Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Ursula K. Le Guin

European SF: Rottensteiner's Anthology, the Strugatskys, and Lem

Three cheers for Seabury Press. Seabury's "Science Metafiction," a series of hard-cover translations of European SF into English, has started off splendidly. If this door stays open, American science-fictioneers will be able to read freely in the world movement in literature to which they belong, but which has been mostly closed to them until now. The translations have tended to run all one way, from Enghsh into other languages; at last we get some feedback. And what a pleasure it is to harken to new voices.

FIRST cheer for Franz Rottensteiner's anthology, View From Another Shore (1973; $6.95): eleven stories from both East and West Europe, ranging in quality from the chic self-indulgence of Andrevon's "Observation of Quadragnes" to the grave honesty of Gansovsky's "The Proving Ground." It is a genuinely various anthology (even the skill of the translations, almost necessarily, varies--eight different languages are involved). Each voice is highly individual. Some of the stories are experimental, some old-fashioned; some are subtle, some simple; and one is, I think, beyond praise "A Modest Genius," by a modest genius, Vadim Shefner of the USSR. Mr. Rottensteiner's selection from Stanislaw Lem is leas interesting than the Lem stories Darko Suvin chose for Other Worlds, Other Seas (1970), but any Lem seems to be worth reading; and at least the story, "In Hot Pursuit of Happiness," gives some foretaste of the zany wit of The Cyberiad (which Seabury will publish in 1974), and a sample of Michael Kendel's superb translation.

One great virtue of the book is that Mr. Rottensteiner doesn't dig back into the dead past as translators so often do, but gives us what is being written now--the earliest copyright date is 1964 and the latest 1971. His introduction is highly interesting and informative. The anthology is a valuable supplement and extension of what Other Worlds, Other Seas began, and a fascinating collection in itself, though perhaps, like all good anthologies, more tantalizing than satisfying.

SECOND cheer. Hard to Be a God (1973. $6.95), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Query. Why do Seabury spell Russian names with the Polish -i ending--"Strugatski" for example? I thought we had got free of the old jungle of Dostojevskis and Tourgueneffs and Tchekofs, and all such non-English intrusions into the transliteration problem. I realise that the Library of Congress has chosen to transliterate out of the Cyrillic into some quite private language, so that Chekhov, for instance, turns up as "Cexov," which sounds like an anaphrodisiac breakfast cereal; but these weird pedantries needn't infect the rest of us.)

At last, a Strugatsky novel! And it's a beauty.

The genre is one familiar to American SF readers: Terran observers of the future, bound to non-interference, among (extraterrestrial) human beings whose society and culture resemble that of mediaeval Europe. A double estrangement, and the best of both worlds--the romance of future technology, plus the romance of feudalism. Something similar has been done by several American authors, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, myself, and Poul Anderson. The resemblance to Anderson is in fact striking, and not superficial, for it lies in that strong and rather somber romanticism. But this likeness also brings out a rather funny contrast. Mr. Anderson's heroes often represent a blending of the aristocratic-heroic virtues with bourgeois capitalist values. The Strugatskys' hero is about as far as you can get from that combination: he is, of course, a communist--Red to the core. And yet they're so much alike! Mr. Anderson's heroes hark back to an idealized past, a time when "men were men"; the Strugatsky' hero harks forward to an idealized future, the classless utopia of Marx's furthest vision, when men will at last be men. Both kinds of hero are genuinely sympathetic, but I prefer the Strugatskys', because he doesn't do any ideological preaching about the virtues of his way of life. The referent of Mr. Anderson's social comment is narrow and often merely political; the satire of the Strugatskys, more reticent and more generous, gets closer to the general human condition, past, present, and to come. They are wise, I think, for ethics flourishes in the timeless soil of Fantasy, where ideologies wither on the vine.

In some of Mr. Anderson's best stories, the real subject is the moral and psychological strain set up between the protagonist and the alien culture: a subject capable of the resonance of tragedy. So it is with Hard to be a God. The forays and adventures are told with great pace and style, but the book is really about what happens to the adventurer--not what he does, but what he is, and how he is changed. And here the national literary tradition of the Strugatskys proves its strength. They write not only like SF novelists, but like "Russian novelists." There is a sureness of touch, a perceptiveness to their psychology, an easy, unrestrained realism about human behavior, which is admirable, and seldom met with in SF. To me there is a flaw in the book: the girl whom the hero loves, and on whom his tragedy hinges, is a rather vapid figure. If she had the vitality of the Terran girl, Anka, whom we glimpse only in the prologue and epilogue, the book would be not only a first-rate romance but that even rarer thing, a first-rate love story. But why carp? This is a thoroughly good book--a sweet-tempered, melancholy, robust, imaginative, satisfying book.

THIRD cheer, fortissimo: The Invincible (1973; $6.95), by Stanislaw Lem. Again, a fine choice for hooking the wary American, staring askance at all these furrin names on the SF shelf. Hard to Be a God is for the romantics, Invincible is for the SF hard-corers. The hardware is elaborate and impeccable; the science is solid, and central. Any Analog reader will feel at home with the crew of the spaceship "Invincible," courageous, resourceful, taciturn, and strictly male. (To be sure they're not called Jones and Brown and Robinson, but Rohan, Jordan, Horpach are at least safely international). Anybody who likes a tight, increasingly tense plot-line rising to scenes of dramatic violence will be satisfied. Anybody who likes a mystery will find it here--and its solution. The reason for Lem's great popularity in Eastern Europe is brilliantly clear with this publication: he is a story-teller.

That he is also an original and stimulating thinker is clear to anyone who has read Solaris. But Solaris is, at first glance anyway, a rather forbidding book; while Invincible is an irresistible one. Solaris is allusive, elusive, ironic, complex; Invincible is straightforward, active, a classic adventure in the technological mode. Solaris is introverted, Invincible extraverted. But they are, in their very different ways and weights, about the same thing.

In Invincible we are shown a universe where--to put it crudely--man is not the measure of all things: a cosmos not wholly comprehensible to the human mind, either now or in the future, either through the techniques of silence or the intuitions of mysticism. And yet in this terrifying open universe, this abyss of the inexplicable, the mind is not simply lost. Lem is no obscurantist rushing breathlessly to embrace the Absurd. The human scale is not destroyed--it is not even shaken. For no matter whether we understand the how, the why, or even the what, we have to act, and our acts retain, in the very depths of the abyss, their unalterable moral value. The center of gravity of Lem's books is ethics.

The act of personal courage ultimately demanded of Rohan, the protagonist of Invincible, is no mere test of virility a la Hemingway, nor a demonstration of self-sacrifice for a cause or of unquestioning obedience to duty. It is a genuine, complex, ethical choice, made by an individual. The adventure is a moral one; it is, therefore, extraordinarily moving. The long last chapter of the book is magnificent, not only in its dramatic tension, but in its emotional power.

The profound modesty of Lem's view of the cosmos is a pretty new thing in SF, and I wonder if it will outrage some American readers when they realize what he is saying. We are not yet used to hearing that there are things that we don't understand and can't even make plastics out of. If we do get that message at all, it is likely to be in the falsetto flourishes of the neo-surrealist piccolo, or in the bull-roarer voice of SF Jeremiahs shouting Woe! Catastrophe! Pollution! Damnation!--a note compounded of fear, despair, and sheer anger. It still makes us Westerners mad to realize that we can't remake the universe to suit us.

It doesn't make Lem mad. I think it makes him happy. Running through Invincible is a half-hidden vein of beauty, truly unearthly beauty. It comes out most clearly when he describes the inhabitants of the planet where the "Invincible" has landed, the implacable enemies of her crew: they turn out to be cybernetic organisms--machines. The central "gimmick," the science- fictional idea, of the book, is bold and elegant. The independent evolution of mechanical devices is the idea, and it is developed with fine logic to a conclusion as inevitable as it is unexpected. But there is not only logic; there is sympathy, and when the two meet, intellectual elegance deepens and becomes perceived beauty. Lem achieves a vision of a possible reality which is not to be understood, but which can be seen, and felt, and praised.

Both clouds flared up in this light for a few seconds, like Myriads of silvery black crystals arrested in their flight.... The air underneath grew dark, as if the sun had set, and at the same time blurry fleeting lines made their appearance inside. It was some time before Rohan understood what it was that confronted him there: the grotesquely contorted mirror image of the bottom of the valley. In the meantime, the mirage below the cloud bank surged and expanded, until all at once he perceived a gigantic human figure whose head projected into the darkness. The figure stared straight at him without moving although the image itself quivered and danced ceaselessly, flaring up and dying down in a constant, mysterious rhythm. And once more several seconds passed before he recognized in it his own mirror image.... (pl77)

Here is the "sense of wonder" that our traditionalists rightly cry for; here it is, as authentic as the great final vision of The Time Machine. Will it be recognized in this strange new world?

There is a good deal of facile optimism in SF, and a good deal of equally facile despair. Lem does not buy his affirmations cheap. It is only after the total defeat of the "Invincible," and after Rohan's impossible and uncompleted quest, that we realize that an affirmation has been made, and that Lem has remarked quietly, somewhere between the lines, that after all there is something that remains invincible, perhaps.

A NOTE on the translations: both are by Wendayne Ackerman; the Lem (and presumably the Strugatsky) is translated from the German translation. Both read easily, though connoisseurs of the originals assure me that they have lost much of their texture, style, and impact. It is a pity that we had to get these novels at two removes from the original, but I am told that Seabury will not have to repeat this proceeding.

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