Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Jerzy Jarzębski

Stanislaw Lem, Rationalist and Visionary

Translated by Franz Rottensteiner

Before the political thaw in 1956 known as the "Polish October" Lem published three SF books: two novels, The Astronauts (1951) and The Magellan Nebula (1955), and a collection, Sesame and Other Stories (1954).1 The two novels became tremendously popular and were reprinted many times. On the first novel was based the script for The Silent Star, a movie that posed difficult technical problems for the joint industries of Poland and East Germany. These early works show some technical weaknesses, quite aside from a certain conceptual schematism, and it is somewhat paradoxical that it was those two novels that became required reading in Polish schools. In The Astronauts and Sesame especially, the indecision of the author is all too obvious. Should I lecture and popularize, or rather spin fantastic plots?, he seems to wonder. The first part of The Astronauts, describing the preparations for an expedition to Venus, is unbearably slow and full of lectures; and only the second part, "The Diary of a Pilot ," written with the narrative skill characteristic of Lem, makes up for the failures of the first part. In Sesame we find, besides the first Star Diaries of Ijon Tichy, full of humour and written with narrative vigor, also lectures in popular science that repel the reader.

Lem drew the conclusion from these difficulties. The most successful parts of his early works were told by a narrator who was at the same time the protagonist of the story and involved in the plot; the narrative flow began to slow down when the author himself appeared from behind the hero and started plaguing the reader with lectures on the principles of computers, the design of interplanetary rockets, etc.2 In The Magellan Nebula Lem refrained from introducing a narrator who would be identical with the author, and his role was taken over by a member of the expedition. A young member, which is crucial; pilot Smith of The Astronauts is also still a greenhorn. Through the inexperienced eyes of the protagonist we are first introduced to and involved in the peripeties of the future and the galactic expedition. This device allows the text to convey much information about the civilizational marvels of future centuries, for the young narrator must himself still learn quite a lot—and for that he is (and at the same time we are) given ample opportunity.

The Magellan Nebula is very skillfully written, even if somewhat uneven—for this beautiful ship flounders every so often on sandbanks. It is not enough to eliminate a narrator speaking ex cathedra: if the narrator and protagonist himself enters elementary school, the reader has no choice but to accompany him, and the basic teacher-pupil relationship is left unchanged. Why do I devote so much space to this? Lem frankly admits that for him writing is a pulpit from which he delivers certain theses about the society of the future, the evolution of science, the philosophical implications of technological progress, etc.; his visions are not puzzle-games with fantasy elements. In Lem's opinion, the term "science fiction" implies an obligation. In his early works, however, these noble principles are at odds with artistic ambitions; diagnoses of the world's future are presented as if they were axioms: a just order of society must triumph, science and technology must achieve a high level of development where the sky is the limit, the lives of all citizens of Earth will flow with nothing but milk and honey, and kindness and general love will be ubiquitous.

It is difficult to decide just what in this vision was Lem and what was taken over from the literary clichés of the time. The Lem of that time—a rationalist and believer in scientism—perhaps really believed in the unlimited visions of human reason, but he expressed them in pretentious formulas, with which The Magellan Nebula abounds. His views are, if one overlooks this defect, humanist ones; however, the weakness of his characters is contentment with their fate—his humanism is too self-righteous. Their philosophical problems have already been or are being solved somewhere, so that the experiences transmitted become simply verifications of already existing hypotheses and emerge as glib phrases.

Such ideal characters from a happy utopia are somewhat of a nuisance even for the author, who reminds us several times—as it were contradicting himself —that the human soul is complete in itself and must not be tampered with, and that weakness and evil must not be forgotten in our view of human beings. The image of a Terrestrial Paradise will reappear twice in Lem—characteristically, however, in a negative function. In Return from the Stars (1961) the flowering of civilization is due to an operation called "betrization," which is mandatory for all children. It does away with all aggressive instincts, but as a corollary also destroys the ability to take risks. The inhabitants of that "utopia" give up the conquest of space without a feeling of loss. In a distorted mirror, this motif recurs again in the recent short novel The Futurological Congress (in Insomnia, 1971), where paradise is only a drug-induced illusion, a camouflage for the awful living conditions of a population of several billion at the end of the 21st century.

It would appear that the main weakness of The Astronauts and The Magellan Nebula is philosophical: the young Lem owes allegiance to positivistic ideals, he believes in the progress of science which can in final analysis cope with any problem, and not least he believes that an enlightened and rational society will automatically get rid of all its inner conflicts and tensions. But it might rather be said that it was the normative fictional convention ("socialist realism") which in this manner "thought for him." It is hardly a coincidence that one of the first books that Lem quoted after the Polish October was Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.3 Yet in his early work, despite all efforts, Lem on the whole does not succeed in confronting his heroes with novel experiences that are apt to shake their firm convictions and ethical norms. The bloodthirsty Venusians in The Astronauts, who had been planning an invasion of Earth, are only a projection of human beings, and the mysterious inhabitants of the White Planet in The Magellan Nebula also react like human beings (incidentally, the author apologizes for it through the mouth of the scientist Goobar). Finally, for Lem's early cosmic wanderers their ideals are sufficient to interpret and evaluate unequivocally the phenomena which they encounter: they travel to the stars with their earthly yardstick, and the stars can be readily measured with it. This motif too will reappear later, polemically refunctioned. Lem was much too intelligent a writer not to have been aware of the dangers of this situation. As mentioned, parallel to the first novels he wrote the early tales of The Star Diaries.4 The distinguishing mark of that cycle, already in the first edition, is originality: these stories are Lem's first attempt at literary stylization. The author refers to his sources at the very beginning, when he presents his protagonist and narrator in this manner:

The famous circumnavigator of stars, the captain of great galactic journeys, the hunter of meteors who discovered, driven by the unceasing zeal of the true explorer, eighty-three thousand and three new stars, doctor honoris causa of the universities of both the Greater and the Lesser Bear, member of the association for the protection of small planets as well as of many other societies, knight of uncounted Milky Way and nebula orders, will appear to his readers in the pages of the diary at hand in his full size, as a personality that deserves to be ranked with such fearless men of the past as Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Baron Münchhausen, Pavel Masloboynikov, Lemuel Gulliver, or Maître Alcofrybas.

As this sample of his style testifies, Lem has an almost incredible sense of language, and The Star Diaries5 became a veritable orgy of parodies. Inserted into the history of the legendary liar and braggard we find samples of the turgid style of doctoral theses, political speeches (the assembly of the United Planets Organization), tourist guides, etc. He parodies not only the language, but also certain modes of thinking. This makes for gorgeous political satires (the description of the sad fate of the Indiots, or of Pinta and Panta),6 and pokes fun at any kind of scientific and humanist thought that, hopelessly lost in geo- and anthropocentrism, fits the universe into patterns of thinking developed on Earth (the maturity exams among the Andrygonians).

As is only proper for a "philosophical tale," each of Ijon Tichy's journeys, for all of its grotesque cosmical trappings, amounts to a viewing of mundane and contemporary problems. But this is not just the resurrection of a technique that can be traced back to Voltaire; the combining of parodistic mirror-images is much more complex. Lem operates on two levels—that of SF and that of the narrator who is a Münchhausen-like tall-tale teller. It should be stressed here how different those two levels of fantasy are: SF aims at discovering the serious flaws of the future and—surprising as this may sound—it sometimes succeeds. The Münchhausen type of "lying fantasy" is, on the contrary, first of all an amusing entertainment. The first kind of fantasy claims: what I say may really happen; the second makes us believe that a well-told lie is more beautiful than the dull truth. But again, what is Swift's Gulliver doing in Lem's introduction beside the indefatigable lying baron? An allegory side by side with a fantastic fairy tale—that is not ordinary company. It is hardly an accident that The Star Diaries again and again make use of the motif of the false world, a world full of lies because of its language, its ideology, because of a scientific theory as narrow as it is apodictic. Literature as a piling up of lies, which then, paradoxically, may sometimes point the way to truth—that is the dominant image that emerges behind the grotesque adventures of the "famous circumnavigator of stars." This appears to be a compensation for the mentor-like tone of Lem's first novels, and although it would probably be an exaggeration to consider The Star Diaries as self-satire, they nevertheless engage covertly, by stressing the literary nature and the relativity of the things described, in a polemic with the pathos of The Magellan Nebula and The Astronauts.

In the works after 1956, the basis of Lem's writing emerges ever more clearly. In a long series of novels and stories the author presents tragedies and problems of the individual striving to know the world. It is by reason of this radical refusal to supply proofs for assumed theories that Lem's works from that time on rather ask than answer difficult questions—and therefore most of his works seem to "lack a solution," as has sometimes naively been noted by criticism (for instance, in the case of The Investigation [1959]). The prologue to this mature stage of his writings are the Dialogues (1957), where principal problems of contemporary civilization are discussed in the framework of a philosophical dispute between two interlocutors, called in Berkeleyan fashion Hylas and Philonous.

The Dialogues are the result of Lem's fascination with the perspectives of cybernetics; they were written in the mid-fifties and are marked by their time. In Dialogues cybernetics appears up to a point as a magical key that opens any door. In particular, Lem investigates from a cybernetic point of view human consciousness, the possibility of creating a mathematically exact image of human beings that would enable us to produce its "copy," the problems of free will, and the transposing of the function of the human brain to a machine (artificial immortality); finally—and this is highly interesting—he analyzes sociology as a cybernetic model, which is a very original contribution to the discussion of some defects of the socialist society that began after the Polish October in 1956.

Lem looks at society as a system of elements between which there are flows of information. The system is shaken by serious disturbances when the information-flow encounters any barriers, intentional or not. Since in modern society the greater part of information is coded in ethnic language, the operativeness of the whole society is determined to a high degree by the state of this language. From this initial serious problem a second one arises: the possibility and the conditions of a communication between individuals which would rely on quite different sets of terms and languages; furthermore, the possibility of a contact between radically different civilizations. And finally the most universal of such problems: the possibility of human cognition. We are dealing here with the basic philosophical problem of whether the objectivity of our value-judgments can be guaranteed: how do the various layers of the individual's consciousness relate to each other and to what exists outside of his consciousness? And furthermore, what is the degree of deformation that creeps into our world view because we use a language and a system of notions that are circumscribed by our civilization? The Berkeleyan style of Dialogues should therefore hardly be a surprise.

Clearly, all of these questions either directly or indirectly touch upon the problem of language. We shall consider the further work of Lem above all as an attempt to come to grips with them, although the intellectual content of his work, of course, is not restricted to them.

As a rule, criticism divides Lem's work into the "serious" SF, the stylized-grotesque vein, plus his essays as well as closely related fictitious "reviews" of non-existent books, A Perfect Vacuum (1971), and the autobiographical The High Castle (1966). These three very different streams treat the same problems, though clothed in different garbs. In 1959 the novels Eden and The Investigation as well as the short-story collection Invasion from Aldebaran were published. Eden is a fairly typical SF novel, describing the adventures of an expedition from Earth on an alien planet. The astronauts meet a civilization of a rather high level, but one that was evolved by perfecting bio-evolution rather than machines. In this way "living" factories arose, and then plans of substituting for the population a generation of mutants, formed according to the specifications of the planet rulers. However, both experiments failed and a secret government has decided that the "faulty" inhabitants must die.

Lem has been enthusiastic about a controlled development of bio-evolution (five years afterwards he devoted many pages in Summa Technologiae to it), but in Eden another question is pivotal: the planet is ruled by individuals who remain totally unknown. Their rule is based on a skillful manipulation of information, which is either distorted or blocked. Some phrases are simply eliminated from the language, they may not be used: the unsuccessful mutants marked for merciless elimination are "sick persons," and the gigantic botch-up of the geneticists remains obscured.

We shall not discuss some naive and improbable elements in the novel, for it is quite obvious that Lem did not aim at a maximum of verisimilitude in it. It serves as an exemplification of some theses from the Dialogues: the novel points to the social consequences that arise when information is blocked. The Machiavellian ruler (or rulers?) of Eden can safely manipulate society owing to his control of the channels of communication, a frightening reminder addressed by Lem to the inhabitants of Earth. But that is not all: the astronauts discuss the problem of applying force for the liberation of the planet—and finally reject it, preferring to fly back to Earth:

"To begin with, they are not human beings, at least not in the sense we are human beings. You must remember that you are talking only with the computer and that you can understand the 'double'7 only as far as the computer understands him. Second, nobody has forced upon them the things that now exist. At least nobody from outer space. They themselves..."
"By arguing like that you can justify anything. Anything!" the engineer cried.

"And how should I argue, in your opinion? Are the people of this planet children gone astray in a blind alley, whence you can lead them out by their hands? If only it were that simple, good lord. Liberation would begin by our being forced to kill, and the more dogged the fighting, the smaller the rationality that would guide our actions. Finally we would be reduced to killing just to ensure our retreat or to retain a basis for a counter-attack, and we would kill anybody who dared to oppose their benefactors. You know only too well how easily things like that can happen!"

The cosmonauts of The Astronauts arrived on Venus with a ready-made classification scheme for the reality they found there; in Eden, they have lost the sureness of their ratio. In Return from the Stars, published two years later, the astronauts returning after many years find it impossible to identify with the future civilization. They are in the same position as visitors from outer space. A mankind shorn of all its aggressive instincts appears to them (the author succeeds in forcing this impression upon the reader) as something abominable. Although the protagonist finally accepts the new society, he has considerable difficulty in doing so.

Similarly, in The Invincible (1964) the product of an "inorganic evolution" of mechanisms, a black cloud consisting of myriads of minuscule robots, wreaks havoc among an expedition from Earth. Various variants of retaliation are discussed, but finally the human beings recognize the right to life of the planet's inhabitants and return to Earth.

As Maciej Szybist has perceptively noted, in Lem human beings begin to accept the other world as soon as they have experienced it aesthetically.8 To the cosmonauts returning from Eden the planet appears wonderful; Rohan in The Invincible discovers beauty in the horrible empire of the black "insects"; and Hal Bregg in The Return from the Stars needs a moment of aesthetic ecstasy in the mountains to feel again an Earthman. If we add that the protagonist of Solaris (1961), Chris Kelvin, is also able to find his inner peace and to accept the "cruel miracles" only after moments of lonely contemplation of the unusual spectacle offered by the Solaris ocean, it becomes clear that the aesthetic experience holds a key position for Lem. Perhaps—since there is no possibility of getting into contact with the "others" or to understand the essence of their world—aesthetic experience is the only form open to us for integrating our impressions into a whole. Beauty as unity in diversity—this classical definition exactly describes the problem. For even if the meaning of the other world remains inaccessible, at least we have access to our own feelings, our experience of this world as a certain entity—in spite of its raison d'être remaining hidden from us.

The "serious" works published by Lem since 1959 as a rule confront their protagonists with phenomena which surpass their understanding and defy the criteria of human morality. The Investigation, an ingenious "anti-mystery" set against the background of real places of contemporary England, confronts a constable of the British police with the insoluble mystery of corpses disappearing from graveyards under mysterious circumstances. The author draws upon the means of the conventional detective story: unusual occurrences, an inquest, interrogations; a number of hypotheses are formulated. But whereas in the usual mystery we can observe the triumph of intelligence, turning all misty assumptions and clues into a meaningful and intelligible whole, here all investigations and attempts to solve the case can only lead to a dead end. The logic of the enquiry, compromised again and again, is merely an indication of how easily human understanding is fooled by random events.

What "solution" does the author finally suggest? An eccentric specialist of mathematical statistics establishes a series of parameters necessary for the emergence of the phenomena under investigation (and in their choice Lem provides some brilliant black humour by supplying a whole catalogue of devices typical of the cloak-and-dagger novel). He analyzes the occurrences and the geographical extension of the cases, and predicts then where and when some more corpses will be "resurrected" and what will be the end of the series. And this is what happens. Is that all?, the disappointed reader asks. Equally disappointed is the constable, who, led by his wish to explain the causes and the purpose of the phenomena, allows himself to make guesses whose absurdity is all too obvious. But aside from a mathematical model for the series of facts, the author provides no explanation; moreover he seems to poke fun at the simple-minded tendency of human beings to explain all events with the help of symbols that are intelligible only in a given civilization. "Crime, madness or a macabre joke"—these are the thoughts that appear to the constable to be acceptable variants of a solution to the puzzle. But perhaps it is just something unexplainable, although we may present it in the form of an abstract model?—Lem suggests. Perhaps we will increasingly encounter such "black boxes" whose principles of construction are unknown to us, although we may unfailingly predict their "output"?

In the story "Invasion," spores of mysterious cosmic "plants" arrive on Earth. The scientists are able to explain the development and necessary conditions of the curious pear-like forms, but not at all the aims of this cosmic invasion. We are used to explaining all events in our human world from our own telos and to searching everywhere for a conscious intention, but we shall have to get used to phenomena in which such an interpretation leads to difficulties of the same kind as do questions about "the meaning of the world," "the meaning of life," etc.

The novel Solaris, one of Lem's outstanding achievements, confronts its heroes with much more serious problems. The crew of a space station hovering over the planet Solaris tries to contact the only inhabitant of this globe, a gigantic plasma-like "ocean." This baffling entity, which exhibits biological activities, proves to be so different from human beings that periodical attempts at contact have turned into a chronicle of failures. In the station mysterious "doubles" or "Phi-creatures" show up—materializations of human beings who had some connection with important, more often than not guilt-provoking experiences of crew members. By means of his X-ray vision, the ocean looks into the minds of the ambassadors from Earth and takes from them as it were the blueprints of the beings that had so far been encapsulated into their unconscious memory. Work on the station virtually collapses; each of the researchers flees into solitude to adjust himself to his complex of shame that has suddenly become visible in all its turpitude. Who then is here conducting experiments with whom? What is the goal of the emergence of the "Phi-creatures"? The scientists get no answer to that question. But what communication can there be between social beings who create their spiritual and material civilization outside the individuals, beings who are involved in numerous conflicts between the "self" and the "others," the "ego" and the "world"—and a giant for whom there are neither plurals nor pronouns, and presumably also no human feelings? The contact was established in the only possible way, by direct entry into the psyche of the partner, but its results prove of no value to men. Instead of insights into the "soul of the Ocean," they encountered only their own mirror-images.

The experiment to which human beings are subjected on Solaris is cruel because it mercilessly reveals a hard truth. In the psyche of the crew the Ocean has sought out the most important, the most deeply hidden thing, something that in a manner constitutes the personality of the individual. And without exception it was found that the "core of the psyche" consists of memories of subjective, very personal and very painful experiences, which human beings are not likely to communicate even to each other. It is not the voyage to the stars and the contact with "aliens" that has shaped Chris Kelvin's soul, but a banal if tragical story of the death of a girl. Collectively we dare to engage in enterprises of gigantic proportions, but these acts exist as it were separate from us; when we are left to ourselves, we cannot master our own inner strife, which is the result of our social contacts.

And what are these contacts based on? We might say that the contents of our psyche are filtered. First of all there is that which remains closed up in our unconsciousness; then what is conscious, but not intended to be made public; and finally that small part of our experiences and ideas which we allow to emerge clothed in symbols of language or other symbols to represent ourselves to the outer world, to take part in the shaping of civilization. When something inadvertently emerges from the deeper layers of our consciousness into the exterior world, the result is invariably a shock. On the other hand, any symbolical expression which we receive through the agency of another human being may become a mirror in which we can perceive ourselves; perhaps also a form into which we can pour our inner formlessness. How, then, can a dialogue be possible with the Ocean, if the whole artful construction on which our "I" is based has been seen through and destroyed at one swipe? Would the Ocean be able to generate a feeling of his own "I"? Lem makes no attempt to offer a solution—after all, he is not interested in inventing fairy-tale characters and discoursing with them. We may consider the Solaris Ocean as a metaphor for the world, perhaps for God—this does not matter, for mankind, not the Ocean, was put to a test in Solaris: man's intellect, morals, finally his love—this unusual but so human love. Chris and Harey repeat in the pages of the book the pattern of a romantic love that transcends death: a little Mickiewicz, a little Poe. They are the living proof that the cultural idea of "feeling" is of higher value than cold reason; thus the "artificial" Harey wins over "magnifying glass and eye."10

In His Master's Voice, so far Lem's last novel (1968), the possibility of contact with "others" is isolated for a treatment resembling almost a philosophical treatise. His Master's Voice is the fictitious diary of an American mathematician engaged in decoding strange signals from outer space. The research project is shrouded in strict secrecy, on a military proving ground in the desert and under continuous surveillance by the military establishment. The novel has no sensational plot; all the discoveries with which Lem attracts the attention of the reader are of a rather intellectual nature. It is an essay on the impossibility of real communication between civilizations, between societies, between human beings. The enormous efforts of the scientists to decipher the "cosmic message" and the diverging but equally unprovable hypotheses are superadded to the differences in the research team. The confidential musings of Professor Hogarth, who begins with an analysis of his own soul
and discovers in it irrational, almost diabolical traits, and then proceeds to expound his theories on the human brain as a control-center which transcends the critical threshold in the direction of indeterminism and disturbance of equilibrium—all these lead the reader to the concluding thesis on the fundamental incommunicability of inner human states, on the loneliness of the individual that cannot communicate even with the persons closest to him:

I was never able to cross the interpersonal barrier. Animals are bound with all their senses to the here and now, but human beings can get away from it. Man remembers, he feels empathy with others, he is able to imagine their feelings and states—which luckily are not true. In such attempts of pseudo-incarnation and self-translation we can only imagine ourselves, and at that in a vague and imprecise way.11

A novel of Lem's dealing exclusively with the problems of cognition and communication appeared already in 1961 as Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. One could compile an anthology of primitive attempts to interpret that book. It is easy to see how the Memoirs, with their atmosphere of grotesque, black humour, could have led many a critic astray. In the introduction "from the 32nd Century" we learn that the Memoirs are a valuable discovery, found in the ruins of a Third Pentagon—the last refuge of the Ministry of Defense and the CIA of a United States in decline. Cut off from the inhabited world, the "Building" in the Rocky Mountains degenerates into a hermetically sealed institution, where activities consist only in never-ceasing exchanges of roles among the personnel while the basic structure of the "Building," the true cause of the system of masks and their function, remains unchanged.

A newly recruited employee, the narrator, wanders through the endless corridors of the "Building," driven by his sincere attempt to penetrate to the "essence" of the building, the meaning of his "mission," which are shrouded in secret. The novel is based on the nightmare principle: again and again there is a dim hope that the hero has encountered the core of the problem, the "authentic" thing—but again and again it is proved to him that it is only the next "experiment," a "provocation," a rigged game. Gradually we begin to believe that there exists no truth about the "Building," or rather that the "truth" is solely its existence—and nothing else.

It goes without saying that the genre of an ephemeral political satire cannot do justice to such contents. The author revealingly winks at the reader and suggests to him that "the Hyberiad Gnostors, for example, consider the first twelve pages apocryphal, an addition of later years."12 And the introduction has exactly this length. In a world of an ubiquitous secret service and a total camouflage, the text of the Memoirs too must be a code—and a many-layered one, much as is the case with the fragment from Romeo and Juliet decoded by a special machine, showing in the first analysis the aggressive feelings of Shakespeare against one Matthews, and—below that—an ecstatic stuttering (an occasion for a brilliant persiflage of the most bizarre outcrops of psychoanalysis on the part of Lem). We may therefore assume that the Memoirs are a persiflage of the bureaucratic machinery of modern secret services only on the surface; somewhat deeper, they are perhaps an allegory of the fate of the individual in a society with an interrupted information flow (here the text refers directly to the theses of Dialogues); but finally we discover that the novel portrays the tragedy of human cognition. The human being, driven by a thirst for knowledge about the world, basically asks the same question as the hunted hero of the Memoirs: he asks for the meaning, the essence, the telos of surrounding reality, he asks for the reason of his own existence. Even the answer is the same: everything is or could be a code, a mask, a camouflage. Here Lem already comes near a whole literary tradition of the 20th century. God creates things, while man, on the other hand, creates meanings —that had also become Bruno Schulz's conviction, and similarly we find in Memoirs:

What does it mean? Meaning. And so we enter the realm of semantics. One must tread carefully here! Consider: from earliest times man did little else but assign meanings—to the stones, the skulls, the sun, other people, and the meanings required that he create theories—life after death, totems, cults, all sorts of myths and legends, black bile and yellow bile, love of God and country, being and nothingness—and so it went, the meanings shaped and regulated human life, became its substance, its frame and foundation—but also a fatal limitation and a trap!13

Critics have compared the stylization of Memoirs to that of Gombrowicz, Witkacy, Kafka. It could also be compared to Genet, Schulz or Mrozek; we find a similar atmosphere in The Office by Breza, written nearly at the same time; a somewhat more removed forerunner is without doubt Potocki's Saragossa Manuscript. Lem's novel is written in the broad tradition of a literature which defines the condition of the individual enmeshed in institutions, in civilization, in interpersonal relationships, and filled by a desire to see through them and arrive at a universal truth about himself and the world. Truly eschatological questions are touched upon in the conspiracy of the protagonist with the priest Orfini. The two conspirators want, at all costs, to gain a possibility for spontaneous action, while all their actions have from the outset been programmed into the structure of the "Building" and are pre-determined. Obviously, this is a transposition of the centuries-old philosophical dispute about determination and freedom of will, liberty and responsibility. The "Building" is a variant of the world (or of God) which leaves the individual no room for authentic action. The only advice in this situation, after all efforts to cheat Nemesis have failed, is the realization of inner freedom: the conspiracy for conspiracy's sake (this private reality of the two rebels most likely does go back to Gombrowicz). The "Building" of Memoirs, identical with the cosmos, is therefore not just a parodistic version of the Pentagon; all of us live in a labyrinth. It is here that Lem's grotesque vision becomes apocalyptic.

Yet having imprisoned man in the labyrinth and heaped up across his path the most difficult, insoluble tasks, Lem nevertheless does not rob him of every chance. Acknowledging fully the tragedy of existence and cognition, Lem nevertheless treats his heroes with compassion: he accepts their human fallibility and limitation, and even turns it into a kind of "cheval de bataille" or vehicle on which man conquers the cosmos. Obviously, we are referring here to Pirx.

The Tales of Pilot Pirx (1968 and 1973), written over a period of years, are nonetheless all variations on a theme—the model of man in the cosmic era. Is this perhaps too pompous a term? It is a fact that Pirx, initially a cadet, and in the end a commander, is subjected to ever more difficult tasks as the tales progress. Nearly all Pirx stories investigate his physical fitness, his practical skill and cleverness, and finally his intellectual talents. The Pirx cycle has been planned with admirable consistency: parallel to the growth of the hero grows the difficulty of the problems that he encounters. This changes the tone of the tales from a joyful and carefree mood to a totally somber atmosphere in the concluding story "Ananke." By the same token the voice of the protagonist changes: at first it is frank, if sometimes rather shy and full of complexes, but in the end Pirx appears as a man weighted down by the heavy load of experiences, perhaps even embittered.

What is the purpose of this temporally drawn-out narration? The character of Pirx has been cleverly designed: he is supposed to be an average human being—neither good nor evil, nor especially talented. This seeming "mediocrity," by the way, is a source of constant irritation for young Pirx. Nevertheless, the consecutive tests the hero undergoes all end well, and, most important, the author stresses that in every case Pirx was successful where specialists, or whole teams of them, had previously failed. Is he then just another of the "cosmic heroes" with which trivial SF abounds? Lem is not that naive; Pirx does not beat the experts with their own weapons: all of his successes are based on chance—"somehow" he succeeds in emerging unscathed from the calamities of "Test" and "The Patrol"; a seemingly meaningless association saves him in "The Conditioned Reflex " and naivete in "The Trial ." He solves the mystery surrounding Cornelius and the computer in "Ananke" again "any which way"—nearly at random.

See, the author seems to say, there are no tricks here nor a "hero from a machine"; the whole thinking process is laid out before you; and—indeed—nothing about it is unusual. And that's in fact how it is. This does not mean, however, that Pirx is a faceless protagonist:

True, between his thought, clothed in words, and his actions there was no abyss, but nonetheless a barrier was there that made life difficult for him. His tutor did not suspect that Pirx was a dreamer. Nobody suspected it. They believed that he did not think at all—and that really wasn't the case. [—"Test"]

Already in the first tale Lem draws the blueprint of Pirx's inner life. Perhaps Pirx is not a systematic thinker, but he is possessed of an extraordinary intuition (an ability greatly valued by modern heuristics). When we ponder a problem we usually advance "methodically" by moving unconsciously in the beaten tracks of our predecessors. Intuition enables us to grasp a whole field of research in a meaningful way by a single act of the intellect. Thus, sometimes wholly new paths are opened up for the solution of tasks on hand. Such a way of thinking is as a rule alien to people set in their routines. Pirx emerges victorious in his brushes with the specialists not despite but because of being a dreamer who is able to get away from established patterns of thought. Lem advocates no heresy here: for some time now the view has been with us that modern civilization and its future evolution do not favor specialized individuals, but rather very flexible ones, who are it seems therefore able to adapt to changed conditions of civilization.

It seems therefore that in the person of Pirx Lem intended to test mankind. He set out to find a place, in the world of triumphant technology, where human weakness and human imperfection are no longer defects. It is simple to say: "Machines cannot think, machines have no consciousness!" From where do we derive this certainty?—Lem asks in his Summa Technologiae. Whence come the criteria that allow us to define "thought" in an apodictic way—and what if not thinking shall we call machine operations that have analogous results for their "output"? Lem's robots are not primitive machines; they represent a serious challenge to man. Initially Pirx competes with the specialists, but the specialist is, Lem seems to suggest, a human being reduced so as to function only in a certain intellectual sphere, a technician for the solution of certain problems in his own field. In the story "The Trial " Lem therefore substitutes for the specialist a humanlike robot who —once it recognizes its perfection—aims at ruling the world. The rebellious robot Calder is nothing less than the concentration of a whole team of specialists in one body; by proceeding logically he cannot be defeated. But Calder thinks only too logically, and he loses because he cannot understand irrational action; he is not flexible enough. "Seen in this light, our humanity is the sum of our faults and defects, our imperfections in fact; it is what we strive after but cannot attain, cannot do, cannot understand; it is simply the abyss between our ideals and their realization—isn't it?"—reflects Pirx in "The Trial ."

This weakness that turns into strength is not a real paradox. Lem's human beings are—just like the humans of Sartre—perpetually non-identical to themselves, always leaning toward their ideal image which they never attain. Since man remains imperfect until the end, he accepts the world as it is—like himself a little "failed" or "unfinished"; he accepts its dynamics and its unexpected mutations that sometimes stymie the most advanced computer programs.

Sometimes it appears as if Lem were somewhat dissatisfied with his own work. For his is a rather abnormal profession—that of a paid specialist in horror, a satanic surgeon who, after exhibiting man on his dissecting table, proceeds to pull out some more organs from the intestines and keeps muttering that they hardly fit the noble mission of "Man," "Culture," etc. The more ambitious SF writers waste their lives by inventing ever more complicated borderline situations where hypothetical future heroes are subjected to psychological terror in order to probe deeply into their humanity. Nevertheless, modern technology after a few years usually makes these exquisite tortures and the futuristic environment ridiculous. Lem therefore seems to feel the lack of authenticity of this involuntarily comic fantasy. This is perhaps why he almost from the beginning wrote funny, grotesque and parodying works besides his more serious ones. We have already mentioned The Star Diaries, and in the following years he wrote the TV plays of the cycle The Strange Adventures of Professor Tarantoga, the Robot Fables (1964), The Cyberiad (1965), and finally the excellent pure nonsense script for the movie Roly Poly.14 We shall consider only the best known, The Cyberiad and the "Fables for Robots" [of which eleven appear in Mortal Engines, US 1977].

The stories in these two cycles are written as it were in retrospect: the heroic times of human expansion are far in the past, and the cosmos flowers with the civilizations of the robots who make no bones about their abhorrence of human beings. At the same time everything among them is as among us—not exactly the same, but with no greater differences than is due to the distance between us and the changed world of the science-fictional fairy tale. The similarity between fairy tales and SF has been stressed long ago, for instance in the classical essay by Caillois.15 Both genres create a fantasy world that is ruled by a given system of laws; in SF these are partly natural laws which offer to its characters—on a certain level of future civilization—more freedom of action, while in fairy tale they are of a conventional character.

In a number of short works by Lem we find, as has been noted by Barańczak, a mixture of the most different levels: not only the patterns of the fairy tale and SF, but also their stylistic and linguistic elements are interwoven.16 This interweaving includes also the physical doctrine on which the functioning of the imaginary reality is based. The conventional "marvels" of the fairy tale are crossbred with quasi-scientific inventions. All of these anachronisms—these "cyberhorses," "electroknights" or "electrolyres"—are irresistibly comic; but The Cyberiad and "Fables for Robots" are not just literary fun (although they are exceptional fun), for the crossbreeding of two different genres results in an increase of meaningfulness.

The fairy-tale universe is an abstract reality existing outside of our experience, most often in the past; it is an immutable, constant order, a fixed moral code which should dominate the whole world. Fairy tales justify the reiteration of a few standard interpersonal situations by such a reference to mythic times. Quite different from this, typical SF looks towards new situations that transcend our experience, and in its most ambitious works it deals in borderline cases where human ethics break down, thus proving their inappropriateness. Barańczak mentions Lem's rejection of unlimited progress in time, as was still the case in The Magellan Nebula, in favor of a cyclical concept of time, as in The Cyberiad. But furthermore, Lem's grotesque stylizations strikingly reflect the existential situation of his heroes. Apparently they are always extroverted, but in reality they are captives of their isolation. Let us think back to the astronauts of Eden, Kelvin in Solaris, Rohan in The Invincible, Hogarth in His Master's Voice, or the narrator of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. All of them are very active, at least intellectually; and without exception they have to pay for their cognitive impulse with the painful experience of their own narrow prison.

Curiously enough, nobody has yet (in Poland) analysed Lem's works by psychoanalytical methods. His whole opus is opposed to isolation—and to open space (and how profound this sounds in depth analysis!). I know of no work with a more marked claustrophobia, and so permeated by the suspicion that the apparently limitless universe surrounding us is in reality a huge, misleading stage backdrop designed to fit our cognitive faculties, while the essence of things is hidden away somewhere else, behind the stage. One of the most significant and often repeated motifs in Lem's work is the situation of an individual or a group of individuals, or even a whole society, imprisoned in the artificial space of a computer. It starts with the possibility to give an "exact description of the atomic structure" of human beings—this problem is raised in Dialogues and realized in The Star Diaries. If it should be possible to copy a human being, why should it not then be possible to imitate his consciousness in a machine—as in "The Hammer ,"17 "Doctor Diagoras, "18 or "From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy II."19 One step farther in this direction, and it is possible to create whole worlds by mathematical methods: the personalities of human beings are programmed, their consciousness is filled with the pictures of a world not existing in reality, and these artificial beings are allowed to develop spontaneously. Thus we get the "boxes" of Professor Corcoran in "From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy I"20 or the "personetic" experiments of Professor Dobb in "Non Serviam."21

Well, Lem may say now, we know that there is nothing in a machine aside from some currents, but he who has become a person in these currents is not aware of it: he thinks he is a human being, sees other human beings, landscapes, etc. And, what is most important, there is no practical way he could test empirically the nature of his existence. For him, the creator of the boxes is a god. Our own confidence and our cognitive optimism are snuffed out when we take a deeper look at our own situation: for who could claim "irrefutably" that he himself is not in such a box? Corcoran horrifies us with a vision of the world as a hierarchy of boxes—a modern version of Berkeley's dilemma. Of course, Berkeley had his benevolent god "who wouldn't deceive him." In Summa Technologiae Lem mockingly proposes a robot god as well as artificial transcendence and artificial immortality.

"I should wish, as do most men," Lem admits in an interview to the periodical Nurt, "that immutable truths existed, that not all would be eroded by the impact of historical time, that there were some essential propositions, be it only in the field of human values, the basic values, etc. In brief, I long for the absolute. But at the same time I am firmly convinced that there are no absolutes, that everything is historical, and that you cannot get away from history."22

Thus far the motif of the labyrinth has played a key role in Lem's work, e.g. in the description of alien places on other planets in The Astronauts and Eden, the intestines of the cosmic monster in "The Rat in the Labyrinth ,"23 the aerodrome in Return from the Stars, the "Building" in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. To this one should add the juxtaposition of open and closed space, the hierarchy of isolations, dream visions, the obsession with biologism in the description of extraterrestrial landscapes.

It would appear that nobody is fitter for pointing out man's inner contradictions than Lem, who is on the one hand a sober brain seeing the world through categories and laws, a rationalist to the bone, and on the other hand a prisoner of his own corporeality, emotions and fears, with a special inclination for phantasmagoric visions. The fate of his hero proves the author's thesis, yet the hero is also thrust into a world of baroque visions, of powerful sensual and emotional impressions. The same ambivalence may be detected in Lem's language between an inclination towards exactitude and precision and a hidden leaning towards stylistic exuberance. Even his scientific essays are full of overflowing metaphors and heap one example upon the other.

But let us return to The Cyberiad. This book has of course a number of clearly recognizable goals: it is, as has been noted by the late Grochowiak, "a parody of the contes philosophiques in the manner of Voltaire; an excellent parody of fairy tales of children, written in rhymed prose; a parody of pseudo-scientific treatises; and finally, a masterful imitation of the Chinese box story-within-the-story in the oriental manner."24 Many of the very serious ideas from the Summa Technologiae, published at almost the same time, are realized in The Cyberiad and the Robot Fables. The master constructors Trurl and Klapaucius have as much in common with the sorcerers of fairy tales as with the engineers of the future. Just as the fairy tale establishes a moral order with a tendency to impress it upon society, so the stories in Lem's cycle debunk the real degenerative signs and contradictions of our world. But by means of this cacophonic genre of the "fairy tale from the future," a characteristic idea emerges: the more we give "cosmic imagination" a free rein, the more oppressive the fetters of our terrestrial, human world-view become. This becomes visible in the formal structure of Lem's stories in the following way: the more daringly the author transgresses empirical plausibility, the more clearly he must fall back upon the literary convention of the story. Having freed his vision of the imaginary world from anthropocentrism and geocentrism, he must allow them in again through the back door.

As is evident from his last works, it is becoming ever more difficult for Lem to write "normal SF stories." A Perfect Vacuum is composed of reviews of non-existent books. In 1973 Lem published Imaginary Magnitude —a cycle of introductions to books "published" between 1990 and 2029. In his writings Lem has unmistakably returned to Earth, and is now more interested in the development of human civilization than in the exploration of the cosmos. Disillusion? Has the invention of ever new cosmic beings and adventures become for him a literary activity that he can no longer justify to himself with a clean conscience? For the time being he prefers—aside from a few stories that continue his old cycles—to design "projects" of books, rather than really write them.

A Perfect Vacuum contains 15 reviews (the 16th is a review of the volume itself, done by the author) which —naturally—sum up the books reviewed rather than pass judgment on them. The selection comprises several clearly defined groups: some reviews contain extracts of notions from the field of socio-psychology ("Les Robinsonades ," "Gruppenfuhrer Louis XVI ," "The Idiot") which are truly astonishing in their originality. Very good books could most likely be written on the basis of these sketches. But Lem would not be Lem if he did not use the opportunity to taunt the fans of certain literary schools: "Gigamesh," a parody of Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake; "Rien du Tout, ou La Consequence," a persiflage of the French nouueau roman; and "Toi," another incarnation of the new "protest" literature, the "mocked audience"—all these are satirical masterpieces. Three reviews ("Sexploison," "Pericalypsis," "Do Yourself a Book ") parody some grotesque paroxysms of modern civilization, while the remaining five are thinly disguised treatises on cultural and philosophical themes.

Clearly, whatever Lem's form of expression, he always returns to the same themes: chance and necessity in the development of mankind, determinism and indeterminism in the life of man (the excellent story of the three corporations which turn into a triple god, "Being, Inc."),25 and finally the concept of the cosmos as a game. This idea, briefly mentioned in Summa Technologiae, has been developed more fully in The Philosophy of Chance. Similarly, Imaginary Magnitude ranges from a surprising idea ("Nekrobies") by way of a futurological joke ("Extelopedia Vestranda") to a treatise ("Golem XIV "), and becomes in its discursive part a continuation of the lines of thought from Summa Technologiae (especially "The Intellectronicians," "Engineers of Transcendence " and "A Pamphlet Against Evolution ").

A return to Earth, then? The essayist Lem tells us things hardly less interesting than the writer of fiction,26 but I would consider this turn in his creative work a temporary stage. It seems that this writer, whom consciousness of the mystification unavoidably associated with literature has reduced to extreme straits, has decided to raise this mystification to the status of a Third Force and to use it quite ostentatiously. Thence the fictitious reviews of fictitious books, which—if they were to be written—would also describe a fictitious world. By presenting striking ideas, which are then artfully reflected through a number of prisms, Lem demonstrates at the moment only his intellectual and technical capabilities. Whether a narration will come of this, and what kind of narration, time will tell.


1. Some of the works mentioned in this essay have not been published in English and thus have no official English titles. For such works we have used a literal rendering of the Polish title (or have retained the original Latin, French, or German title). The dates given in the text are for the first Polish edition. US editions of Lem's work are as follows:

"The Computer That Fought a Dragon." Tr Krzysztof Klinger. In Other Worlds, Other Seas: Science Fiction Stories from Socialist Countries, ed. Darko Suvin, Random House 1970. Also in Mortal Engines (see below).
The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. Tr Michael Kandel. Seabury 1974 v+295. Contains tales from Cyberiada (1965, 1967, 1972).
The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy. Tr Michael Kandel. Seabury 1974. From the collection Insomnia (1971).
"In Hot Pursuit of Happiness." In View From Another Shore: European Science Fiction, ed. [and tr?] Franz ottensteiner, Seabury 1973. From the collection Insomnia (1971).
The Investigation. Tr Adele Milch. Seabury 1974 iv+216.
The Invincible. Tr Wendayne Ackerman (from a German version). Seabury 1973 vii+188.
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Tr Michael Kandel and Christine Rose. Seabury 1973 iv+188.
Mortal Engines. Tr Michael Kandel. Seabury 1977 xxiv+239. Contains eleven of the Robot Fables from Cyberiada, 3rd edn 1972 (which I take to subsume Robot Fables, 1964), including "Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon" (see "Computer" above), and three other stories: "The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius (from The Star Diaries, 1971), "The Hunt" (from Tales of the Pilot Pirx, 2nd edn 1973), "The Mask" (from Mask, 1976).
"The Patrol." Tr Thomas Hoisington. In Other Worlds (see "Computer" above). From Tales of the Pilot Pirx (1968, 1973).
Solaris. Tr Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (from a French version). With an Afterword by Darko Suvin, Walker 1970.
The Star Diaries. Tr Michael Kandel. Seabury 1976 x+275. Contains "Introduction" and "Introduction to the Expanded Edition" (both attributed to Professor A.S. Tarantoga); "Voyages" 7-8, 11-14, 20-23, 25, 28; and "Translator's Note" by Kandel. See Note 4 below.
"The Thirteenth Journey of Ijon Tichy," Tr Thomas Hoisington. In Other Worlds (see "Computer" above). Also in The Star Diaries (see above).
"The Twenty-Fourth Journey of Ijon Tichy." Tr Jane Andelman. In Other Worlds (see"Computer" above). Not in The Star Diaries (see above).

With respect to bibliographical information, the editorial revision of this essay has been so extensive that—even though most of the information comes from the essayist or translator (some via telephone from Dr Suvin in Montreal)—the responsibility for any errors must be mine rather than theirs. —RDM.

2. It is interesting to note that in recent times Lem prefers the narration "from above": from the position of the great scientist (His Master's Voice) or the computer genius ("Golem XIV "). We owe this observation to Zdislaw B. Kępinski, "The 'Mavo'-Team or the Anti-Astronauts of Stanislaw Lem," Nurt #8(1972):25-29.
3. See the beginning of Dialogue VI in Dialogues.
4. In its first edition (1957) The Star Diaries contains eight of the tales called the "Journeys" or "Voyages" of Ijon Tichy and some additional tales; in its fourth edition (1971) it contains fourteen "Voyages," five sections of "The Memoirs of Ijon Tichy" and three other pieces: "The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius" (in Mortal Engines, see Note 1 above), "Dr. Diagoras ," and "Save the Cosmos: An Open Letter from Ijon Tichy." An additional voyage, the 26th, appeared in an earlier edition, but is rejected as "apocryphal" by Professor Tarantoga (The Star Diaries [see Note 1 above], pp vii-viii), and has not been translated into English. The 18th Voyage also remains untranslated. See the last three entries in the bibliography in Note 1 above. —RDM.
5. We now speak of The Star Diaries (i.e. the US edition), since from this point on our essayist seems to be exclusively concerned with the Voyages. —RDM.
6. The nations Pinta and Panta are called Straddletonia and Twaddletonia in Thomas Hoisington's translation, "The Thirteenth Journey" (see Note 1 above). —RDM.
7. That's how the cosmonauts call the inhabitants of the planet in Eden.
8. Maciej Szybist, "His Master's Voice from the Radio ," Zycie Literackie #26 (1969).
9. In the collection Invasion from Aldebaran.
10. This metaphor has been taken from verses by Mickiewicz which run: "Feeling and belief speak to me louder/ Than magnifying glass and the sage's eye."
11. For more comment on His Master's Voice, see the essay by Ursula K. Le Guin in this issue of SFS. —RDM.
12. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (see Note 1), p 12.
13. Ibid., p 148.
14. In the collection Insomnia (1971).
15. Roger Caillois, "De la Féerie à la Science-Fiction," Images, images (Paris 1966).
16. Stanislaw Barańsczak, "Electroknights and Cyberkids," Nurt #8 (1972).
17. In the collection Invasion from Aldebaran.
18. In The Star Diaries, 4th edn (see Note 4 above).
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. In the collection A Perfect Vacuum.
22. "Don't Believe Everything That You Know About Lem" (interview with Lem), Nurt #8 (1972).
23. In the first edition of The Star Diaries (1957).
24. S. Grochowiak, "How Funny This Lem Is!" Kultura #39 (1965).
25. In the collection A Perfect Vacuum.
26. I do not have room to review Lem's essays at length. I'll just mention that after the interesting Dialogues and Going Into Orbit (1962) he wrote the most engaging Summa Technologiae, whose main value lies in the intellectual boldness with which the author appraises the final consequences of the evolution of technology: the possibility of a "transposition" of humankind from natural bodies to artificial ones, stellar engineering, the breeding of information, artificial transcendence, etc. We also have not discussed his remarks about the influence of technology on the system of humanistic values, ethics, aesthetics, etc. In Philosophy of Chance (1968) Lem tried to create his own theory of literature, and in Science Fiction and Futurology (2 vols., 1970) he applied this apparatus to the analysis of SF. Lem considers the processes of literary communication as play, and yet establishing the socially recognized meaning of a work is a process of stabilizing meanings within changing cultures. He relies upon the apparatus of the information theory, probability theory, and theory of games—exactly on what most professors of Polish literature shy away from. His treatment of the meaning of a literary work as the result of stochastic processes of reception is met by an even stronger instinctive rejection by professional literary critics. But the suggestions of Lem, who looks at literary problems from outside of the ghetto of the professional scholars, deserve wide attention.

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