Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978


The Lem Affair (Continued)

Philip K. Dick. A Clarification

This is to clarify certain matters pertaining to the ouster of Stanislaw Lem from the SFWA. When Philip Josť Farmer wrote to SFWA saying that he and I (Philip K. Dick) would resign from SFWA if Lem were admitted on a regular dues-paying basis, he was speaking both unethically and perhaps even illegally, inasmuch as he had never discussed this matter with me at all. I at once wrote SFWA to explain to them that I dissociated myself from Mr. Farmer's position, and that he was speaking only for himself, not for me. I sent a copy of my letter to Ms. Pamela Sargent — all this in and around May 1976 — so that she would know of my repudiation and indignation vis-à-vis Phil Farmer's stated position.

I had assumed all this time that my letter to SFWA had been printed, but now I understand that it has not. I should have told Ms. Sargent to make public the carbon I sent her, plus the cover letter I sent her, but unfortunately I failed to do that. In other words, I had thought all this time that my position disavowing Phil Farmer's shocking and undemocratic position was well-known. I would like, at this time, to rectify that unfortunate silence and state absolutely that Lem should have been allowed (even welcomed) into SFWA on the customary dues-paying basis by which we are all members. The most fundamental quality of fairness and proportion is involved. That Lem spoke out critically against Western science fiction is no grounds to bar him from SFWA, and I am sure that any and every fair-minded person would agree to this. I am only sorry that my own position, held from the very start, was never made public.

Since rumors reach me that Lem defended a "politically suspect" translator and has therefore left his Polish publisher, Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków, I hope he will be allowed to go on publishing over there without having to recant in some undignified way — i.e. that he will be allowed by the Authorities Over There to be his own man — which we all should be.

Pamela Sargent. A Suggestion

I am grateful to Phil Dick for contributing his comments on the Stanislaw Lem-SFWA affair. I did refer to his letter of May 19, 1976, in print without mentioning his name (see SFS 4[1977]:133, where I mention that "Author B" has disassociated himself from "Author A's" position that Mr. Lem should not be in SFWA at all — Mr. Dick was Author B and Philip Josť Farmer was Author A). But I did not say anything else publicly because I did not know if I had Mr. Dick's permission to do so. I also knew that he had sent a letter stating his views to Andy Offutt, and assume that Mr. Offutt also believed his letter from Mr. Dick was private correspondence.

I think that the SFWA could still make amends to Mr. Lem. Recently, a few people have questioned the legitimacy of yet another group of SFWA members classified as "permanent" members. This class of membership, nowhere mentioned in the by-laws (unlike honorary membership, which is), has apparently been given at the discretion of the officers. These members are considered permanently qualified for active SFWA membership (they must pay dues, like the other members), while other members must keep up their credentials to remain active.

Some of these permanent members were placed on this list because of their prominence as writers, others because of their service to the SFWA. It is unclear whether being a permanent member is an "honor" or not. At least one officer claims that the list is simply a way of cutting down on paperwork, so that the overworked membership chairman has fewer credentials to check. Some have suggested abolishing permanent membership; others have asked that a list of specific criteria be stated, so that any writer meeting them could become a permanent member.

I bring up this matter of permanent SFWA membership not only because it offers a way out of the present situation vis-a-vis Mr. Lem, but also because it raises another question: why were the by-laws so rigidly applied to Mr. Lem, and so loosely applied to the permanent members? Had the officers genuinely wanted to clear up the problem of honorary membership, they could have offered Mr. Lem a permanent membership, since the officers were giving such membership to others at their discretion. I suggest that if the present system is retained (as it may well be, since changing it would cause a lot of perhaps unnecessary trouble), Mr. Lem be made a permanently qualified member. He would still be subject to other obligations of membership, such as paying dues, and making the offer would be a nice gesture. Even if he declines to join, there is a precedent: at least one writer on the list of permanent members is not an SFWA member and has no desire to be one, though if he ever joins he will be considered permanently qualified.

The change in Mr. Lem's status should have been put to him in such a way that no other interpretation of the change would have been possible except that SFWA was adjusting a technicality rather than punishing him for his views. Offering him a permanent membership would have accomplished this. It could still be done. The consent of an individual isn't needed for such an offer, as things stand now, and it binds Mr. Lem and the SFWA to nothing, save that if the permanently qualified member chooses to join and pay dues, he will not have to offer any additional credentials in the future. I encourage SFWA members and other interested parties to petition the SFWA President to offer Mr. Lem a permanent membership. The offer would demonstrate SFWA's good faith, and Mr. Lem's published work easily qualifies him for such an offer.

A note: At present, the SFWA Forum editor has decided not to print letters about matters he considers unimportant, irrelevant, or time-wasting. Two members who recently resigned thus could not air their grievances in the Forum. This seems to be the latest symptom of the chaos within the SFWA; I am not even sure if I could publish these comments in the Forum. The current climate among some SFWA officials gives me little incentive to try to do so, which is one reason I have sent these remarks to Science-Fiction Studies.

Darko Suvin. What Lem Actually Wrote: A Philogico-Ideological Note

The Atlas World Review article supposedly by Stanislaw Lem, reprinted in SFS #12 (July 1977, 4:127-28), is in Atlas preceded by an editorial note stating that the article "is adapted from" a German original. The word "adapted" aroused my curiosity, for if the article's basic thoughts were recognizable Lem, its style was not. Lem is often cutting and polemical, but seldom if ever humiliatingly rude, as some passages in the Atlas version tend to be. I therefore sought and obtained a copy of the German original (in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of Feb. 22, 1975), and discovered the following. First, the German version is itself a translation from the Polish, so that we have here, in both the Atlas translation and my own, a double filtering. Second, the "adaptation" reduces Lem's ca. 1750 words in German to ca. 1300 in English. This reduction led not infrequently to only approximate translations, which oscillated between "free" adaptation and a digest. I shall give here eight examples of important changes, quoting (A) the German article in my translation as LEM; then quoting (B) the corresponding passage as translated in Atlas, citing the SFS page/paragraph (within the article) as e.g., ATLAS 127/1; and finally making (C) whatever COMMENT seems called for.

1A. LEM'S TITLE. SF, or Phantasy Come to Grief.

1B. ATLAS TITLE. Looking down on Science Fiction: A Novelist's Choice for the World's Worst Writing.

1C. COMMENT. The Atlas title is offensive, and the subtitle is an affirmation that Lem nowhere makes.

2A. LEM. ...the letters published in "fanzines" show that SF books are often merely an excuse, a possibility of mutual contact for people that are socially alienated and frustrated, and for whom being part of "fandom" means a vital compensation.

2B. ATLAS 127/1. ...letters to the editor [in the "fanzines"] suggest that fandom is largely made up of frustrated individuals estranged from society.

2C. COMMENT. Now really! Lem presents a fact, not without sympathy. Atlas boils it down to the worst possible interpretation, suppressing the "mutual contact" and the "vital compensation," and turning it into a sneer from the position of the present-day social status quo.

3A. LEM. The festivities, the pretensions and eccentricities of [SF] authors and readers would, in the final instance, be their private affair, and in what was said above [about the SF conventions] there would be nothing to blame, had SF not become a domain of Kitsch and mystification. By Kitsch I mean a literature which being one thing (e.g. primitively crafted entertainment) tries to make believe it is something else (e.g. a "mythology of technological civilization"). For Kitsch is claim without delivery, a wholly naive and self-satisfied or even despotic pretension.

3B. ATLAS 127/3-4. The whole phenomenon would not be worth further discussion were it not that sci-fi appears to have been elevated to a level of both kitsch and mystification that makes it a force to be reckoned with. By kitsch I mean a literary form that claims to be a mythology of technological civilization while in fact it is simply bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue.

Kitsch is promise without delivery, drivel in the form of an intimate self-satisfied ego trip.

3C. COMMENT. From bad to worse! The "force to be reckoned with," the "bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue," the "drivel in the form of an ... ego trip" are simply invented by the "adaptor" out of thin air. Conversely, the adaptor suppresses some other not unimportant formulations of the original, most notably Lem's sense that Kitsch writing is a "despotic" (selbstherrlich) pretension, i.e. a type aggressively annihilating other types of writing.

4A. LEM. ...this activity of mine was rather hopeless, since the value criteria of literature are not determined by the abstract demands of criticism, but by the concrete literary works, for which there can be no theoretical substitutes.

4B. ATLAS 127/6. My actions were hopeless because the value judgments I was rendering were based on the worth of literary achievements unknown to the fans.

4C. COMMENT. Here Atlas makes Lem say roughly the opposite of what he actually said. The German original is a wry self-criticism on the futility of literary theorizing without practical alternatives; the adaptation says that such alternatives exist and are unknown to the fans. Lem may have implied so much in the immediately following lines about Tolstoy and Gone With the Wind, but he did not say it here.

5A. LEM. About one year ago I was elected an honorary member of the SFWA. I accepted this honor because I had not yet wholly given up the above-mentioned apostolic role in partibus infidelium [in the lands of the unbelievers]. Why didn't I rather refrain from such "missionary" attempts? I think I didn't do so because the phenomenon of SF still fascinates me.

5B. ATLAS 128/2. A year ago I was voted an honorary membership in SFWA. I accepted the honor because I had not given up on working toward reform from within. Now I wonder why I ever bothered trying. Possibly because to this day the phenomenon of science fiction fascinates me.

5C. COMMENT. Both changes here illustrate well the stylistic metamorphosis from Lem to Atlas's anonymous translation. The self-irony of "apostolic role" (referred to once before and cut by the adaptor in both cases) is reduced to the newyorktimese of "reform from within." The change from Lem's self-questioning "Why didn't I refrain" to "Now I wonder why I ever bothered trying" adds to that the dimension of cocksure rudeness.

6A. LEM (on Poul Anderson's contention about SF competing for beer-money): Such an honestly as well as clearly posited alternative can be either admitted or rejected.

6B. ATLAS 128/6. Put this way, one can either accept or reject the thesis.

6C. COMMENT. ...: Here I am almost rendered speechless. Lem's compliments on an honest and clear alternative are partly colored by irony as to Anderson's basic thesis, but also a piece of loyal acknowledgment of alternatives. This delicate interplay of irony and fair arguing is expunged in Atlas.

7A. LEM. There is no doubt that the muses are silent over beer as well as at other, less pleasant occasions.

7B. ATLAS 128/7. That the muse cannot be pursued over a bottle of beer goes without saying.

7C. COMMENT. It goes without saying that the suppression of the "as well as" phrase which clearly alludes to the "official approval or similar concerns" of the preceding sentence, robs Lem's diatribe of a whole dimension, which in the original discreetly testifies that he is not just anti-American or anti-capitalist. It also robs it of the allusion to wars (inter arma silent musae — the muses are silent during wars) and the whole international political reality of our times, where there is more than one oppressive national situation. A small thing? Perhaps. But multiply it by the number of such reduced sentences....

8A. LEM. Furthermore, the history of literature allows no extenuating circumstances.

8B. ATLAS 128/8. Finally, the history of literature shows that authors rarely had an easy time of it.

8C. COMMENT. A classic of how translating a supposed "essence" without sufficient attention to what was actually said changes the message. Lem was not speaking simply about the empirical fact of the authors' poverty and similar things: he was concerned with the fact that the verdict of posterity will not take any of that into account, and furthermore that this verdict is the supreme court of judgment for an author. In other words: Lem writes in ethical terms, finding a consummation in the future; Atlas translates it into behaviorist terms for the present.

FINAL COMMENT. The reader should take into account, first, that my translation tried for literal accuracy more than for style, and second, that whenever there was a reasonable interpretative doubt I stuck to the Atlas version. Nonetheless, the above is perhaps enough to clinch the conclusion that the Atlas "adaptation" is more than anything else a digest, suppressing the richness and (according to his own lights) fairness of Lem, and making a caricature of his wrath. It is a slick reduction of Lem to a sensationalist one-dimensionalism, in the best yellow press tradition. It reads as if it had been churned out direct into the typewriter. Or perhaps — worse still — it simply follows a conscious or unconscious norm of jazzing up the "adapted" article. That norm clearly embodies, in this case, the elitist ideology that SF as such is a sign of cultural decadence, so that no holds are barred when referring to it for Atlas's superior readership. One can now disjoin the what and the how in a manner that would never be tolerated for articles on, say, Henry James or Thomas Mann. This is the ideology which Umberto Eco calls "apocalyptic." Now, the opposite "integrated" acceptance of all popular literature — present in too many American critics with their "ooohs" and "aaahs" of delight when faced with the latest bestseller — is possibly even more pernicious. But the way to combat such fannishly uncritical enthusiasms is not to stick to the norms of 19th Century bourgeois gentility and taste. When we add to this a reminder that all of it is, after all, a double translation (though I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the Polish-into-German translation), it becomes clear that we can still only dimly surmise the actual shape of Lem's arguing.

Finally, it strikes me as odd in this comedy of errors that nobody in the SFWA has in the two years between the Atlas article and now ever thought of checking out the German (semi-)original, or even — with supreme audacity of imagination — of writing to Lem for the Polish original and perhaps some explanation.... This is all rather sad. And as I wrote in SFS #11, doesn't such disinterest in the actual evidence tend to substantiate those views of Lem's which many of us would still like to think of as exaggerated?


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