By Jeet Heer
Boston Globe Ideas (December 15, 2004)
LIKE MANY CREATORS OF science fiction, the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is fascinated by what will happen when humanity makes its "first contact" with an intelligent alien life form. In novels such as Solaris (1961) and His Master's Voice (1968), Lem suggests that the greatest problem will be communication: If we do meet genuinely otherworldly beings, how will we possibly talk to them?
Many sci-fi writers have tried to resolve this dilemma by imagining aliens simply as human beings with funny costumes or pointy ears. But Lem has tackled the problem with stories about creatures so strange that they baffle the understanding. In Lem's most famous novel, for example, scientists struggle for decades to communicate with an intelligent ocean that engulfs the planet Solaris. Repeated failure makes some of the scientists bitter and sullen, as if they'd been rejected by a haughty lover. Strangely, Lem's own relationship with his Western audience has long been marked by the same botched communication and wounded love.
Not that the 81-year-old writer, who lives in Krakow, would seem to have much to complain about. Lem's 40-odd books have been translated into 40 languages, and global sales figures top 25 million. The 1972 film adaptation of Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, was hailed at the time as the Soviet Union's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Late last month, Hollywood finally responded with its own version, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney.
His work has been embraced by a global audience, it has also aroused deep distrust. During the cold war, Lem ran afoul of both the world's superpowers. In the '70s, Lem's natural allies, American sci-fi writers, turned on him. And today, this prickly Polish visionary insists that fans and critics alike have misinterpreted his work. After the release of the Soderbergh version of Solaris, Lem issued a statement announcing that while he had no intention of seeing the film, he was troubled by its emphasis on romance at the expense of deeper philosophical concerns. Had Solaris merely been the story of love between a man and a woman, Lem wrote, he could have just called it Love in Outer Space.
In his 1968 memoir Highcastle, Lem recalls his childhood in the Polish city of Lvov. A socially awkward only child, he compensated for his loneliness by studying popular science and constructing elaborate fantasy worlds, inspired in part by American movies, as well as by the fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
After World War II, Lem resumed his medical education and started writing fiction on the side. In 1947, he began working for Zycie Nauki (The Life of Science), a monthly popular science magazine. He soon ran afoul of the authorities for writing essays mocking the bogus, government-approved theories of the Soviet geneticist TD Lysenko. Burned by this experience, Lem turned toward the relatively safe haven of science fiction. Along with the Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and a legion of East European fantasists, Lem helped turn sci-fi into an allegorical dissident literature.
Solaris mixed standard sci-fi themes with philosophical questions and became Lem's breakthrough book. As Lem's hero, the psychologist Kris Kelvin, studies the ocean of Solaris, he encounters a woman who resembles Rheya, his wife - or lover, in many translations of the novel - who'd committed suicide a decade earlier. Kelvin isn't sure if the reborn Rheya is merely a hallucination, or if she's product of an attempt (friendly or sinister) on the part of Solaris to make contact with him.
Among other things, Solaris is a veiled attack on Marxism and its claim to have replaced religious mystery with a science of human history. Solaristics, the systematic study of the planet's ocean, is said to be a rational pursuit - but it's really, Kelvin notes, just "the space era's equivalent of religion: faith disguised as science." He adds: "Contact, the stated aim of Solaristics, is no less vague and obscure than the communion of the saints, or the second coming of the Messiah."
Solaris became a literary sensation in Eastern Europe, although in the Soviet Union it was made available only in a bowdlerized version that omitted a chapter deemed too "mystical." Lem followed this novel with more conventional sci-fi books about space exploration, as well as with satirical attacks on the folly of the arms race, and many nonfiction books.
In his massive Summa Technologiae (1964), Lem presented himself as an ironic Aquinas of the space age, offering detailed speculations on how future technologies might mimic and augment biological processes, yet still leave humanity unable to fully understand itself.
Meanwhile, Lem's work was making its troubled journey to the West. Solaris first became available to English-language readers in 1970, in a shoddy version derived from a French translation. (Despite every effort by Lem himself, it's still the only English translation in print.) Lem also began contributing essays on English-language sci-fi to scholarly journals and fan magazines alike. These essays were often acerbic: While he admired the work of Philip K. Dick, Lem saw himself as the heir to Kafka and H.G. Wells, so he had little regard for those mere hacks who wrote commercial fiction for the pulps.
Tensions with his American colleagues came to a head in a bizarre international literary incident. In 1973, in an effort to promote "international goodwill," the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) conferred an honorary membership upon Lem, a distinction that had previously been given to only one other foreign writer, J.R.R. Tolkien.
But in 1975, the writer Philip Jose Farmer, whose sexually frank thrillers Lem had criticized, raised objections to Lem's honorary membership. Farmer's concerns were echoed by an addled Philip K. Dick, who was experiencing fits of paranoia at the time. Dick maintained that Lem had embezzled royalties from a Polish translation of Dick's 1969 novel Ubik.
"The honorary voting of Stanislaw Lem to membership is the sheep voting the wolf a place at the communal hearth," Dick warned SFWA members in '75. "They certainly must be licking their chops back in Krakow right now."
These attacks might not have gone any farther if Lem hadn't published yet another critical article on contemporary sci-fi, "SF, or Phantasy Come to Grief." The article itself was acidic, but its impact was amplified by yet another translation problem. In 1975, the Atlas World Press Review put out a dubious English-language version of the essay under the inflammatory title "Looking down on Science Fiction: A Novelist's Choice for the World's Worst Writing." In this version, Lem is made to describe American sci-fi as "bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue." Although he did call American sci-fi "kitsch," the other accusation appears to have been invented by the translators.
The perpetrators of the World's Worst Writing turned on Lem. One SFWA member accused him of attacking American sci-fi writers at the prompting of his Communist masters. Other SFWA members questioned his ability to read English or suggested, falsely, that he was profiting from pirated editions of American books. In a straw vote taken in 1976, 70 percent of SFWA's voting members supported a resolution to revoke Lem's honorary membership.
Lem did have some American defenders. In an open letter to the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1977, Ursula K. Le Guin declared: "The SFWA is not a powerful organization, nothing compared to the Soviet Writers Union, say; but when it uses the tactics of the Soviet Writers Union, I think there is cause for concern, and reasons for shame."
Today, former SFWA president Jerry Pournelle insists that Lem's membership was revoked because of technicalities in the group's bylaws, not politics. But in his 1977 exchange with Le Guin, Pournelle described Lem as someone "who finds a communist regime congenial" and "embraces communist egalitarianism." In 1983, a letter to the editor in Omni Magazine denounced Lem as "the most boring writer in the world - and an avowed Communist" - even as Lem and his family were preparing to go into exile in Vienna. (They returned to Poland in 1988.) Despite the hostility of the American sci-fi community, mainstream writers such as John Updike and Anthony Burgess started praising Lem's books in prominent places.
But Lem himself had already begun to turn away from the genre toward a more inward-looking experimentalism reminiscent of Borges. A Perfect Vacuum (1971) offered fictional reviews of non-existent books, for example; and a follow-up volume, Imaginary Magnitude (1974), gathered together introductions to another set of imaginary books.
Unlike more orthodox and optimistic sci-fi writers, Lem emphasizes the paradoxes and problems that new knowledge will bring with it. For Lem, artificial intelligence entails artificial stupidity. As the narrator of The Futurological Congress (1971) puts it, "A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. . . And therefore we have the malingerants, fudgerators, and drudge-dodgers, not to mention the special phenomenon of simulimbecility or mimicretinism."
Although Lem continues to write today, all of his work since 1987 has been nonfiction, much of it elaborating on the ideas of Summa Technologiae.
Peter Swirski, a literature professor at the University of Alberta and editor of A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997) is working on a project to translate this work into English, along with Lem's little-known early novels.
But is Lem fated to be misunderstood? In his tangled statement on Steven Soderbergh's movie, Lem writes: "I have not seen the film, … hence I cannot say anything about the movie itself except for what the reviews reflect, albeit unclearly -- like a distorted picture of one's face in ripply water. However, to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space…I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of human encounter with something that certainly exists … but cannot be reduced to human concepts, images, or ideas."
Whenever Lem speaks about science fiction, there is a tangible sense of sadness in his words, like a man discussing a long-dead passion. For all his achievements and honors, Lem knows from experience that even the most well-intentioned attempts at communication can end in farcical misunderstanding.