Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Peter Swirski

Stanislaw Lem: A Literary Movement Revisited

J. Madison Davis. Stanislaw Lem. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1990. ix+116. $19.95 hardcover, $9.95 paper.

Ewa Balczerzak. Stanislaw Lem (STANISLAW LEM).* Warsaw: Pantswowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1973.

Stanislaw Beres. Rozmony ze Stanislawem Lemem (CONVERSATIONS WITH STANISLAW LEM). Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie 1987.

Jerzy Jarzebski, ed. Lem w oczach krytyki swiatowej (LEM IN THE EYES OF WORLD CRITICISM). Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1989.

Piotr Krywak. Stanislaw Lem (STANISLAW LEM). Cracow: Panstwowe Wydaw nictwo Naukowe, 1974.

Andrzej Stoff. Lem i inni: Szkice o Polskiej science fiction (LEM AND OTHERS: SKETCHES ON POLISH SCIENCE FICTION). Bydgoszcz: Pomorze, 1990.

Powiesci fantasryczno-naukowe Stanislawa Lema (THE SCIENCE- FICTION NOVELS OF STANISLAW LEM). Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1983.

Krytyka o pierwszych utworach Stanislawa Lema (CRITICAL OPINION ON THE FIRST WORKS OF STANISLAW LEM). Torun: Acta Universitatis Nicolai Copernici, 1975.

[The CAPS translate titles of books not published in English.]

There is a popular Polish maxim: na bezrybiu i rak ryba, which might be paraphrased as "Where fishes are scarce, even a crab is a fish." That was the case with the publication in 1985 of Richard Ziegfeld's monograph, Stanislaw Lem--the first English volume of interpretation and criticism of the great Bio-Prophet, which received attention in a review aptly entitled "How Not to Write a Book on Lem" (SFS #40, Nov 1986). The comparison between that first study and Madison Davis's 1990 Starmont monograph is unavoidable. It is invited further by the two books' identical organization. Davis's text--which has the same title as its predecessor--provides an extremely short biographical sketch, followed by even shorter chapters devoted to the study of individual fictions, a chronological primary bibliography, and a selection of secondary literature.

Only a very daring or foolhardy commentator would venture to offer 11 pages on the life, and 78 pages on the fiction of one of the most significant, complex, and prolific writers of this century. The incongruity between the enormous task and the crippling spatial constraints Davis must labor under is painfully evident throughout his book, affecting both the style and the contents. Davis's efforts to cram as much information into his monograph as humanly (im)possible produces plain, uninspired prose and generally superficial analyses.

There is little, if anything in Davis's biographical introduction that has not been said before in a much less hasty and perfunctory form. Rottensteiner's introduction to Microworlds, Lem's own "Reflections On My Life" from the same volume, biographical material strewn all over the Lem special issue of SFS (#40), as well as a number of interviews published in English over the past decade or so (e.g., by Engel, Costello) have brought forth a great deal of biographical material. Davis's account, by comparison, is too brief and lacking in any substantial novelty to be useful. At the same time, Davis makes claims which one suspects he would not have made with more thorough research. In one example, Davis claims that the long descriptions of preparations for the voyage to Venus in THE ASTRONAUTS (Astronauci) function as a "philosophical overview" (7). In actuality, as the chapter "A Lesson in Astronautics" suggests, philosophy is much less significant than the popularization of science; indeed, the entire first part of the novel is an extended science-made-easy lecture dressed up (quite badly, too) as fiction.

In his discussion of Lem's novels, Davis devotes individual chapters to individual texts. These laconic chapters (generally under 7 pages) rarely have a chance to breathe; they consist of plot summaries designed to display the novels as variations on the mystery/detective story. They are also laced irritatingly with lists of symbols and allusions without any effort to explicate them. The specific discussions of Lem's novels are also generally weak. A few of the most aggravating points: Can Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, that wickedly funny, satirical, and anarchic study of totalistic intentionality be dismissed as a "relatively minor work" (42)? Can The Futurological Congress, with its complex generic, ontological, and philosophical dialogue between utopia and dystopia, be reduced to a mere "assault on the drug culture of the late 1960s" (52)? Can the entire so-called "third phase" of Lem's career--A Perfect Vacuum with its sixteen jewels of literary and scientific metacommentary, the short but important One Human Minute and PROVOCATION (Prowokacja, 1984), as well as Imaginary Magnitude and GOLEM XIV (in the opinion of the cognoscenti and Lem himself his crowning cognitive achievement)--be jammed into 4.5 pages?

Having said all that, there is no doubt in my mind that Madison Davis's book is definitely better than its predecessor. Whenever the author gets the room to spread his critical wings, the quality of the analysis improves significantly. Such is the case, for example, with Davis's discussion of Kafkaesque elements in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub--although, again, Davis's attention to that single stratum in the novel does not leave him room for much else. Hence, faced with a host of unanswered questions, he rashly dismisses the book as a collection of "exercises in cleverness" (47). The longer than average chapter on His Master's Voice is filled with pertinent remarks that go a long way towards suggesting the philosophical, metaphysical and theological richness of that novel.

Especially attractive about some parts of the monograph is Davis's ability to infect the reader with his unbridled enthusiasm for Lem's fiction. Davis manages to convey quite well the first-hand experience of devouring these books with gritty eyes glued to the page, savoring their literary and intellectual flair. I particularly enjoyed the two chapters on Lem's short fiction and Return from the Stars--especially in view of Davis's radical departure from the prevailing view that the latter is markedly inferior in Lem's corpus. Although it is undoubtedly imperfect in all those respects which Lem himself emphasized more than once, I have always thought that this novel deserved more attention and praise than it was usually accorded. This immensely popular novel has been printed in over 1,000,000 copies worldwide. It is, apart from the early MEGELLAN NEBULA (Oblok Magellan), Lem's only non-grotesque treatment of a social quasi-utopia, as well as the only book introducing multiple female agents. In this context, Davis's acute observations about not only the cognitive, but also the emotional and lyrical depth of that work struck me as particularly relevant. Hopefully, his finely tuned remarks will mean that "Lem's harsh self-judgment won't discourage readers of Return from the Stars" (40).

There are other problems, however. In addition to a few minor errors in the spelling of Polish titles, the study suffers from a badly mishandled chronology. In the absence of any statement from the author to account for the ordering of his chapters, we must conclude that he intends to parallel the order of the first publications. At this point, however, problems begin to multiply. Eden, available in English at the time Davis's book was being written, is not discussed at all, although the author makes several references to it indicating he knows it well. Return from the Stars from 1961 appears after The Invincible from 1964; Memoirs Found in a Bathtub follows the last two as an example of "Lem's tendency in the late 1960s and early 1970s to a more experimental (or 'literary') type of science fiction" (42)--whereas the novel was published in 1961! Even more surprisingly, His Master's Voice from 1968 comes after the nano-chapter on Lem's "third phase." In a word, total confusion. (Davis's whimsical ordering does not follow the dates of the English translations, either).

Another of my objections concerns the secondary sources listed, presumably for the benefit of the reader guided by this monograph. Again, without explaining the criteria for his selection, Davis lists sources like Ewa Balczerzak's brief critical overview published in 1973--a book useless to a reader not conversant with its Polish. And if one is citing Polish texts, why omit the two book-length studies of Lem by Andrzej Stoff, critically more ambitious and more up to date (1983 and 1990)? Another prominent omission is CONVERSATIONS WITH STANISLAWLEM, an excellent volume by a Polish critic, Stanislaw Beres. The painstakingly assembled primary bibliography should also have included MAN FROM MARS (Czlowiek z Marsa), a novel published in 1946 in serial form. Although Lem does not like this book, it presages in theme (contact with the alien), treatment (lack of success), as well as setting (military secrecy) his later, more mature work. The absence of PROVOCATION and PEACE ON EARTH (Pokoj na Ziemi, 1987) is also glaring. Finally, I am not at all convinced that its alphabetical arrangement is critically the most useful.

At this point, I would like to step back a continent in order to examine three of the Polish critical sources I mentioned above. It seems that, notwithstanding Lem's justified (to some degree at least) complaints about lack of recognition in the intellectual and critical circles of his native country, the situation is no longer as bad as it was around the beginning of the 1980s. 1983 and 1990 produced two very good book-length critical studies devoted to Lem's belletristic writings, both written by Andrzej Stoff. Furthermore, there is the monumental, 400-page tome of transcribed conversations which Stanislaw Beres conducted with Lem between November 1981 and July 1982 (but not published until 1987).

The unusual--and telling--thing about this last volume is that its copyright is held jointly by the interviewer and interviewee. Although Beres performs admirably in the extremely difficult roles of guide and partner in the whole series of talks, there is never any doubt about the spiritus movens of the volume. The author confesses: "[Lem's] unbridled temperament of a disputant and polemicist, and above all the incredibly vast horizon of his knowledge...did not allow one to force any kind of discursive continuity on him or to restrict him within a conventional topical framework" (5). All the same, cutting through Lem's idiosyncrasies with astonishing clarity, Beres manages to present the reader with a veritable gold mine of material. This volume is probably the most comprehensive compendium on most aspects of Lem's life, thought and accomplishment.

CONVERSATIONS is an auto-commentary, not so much to his biography, although there is enough of that to satisfy readers and scholars alike, as to his attitude towards the world of science, the world of literature, and the empirical world itself. It is a sobering thought that, even at this late stage of Lem's career when the critical forum should have caught up with this literary movement in himself, the person who has the most interesting things to say about Lem is still Lem himself. There is no space here to abridge or even summarize this skillfully conducted and honestly narrated book. Even the most familiar biographical section not only fills numerous gaps but quite often astonishes with new material. This is the only place where Lem talks (though briefly and reluctantly) about his mother, his attempt at sculpture, or the breakthrough period in his life when he wrote and published his first novel, THE ASTRONAUTS.

The book's organization breaks away from the tedious pattern of enumerating novels in chronological order and providing a glossary of their pertinent themes and issues. Instead, CONVERSATIONS is structured around certain personal and topical leitmotifs which cut through more conventional thematic or chronological ordering. Notwithstanding its comprehensive range and obvious value to a literary scholar, it is not a book of (auto)-criticism. There is no index or any other list of the secondary sources which Beres must have consulted in his meticulous preparations for the talks. If this is a shortcoming, it fades next to the overwhelming impression that, this is simply a book sine qua non for any conscientious Lem scholar.

If CONVERSATIONS is anomalous compared to typical critical works, so is Andrzej Stoff's other book, LEM AND OTHERS: SKETCHES ON POLISH SCIENCE FICTION, 1990). It is a collection of reviews, about half of them published in the wake of various re-editions of Lem's works and the other half commissioned specially for the volume. A full half of the book is devoted to the "others" in Polish science fiction, the part on Lem is only 140 pages, comprising an anthology of short reviews and a longer piece, "Kosmos i austronautyka w tworczosci Stanislaw Lema" (Cosmos and Astronautics in the Fiction of Stanislaw Lem). Devoid of bibliography, indexing, or even page references in citations, the magazine-style pieces make at times for extremely annoying reading for a scholar, especially when the author quotes extensively and pertinently from books on scientific research.

Outwardly, Stoff's book resembles Madison Davis's monograph: its sections are extremely short (5-10 pages) and for the most part devoted to the discussion of single texts. But where Davis tries to sketch the entire range of meanings latent in Lem's stories, Stoff's reviews highlight and analyze only a single attribute of the work under consideration. For example, the discussion of Eden focuses exclusively on Lem's dialogic imagination, while The Cyberiad is represented only by "The Sixth Sally"--although, in recompense, the author does an outstanding job of unveiling and interpreting its polyphony of meanings. In general, this strategy works more often than not--the best example being the chapter on Return from the Stars where the author brilliantly investigates the political void behind the plot, synthesizing for us a picture of "soft" totalitarianism. At other times, however, en lieu of critical insights one gets only a series of rather dull cliches, as with the discussion of the artistic and scientific status of His Master's Voice two decades after its initial publication.

In general, LEM AND OTHERS must be praised for three things. First, Stoff, who is clearly at home with Lem's corpus, is able to abstract and synthesize certain aspects (role of dialogue, type of protagonist, hermetic setting, among many others) from the entire range of novels. Secondly, he seems conversant with modern science and its makers, and able to bring this knowledge to bear in illuminating Lem's books. And third, Stoff refreshingly though perhaps still too timidly, discusses the shortcomings in some of Lem's novels: the less than propitious use of fable in Hospital of Transfiguration (17) or the confusion between the atomic masses of hydrogen and gold in "The Sixth Sally" (33).

It is truly disappointing, then, that the last and most extensive part of Stoff's book, which aims to abstract a vision of the universe and its exploration from Lem's works, is unsuccessful. Efforts to maintain a neat chronology and to present Lem's development in clearcut stages result in the omission of stubborn details (such as the presence of superluminal communication technology in The Invincible) which threaten to invalidate the schema. Overall, however, LEM AND OTHERS is a very interesting book, rich with analytical and interpretive material. The last thing which deserves to be mentioned here is the tone of the entire study, which differs, I think, from the general attitude of a large body of current Western scholarship. Despite, or perhaps because of, his awareness of science, Stoff seems to belong to the school of humanist critics who view their critical labors not as ends in themselves but as means for talking about the world. Undoubtedly, in Lem's case this strategy will always have deep interpretive resonance.

In contrast to the two Polish texts discussed so far, Andrzej Stoff's other book, THE SCIENCE-FICTION NOVELS OF STANISLAW LEM, is a scholarly study. In it Stoff attempts "a description of the poetics and interpretation" (6) of nine of Lem's hard-core science fictions between 1951 and 1968, with the inclusion of Katar (Chain of Chance) from 1976. Stoff divides his material into four groups, wisely deciding that a judicious a-chronological juxtaposition can enhance the reading of Lem's texts and that this ordering parallels the evolution of Lem as a writer.

The first group, labeled "histories of the future," comprises THE ASTRONAUTS and MEGELLAN NEBULA. Stoff acknowledges these to be the simplest of Lem's works, describing them as essentially adventure stories with popularizing ambitions. The second group are "contact with the alien" novels; here Stoff discusses Eden, Return from the Stars, and The Invincible. Stoff claims this class of Lem's novels is unique in their cognizance of the genre's "realm of omnipotence" (19) and the consequent increase in the sophistication of the intellectual games they involve. The third, literarily more experimental, group of "philosophical generalizations" includes The Investigation, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and Chain of Chance. Stoff sees these as Lem's effort to illustrate his convictions about the statistical nature of the universe. Finally, the fourth group, limited to Lem's two best novels, Solaris and His Master's Voice, is classified as the intellectual examination of paradoxes inherent in the contacts between man and the world. Concrete situations whose schema is essentially familiar from the previous two groups become here a point of departure for contemplative generalizations.

Preceding these discussions is an extensive first chapter which studies the socio-political context of Lem's creativity, the genesis of fantastic literature in Poland, a theory of the science fiction genre, as well as outlines of the four-group schema summarized above. The chapter also serves as a non-biographical introduction to Lem, an attempt to situate him against a background of Polish literature in general, as well as Polish and American science fiction. Reading this part I have the impression--which, curiously, Stoff never puts into words--that in Stoff's opinion Lem's entire corpus is, in fact, a single monumental opus which consists of so many chapters (represented by individual texts) which can be ordered and re-ordered to produce new wholes. Stoff observes that throughout his career Lem has been intrigued by several important ideas to which he obsessively returns in order to replay a new variant of their development (cf. Michael Kandel's "Introduction" to Mortal Engines, xvii).

Speaking of Polish scholarship we could, of course, mention Andrzej Stoff's other study, CRITICAL OPINION ON THE FIRST WORKS OF STANISLAW LEM or Piotr Krywak's short monograph from 1974, or Ewa Balczerzak's study from 1973. It is characteristic of these scholars that they are able and willing to consider scholarship on Lem in languages other than Polish. I am alluding to the 1989 compilation of critical articles translated from the French, German as well as English. Edited by Jerzy Jarzebski, who has himself written extensively on Lem in the past, LEM IN THE EYES OF WORLD CRITICISM opens the way for a useful and informative dialogue between those who have the advantage of sharing Lem's language and culture and those who, by definition, must see Lem more as a European, or even world phenomenon. Unfortunately, English language scholars are for the most part deprived of opportunity to compare their views on Lem and his writings with their Polish colleagues and must, therefore, rely only on themselves.

I am sure that Madison Davis's exhortations to the readers to take up Lem's books and enjoy their literary wit and intellectual brilliance will not remain unheeded. At the same time, I think, we are still waiting for an English volume of interpretation and criticism that will set a standard for all subsequent Lem scholars. So far we have mostly had the critical euphoria of having found a writer mature and complex enough to provide a significant commentary on some of the furthest-reaching aspects of the evolution of homo rationis capax. But the investigation of Lem's corpus has been limited for the most part to literary categories of plot structure, symbolism, allusions, self-referentiality, etc., at the expense of its cognitive stratum. We should now begin to look into his discursive writing--including his literary theory--and study Lem for the combined effect of his aesthetic appeal and cognitive force. At the same time we should not be afraid to engage his works' (whether explicit or latent) cognitive potential critically and to discuss them with scholarly and scientific precision worthy of the subject. For now, however, it appears that the only place to look for this rich and great study is A Perfect Vacuum--that book of ungranted wishes.

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