Science Fiction Studies

#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006


Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). With the death of Stanislaw Lem, we have lost one of great fantasists of our age and a true friend of this journal. His fiction showed many of us that sf could be a philosophically sophisticated, critical, and artistically ambitious literature. His uncompromising critical writings about the genre—some of which appeared for the first time in English in SFS—showed us that it was possible to hold the genre to high aesthetic, as well as cognitive, standards. To the literati, Lem demonstrated that philosophical reflections on science truly could be resources for art. For the technorati, he expressed the absurdity, play, and perpetual dilemma that colors so much scientific work. For his casual readers, he tamed the abyss of technoscientific progress with the language of satire and fairy tales.              

Lem belonged to a great generation of post-World War II writers who were inspired equally by literary experimentation, technoscience, and pulp fantasy—a generation that included Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe, and William S. Burroughs. All invented influential personal styles, and all were, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, hedgehogs who thought that they were foxes. Even with his polymathic knowledge and interests, Lem returned with near obsessiveness to a single theme: the inexorable collision between human consciousness’ inherent inability to know itself and its ingrained need to do so. He found this theme crystallized in cybernetics (which he studied in secret when it was proscribed by Stalinist ideology), specifically in cybernetics’ application to techno-evolutionary theory, ideas distilled in Summa Technologiae (1964). He found it also in Dostoevsky and Kafka, the writers who most influenced his literary vision. Lem’s worlds are always ad absurdum arguments, demonstrating the irrational bases of the most rational systems. Until the end of his career, when he turned away from fiction and devoted himself to pessimistic essays, Lem used his dark theme as a pretext for dazzling linguistic and intellectual play.                

Many of us in sf studies were introduced to Lem’s work through Solaris (1961), which first appeared in English in 1970. It is no exaggeration to say that the book transformed the way that sf would be viewed in the West. No one had subjected the myth of space to such a rigorous and rich deconstruction. No sf had succeeded so well as literary art, conceding nothing to the sf ghetto or the marketplace. Lem’s impact was the same in the USSR, where his work was read as a critique of Yefremov’s space-utopianism and the Tsiolkovskian cult of cosmicism. For many years, and for many scholars (I certainly count myself), Solaris stood as the realized ideal of sf—showing that no matter how pure et dure science tries to be, it is driven by the same romantic fantasies, longings, and anxieties as tales of ghost-lovers, the Gothic, and the Kafkaesque.               

Lem’s trademark works as an sf writer, the Alien No-Contact novels—Solaris, Eden (1959; English translation 1989), The Invincible (1964; English translation 1973), His Master’s Voice (1968; English translation 1983), and Fiasco (1986; English translation, 1989)—were biting critiques of the pretensions of scientific explorations and sf romance. They were products of the moment when the Cold War superpowers were transforming the utopias of spaceflight into War Machines. In His Master’s Voice, for me the greatest of Lem’s books, he showed that sf is capable of confronting the worst obscenities wrought by our technoscience: the Holocaust and nuclear weapons.      

Lem was diffident about his literary accomplishments. He aspired to be accepted as a philosopher of technoscience. He considered his greatest work to be the Summa Technologiae. Translated into Czech, Latvian, German, Russian, Serbian, and Hungarian, but not as yet into French, Japanese, or English, the Summa is a monumental meditation on technological evolution, produced at a writing desk in the medieval university town of Krakow, decades before extropian visions emerged from MIT. In it Lem worked out his pencil-and-paper posthumanism, imagining such inevitable developments as fantomatics, imitology, intellectronics, teletaxia,and fantoplication—concepts that we now recognize as virtual reality, simulation, artificial intelligence, scanning teleportation, and consciousness-uploads. Though some readers lament that it did not have the influence it might have had, that its fanciful terms never had a chance to take root, the Summa will, I think, remain a cherished work of inspired steampunk futurism. Lem once wrote that every scientific projection that is not realized becomes fantastic philosophy. His advantage was that he knew how to write fantastic philosophy without waiting for reality.               

Among his great visionary contemporaries, only Lem was truly an sf writer. Despite his excoriations of pulp vulgarities, his essays display his grudging, and perhaps even unconscious, love of popular sf. His respect for Philip K. Dick, whom he dubbed “a visionary among the charlatans” in a famous essay, is well-known from his wonderful hommage, The Futurological Congress (1971; English translation 1976). But a close look at his stories and Science Fiction and Futurology (still not fully translated into English, though parts were published in SFS between 1973-75) reveal a sort of gratitude for Hal Clement, Isaac Asimov, and especially Fredric Brown—writers who irritated yet inspired him.

In the end, Lem’s most lasting legacy will probably not be the science-fictional conundrums of his novels but the linguistic genius of his stories. Many postmodern readers and Western sf fans may not understand what made Lem such a beloved writer in Central and Eastern Europe, in Israel and Japan. Lem wrote sf for an audience that knew science, but not power. He had the imagination of an outsider excluded equally from Communist utopia and capitalist enborgization. Like Polish astronauts, Lem’s protagonists are in the middle of a science-fictional universe, but they are not of it. Their instincts are closer to those of the village and the shtetl. His most popular characters are the space-cadet (and later pilot) Pirx, the Münchhausen-Gulliver figure of Ijon Tichy, and the dueling robot-constructors Trurl and Klapaucius of The Cyberiad (1967; English translation 1974). Not a few Polish parents have read the robot fables and The Star Diaries (1957; English translation 1976) to their children as modern fairy tales. Lem in the end supplied virtuoso play—the play of a storyteller bringing technoscience under control by converting it into exuberant, antic, always surprising story-language.                

In his (again, untranslated) The Philosophy of Chance (1968), Lem argued that literary worth is ultimately a matter of luck. He was indeed very fortunate to have found brilliant translators in several languages to convey his fantastically inventive Polish. He was particularly impressed with his German, Russian, and English translators. (His Hungarian translator was also spectacularly good.) It is perhaps the luckiest chance of all that his US translator was Michael Kandel, for English may be one of the languages least responsive to Lem’s linguistic genius, for concrete social-historical reasons. Lem’s shorter fictions especially are packed with neologisms and wordplay, spoken in a narrative tone that reflects a world where language is still linked to oral tradition, literature, and storytelling. However far they may have traveled in outer space, Lem’s protagonists are down to earth, rooted fast in their language’s kinship terms, diminutives, folk sayings and motifs, and the formulas of fairy tales. Like his characters Prix and Tichy, Lem was completely in sf, but of the alternative universe of literature.—ICR

More on Anatomy of Wonder. My thanks for Graham Sleight’s detailed review of the fifth edition of my Anatomy of Wonder (SFS 33.2). Some comments of likely interest to readers of SFS:                

There are multiple target audiences for the guide, as Sleight summarized, but libraries are perhaps the most important single market, given that it’s not a trade book carried by book retailers and is apparently regarded as “expensive” (about equal to four hardcover novels, which for the most part will be read once and shelved, rarely to be consulted again). The $80 cost is about what you’d expect over 30 years of inflation, but does not allow for the fact that the fifth edition is more than 1,000 pages (versus about 480 for the 1976 first edition) and is completely updated. If the guide has a useful life span of about ten years and is used, say, once weekly, that’s a cost of about 16 cents per use, or 8 cents if used twice weekly. By my standards that’s dirt cheap.                

Whether reference works like this will become online products is a good question. I’ve yet to receive any updates about the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and I haven’t seen any subscription prices quoted for this work, which will be updated monthly and apparently be much lengthier than the second edition, now dated but still useful. I will not edit future editions (as the detailed quote Sleight includes suggests). If the publisher decides a sixth edition is warranted, it will probably be edited by Michael Levy, a capable and knowledgeable contributor to earlier editions.

Sleight talks of the oddness of Anatomy of Wonder 5, but fails to mention the most significant single change. In the first through fourth editions, the historical/chronological chapters are immediately followed by a bibliography of fiction in that period. That requires a generic cross-reference, “For other books by this author, see chapter(s),” for authors whose works were published in several periods. In the new edition, all fiction, from Abbott to Zoline, is annotated in a single alphabet, so the reader will see early, middle, and late Heinlein, for example, in a single alphabet, not in three chapters. I consider that a major improvement.   

The guide is lengthy, and I had to rely on contributors for a lot of the checking. I’d sent a four-page list of corrections/updates to the publisher (including a request that I be correctly shown as the editor, not the author) for a corrected second printing, and will add Sleight’s corrections, which I welcome. The selection process involved the fusion of much work from multiple contributors and I had to rely on them for accuracy. My experience with online databases, as I say in Chapter 8, is that they are much more suspect than printed reference works and are not in many cases reliable sources for checking.

Sleight may misunderstand the editorial guidelines we followed. If no recommended published monograph on a topic existed, we could not annotate it. There have been no books on Schoenherr, although his art is discussed in such works as DiFate’s Infinite Worlds (12-8), so no annotation was possible. No book-length work on Paul has been published, so we discussed the important website by Frank Wu; Schoenherr’s website is also listed.                

The contributors did not write ex cathedra, so the best-books list represents informed judgments, not dogma. Note that the best-books list represents the choices of the contributors, two additional respected printed guides, and four outside readers to give balance and scope. It’s not perfect, but I don’t know how it could be significantly bettered. Sleight says that Anatomy of Wonder 5 is, despite its admitted defects, indispensable. As I said in the preface, we strove for infallibility without pretending to it.—Neil Barron

Colliding Genres in White Plains. The Science Fiction Research Association held its 37th annual meeting in White Plains, New York, from June 22-25. Norman Spinrad was Guest of Honor, and Nancy Kress, Nalo Hopkinson, R. Garcia y Robertson, and William Sleator were also featured. Joan Slonczewski has become “distinguished member participant” and gave her usual crystal-clear and timely science presentation, this year on teaching evolution. There was another science presentation as well, on global warming, that took place in the air-conditioned hotel during torrential downpours. An unexpected highlight was a barbeque at David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s nearby house. As we had all imagined, it is a large, rambling place packed with books—too overwhelming really to process all the treasures of sf lurking there. I attended some fine sessions on race and gender, and on slipstream and other liminal states. Of course, the authors gave readings, and of course there were sessions on sf art and media.                

At the banquet and awards presentation, Maria De Rose won the Pioneer Award for “Redefining Women’s Power Through Feminist Science Fiction,” published in Extrapolation (Spring 2005). Paul Kincaid, who has just stepped down from administering the Arthur C. Clarke Award and who reviews tirelessly, won the Thomas D. Clareson Award for Service. The Mary K. Bray Award, which honors an essay in the SFRA Review, went to Tom Morrissey. The Graduate Student Paper Award was awarded to Rebecca Janicker, with a second-place award to Christine Mains. Fredric Jameson was given the Pilgrim Award but couldn’t be there. He did have a speech read that included an eloquent defense of the value of studying science fiction. Marleen Barr read the chapter from her novel Oy, Pioneer that describes someone very like her winning the Pilgrim Award at an annual conference very like the one some years ago on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.               

I always enjoy the SFRA conference because it is more intimate than the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and I have a chance to sit and talk to fellow scholars, usually meeting more new people at SFRA than at ICFA because of the smaller scale. Next year, SFRA will meet in Kansas City, and the following year in Dublin.—JG

Representing Self and Other: Gender and Sexuality in the Fantastic. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts will meet from March 14-18, 2007 at the Wyndham Fort Lauderdale Airport Hotel. The focus of ICFA-28 is on issues of gender and sexuality. Given the often marginalized status of sf and fantasy, it is not surprising to see fantastic works considered in the light of feminism and queer theory. Awards such as the Tiptree and the Lambda, and the success of WisCon, speak to the importance of this theme to the communities of the fantastic. We look forward to papers on the work of Guest of Honor Geoff Ryman, author of the Tiptree Award-winning Air (2005); Guest Scholar Marina Warner; and Special Guest Writer Melissa Scott, winner of the Lambda Award. As always, we also welcome proposals for individual papers and for academic sessions and panels on any aspect of the fantastic in any medium. The deadline for submission of proposals for papers or panels is November 30, 2006, although Division Heads will accept proposals at any time before that date. You can review all conference information at the IAFA website: <>. Bookmark the site to check for updates.—Christine Mains, University of Calgary

Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. SLSA welcomes colleagues in the sciences, engineering, technology, computer science, medicine, the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, and independent scholars and artists. Its members share an interest in problems of science and representation, and in the cultural and social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine. SLSA holds an annual conference in the US and a biannual one in Europe. Members are welcome to participate in both conferences and receive the newsletter Decodings and the journal Configurations. The organization is sf friendly and it needs more membership representing sf studies. For further information, see the website at <>. The 2006 conference will meet in New York City this November; I’d like to encourage those in the area to drop in and help me spread the good word about the Science Fiction Research Association. You can learn more about the conference on the SLSA homepage, which links directly to the conference page. I hope that some of us can explore the possibility of organizing a panel for the 2007 conference as well.—Lisa Yaszek, Georgia Institute of Technology

New Ray Bradbury Center and Journal. This summer, Indiana University launched the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. Our website address is <>. All are invited to visit and to give us their comments and suggestions. The Center is seeking submissions on the subject of “Ray Bradbury and Adaptation” for the inaugural issue of The New Ray Bradbury Review, to be published next year. We will also consider papers on other topics that are focused on Bradbury’s place in science fiction. Submissions should be in MLA format, preferably in MS Word 6.0 or higher. Please submit electronically to <>.—William Touponce

Call For Submissions: Le Fanu Studies. On behalf of Gary Crawford, editor of a new online journal, I’d like to make available the following call for submissions. Le Fanu Studies seeks articles on Victorian ghost and mystery fiction writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, or on any author or topic related to him. Influence studies and studies of films and plays based on his works are welcome. Prospective contributors should contact the editor, Gary William Crawford at <>. Further information is on the journal’s website at <>.—Tamar Heller

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