Science Fiction Studies

#40 = Volume 13, Part 3 = November 1986

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

Editorial Introduction

With this issue, SFS honors Stanislaw Lem in the year of his 65th birthday.

Very slowly, but steadily, Lem's reputation as a leading writer on the world scene is being established. As with most writers, this is largely a matter of literary prizes, critical commentaries, and special issues of journals. And Lem's share of these has increased markedly in recent years. Last year alone he was awarded the prestigious Austrian State Prize for European Literature, with which he joins previous winners Christa Wolf and Italo Calvino; the Austrian Society for Literature organized a special symposium, the "Lem Disputation," devoted to his works and ideas; the Japanese literary magazine Eureka published a special issue on Lem with contributions from Japanese scientists and literary scholars. Studies about and interviews with Lem are appearing with increasing frequency—as my co-editor, Franz Rottensteiner, documents in his review of Jerzy Jarzebski's new book on Lem—a process which has also drawn out the inevitable pedestrian attempts to domesticate his work (see my review of the woeful book by Ziegfeld). Unlike most writers of belles-lettres, Lem also enjoys a following of scholars and scientists who take his cultural and futurological ideas seriously. No other contemporary writer can boast of an honor like the 1981 symposium-workshop with Lem on his speculative ideas at the Free University of Berlin by the Project INSTRAT, which included scholars of literature, psychology, computer science, and molecular genetics.

Originally, we did not intend that this issue should have any particular theme or approach. We wished to translate some of the best European articles about Lem, as well as some of his more important essays, and to publish recent Lem scholarship by North American critics. As it happened, much had to be left out. Most regrettably, Manfred Geier's major essays on Solaris and Eden proved too long and difficult to translate. It also turned out that there was a pattern to the material we collected, thanks in part to our having to postpone publication of some items that do not fit that pattern as clearly as those included do. (I am referring to translations of the first of Lem's Dialogues and of his essay on Stapledon's Star Maker and to Simonetta Salvestroni's essay on Tarkovsky's films Solaris and Stalker—all of which will appear in SFS sometime next year.)

The pattern we found was this: each of the essays, as well as Lem's own pieces, elaborate what Katherine Hayles calls Lem's dialectic between closure and openness, constraint and freedom, chance and necessity, with which he creates a "space for writing."

Until recently, Lem criticism in North America approached Lem with something like surprise, the surprise of suddenly encountering Solaris among the mob of hastily written works of SF. Most of the early criticism centered on that book, which appeared to be the long-desired bridge between popular SF and "high" literature. The critics tried to make sense of it through the ideas familiar to them: through Northrop Frye and the psychoanalysis of romance (Rose, Ketterer), or by placing Lem in the Great Tradition of philosophical writers dealing with the perennial questions (Potts, Kandel). Apart from Dagmar Barnouw, the major exception, of course, is Darko Suvin, whose approach to Lem seemed especially "right" in part because some of his premises derived from Lem's own untranslated writings on SF and futurology, to which Suvin had privileged access among the North Americans.

The pieces included in this issue represent what seems to be the "settling in" of Lem criticism. For the North Americans specifically, much more of Lem's corpus has been translated into English since those early days, including many discursive essays. (And more can be expected: translations of Eden and Fiasco are due out very soon from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; the latter by Michael Kandel, surely one of the elite translators into English from any language, who was coaxed away from his own fiction to do the book.) Enough of Lem has appeared for the critics to adapt their approaches to his concepts, which are rather alien to most formally and politically minded literary theorists. The recent criticism seems to be based more on Lem's dialectical terms, on the problems raised for literature by information theory, cybernetics, techno-evolution, and a version of the postmodern condition in which all that was ever perceived to be transcendental in human culture has been completely "immanentized." Thus, the writers of these essays seem to stick closer to Lem and his texts than their predecessors. In fact, they may even represent the beginnings of an "orthodoxy" of Lem criticism.

I do not intend the term "orthodoxy" to be pejorative; I mean only that these critics' compelling arguments arrive fairly independently at very similar conclusions by using ideas compatible with (perhaps even "approved by") Lem's own ideas and frame of reference, and they seem to map out the direction that criticism will take in the future. One can imagine many other ways of approaching Lem's work, but all will have to deal with this "orthodoxy" in one way or another. Thus although there may seem to be "many Lems" (as Kandel has remarked), in another sense there is one Lem: the skeptical dialectician of "carousel thinking," the affirmer of the intellect's imagination and the cold wielder of Occam's Razor, less a person than the scene of a process in which design and accident, closure and openness, consciousness and unconsciousness continually enfold and perforate each other.

This dialectic is not friendly to traditional literary criticism. To readers of Lem's discursive writing, it often seems that he is much more interested in the respect of the scientific community than in his status as a major writer of fiction. As Katherine Hayles says in her essay, Lem writes in all of his critical pieces (including, I might add, the two essays in this volume), as if logic and rational realism were the be-all and end-all of speculative writing. Science—even such purely speculative "sciences" as futurology and axiology—is subject to certain norms and codes that can be tested against the real behavior of phenomena, and these codes are both universally applicable and very rigorous. By contrast, the untestable opinions of literary critics who unreflectively accept certain cultural norms simply to do their critical work (e.g., that literature is important enough to devote one's life to studying it) seem to have little attraction for Lem. In the interview with me, Lem comes to the curmudgeonly conclusion that "there never was inspiring criticism as I far as I am concerned."

And yet few writers have been as willing to allow the critic as much of a role in producing the meaning of his works as Lem. He has often written explicitly that he is not in conscious control of the creative process; as he states it in the interview, he views his writing like a printer watching the page come out of the press. That a writer so rigorous in his logic—rational and imaginative—and so insistent on the topicality of his writing should claim this kind of unconsciousness is a clear invitation for reflective readers to make the commentaries that he himself is not willing to make. It's as if Lem were trying his best to create a kind of "objective art," fiction existing out in the world and as independent of his identifiable intentions as an object awaiting the scientist's scrutiny, an SF that requires its readers to be scientific interpreters. In the same interview, Lem states that he approaches his discursive and imaginative writing in the same way, without knowing beforehand what and how it will come out. That is, ultimately, the way of an artist, not a logician. And as readers of Lem's essays know, his discursive writing often asks its readers to make as many imaginative leaps, and to supply even more assumptions, than his fiction. Thus, if Lem asks the critic to treat his fictions as if they were objects, he also asks his "objective" readers to follow him down crazy paths.

The writings included here approach this dialectic from many sides. In "Twenty-Two Answers and Two Postscripts," in the two essays from Science Fiction and Futurology, and in the selections of letters "On the Genesis of Wizja Lokalna," we have Lem's conscious thoughts about his creative work, coming as it were from within. In the critical essays, we have others' scrutiny of what Lem does not say, approaching his writing from the outside. "Twenty-Two Answers and Two Postscripts" covers a lot of ground, some of it new, some of it familiar to those who know Lem's other interviews and autobiographical remarks. The format of exchanging written questions and answers was chosen because it would "minimize the loss of information"; but it has its drawbacks. There is little continuity, and sometimes the interlocutors seem to be missing each other's points as in a conversation of polite monomaniacs. In context with the other pieces in this issue, however, it is striking how Lem's comments illustrate the Lemian dialectic in action. Over and over again, we see the author developing plausible ideas about his writing which might give a handle on his work, ideas he then dismisses as "mere hypotheses." The two postscripts bring the point home especially strongly. In the first of these unsolicited addenda, Lem explains how little he understands his own work, which seems to him to develop unconsciously and yet to be completely grounded in social and scientific reality. In the second postscript, he adds that no one else has understood him even as well as himself. Another interesting aspect of the exchange is the way Lem juggles the concepts of realistic and fantastic as he discusses the idea of a "fantastic science or mathematics."

The two essays taken from Science Fiction and Futurology are also excellent examples of the Lemian dialectic, as well as significant pieces in their own right. "Metafuturology" is ostensibly a sober account of the constraints on realistic futurology; yet in it Lem elaborates one of his most striking scientific fantasies, the breakdown of the "somatogenetic boundary" and the "genotypicization of culture." The essay "On Stapledon's Last and First Men" is ostensibly an appreciation of what Lem considers to be that English SF writer's magnum opus; yet it includes some of Lem's most straightforward analyses of the problems of futurology. The essay on Stapledon is also significant for the light it sheds on Lem's debt to the English writer, whom he holds to be the only significant writer of SF in past half century. And while explicitly comparing Stapledon with Borges, Lem also implicitly locates his own place in the spectrum of philosophical SF between the "miniaturist's precision" of Borges and the monumental canvas of Stapledon. Though the essay is by no means uncritical, Lem's admiration for Stapledon's "anthropological SF" is extremely rare, and perhaps it is a fitting, even if very modest, way for SFS to mark the 100th anniversary of Stapledon's birth.

In these two essays Lem shows how closely his ideas of SF and a logically rigorous futurology are interrelated: the implicit conclusion of each one is that the future must be imagined, with maximum variety compatible with rational plausibility, if humanity is to maintain a measure of control over its technological evolution. This is the project modeled in Stapledon's fiction and in Lem's own straightforward proposal for a "metafuturology." Let us add that, along with the companion piece to "Metafuturology" published in SFS as "Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction" (March 1981), the essays included here show English-language readers the gist of Lem's (as yet) untranslated Science Fiction and Futurology.

The critical essays in this issue represent many different approaches to Lem, from the global to the specific. The key is established by Katherine Hayles's typically excellent "Space for Writing: Stanislaw Lem and the Dialectic 'That Guides My Pen.'" Hayles describes, in topological terms taken from Lem's own critical and autobiographical writings, the dialectic of linguistic-constructional closure and hermeneutic indeterminacy that characterizes the "Lemian" mode of writing. Her essay may well be the first to make a compelling argument for a creative principle that unifies Lem's vast and varied corpus: the grotesques, the realistic "dramas of cognizance," the philosophical discourses, the autobiographical fragments, and the literary critical essays. She describes the two opposing vectors of Lem's dialectic through brilliant analyses of The Cyberiad and His Master's Voice. The former she takes as an example of the movement from too much informational openness toward increasing constraints; the latter, with its realistic narrative gradually expanding into cosmogonic mythic-scientific hypotheses, as the epitome of the movement from overmuch informational constraint to increasing openness of interpretation.

If Hayles names the recurring, constant dynamics of Lem's writing, seen as if from above the process, Robert M. Philmus's difficult and subtle essay, "Futurological Congress as Metageneric Text," complements Hayles's by defining the same Lemian dialectic from within. Taking the case of The Futurological Congress, Philmus describes Lem's fiction as skeptical self discovery, in which the process of working out the neologistic and Futurological principles that distinguish SF from realistic fiction or futurology also Reconstructs the unreflectively-held ideological conceptions of the real and the imaginary, which establishes the premises for SF's generic opposites. Philmus links Futurological Congress to Wells's The Time Machine and its project of restoring the possibility of utopia by drawing attention to the historically and linguistically determined conceptions of reality and the future. Although it plays only a supporting role in his closely argued piece, Philmus's discussion of The Futurological Congress's "futurolinguistics" opens one of the most promising paths to understanding the importance of Lem's famous neologisms in his work—and in SF as a whole. It is also worthwhile to compare Philmus's essay with Lem's pieces; for Lem demonstrates how little difference there can be between SF and futurology when viewed from their future, and indeed how little the distinction between the fantastic and the real means when considering the developments of modern physics, with its "virtual particles" and the "colors of quarks." Lem would probably balk at the depth of skepticism Philmus attributes to him; Lem constantly reaffirms his faith in an extratextual reality that language can refer to and science can study and manipulate. But Philmus's analysis of what is ultimately, in Lem's own terms, Lem's "modeling intention" in The Futurological Congress demonstrates the way the generic constraints of SF open up a "space for writing" by re-modeling the world at the same moment that it draws attention to the process of modeling.

Hayles's implicit ground is information theory, while Philmus's is cybernetics—both purely cognitive models of the nature of things. David Field's implicit model, in his essay "Fluid Worlds: Lem's Solaris and Nabokov's Ada," is biological-organicistic, focusing on the synapsis of the teleological and non-teleological elements in creation, and its personal side: the relation of love and knowledge. Field discusses the fluid relation between imagination and fact that both Lem and Nabokov depict in the fluid worlds of their novels. The terms Field uses are perhaps more appropriate to Nabokov, who viewed himself as part of the organicist tradition, than to Lem, who does not; but they are not completely inappropriate. By naming the erotic and affectional aspects of Solaris and tracing the parallels to Nabokov's more explicit linking of SF symbolism to love, Field foregrounds the affective element of Lem's dialectic, an element Lem keeps so deep in the background of his other works that it plays the role of the textual unconscious. Field's piece also points out a way for more extended work on Lem's place in the romantic tradition, and thus helps to link the more recent criticism with the earlier work of Rose and Ketterer.

This affective aspect of Lem's dialectic is also prominent in the Russian essays translated for this volume. These pieces are interesting for many reasons. They show a moral sophistication rather surprising in Soviet SF criticism, and they review Lem's The High Castle and His Master's Voice, respectively, in very similar ways. Anninski's review introduces English readers to the The High Castle—widely considered one of Lem's masterworks. Anninski reads the work less as an autobiography than as an extremely ironic representation of the struggle between the deterministic-mechanistic world-view and the "philosophy of chance" in the mind of a child coming to consciousness. That struggle then inspires the ironic double construction of a non-"identificationist" autobiography—a problem in metageneric textuality that links Anninski to Philmus. Anninski thus also draws attention to the active ambivalence of Lem's creative stance, which simultaneously celebrates the freedom of "smuggling" personality through the "crevices" of physical creation and resents the "terrifying freedom" of an existence in which "the identification card has replaced the absolute."

Rodnianskaia's piece is somewhat less lucid than Anninski's. On the surface, it appears merely to sketch the "carousel thinking" underlying His Master's Voice, in which Hogarth's affective and projective desire for transcendence of death inexorably leads to his affirmation of a chance universe, and back again. But Rodnianskaia's real subject goes much deeper: her analysis of Hogarth's conflicts is an implied analysis of Lem's own creative personality, the portrait of a man constantly in search of the source of the significance which he does not believe in, yet which drives him to create. In terms of our pattern, Rodnianskaia's piece discusses the psychology of the Lemian hero: the creative mind fascinated by "terrifying freedom" of having knowledge that cannot be lived (the "closed-openness" of stochastics), and hope that cannot be believed (the "open-closure" of personality).

Jerzy Jarzebski's chapter on the Ijon Tichy cycle from his recent book, Zufall und Ordnung, does not fit very comfortably into the pattern I have been describing. Unlike the other essays, its approach is diachronic, and hence less concerned with the structure of antinomies in Lem than in the development of his themes. Here (and in his earlier "Stanislaw Lem: Rationalist and Visionary" [SFS no. 12]), Jarzebski appears to see only the the pessimistic vision of the infinite regress of creation and the ultimate insignificance of a freedom created purely by chance. This is due in part to his concentration on the grotesques in Lem's corpus, but also to his traditional humanistic approach, which does not consider the metageneric and metalinguistic aspects of Lem's writings. Yet in a sense Jarzebski simply interprets the same interfusion of the open and closed, which for the others represents a sort of freedom constructed in an undesigned universe, in a pessimistic key. He stresses the motif of "the presumptuousness of the intellect" and parodic freedom created by error in the Tichy cycle as examples of "evil" in Lem's universe; whereas these same qualities can simultaneously create a tentative form of "good," the "crevices" through which personality and human creativity can become manifest in the cosmos. Jarzebski's traditionalist view of Lem as a bitter parodist of lost humanism is stated even more explicitly in Michael Kandel's elegant remarks on Lem.

Finally, the snake bites its tail. We have included the excerpts from Lem's correspondence with Franz Rottensteiner "On the Genesis Wizja Lokalna," only to seal the case. It is a document, characteristic of Lem's letters, which seem always to be written at white heat, without consideration for the letters that went before. If readers still have doubts about the dialectic of closure and openness that creates Lem's "space for writing," let them peruse Lem's running account of his creative process.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home