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
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
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
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
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
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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