Science Fiction Studies

# 18 = Volume 6, Part 2 = July 1979

Dagmar Barnouw

Science Fiction as a Model for Probabilistic Worlds: Stanislaw Lem's Fantastic Empiricism

The Polish SF writer and theoretician of science, Stanislaw Lem, is one of the most sophisticated and effective commentators on the difficulties faced by the vastly complex and vulnerable social systems in an age dominated by science and technology. Many of his texts support the claims that a theoretician of SF like Darko Suvin makes for the unique responsibility of contemporary SF as well as its unique opportunities. Tending toward "a dynamic transformation rather than toward a static mirroring of the author's environment," successful SF relies on both a creative and a critical approach, "combining a belief in the potentialities of reason with methodological doubt in the most significant cases," and is thus, as Suvin points out, related to the philosophical basis of modern science.1

I shall attempt here to analyze Lem's concept of SF as a cognitive aesthetic model through which to explore contemporary social-psychological behavior. Lem is primarily a writer of SF. His theoretical, "philosophical" work like Summa technologiae — that far-ranging, fantastic, logical discussion of contemporary problems relating to science and technology and ironical secular challenge to Aquina's Summa theologiae — belongs to that genre, and so do his collections of learned introductions to and reviews of imaginary scientific studies, Imaginary Number and Perfect Vacuum.2 Lem has also been a very prolific commentator on the dubious aspects of much of contemporary SF marking out, by way of contrast, his own imaginative, intellectual territory and stressing the structural considerations that inform his own models. An impatient, polemical critic, he is always concerned with the potentialities of SF, so that his observations cannot easily be disregarded.

1.1. In the Summa technologiae Lem points to the unlimited possibilities of cybernetics in confronting questions of modern social and scientific structures.3 This approach clearly excites his imagination. Besides, he is quite convinced that most contemporary writers, especially SF writers, are constitutionally unable to share his understanding of it.

Contemporary SF is seriously deficient in what Lem terms sociological imagination (Suvin's "cognitiveness"). And the best mainstream writing is no better: in an essay on eroticism and sexuality in SF, Lem complains that Sartre, Bellow, Robbe-Grillet will never write a novel about a cosmonaut; they might at best be interested in a protagonist suffering from the hallucination that he was traveling in space.4 Literature has lost interest in the adventure of reason. In a world of omnipresent and accelerated change, pathological mental states seem to be the last and only invariants, and the "inner spaces" of insanity assume an almost idyllic quality, establishing an (illusionary) link between an inaccessible present and an accessible past. In a world which seems impenetrable, the language of literature has become impenetrable, too.5

Lem pleads for rational, imaginative penetration of the problems besetting modern man as a social being. SF, if it realized its specific potentiality and responsibilities, could be the medium for such enlightenment, but it would have to deal with the problems and dangers of the future without reducing them to the patterns of the past. And here Lem is very pessimistic: "The salvation of the creative imagination cannot be found in mythical, existential or surrealist writings — as a new statement about the conditions of existence. By cutting itself off from the streams of scientific facts and hypotheses, science fiction itself has helped to erect the walls of the literary ghetto where it now lives out its piteous life."6

This criticism even applies to a writer much admired by Lem, Borges. In an essay titled "Unitas Oppositorum: The Prose of Jorge Luis Borges" Lem praises the rigorous structures of Borges' best texts while recognizing their limitations: "they have been constructed as tightly as mathematical proofs. It is impossible to refute them logically, however lunatic the stories' premises may sound. Borges is successful because in any single case he never questions the implied premise of the model structure that he transforms .... He is a mocking heretic of culture because he never transgresses its syntax."7 Precisely such transgressions, however, are a contemporary necessity. The paradoxical resurrection of treasures from the past, Borges' greatest achievement as Lem sees it, is "located in its entirety at an opposite pole from the direction of our fate. Even this great master of the logically immaculate paradox cannot 'alloy' our world's fate with his own work. He has explicated to us paradises and hells that remain forever closed to man. For we are building new, richer, and more terrible paradises and hells ....".8

The "we" refers to Lem. Contemporary SF has neglected such construction, it has failed to invent a new syntax adequate to the cognitive potentiality of our social and scientific experience. Many SF writers faced with the task of imagining consistent alien worlds, resort to the shortcut of furnishing their freely invented transgalactic planets with terrestrial natural laws. Thus they have only rediscovered the far-off islands of the 17th-18th century, indulging in an unmitigated arbitrariness, a seemingly infinite but in fact false kind of freedom.9 Indeed, they confuse the modes of the "meta-empirical" and the "metaphysical" as Suvin defines them.10 The "non-naturalistic" or "meta-empirical" mode of SF has to be rigorously cognitive; yet it is this crucial aspect of contemporary SF which, in practice, seems to be neglected, and therefore in need of constant critical attention.

From Lem's vantage point, extrapolation in SF as well as in science — e.g. cosmology — tends to be too linear. SF tends to project future developments as (for better or worse) more of the same. Cosmologists tend to look for anthropomorphic civilizations, not for civilizations per se, and the "silence of the universe" may be a result of that. Most SF, of course—Lem complains—neglects even the fact of this silence, busily going about inventing those arbitrarily anthropomorphic civilizations that scientists have not been able to find so far. It is precisely the comfortable fiction of unlimited traveling in time and space that causes this illegitimate domestication of space.11

It is true, Lem concedes, that the very question of whether reason is the necessary culmination of evolution, or accidental, is based on our human episteme. However, this unavoidable perspective should not and need not be the cause of an unreflective anthropocentrism; rather, it ought to be seen as a strategy, a constantly questioned working hypothesis. Man, after all, poses to nature a host of questions which are meaningless from the point of view of nature, and he would very much like to recive answers which fit his familiar thought-patterns. As a rule we do not try to discover order but only a certain kind of order, namely one conforming to the principles of clarity, generality, and immutability. But these principles are by no means revealed truths; they are merely scientific conventions. The cosmos has not been created for our sake; we are a side product of astrophysical changes on a huge scale, and it may just be, Lem warns us, that the extraterrestrial reason we some day discover will be so different from our concepts that we will not want to call it reason."12 In other words — and much of Lem's SF, e.g. The Invincible or Solaris, deals with that possibility — such intelligence may be radically, though not incomprehensibly, alien to us. And yet, Lem is right in his observation that nobody can live consciously in the second half of the 20th century without giving some thought to "that still unknown community of sentient beings of which, in all probability, we are a part."13 In constructing his models, the scientist as well as the writer of SF would do well to keep them open and flexible.14

1.2. How to deal intelligently, imaginatively, and responsibly with those "streams of scientific facts and hypotheses"15 so forbidding to many SF writers is a difficult as well as an important question going to the core of SF. These "streams" are immensely stimulating to Lem, the theoretician of science. However, he is also sharply aware of the necessity for fictional strategies peculiar to the SF genre, for a clearly defined and functional aesthetic dimension in the SF text dealing with science and society.

In his harsh but illuminating critique of Todorov's Introduction à la littérature fantastique,16 Lem draws attention to the fact that Todorov's concept of the fantastic neglects the specific mode of fictionality. It deals with certain aspects of reader psychology, in that the fantastic dimension of a text is understood as depending on the reader's inability to decide whether a narrative belongs to the natural or supernatural order of things. The "fantastic," then exists on an axis between the rationally possible ("étrange pur") and the rationally impossible ("merveilleux pur").17 And the reader is seen as reacting from a position of naive realism, divorced from the poetic function — the specific cognitive dimension — of a literary text. In contrast, Lem points to Borges' "Three Versons of the Judas" for an approach particularly aware of the text as a highly organized construct and model, with presents a "literature of imaginary ideas, of fictional basic values, of other civilizations — in a word, the fantasy of the 'abstract'."18 It is important to note here the connection between fictionality and the accommodation of fields of reference outside the author's and the reader's mundane experience. If the Borges story presents a model of fantastic theology, one can envision (fictional) models of fantastic philosophy, sociology, science — one can envisage, in other words, a significant SF. Its function, as Lem seems to see it, is the development of sociological imagination through the construction of non-assertive models of potential social behavior and through the projection of these models into an ever changing environment crucially influenced by scientific discovery and technology. The actual universe of facts and the potential universe of things thinkable form today a most complicated systemic SF as a model-building "fantasy of the abstract" — of the imagined, the potential — is able to accommodate discussion of the problems inherent in such complex social systems of our scientific age where the real and the potential interact, creating constant flux and change.

Lem is interested in the social function of the aesthetic dimension of SF. An SF text, as a system of signs constituting an alien world that does not allow direct references to the reader's world, emphasizes the non-referential mode, the distancing, clarifying function of the aesthetic experience. Long before Lem, the Prague structuralists, improving of Shklovsky's formalist position that the aesthetic experience entails the violation of an anticipated aesthetic norm, clearly linked this process of ostranenie20"making it strange" — to the reader's changing attitude toward his own social system of references. Jan Mukarovsky agreed that only the aesthetic experience makes possible that emphasis on the sign itself which frees it "to a considerable extent from direct contact with the thing or event that it represents," thereby enabling it "to signify man's general relation to the universe which is not bound to any concrete reality"; but the aesthetic experience, Mukarovsky insists, interacts with all the other modes of experience, including the scientific one, and the effect is one of "tension which makes art a perpetual ferment of human life."21 The reader's activity with regard to the text combines his perception of the text's semantic unity — on which its fictionality is also based — and his relating that system of signs to his own world of references, his own experience. Only both of these aspects together constitute the model character of the literary text. Understanding an SF text on its own terms — accepting even complex, puzzling constructs of alien beings and alien worlds — can be seen as a conscious process of "making it strange," namely of distancing, of aesthetic postponement or temporary freezing of referential activities which will reward the open-minded reader of SF with a more imaginative, more probing perspective on his own world as a social construct.

2.1. One of the most important factors of change as well as models for societal processes is the ongoing development of more and more complex thinking machines, the approaching symbiosis of the human and the artificial brain. In his Cybernetics (1948) and The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), Norbert Wiener had described the physical and social world in its probabilistic aspects as a fluctuating possibility rather than a solid reality. In 1950 Turing published his important essay "Computing Machinery and Intelligence,"22 using, like Wiener, the concept of a man as a highly complicated machine. In his Summa Lem refers to these texts repeatedly. What interested him was the fact that the problem of human consciousness was shifted from the ontological to the epistemological dimension; it had become a working hypothesis. If a machine acts like a man, why not call it "alive"? If it argues like a human being, why not speak of it as "conscious"? The question whether the soul exists is not answered in the negative, it is posed differently.23 Wiener was aware of the fact that his cybernetic perspective on human behavior was likely to provoke a series of misunderstandings. In his God and Golem Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1963), he acknowledges the uneasiness caused by the comparison between man and machine. But what if there are many good reasons for such comparison? We have learned, Wiener points out, to accept Darwin's ideas; we now analyze our phylogenetic heritage without too much psychic damage. We shall get used to the idea of the potential intellectual intimacy between man and machine, if only to examine soberly the possible dangers. Most importantly, this will teach us more about ourselves.

This is exactly the point Lem makes in the Summa and — in a lighter vein — in the Cyberiad. His two robots Klapaucius and Trurl, tinkering with their computers, are all too human with their proclivity for instant, certain, and final solutions to the most complicated social problems. The results of their actions are more — and more complicated — complications. Even if momentarily depressed, they go happily on without reflecting on the consequences, fascinated by the possibilities their hardware contains, as if it were a candy-machine. Yet none of their logical and grotesque experiments will ever yield any insight into the nature of societies as complex cybernetic systems in which, because of their very complexity, the unpredictable is going to happen. Trurl and Klapaucius program their computers with the utmost ingenuity and open mindedness; they even pursue the idea of "Dragons of Probability." But they still proceed dogmatically, insisting, e.g., that they know the truth about robot/human happiness, so that all remains is just to figure out how to achieve it. Though they are cybernetic systems themselves, they still cannot accept the fact that all complex systems are stochastic: in a very human fashion they try frantically to neutralize the disturbing experience of uncertainty and accidentality.

Now, Lem is less interested in the fact that an "android" sentient machine may be possible in the near or far future than in situating this possibility in a complex social context. The glance at man through the machine does not, I think, create that paradoxical conflict between humanism and anti-anthropocentrism that some critics see Lem caught in.24 True one of his main impulses is to take seriously the possibility of other, alien worlds and beings, for consciousness is precious and has to be respected whatever its form. Also, even his most fantastic models deal with problems of human behavior: the reader is clearly challenged to relate the fantastic construct to his own social field of references, his human experience. Lem's epistemology starts from a very modified and qualified anthropocentrism: the automaton in the story "The Mask"(1974),25 with its inability to act at the crucial moment, or Trurl and Klapaucius, with their precipitous exercises in computer engineering, are simultaneously very "human" and very "inhuman." Such a double perspective is based on a very precise method of observation, on a precisely graded interaction of nearness and distance. In this perspective the fantastic protagonists seem human in their familiar bungling and tinkering, and the human protagonists — Kelvin in Solaris, Rohan in The Invincible — seem fantastic in their determination to cope with the utterly alien.

It is, then, Lem's attempt to understand and communicate the problem involved more clearly that made him decide to discuss the symbiosis of man and machine, of knowledge and social action, within the SF model of the more literally probabilistic world of robots. In the "Seventh Sally or How Trurl's Own Perfection Led to no Good," Trurl constructs a tiny but fully developed feudal civilization for Excelsius and Tartarian, a notorious tyrant who is desperately bored on his isolated asteroid. Already driven away from two kingdoms, he demands to be restored to one of them as a ruler. Trurl would not dream of doing any such thing, but he cannot resist the challenge of building a tiny kingdom complete with all the happiness and suffering of birth, love, obedience, hatred, aggression, punishment, death. He knows that these tiny particles behave completely like robots/humans, but he does not really believe it: they are too small, too alien. He is finally convinced by Klapaucius that in surrendering his creatures to the totalitarian ruler he has violated his responsibility as creator of sentient beings. Always well-meaning, Trurl is ready to take the kingdom away from Excelsius and hold free elections, resisting the impulse to simply destroy the mess. However, he would have to restructure the smoothly functioning feudal society from scratch. Approaching it apprehensively, he learns that it has developed into a modern post-industrial civilization complete with mushroom shaped clouds, and that Excelsius has been shot into orbit, circling the asteroid as its stern-looking moon. Constructing a complex social system, the "very antithesis of a mechanism," Trurl had inadvertently created "that which was possible, logical and inevitable," in spite of his intentions (to "help" Excelsius) and motivations (to prove his ingenuity). His creation proves to be independent of its creator's intentions and motivations; its autonomy, however, is another question.

One of Trurl's first productions, in the story "Trurl's Machine," insists, to his dismay, that 2 plus 2 equals 7. Neither angry exhortations to behave nor passionate tinkering with its wires are of any use. Rather, the machine ends up threatening Trurl. Kandel, the brilliant translator who is thoroughly familiar with Lem's work, quotes this incident as one of the clearest examples of the concept so important to Lem: the creature's independence of its creator, its autonomy.26 Yet this is only one aspect of the problem. The machine's conventionally wrong, "autonomous," 2 plus 2 equals 7 drives Trurl to distraction; but the machine, too, is driven to despair by the conventionally correct 2 plus 2 equals 4. Its self-destruction is accompanied by a last faint croaking noise: "seven." The creature is autonomous with respect to the creator, but not with respect to the environment with which it interacts. The creator is responsible for his creature as well as for its interaction with a world beyond his control. The most important moral of those "fables for the cybernetic age" collected in the Cyberiad is to direct our attention to the conditions and limitations of contemporary human autonomy, to the Self acting in relation to the Other.

2.2. Asimov's robots, programmed by "Laws of Robotics" and thereby condemned to eternal virtue,27 may have been conceived as ideally normative with respect to humans; but they cannot be seen as models for human social behavior, if only because they are entirely predictable. In contrast, Lem's thinking machines habitually come up with surprising, crazy, thought-provoking ideas. Lem clearly draws analogies between the human responsibility for the sentient synthetic being and man's responsibility for an interdependence with his fellow man. The real social problem of man's attitude toward the Other, which defines his sense of autonomy, is subjected to the clarifying fantasy of the imaginary, to the subjunctive, non-assertive models of SF which — because of their fictionality — may manage to penetrate deeper into contemporary social consciousness.

The thinking machine in the story "The Mask" appears first as a beautiful young woman, then as a huge insect. It is in the insect shape that it is seen as participating in the human condition, sharing man's consciousness, his threatened, limited space of freedom or autonomy, his doubt-ridden search for truth, the conflicts and ambiguities of his existence, and his restless projections of possible and probable connections between things.

"The Mask" presents one of the most puzzling, but also one of the most serious and subtle, fictional models of the problem of consciousness in Lem's work. The world with which the machine has to interact is a feudal society, in which all characters are defined by clear-cut social roles. The machine is first encased in the body of a young woman. It is programmed with several memory complexes from which the woman, trying to find out who she is and where she came from, has to make a functional selection. She seems to resist her given social role: a court beauty available to the king, his instrument. Not yet informed of what is concealed in the woman's body and mind, the reader can take her allusions to programmed behavior and inbuilt calculation of probabilistic solutions of conflicts literally, and make guesses about the development of the story; he can also understand these allusions metaphorically, as references to an always problematic and threatened human autonomy. His perspective is first a shifting one, but a dual perspective emerges as soon as the specific SF system asserts itself, because in it the relation between the denotative and connotative dimensions of signs is simultaneously more controlled — the often observed "literalness" of the SF genre — and better suited for provoking a cognitive examination. As soon as the reader is given a clear signal that he is dealing with SF — as soon as the insect-machine emerges, casting off the mask of the human body — he is in a position to accept both the literal and the metaphorical level of the text, and he will then be able to reflect, with Lem, on the social development of human consciousness, poised between determination and freedom.

As the story progresses, the reader perceives the machine as a conscious, sentient, intelligent being; the machine, however, is driven and paralyzed by profound doubts about the nature of its consciousness. Hunting the king's enemy as programmed, but increasingly ambivalent about its prey, it cannot convince itself that the complexity of its consciousness, of its unpredictable thoughts and action, is more than functional, i.e. more than a perfect program for the most effective hunting machine set upon the most sophisticated and unpredictable human prey — the "wise man," the intellectual. The SF model is used very effectively to explore problems of human consciousness: a thoroughly probing intellect is constantly examining the complex of motivations for our decisions, trying to crack that useful cybernetic device, the "black box," and paralyzing action. It is when the machine, toward the end of its hunt, acknowledges its inability to understand, much less control, the nature of decisions in situations of extreme conflict, that it is unambiguously recognized as a "sister" of man.28

3. Synthetic consciousness in its sociopsychological implications for human beings is also the very serious subject of Lem's review of the fictitious Professor Arthur Dobb's book on "personetics," Non Serviam. 29 In the chapter "Intellectronics" of the Summa, Lem had developed arguments similar to those of that learned and thoughtful imaginary scholar. Personetics — a possible field of scientific inquiry in the Summa — concerns itself with various problems relating to the creation of sentient beings. Dobb — like Lem — is interested in possible principles of regularity and generality governing the development of theological systems, of metaphysical models produced by electronic brains. The eight-dimensional mathematical universe Professor Dobb has created for his "personoids" — originally six of them — is within a giant computer. By virtue of their environment, the personoids do not know the difference between that which can be physically constructed and that which can be mathematically thought. Yet, like human beings, the personoids can imagine other worlds. Lem uses this fantastic situation as an occasion to build models of epistemological and ontological questions for which, historically, philosophers have provided very surprising and often surprisingly ill-considered answers. The personoids, developing their language and civilization within their changing world, for all their differences from us share with us a central approach to life: they give priority to certain experiences within their world, and they form their worldview accordingly — if the priorities change, so will the world-views. The disturbing aspect of personetics is not the alleged imprisonment of the personoids in the computer, brought to the attention of an uninformed public by the yellow press: the personoids do not know and therefore do not miss further spaciousness. On the contrary, they lead full personoid lives through mutual intellectual stimulation in interaction with the computer-generator. Rather, the disturbing aspect of personetics has to do with the relationship between the creator — in this case Professor Dobb — and his creatures, as soon as they start posing those most human questions: where do I come from? where am I going? why am I thus and not different? why am I in this world? and finally: was there an act of creation?

Dobb's fascination compels him to push aside his scruples about listening in to these conscious beings. By means of temporal acceleration he manages to survey 2000 to 2500 years of personoid time; by then the theological speculations are becoming interesting and disturbing, in particular those of one personoid, ADAN 300, whose persuasive arguments are strongly reminiscent of Philo, that sophisticated discussant in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1751). ADAN 300, a sentient and sensible mathematical being, deals with religious questions, and especially the problem of the creature's obligation to the creator, within the logical model of game theory. From this position he rejects Pascal's argument that it might be useful to believe in God in any case: if he does exist, we win, if he does not, we have not lost anything. (Significantly, Hume was critical of the split between the moralist and the scientist in Pascal — the first needing "the tithe'' certainty, the latter perfectly willing to work with probabilities) 30 ADAN 300, proceeding more logically than Pascal, holds that as rational beings we do not lose — or, for that matter, win — anything, if we do not (or do) believe in God, as long as we do not have any conclusive proof of his existence. For God, should he exist conforming to the rules of the game — as a perfect, i.e. also perfectly just being — could not ask man to believe in him, God, without providing non-contradictory rules guiding such action, in this case: evidence of his existence. As long as man is left with uncertainty regarding God's existence, he cannot be held accountable to him. Should God indeed exist, but not adhere to the rules, then he could also happily punish the faithful and reward the unfaithful. So, ADAN 300 asks, what good does it do a rational being to believe in God? None.

On the other hand, he argues, it is unequivocally good for rational beings to be good to each other, because they/we are all together in this game called life. Belief in God and an afterlife — i.e. the continuation of the game with rules unfamiliar to us in a world beyond our known world — is permissible only if it does not influence the strategies in our life-game. Most reasonably, ADAN 300 insists on a separation between temporal and transcendental ethics.

Dobb is especially intrigued, and disturbed, by the arguments offered by ADAN 300 against God's alleged claim to man's gratitude and love. God, in case he created the world, permitted it to develop as it could and did. Therefore "I shall not serve" anybody except man. Dobb accepts the personoid's logical conclusion as the only correct one. It would seem an act of utmost egotism for the creator to demand belief and veneration from his creatures in a situation in which he is omnipotent while they can justly claim that their actions are logical, in accordance with the rules of their world. Dobb, the creator, may be forced to destroy the universe of the personoids shortly, because his university will not be able to pay the electricity bills — but this ironical allusion to the limitations imposed on our most ambitious scientific projects and speculations is another matter. The very serious moral of the imaginary study is "Non serviam" — we should not serve God or the State, only ourselves as social beings, dependent on each other in increasingly complex social systems. In our societies servitude to unreasoning socio-psychological cravings for spiritual security, instant meaning, certainty, or truth is an anachronistic and therefore destructive element.

Lem uses a non-assertive model, SF, to discuss these questions, and it is significant that he chose a mathematical universe for an analysis of fundamental social problems. The personoids are not narrowly rational beings. They have developed psyche whose fundamental tensions are structurally similar to the human psyche. Yet the personoid does not have a literal unifying center: such unity is an illusion — for the observer on the outside. There is, of course, a very important connection between ADAN's logically consistent argument for taking seriously the question of social existence, interaction, and interdependence, and the fact that he exists and thinks very well without that human obsession of a clearly defined "solid" self.

This conception of the self is again rather like Hume's in his Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects (1739). Hume's skeptical-empirical use of the model-building procedure of scientific discourse to show that the individual's mental operations, his consciousness, are not "free" but socially structured and conditioned, and that, as a consequence, epistemology has to be founded on social psychology, had then and has since been offensive to many of his readers. It might have helped to remove the discussion to an 18th-century South Sea Island, where the projection of possible and instructive alternatives applied to "moral subjects" could have assumed the non-assertive properties of SF in Lem's sense. But then, who would have taken Hume seriously? He had developed the philosophical essay to give the reader a greater flexibility of perspective on the important alternatives and potentialities of social behavior. So he was accused by critics like John Stuart Mill and T.H. Huxley of forsaking "serious" (assertive) philosophy. Mill praised the "surprising acuteness" of Hume's reasoning but condemned him for demonstrating that in moral subjects truth is unattainable; Huxley blamed him most severely for being far too interested in aesthetic considerations informing the process of communication with his readers.31 But even critiques of this sort point to an important connection between Hume and Lem: partly because Lem's achievement is explicable in terms of a skepticist position, so important to the probabilistic worlds of his fiction; but in greater part, because of his sophisticated use of the SF as a model. For Lem is not simply, nor even primarily an essayist with philosophical and scientific interests: he is using the fantastic mode as an effective means for communicating a shrewd analysis of contemporary social behavior precisely because SF both accommodates the consideration of alternatives and potentialities in the social construction of reality, and because SF does so as a non-assertive, imaginary yet empirical, aesthetic game with its readers.


1. Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," in Science Fiction, ed. Mark Rose (US 1976), p.64.

2. Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologiae (Frankfurt WG, 1976): Die vollkommene Leere (Frankfurt WG, 1973) (The Perfect Vacuum); Imaginäre Grösse (Frankfurt WG, 1976), (Imaginary Number). I have used the German translations of these texts because they are not yet available in English. The translations into English are mine.

3. Lem, Summa technologiae, p.369.

4. Stanislaw Lem, "Erotik und Sexualität in der Science Fiction," in Insel Almanach auf das Jahr 1972: Pfade ins Unendliche, ed. Franz Rottensteiner (Frankfurt WG, 1972), p.37 and 58. Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon (US 1969) did write about cosmonauts but he turned the adventure of reason into sensationalistic psychological melodrama.

5. Lem, "Erotik und Sexualität in der Science Fiction," p.58.

6. Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in SF: The Other Side of Realism. ed. Thomas D. Clareson (US 1971), p.325.

7. Lem, "Unites Oppositorum: The Prose of Jorge Luis gorges," SF Commentary No. 20 (April 1971):34.

8. Ibid., p.37.

9. See also Michel Butor, "Science Fiction: The Crisis of its Growth," in SF: The Other Side of Realism, p.l60.

10. See the useful distinction in Darko Suvin, "Science Fiction and the Genological Jungle," Genre 6 (1973): 255.

I I. Stanislaw Lem, "Cosmology and Science Fiction." Science-Fiction Studies 4 (1977): 108.

12. Lem, Summa technologiae, p. 117.

13.1bid, p.l30.

14. See also Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (UK 1975).

15. See note 6.

16. Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris 1970). Stanislaw Lem, "Todorov's Fantastic Theory of Literature," ScienceFiction Studies 1(1974): 227-37.

17. Todorov, p.81 and 49.

18. Lem, "Todorov's Fantastic Theory of Literature," p.231.

19. See Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," pp.311-12.

20. See on the Formalists Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism (The Hague, 1965), p.280.

21. Jan Mukarovsky, Structure, Sign, and Function (US 1978), pp.21-22, 25,and 121.

22. A.M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind 59 (1950): 433-60, rpt. in Edward A. Feigenbaum and Julian Feldman, eds., Computers and Thought (US 1963), pp.ll-35. See, on the influence of Wiener and Turing on Lem, Michael Kandel, "Stanislaw Lem on Men and Robots."

23. See however Kandel, p.l5; Extrapolation 14 (Dec. 1972): 13-24. Also Mortimer Taube, Computers and Commonsense: The Myth of Thinking Machines (US 1961), and Lem's comments on this study in Summa technologiae, pp.231-33.

24. See Kandel, p.19.

25. In Stanislaw Lem, Mortal Engines (US 1977), pp. l 81-239.

26. Kandel, "Stanislaw Lem on Men and Robots," p.18; see also his interesting introduction to Lem's Mortal Engines, p.XX.

27. Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," p.314; see also the excellent essay by Darko Suvin, "Stanislaw Lem und das mitteleuropäische Bewusstsein der Science Fiction," in Insel Almanach auf das Jahr 1976: Stanislaw Lem, ed. Werner Berthel (Frankfurt WG, 1976), p.l 59.

28. See also the much simpler reversed model—man hunting machine— in "The Hunt," in Mortal Engines, pp. l 38-80.

29. Arthur Dobb, "Non Serviam," in Stanislaw Lem, Die vollkommene Leere (Frankfurt WG, 1973), pp.l88-221. Transl. by Michael Kandel as "The Experiment," The New Yorker (July 24,1978) pp.26-42.

30. David Hume, "A Dialogue," in The Philosophical Works, ed. Th. H. Greene and Th. H. Grose (London, 1886), IV: 299-301.

31. Mill quoted in Norman Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume (US 1966), p.519, and Huxley on pp.519-20. See Dagmar Barnouw, "Skepticism as a Literary Mode: David Hume and Robert Musil," Modern Language Notes, forthcoming in Fall 1978.



The Polish SF writer and theoretician of science, Stanislaw Lem, is one of the most sophisticated and effective commentators on the difficulties faced by the vastly complex and vulnerable social systems in an age dominated by science and technology. Many of his texts support the claims that a theoretician of SF like Darko Suvin makes for the unique responsibility of contemporary SF as well as its unique opportunities.

I shall attempt here to analyze Lem's concept of SF as a cognitive aesthetic model through which to explore contemporary social-psychological behavior. Lem is primarily a writer of SF. His theoretical, "philosophical" work like Summa technologiae--that far-ranging, fantastic, logical discussion of contemporary problems relating to science and technology and ironical secular challenge to Aquinas's Summa theologian--belongs to that genre, and so do his collections of learned introductions to and reviews of imaginary scientific studies, Imaginary Number and Perfect Vacuum. Lem has also been a very prolific commentator on the dubious aspects of much of contemporary SF marking out, by way of contrast, his own imaginative, intellectual territory and stressing the structural considerations that inform his own models.

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