Who was Stanislaw Lem? The Polish science fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and polymath may best be known for his 1961 novel Solaris (adapted for the screen by Andrei Tarkosvky in 1972 and again by Steven Soderbergh in 2014). Lem’s science fiction appealed broadly outside of SF fandom, attracting the likes of John Updike, who called his stories “marvelous” and Lem a poet of “scientific terminology” for readers “whose hearts beat faster when the Scientific American arrives each month.”
Updike’s characterization is but one version of Lem. There are several more, writes Jonathan Lethem in an essay for the London Review of Books, penned for Lem’s 100th anniversary – at least five different Lems with five different literary personalities. Only the first is a “hard science fiction writer,” the genre originating not with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but “in H.G. Wells’ technological prognostications.”
Represented best in the pages of Astounding Stories and other sci-fi pulps, hard sci-fi “advertises consumer goods like personal robots and flying cars. It valorizes space travel that culminates in successful, if difficult, contact with the alien life assumed to be strewn throughout the galaxies.” The genre also became tied to “American exceptionalist ideology, technocratic triumphalism, manifest destiny” and “libertarian survivalist bullshit,” says Lethem.
Lem had no use for these attitudes. In his guise as a critic and reviewer he wrote, “the scientific ignorance of most American science-fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.” He admired the English H.G. Wells, comparing him to the inventor of chess, and American Philip K. Dick, whom he called a “visionary among charlatans.” But Lem hated most hard sci-fi, though he himself, says Lethem, was a hard sci-fi writer “with visionary gifts and inexhaustible diligence when it came to the task of extrapolation.”
Much of Lem’s work was of another kind, as Lethem explains in the short film above, a condensed version of his essay. The second Lem “wrote fairy tales and folk tales of the future.” The third, “wrote just two novels, yet he could easily be, on the right day, one’s favorite.” Lem number four “is the pure post-modernist, who unified his essayistic and fictional selves with a Borgesian or Nabokovian gesture.” This Lem, for example, wrote the very Borgesian A Perfect Vacuum: Perfect Reviews of Nonexistent Books.
Lem number five, says Lethem, is “another major figure,” this one a prolific literary essayist, critic, reviewer, and non-fiction writer whose breadth is staggering. Rather than confining him with the label “futurist,” Lethem calls him an “anythingist,” a point Lem proved with his 1964 Summa Technologiae, a “masterwork of non-fiction,” Simon Ings writes at New Scientist, with the ambition and scope of the 13th-century Aquinas work for which it’s named.
This fifth and final Lem “will be a fabulous shock to those who know only his science fiction,” writes Ings. Only translated into English in 2014, his Summa presages search engines, virtual reality, and technological singularity. It attempts an “all encompassing… discourse on evolution,” commented biophysicist Peter Butko, “not only… of science and technology… but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization.”
The last Lem makes for heady reading, but he imbues this work with the same wit and wickedly satirical voice we find in the first four. He operated, after all, as Lethem writes in his essay celebrating the Polish author at 100, “in the spirit of other Iron Curtain figures who slipped below the censor’s radar by using forms regarded as unserious.” Yet few have taken the form of science fiction more seriously.