The World According to Stanisław Lem

THERE’S A PARADOX at the heart of science fiction. The most basic aspiration of the genre — its very essence, really — is to transcend time and place. Not just to predict the future, but to imagine things that are totally foreign to human experience. How would an alien life form have evolved, compared with those on Earth? What will human society look like 10,000 years from now? What is artificial intelligence, anyway? SF tries to imagine the unimaginable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe the indescribable, and to do it all in entertaining, accessible prose.

But SF, like everything else, is also a product of its time. Jules Verne’s tales of trips around the globe and voyages to the center of the Earth reflected the scientific optimism of the late 19th century, before World War I blew open technology’s dark side. During its midcentury golden age in the United States, the pulpy genre cheered on the rising economic and military dominance of the United States, forecasting an American empire that stretched to the stars. Not long after, New Wave authors like Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrestled with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, from Cold War paranoia to the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and the drug culture. What kind of stories the Trump era might inspire is still unknown, but they probably won’t be cheerful.

Stanisław Lem, the Polish novelist, futurologist, literary theorist, satirist, and philosophical gadfly, tried mightily to free his work from the shackles of the present. In dozens of novels, short stories, essays, metaliterary experiments, and futurological treatises, he attempted to imagine everything from a living ocean that could read human minds (Solaris) to a swarm of nonbiological mechanical insects (The Invincible) to a supercomputer many times more intelligent than its human creators (Golem XIV). In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae, Lem mocked writers whose works were merely historical fiction recast in the future — “corsairs and pirates of the thirtieth century.” It’s easy to find targets for Lem’s criticism; most SF movies are exercises in wish fulfillment, projections of a space-age Columbus in search of a final frontier. For Lem, science fiction meant thinking harder and imagining more.

But even Lem could not transcend his own history. Born in 1921 in Lviv (then called Lwów as part of the Second Polish Republic), he survived World War II, served in the Polish resistance, and lived for most of his life under Polish Communism. In his work, he turned repeatedly to themes reflecting those experiences, including the role of chance in determining fate, the oppressive bureaucracy of authoritarian regimes, and the possibility of a runaway arms race that escapes human control. Ironically, Lem’s effort to think outside of history often provides the best descriptions of the period he lived through.

Lem died in 2006, having lived to see many of his ideas come true. Yet today he has fallen into quasi-obscurity, at least in the English-speaking world. Not even in his heyday did he have the cachet in the United States of writers like Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein. But Lem was phenomenally popular in Eastern and Central Europe. According to a recent estimate, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold almost 40 million copies, and he was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize. By all measures he was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century.

Ten years after his death, there continues to be a steady drumbeat of interest in Lem. A film adaptation of his novella The Futurological Congress (1971) was released in 2013; the first full English translation of Summa Technologiae, by Joanna Zylinska, appeared in 2014; and three new books on Lem have been published in the last two years, all of them written or edited by literary scholar Peter Swirski, the most prominent Lem expert in the world. These include Lemography: Stanislaw Lem in the Eyes of the World (2014), a collection of critical essays co-edited by University of Alberta professor Waclaw M. Osadnik; Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel (2014), a collection of Lem’s correspondence with his English translator; and Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (2015), a collection of Swirski’s own pieces.

All of these books illuminate Lem’s writing and thinking, from his opinions on literary contemporaries to his views on the Nixon administration. Most importantly, they illustrate the complex relationship between Lem’s future-facing novels and the turbulent period in which they were produced. Among science fiction writers, Lem was one of the most creative and intellectually bold. But even he couldn’t escape his time.

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