Science Fiction Studies

#40 = Volume 13, Part 3 = November 1986



Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

How Not to Write a Book About Lem

Richard E. Ziegfeld. Stanislaw Lem. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1985. 188pp. $8.95 (paper).

It is hard to imagine a more thankless task than writing a book about Lem. More than any other writer of our time, except perhaps Borges, Lem presents the world as metacommentary. The first premise of his fiction is that the various constructions of reality presented by science, myth, romance, religion, and the other institutions of intelligibility, are merely commentaries on elusive phenomena, which are most probably also commentaries, albeit fragmentary, indecipherable ones. His whole corpus is figured, as it were, in the library of Solaris Station, where every "theory" a reader might construct about "the secret" is already there on the shelf, probably already refuted by another hypothesis, and absorbed into a third one's synthesis. Since neither Lem's protagonists nor his readers ever arrive at an Archimedean point outside the totality they are trying to understand, no one system of commentary is ever sufficient. It is the play of commentary that creates Lem's universe.

Any critic who sets out to explicate this universe risks writing unintentional self-parody. For which critical approach is not already on the shelf in the Station library? How can one write a commentary on Lem without instantly becoming a version of one of Lem's characters? How does one escape becoming the butt of a Lemian joke? For those who do rush in, there are several interesting paths to Lem's work, most of which remain completely open at the moment. To mention just a few examples, one could explore Lem's place in the Central and Eastern European tradition of philosophical fantasy; his exemplary role as a non Anglo-American writer of SF; his fairly unified, if unsystematic, commentary on the state of culture in this early stage of techno-evolution; the implications of his views on SF for other modes of literature; his "empirical theory of literature," which might be tested on his own works and against other contemporary critical schools; or even "meta-sociological" studies of the way the career of his books comments on the fate of his "metafuturological" and "metahistorical" ideas.

Since it is the first book-length work on Lem published in English, Richard Ziegfeld's book will probably provide the first exposure to Lem criticism for many readers. This, to my mind, is the only reason for discussing it.

Ziegfeld's book uses the format of the book report, and reads much like Cliff's Notes, without their élan and clarity. It is divided into short chapters of 5 to 16 pages, each dealing with one of the major fictions published in English before 1982. Ziegfeld writes that his book has "two strategies": "The first is a clear, simple overview of [Lem's] career through 1982. Within individual chapters, it refers to five elements: a plot precis and discussion of plot, theme, characterization technique, and symbolism. Where appropriate, special attention is paid to critical problems with each book. Finally, comparison is used to evaluate the place of each book in the Lem corpus" (p. x). As for his critical intention, Ziegfeld states he is following Auden's maxim that "the only truly useful literary criticism is advocacy" (ibid.). This means, he adds, that he wants mainly to "share a sense of enthusiasm about Lem's virtues," "offer a candid report on th[e] potential difficulties" in Lem's work that "may not appeal to certain readers," and ultimately, "facilitat[e] greater American awareness that [Lem] is one of the great writers in twentieth century letters" (ibid.) These professions inspire certain questions at the outset: For whom did Ziegfeld write the book, and what are the standards for determining Lem's virtues and "potential difficulties"? Those questions are never answered. They are not even addressed.

It is impossible to tell who might find this book useful, or how much--or little--the author truly knows about Lem. The book is simultaneously pedestrian and dizzyingly contorted. The précis and discussions are garbled and violently condensed, and Ziegfeld never seems to question whether his mechanical approach might be inappropriate for an iconoclastic writer like Lem. Although he promises a "clear, simple overview" of Lem's career, it will not make much sense to a reader who does not already know a great deal more than what Ziegfeld tells. Moreover, an overview based only on Lem's translated works is a bit too simple. Ziegfeld does not mention Eden anywhere in the book; he mentions Summa Technologiae and Science Fiction and Futurology once or twice, and even quotes a sentence from the former, but he nowhere discusses what is in those books and how they relate to the fiction. It isn't clear to me why he does this. At the very least, it raises the reader's suspicions that he may not be as versed in Lem's work as he would at first glance appear to be.

This suspicion returns again and again, since Ziegfeld's most characteristic tactic is to make lists of arbitrary and empty things as if they were self-evident and significant. For example, in the biographical introduction Ziegfeld repeats from The High Castle Lem's list of the authors he read as an adolescent, including "Verne, Wells, Stapledon, Rilke, Conrad, Saint-Exupéry, Fedro, Karl May, and many Eastern European writers, including Sinkiewicz, Slwacki [sic], Pitrigrilli" and later "Dostoyevsky, Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz" (p. 3). With the exception of Dostoyevsky, none of these writers' names appears again in Ziegfeld's book--nor does he identify those writers who might be assumed to be unfamiliar to American readers. For whom is the book intended then? For an American audience unfamiliar with Lem, or for one so versed in his fiction that it can infer the influence of these writers, including even Slowacki, Schulz, and Sinkiewicz, let alone Fedro and Pitrigrilli? And again the suspicion: Has Ziegfeld contented himself with repeating what Lem wrote, without bothering to think about it?

Nothing else in the book is quite as bad as the biographical introduction, but many of the book's problems appear there in sharp focus. Much of it simply repeats bits and pieces of information Lem provides in The High Castle, along with lists of disconnected and trivial details without apparent purpose or design from interviews and reviewers' opinions. Ziegfeld treats Lem's memoir-novel as if it were both literal and necessary truth, apparently oblivious to the possibility that the "autobiography" is a work of fiction and that its "facts" are part of an aesthetic design. Ziegfeld's literal-mindedness and insensitivity to Lem's all-pervasive irony is stunning: "[Lem's] personality as a child is best described as reflective, irreverent, somewhat distant, occasionally ambivalent, deeply individualistic, and highly creative. His adult personality and his work are very similar" (p. 2). What a coincidence! And yet how Lem's experiences during the war, the relocation, and the Stalinist '50s might have affected his fiction and his memory never comes up in this book. Why, one wonders, even mention biographical details, if not to help investigate the work?

Regarding the chapters on Lem's works, Ziegfeld's approach might euphemistically be called "neo-Aristotelian" formal analysis. Although in the current critical climate such a method is considered part of the fossil record, it is not necessarily wrongheaded for studying Lem, since he does work to create some traditional effects, even when he subverts them with irony. I am not sure about character, but studying Lem's plots could be a way into his work. Anyone who has ever tried to abstract one of Lem's plots knows that it is particularly difficult. This belongs to Lem's subject matter: how we paraphrase a story reveals the decisions that we have made about "what it really means"; interpretation is commentary and commentary is a form of closure. Most of Lem's characters perform similar paraphrases in their fictive worlds--and act on them, with comic/catastrophic results. Lem's plots are meta-plots: they are not only skeletons of the themes; they are doubles, seducing readers to duplicate intellectually the characters' ontological constructions.

But Ziegfeld is not interested in plot theory. His main concern is to indicate whether a given work is "Aristotelian," "anti-Aristotelian," or mixed, and it is clear where Ziegfeld's sympathies lie: things Aristotelian are "fully developed," "charming" (p. 92), "intriguing" (p. 94), characters have "gravity" and "greatness" (p. 111), while the anti-Aristotelian tradition provides "the antihero, concern about existential angst, black humor, generic experimentation, and a taste for the ludicrous" (p. 92).

Ziegfeld wants to treat Lem as above all a writer of "philosophical literature." Accordingly, he lavishes most of his attention on Lem's themes and their symbolic embodiments, and it is here that the intellectual poverty of his book is most apparent. Rather than discussing the extremely problematic relationships Lem's writing has with philosophical and literary topoi, Ziegfeld merely identifies a certain number of "great themes" in each work, giving a capsule description of each, and providing textual evidence by retelling the parts of the story that supposedly illustrate the theme. The Invincible, for example, has two: "man's invincibility and capacity for heroism; and man's relation to an evolving artificial intelligence" (p. 73). His Master's Voice has at least three: "the state of man, the nature of the universe, and communication" (p. 107). In his whole corpus, Ziegfeld perorates, Lem "writes about epistemology, reality, ethics, and theology, [but] his favorite concern is man--man in relation to other men, the universe, and higher civilizations. He writes about communication, choice, freedom, isolation, sanity, hope, heroism, and creativity" (p. 143). What, one wonders, are not Lem's themes?

Thus, although the book has no unified critical point, it does have a single "strategy": to reduce Lem's writings to ideas with lofty names that are so abstract and inclusive that they are emptied of real content. There is no particular reason why these should be considered Lem's themes and not others--for example, fluidity, or paradox, or play. The reader never knows why the names Ziegfeld gives to things are necessarily the right ones or the only ones. Nor is the absence of "play" from his theme-lists accidental. Where it is unavoidable, as in The Futurological Congress and A Perfect Vacuum, he attributes it (calling it "zaniness" [p. 127]) to Lem's disillusionment. Wit and play apparently cannot be the point of any of Lem's works. It would allow Lemian irony to devour all those great themes that Ziegfeld is attached to.

Ziegfeld's discussions of genre, character, and irony and symbolism are similarly arbitrary and superficial. Symbolism is an especially interesting problem in the works of Lem, whom the Soviet critic Kagarlitsky called the most romantic writer of SF. But Ziegfeld's notion of symbol has nothing to do with the philosophical dimensions of symbolism. For him the symbol is essentially a multi-purpose "objective correlative" (p. 142). His "analysis" of symbolism consists of reducing certain "symbols" to their idea-referents with annoying and simplistic certainty. For example, apropos of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub: "'My case' stands for an individual's existential situation in the world and the hermetic isolation of the Last Pentagon for the insularity of the bureaucracy. A razor suggests the narrator's flirtation with suicide, tests and codes refer to the secrecy and paranoia that the bureaucracy engenders, and the endless corridors point out to the labyrinthine nature of bureaucratic structure" (p. 68). If we took Ziegfeld's idea of symbol seriously, it would leave us with nothing that is not a "symbol." Nor does his extremely literal sense of symbol allow for the possibilities of irony and self-negation: the sense in which models and model-building are themselves "symbolic," as science is in Solaris and His Master's Voice, as the book is in A Perfect Vacuum and Imaginary Magnitude, and as SF is in almost everything Lem has written.

There are other problems, not so central perhaps, but extremely irritating in a work nominally adhering to scholarly conventions. Why are the names of some of the journals Lem was associated with rendered in untranslated Polish, while others are in English only (p. 5)? For a book about "one of the outstanding writers in twentieth-century letters," why does Ziegfeld rely so much on comments by rather dubious authorities, such as Peter Nicholl and Brian Ash? Why do some quotations come supplied with bibliographical references and others not? Why is Ziegfeld silent until the last two pages of the book about Lem's Science Fiction and Futurology, surely an important text for a study of Lem's fiction and available in German? And in one case, at least, Ziegfeld clearly and seriously misinterprets his own source to produce a predictably garbled point: "As Michael Kandel aptly notes in the introduction to Mortal Engines, man is unique in his capacity for consciousness. 'Consciousness,' he says, 'not life, is sacred to Lem"' (p. 85). Of course, the point of Kandel's well-known passage (and all of Lem's comments on artificial intelligence) is exactly the opposite: it is human arrogance to insist on anthropocentric consciousness. Finally, I trust that the passages I have quoted illustrate that the prose of Ziegfeld's book is as inept as the argument. Given the faults of this book, the editors at Ungar must be held at least as responsible for having it go to press in its present form as Ziegfeld is for submitting it.

In all fairness, Ziegfeld has some interesting moments--moments that deserve more careful and lucid treatment than he gives them. In particular, his frequent comparisons of Lem's fiction to that of Sartre and Camus are suggestive. The existentialist strain in Lem's fiction is indeed very strong, and has not yet received much attention. Ziegfeld's bibliography of works by and about Lem up to 1980 is extensive.

In the final tally, however, Ziegfeld's Stanislaw Lem is a vapid and confused book, combining pedestrian analysis with tone-deaf prose. It is probably not harmful, but, except for its bibliography, it is useless--both to those who know Lem's work and to those who do not.

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