a vision of the universe as deeply inhuman, yet still capable of granting transcendence to those who surrender themselves to it. Our attempts to understand, much less monetize, the cosmos will always be met with frustration, but our acts of observation and careful study will allow us to glimpse, perhaps, our own place in it.

The hopeless mystery felt by the human in the face of the cosmic is a theme Lem returns to again and again. At times, it almost feels like religious rapture. The final sentence of Solaris remains one of the most devastating yet put to page: “I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”

The below novels, now made available by MIT, refract these central Lemian themes through a variety of genres and narrative styles. While the targets have shifted in the 14 years since Lem’s death, there is still much to be gleaned from his subversive genius.

The Invincible (1964) could initially be mistaken as Golden Age throat-clearing, with its titular spaceship on a rescue mission to the bare, dull planet of Regis III. The novel’s focus on the agency of the ship and its various automatons over that of its human cargo shows Lem’s hand. This is a tale of inorganic evolution, leaving its protagonist, and audience, ruminating on the vulnerability and insignificance of the human in the vast, uncaring universe. As a plus, the Invincible is well-stocked with specialists, a favorite target of Lem’s. SF writers of Lem’s generation (and the preceding one) would often present their scientists as all-knowing proto-mansplainers who hammer the truth of the situation through the hard heads of the war-hungry generals, venal politicians, and token women present. Lem routinely subverts this tired trope by having his scientists squabble comically, showing their belief in their own self-importance. It’s not till the scientists of the Invincible work together that they’re able to come up with a series of theories, none of which are ever truly proved. When they finally shut up, Lem’s scientists do actual science.

Highcastle (1966) is not science fiction, but a charming remembrance of Lem’s years between the First and Second World Wars that revels in the minutiae of his deep preadolescence. Like all good memoirs, it opens with an admission of failure: “…I built a tomb for that young boy and placed him in it…as if I were writing about someone made up, someone who never lived.” Lem does not seek here to recreate, like Vladmir Nabokov or Stefan Zweig, a vanished world: “…I am concerned only with the child I was.” Later, he remarks, “…I must keep a tight rein on my professionalism as a fantast, that is, the ability to group details into coherent wholes.” He is not only here speaking about the tendency to “world-build,” but also of writing a story that “achieves closure in some way.”

This may have something to do with the losses young Lem suffered. Highcastle returns again and again to his father, a laryngologist, whose library of medical texts he plundered. Lem does not mention (because this was written in Poland in 1966) his Jewish heritage, nor the murder of most of his family by the Nazis. The deaths of many of his childhood associates is mentioned in passing, usually in parenthetical.

The Hospital of the Transfiguration (1955), an early realist novel, picks up, at least chronologically, where Highcastle left off (although it is by no means a continuation of Lem’s life). A young Polish doctor finds an oasis from Nazi power in the form of a mental hospital. If you know anything about the Nazis’ treatment of the mentally ill, you can see what tragedy we’re trundling toward. The doctor, Stefan, is a naïf occasionally “overcome by a desire for one of those elemental discussions that shake the world’s foundations.” He more than finds his match in the infamous poet Sekulowski, who is posing as a patient to avoid Nazi scrutiny. Sekulowski fancies himself a metaphysician and constructor of Platonic dialogues. When cornered about how to respond to the incoming Nazi presence, the poet’s response is, “Play the flute, collect butterflies.” When the extermination machine finally engages, Sekulowski’s response is far less philosophic — revealing his intellectual and moral fraud. Lem’s rage at political cynicism here is palpable, which may have had something to do with the Soviet censors blocking its printing for 27 years. Lem’s later morality plays would operate under the cover of SF.

‘Return’ is the “space adventure” genre loudly puking its bile out.

The title of Return from the Stars (also 1966) already hints to Lem’s ongoing conversation with classic SF narratives, in this case the attempted rehabilitation of an astronaut to life on Earth. The astronaut, Hal Bregg, has only been away a decade his time, but 127 years Earth time, thanks to the time-scrambling nature of deep space travel. Here, as in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), the time confusion is used as a metaphor for a shifting society’s effect on the individual. Haldeman was, more specifically, writing about American soldiers returning from Vietnam. In Return, everyone on Earth has been “betrizated,” a process by which all violent impulses are removed. The world is thus much safer, softer. This is Lem quietly attacking Communism’s promised utopia, as well as America’s consumerist, suburban lifestyle of plenty.

Yet, as Simon Ings observes in his forward, Return is more concerned with male rage. As Bregg learns more about the society he has returned to, the more aggressive and violent his behavior becomes, until, finally, he commits rape. It’s not till about a third of the way through Return that we realize that the stars the narrator adventured among were far harsher than we could have imagined. The privation, solitude, and fatality rate on his voyage are horrifying. If The Invincible followed a traditional Golden Age narrative while quietly destabilizing its ideology, Return is the “space adventure” genre loudly puking its bile out. Thus it’s with the most extreme irony that one of the few sights that soothes Bregg is the stars: “When I lifted my head I saw only a black void. Yet, strangely enough, at that moment its blind presence gave me courage.” The one thing that has not changed is the emptiness Bregg has returned from.

Elizabeth Bear’s forward to Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy (1971) offers a useful summation of Lem’s dark side — like Heinlein, Asimov, Stephenson, the SF writer evinced some problematic politics. His work is “casually misogynist when it bothers to acknowledge the existence of women at all, frequently racist, and replete with deeply misanthropic Swiftian allegories.” Tichy is a famous space explorer who, with typical Lemian perversity, mostly doesn’t explore space. Instead, he meets a series of disgraced mad scientists, all devoted to crackpot inventions they’re sure will change humanity. The result is a series of allegorical tales as concerned with metaphysics as they are with science, marred by cheap gags. Does the phrase “screwball cyberneticist” make you laugh, or does it make you want to abandon the book on the street? Perhaps it is the thinness of these fables that allows Lem’s flaws to shine through all the more brightly.

The true masterpiece in MIT’s series, His Master’s Voice (1967), takes the form of a manuscript found after the death of the infamous mathematician Peter E. Hogarth. As such, the novel prefigures the later collections A Perfect Vacuum (1971) and Imaginary Magnitude (1973), where Lem experimentally compresses narrative and characterization to the point of near non-existence. In ’67, however, Lem is still operating within the accepted parameters of the novel, if just barely.

Voice here is all. Our narrator kicks off with humblebrag self-hatred: “The fundamental traits of my character I consider to be cowardice, malice, and pride.” As a child, he “mentally smashed the stars to pieces, to punish them for their indifference to me.” As a mathematician, he spurned specialization, returning to his field only to show his fellow mathematicians how laughably wrong all their achievements were.

Hence Hogarth is the perfect researcher to be recruited into an American program to decode a message from the stars. Recruited after a year of frustrations, Hogarth refuses to hear the advances his fellows have made, starting with just a sheath of ones and zeroes. The metaphysical gaming out of how to decipher an alien message reads now like an elegantly phrased summation of a Reddit thread.

When Hogarth eventually learns about the early successes of the program, he compares these discoveries to a player piano trying to read “a tape that really belongs in a digital machine.” When it appears that, even misread, the code will soon provide a weapon of terrible power, the scientists transform from scrabbling specialists to makeshift ethicists. As Hogarth acidly remarks, “…the scientist can agree to anything if he is responsible for nothing.”

The Cold War ethical showdown never comes to pass. The alien message is so ahuman that even the technological society’s death drive cannot be fulfilled by it. Hogarth’s early assumption, that the “content part of the letter was designed to provide a certain type of undesirable addressee with a razor, so that it could cut its own throat,” turns out to have been anthropomorphism.

As with the best of Lem’s work, there are no solutions, only conflicting theories. The challenges, however, from political actors to self-aggrandizing specialists to simple human arrogance, are detailed with almost gleeful levels of vitriol. “I was never able to conquer the distance between persons,” Hogarth writes, though he too is allowed a morsel of transcendence, which he discovers, perversely, in his own ignorance.

Again we find that, under the stars, we are ignored.

He who wields the imagination shall perish in the imagination. - Stanislaw Lem

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