An Introduction to Stanislaw Lem, the Great Polish Sci-Fi Writer, by Jonathan Lethem

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.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Auteur in Space”: A Video Essay on How Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Tran­scends Sci­ence Fic­tion

Revis­it Vin­tage Issues of Astound­ing Sto­ries, the 1930s Mag­a­zine that Gave Rise to Sci­ence Fic­tion as We Know It

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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