Stanislav Lem has recently been memorialised interestingly by Google, as hinted at in a post from last week. The Google interactive animation did indeed display many of the traits of Lem's writing: whimsicality, humour, machines with human characteristics, rather flat human characters, exactitude in matters of science and scientific procedures. I've not heard any account of why Google chose to highlight Lem in this way - I quite like the idea that he tends to be a secret enthusiasm - certainly I've not met anyone else determined to read everything he wrote. I've tried to get hold of all his stories over the years since I came across him after seeing the stunning Tarkovsky film version of Lem's novella Solaris as a student in the early 70s, but it's hard to be sure what his total output has been - he has certainly been prolific. I've done quite well, but every time I'm in a second hand bookshop I'm half hoping I might find another collection, or another short novel.
A repeated theme of Lem's, one he returned to over and over again, is the idea of non-human entities behaving like humans, or acquiring the characteristics of humans, for better, or more often, for worse. In Lem it is often the humans who are dangerous to non-humans, rather than the other way around. There is the short story about a mining robot on the moon which fails to report back after a mission. The human cosmonauts track it, finding it smashed at the bottom of a sheer cliff, and gradually realise that it decided on a whim to go for a climb. Chris's wife's alter ego in Solaris is in the process of becoming more and more identical to her, and implicitly begs the question: from a moral point of view, shouldn't she be treated like a human, like his wife, even if she clearly is not? What is the difference between a creation of the planet Solaris and Dolly the sheep? Neither have been 'born' in the normal sense, but both demand recognition based on how they appear to be, and on how they behave, rather than their origin.
These stories might be termed 'hard science ficition', but Lem also writes in a genre which harks back to Swift and Voltaire: I'm not sure if there is a special academic term for this genre, but I think of them as satirical parables, often featuring a rogue celebrity scientist and space traveller called Ion Tichy. His adventures often start as conventional science fiction but plunge into surreal comic episodes poking fun at scientific conferences and demonstrating the enormous collective self-centredness and lack of imagination of earthlings. Another series of such pieces takes the form of spoof reviews of fictional scientific and literary works, including some apparently written by Lem himself.
My favourites include Solaris, the most memorable moral and philosophical work of science fiction I know, and The Invincible, the depressing and at times terrifying record, expressed in an admirably downbeat 'ship's log' style, of a futile encounter on a distant planet between visiting humans more or less of our time and a type of entity that once again defies categorisation, this time as either animal or mineral. Whatever the answer to this conundrum, they are potentially lethal, and impossible to negotiate with. The humans eventually work out the genesis of these 'creatures', which is impeccably plausible in scientific terms, if not how to deal with them. After episodes of extraordinary mutual violence, there is a stand off, and the humans leave, realising that there is absolutely no point in staying: this is one planet they will not be able to colonise, though their 'enemy' can hardly be said to be even aware of their existence. Lem seems to be once again expressing a message about the limits of human experience and the dangers of hubris: we are partially familar with the natural world on this planet and think we understand it, though how much is debatable. But 'the natural world' extends in reality to other worlds too, where it certainly expresses itself in ways beyond our ken - this should be a matter for awe and humility, he seems to be saying. We should be more aware of our cosmic insignificance and the accidental and serendipitous nature of our very existence.
Stanislav Lem 1921-2006 b.Lvov, Poland (now Ukraine)
'The world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created ... intentionally'.An Interview with Stanislaw Lem by Peter Engel. Missouri Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1984