Posts Tagged ‘Stanislaw Lem’

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Trans: Olena Bormashenko), “Roadside Picnic” (1972, 2012); Leslie Stein, “Time Clock: An Eye Of The Majestic Creature Book” (2016); Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), “Solaris” (1961, 1970, 2002)

August 30, 2016


The key to understanding the underlying philosophy of Roadside Picnic is in the third chapter, the conversation between Noonan and Pillman, which is also an expansion on the interview with Pillman in the prologue. Noonan chastises Pillman for promoting theories that say the alien Visitors didn’t notice or care about the native population of earth, but simply dropped their stuff off and left without a thought. “Where do you get this disdain for man?” Noonan says; but in reality Pillman is not the one with disdain – as seen in his two relatively brief appearances in the book, he is simply skeptical about the idea that first contact occurs because of humanity or earth’s centrality, or that communication is a necessary outcome – as he explains in the prologue, the significance of the event is not the possibility of humans understanding the extraterrestrials, but that the possibility of life on other planets exists at all. He is the face of the ambiguous science fiction concept that provides the novel’s setting, not answering the questions we may ask about the nature of the technology, but telling us that it’s unimportant, that communication and understanding in this situation is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the expanding possibilities in the known universe. He acts as the Strugatskys’ contextualizing tool, but he doesn’t know much more than the readers about what the Zone is – that knowledge is beside the point.

Really, it’s almost every character other than Pillman that has disdain for man – specifically, Noonan’s “friend” Redrick, whose life as one of the Stalkers has driven him to completely reject all but a few people in his life, never realizing how much of his existence has been subsumed by the Zone until the end. Almost every relationship he has with the others on the edge of the Zone is paired with profound hate: hate for the authorities who try to prevent his scrounging, hate for his fellow Stalkers who are in a constant competition to see who can swindle the other, hate for anyone who knows less about the Zone then he does. We are in Rederick’s mind for most of the book, whether it be the introductory chapter where he is the narrator or the rest where he is picked apart but an omniscient one, and every thought seems to be fed by anger and disgust – his feelings about his destroyed hometown seems to melt away, any sentimentality buried by the realization that he has always had essentially nothing, and seems to want nothing. He seems to care for his family, but even that is undercut by his final thoughts in the closing chapter, his desire to owe no one – being a Stalker has become his sole source of meaning, beyond even his desire to make money, becoming the barest sort of survival drive. The significance of the Zone even begins to influence his family life, where two of the only people he shows affection for are casualties of the Zone’s malignant influence.

Redrick’s life is Exhibit A in Pillman’s theories about this story’s first contact – the very existence of the extraterrestrials and their technology becomes the most significant thing in his life, every action revolving around journeying in and out of the Zone or justifying his reaction to the authoritarianism and criminal greed that were themselves reactions to the visit. Many of the characters seem trapped in this cycle, trapped by how much the Zone has changed human civilization – and despite Noonan’s attempts, answers for what the Zone is and why it’s there cannot provide an escape from it. The only question that can seemingly be asked of it is “now that this stuff is here, what can be done with it?”, a question that is the driving force behind the stalkers and the scientists – but even that ends up having no possibility for conclusion.


Continuing more or less directly from Stein’s previous Eye Of the Majestic Creature book, Time Clock moves the stories in the direction of small-scale internal conflict, a difficult attempt to balance what you want and what you think you want (complicated by what others want as well.) After spending most of the previous books drifting from job to job, Larrybear decides to get a more serious career going, the kind of structure that she seemed to be looking for in previous stories – there seems to be less of a sense of wandering, even when Larry does move to different settings, with a drive for predictability and security. The one big but brief change that occurs in the middle of the book is initiated with a big, dreamy flourish, pages of outdoor whimsy that contrasts the concrete urbanity of the rest – the one thing unifying both visuals, though, is their inability to affect Larry, who seeks some kind of fulfillment in two settings, the pastoral openness of the country and the tied-down structure of a New York job, but can’t seem to make it work. It’s an ambivalent streak that runs through the whole book in a way unlike previous Eye stories.

001 (2)

Every story here also seems to have Larry become aware of how other people find solace with their passions while she struggles – she goes to a convention for her artistic calling, where she finds camaraderie with the other artists as well as a “nemesis” whose popularity and methods are the inverse of her situation, but after that point sit becomes increasingly difficult to find inspiration for her work. The move back to the country is spurred by her talking guitar’s increasing sense of isolation and his attempt to find his own calling – but while the move benefits him greatly, she has trouble adapting again and in a fit of low-key desperation goes back to her job and the city, seeking something to do other than constantly ponder what’s supposed to happen next. But no decision in this book is ever not fraught, always in some way tainted with regret – no matter how committed one is to their life choices, it always seems like there’s more good than bad and there’s always something better somewhere else. It’s a secret that everyone other than Larry has figured out, it seems, and by the end she seems to have become even more isolated.

In that way, I guess the wandering feeling of older Stein books isn’t entirely gone – but where before it seemed to contain possibilities, now it just feels lost.


I decided to read Roadside Picnic because of the essay Lem wrote about it in Microworlds (wherein he attempts to come up with the most logical explanation for the whys of the technology, as Lem is wont to do), and it’s easy to understand why Strugatskys’ novel interested him: in its active refusal to show humanity understanding the signs of alien life, they are playing within the same realm of science fiction thought that Lem himself often did. Lem has often explored the difficulties of a true cultural understanding or exchange between species of wildly different evolutionary histories with vast differences in between, and while Picnic uses the unknown quality of the extraterrestrial presence mainly as a background element (an important one) without the depth of argument that Lem gives it in his own work, the strange incomprehensibility of the alien signs and the human reaction (how the limited nature of human cognition would lead to numerous assumptions as obsessive individuals attempt to crack the indecipherable code) is still very much in line with it.

Solaris is many ways the inverse of his other alien contact novel His Master’s Voice in that it involves humans visiting an alien “intelligence” rather than the alien intelligence being visited upon them. Long stretches of the book are devoted to recounting the history of scientific studies of the sentient ocean, the many theories about the hows and whys of its existence and what it can do and whether humans can communicate with it, volumes of study and debunked crackpot hypotheses that shift and change – Solaris becomes a vessel through which the scientific community displays the aforementioned limits of human cognition, bias and the herd mentality of consensus. Kelvin retreats to the vast library of Solaristic material as a way to further understand what is happening around him, but finds that even first-hand accounts and the words of his own mentor only suggest that Solaris can only be understood by humans in entirely subjective terms, a complicated act of interpretation that never reaches any conclusion. Each of the three human characters in the book have their own “visitors”, dealing with them in different ways after very similar initial reactions – subjective possibilities also seen in the reports Kelvin reads – the true picture of Solaris seems to be distorted because it appears in different forms to different people, contorting itself to their minds.

The most wondrous passages in the book describe the series of nature phenomenon that occurs in the ocean, large ephemeral monoliths and complicated acts of mimicry when humans arrive, which constantly straddle the line between deliberate acts of beautiful creation and mindless reactions to stimuli – the possibility of the latter, of course, making the ocean’s power to spontaneously form life and “read” the innermost minds of the station crew all the more disturbing. As an act of a cognizant being that can be benevolent, malevolent, or even just confused, doing something like physically manifesting Kelvin’s guilt into a independently intelligent being could be understood in human terms, but if it is able to do that unconsciously it is psychological violation and trauma without any purpose at all, and uncontrollable loosing of our own unconscious minds. This is the idea of God that Kelvin speaks to Snow about in the final chapter, a thing with the greatest possible power with no understanding of how to use it – what’s more interesting, or concerning, about this form of non-contact is not simply us being unable to reach another mind, but knowing that it can reach yours and reacts in its own inscrutable cosmic way.

Stanislaw Lem (Trans. Marc E. Heine), “Imaginary Magnitude” (1981, 1984) & Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” (2006)

February 24, 2015


Imaginary Magnitude feels like the transition between Lem’s science fiction and his experimental fiction like A Perfect Vacuum – all the latter’s cross of pastiche and parody of a variety of forms, while maintaining the tone of fiction like His Master’s Voice. This is clearest in the final section (and majority of the collection), “Golem XIV”, which is more less a short story in reprinted seminar form (just as the Vacuum piece “Non Serviam” was a short story in the form of scientific book review) – using the structure of non-fiction while still containing a recognizable narrative, putting a bit of science fiction into faux scientific literature. That has always seemed to be something that Lem was interested in, but this is about as direct an attempt to marry the two as anything could be.

As I mentioned, the recurring theme in these introductions (and the fake books they ostensibly represent) is the same recurring theme in many of Lem’s books – human intelligence, its context and its limitations. This is pretty explicit in “Golem XIV”, where Golem itself lays out the upper levels of different forms of intelligence, how humanity has plateaued, and how even Golem itself may have reached the same stage,unlike its non-speaking contemporaries. Golem speaks of many different constraints on intelligence, and the implication is that it has placed all of those on itself in order to communicate that very fact to its human creators, and that it is only by retreating into a self-sustaining, self-contained state like the computer Honest Annie that it can exceed humanity’s limitations. It speaks of both evolution as a scale of intellectual degradation – “The Construction is less perfect than what Constructs” – and the restrictions that a natural form itself places on humanity (unlike itself, with a technological existence that allows it to escape the cycle.) Humans can be on the cusp of understanding, but as in His Master’s Voice, will be undone by things inherent in what they are. Golem deigns to lower itself to that level to tell its human creators that, but can barely conceal its disdain (which the scientists writing the introductions attempt to explained away, motivated by their own relationships with Golem) – it would rather try to join Annie in Nirvana.

The other stories, while certainly lighter, also follow along the same idea, as forms of human intelligence are introduced to non-human things – be it bacteria in “”Eruntics” or artificial intelligence in “The History of Bitic Literature”, which are used as simulations of intelligence with their own set of consequences. There is a constant shifting between origins of intellect and perception, which seem to coalesce with what is discussed in “Golem XIV” – there would seem to be a clear hierarchy of non-human organisms (like the bacteria), humans, and then artificial intelligence, but that hierarchy is often muddled, and the things that we think define our civilization can be usurped, as in “Bitic Literature.” In the first introduction, “Necrobes,” all three are conflated – technology creates art at its most primitive, a recognition of our own natural state. Our imperfections are then skewered in “Vestrand’s Extelopedia”, with its attempt to create a technologically perfect encapsulation of human knowledge that leads to less than useful results. All this seems to do is reinforce the idea that we don’t actually know our place and our possibilities.

The fantasy in Karen Russell’s stories is one where modern human civilization is more integrated into its natural world than ours ever have been – though that doesn’t mean its always well-integrated. After all, it’s mostly just that the animals and natural landscapes have been turned into more tourist traps, more pointless traditions, more businesses – all the negatives are there, just configured slightly differently. So we have a world of alligator wrestling parks, a beach full of massive prehistoric shells, and a social order based on sending children to sing down an avalanche – but the meaning of it is perfunctory to the people who experience it, and just another thing for the children protagonists to overlook and endure. The natural world is definitely part of the stories, but there is little harmony displayed. The readers are the only ones who get to appreciate the absurdity of the settings – as all the characters in the stories have already had those feelings dulled, or are in the process of having them dulled, nature as the fantastic rendered mundane.

The protagonists of most f these stories are children/teenagers, so they are still “outside” these invented social systems, allowing wonder and boredom to commingle. The adults in these stories are usually absent, or are fully engaged in some absurd facet of the Russell’s worlds (like the “blizzard” in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows”, which the children attempt to invade, only to discover its purpose as a facade) – and the adults that do get some modicum of respect are themselves shown to be outsiders (coming to a head in “Out To Sea”, which focuses on an elderly man.) Because they are just on the borders of assimilation into the realm of maturity, there’s a naivety involved in the younger characters’ interaction with the world, which is further confused by their own personal dilemmas. When the naivety and the dilemmas clash, its the former that ends up washed away, again and again – the process seems unavoidable.

This is more explicit in stories like the title story and “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreams,” where the fantastic aspects of these characters’ lives are gradually removed, a delightful facet of their childhood ironed out by a society that considers it a condition to be remedied (as natural phenomenon – there’s also a recurring theme of those natural phenomenon being something to tame.) In some cases, like “ The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime”, the abuse of natural phenomenon (in that story, the turtles and astronomy) is used as an attempt to steer the character’s life in a beneficial direction, that world considered secondary to finding friends and respect. The coexistence and conflict of the natural and the personal is not just about exploitation, either – nature can be used as a lens for loss, fear, and disappointment (as in “Haunting Olivia”) or can even reassert itself (in “Accident Brief.”) Russell uses her natural settings as a vessel, while still maintaining its essential powerful and mysterious quality – we see ourselves in the landscapes, but the landscapes are not just there for us.

Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

Stanislaw Lem (Ed. Franz Rottensteiner), “Microworlds” (1984) & Margaret Atwood, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination” (2011)

January 2, 2015



The history of science fiction and fantasy literature seems a endless debate amongst their constituents – between authors and fans, authors and critics, fans and critics, and newer works and the genre’s entire history. The definitions are fickle and changing every decade, the ideas of stagnation and genre limitations remain the same – for a time, being an ambitious writer of sf basically entails being constantly embattled with whoever prevents you from reaching the “literature of ideas”’s true potential. In a postmodern age, it would seem that we are beyond these types of arguments, genre now being as typical a touchstone as anything else in “high” culture – they happen anyway, but usually only in the most close-knit of circles.

So the main interest in reading Lem and Atwood’s book of critical writing back-to-back is comparing the highly-critical ambitions of a literary science fiction writer in the seventies with someone writing more from the modern day, where the lines between genre and literary fiction blur. It’s two different eras in the history of genre, with the noticeable presence and absence of those old battlegrounds. The genre landscape is reflects in the divergent topics chosen by the two – Atwood (for many obvious reasons) is not so concerned with the way the genres are being discussed in various American fanzines, and writes analytically on the history and influence of trash literature by the likes of H. Rider Haggard. Lem, from his vantage point during one of the major transitional periods for sf, sees the influence of the “lower realm of trivial literature” as a millstone on the modern writers, leading only to stock plots and faulty imagination. Although both are interested in the historical/structural points of genre, only Atwood sees everything from the pulps and their precursors to the more openly intellectual works of someone like Ursula K. Le Guin as being within the same realm, fitting them amongst older mythologies as well – Lem seemed to be fighting against such a notion, and hoped to develop a more literate form of criticism to address it. It’s possible that Atwood being able to look at the whole of the field more broadly was only made possible because writers like Lem made the style of the Weird Tales thrillers a historical curiosity to be analyzed, rather than the continuing, dreary, market-dictated reality of the scene.

Aside from connecting the strand of fantasy throughout history, In Other Worlds‘ other essays stay more on the literary borderline between genre and non-genre – Wells, Orwell, Huxley, all the way back to Swift and Gulliver’s Travels – and focuses on the dystopic/utopic dischotomy, which is one that Atwood often explored in her own novels. This gives her book more a general audience (I mean, in a hopefully non-dismissive way) approach, more inclined to readers who don’t seem themselves in the genre ghetto – which is perfectly in line with the discussion of pulps and childrens’ literature, being able to appreciate these things without a reflexive fear of pigeonholing that many in sf community tend towards. The writing on dystopic literature also works into Atwood’s more critical approach to technology and innovation for innovation’s sake – the essay about the Bill McKibben book Enough, where it is given its most straightforward ideological pitch. All of it is part of a very cohesive throughline these scattered article – including short examples of her own work, we can see how different parts of the genre landscape make their way into her writing.

Many of those sorts of themes don’t show up much in Lem’s writing – he seems more interested in exploring humanity’s position in the face of a wide universe and new frontiers of their own creation (thus his recurring use of AI) – and seems to view the problems coming from such less as possible Orwellian nightmares, and more as cosmic jokes at humanity’s expense. In his essays, his focus seems more in analyzing the structure of science fiction, and how futuristic ideas are integrated into new realities in the stories – advocating for quality first and foremost. Once science fiction writing has the thoroughness, logical consistency, and creativity that Lem advances, it may be able to rise to the occasion of being socially engaged.

Which is not the say that there isn’t more common ground between them – both write about Wells as the font of sf (Lem sees his works as a model that then-modern entries had strayed from), and both regard Borges as one of the most critically talented and influential figures in entirety of fantastic literature. As mentioned, the differences are mostly in the aim and milieu of the collected essays – Lem working with mostly contemporary (at the time) science fiction (and is constantly addressing other critical works in the field, which mostly means quoting Damon Knight’s work from various fanzines), and Atwood going much broader, working in superheroes and fantasy into one cohesive genre universe. This is also reflected in the positive/negative tenor in the essays – Lem’s harshness stems from his desire to pinpoint the rot in the field.

Both the books seem to write extensive, favourable pieces on certain authors within the genre, those that they see as exceeding the standards of the genre – for Atwood, it’s Le Guin, while for Lem it’s Philip K. Dick (“A visionary among the charlatans”.) Both writers are well-known for the way they infuse their particular philosophies and other idiosyncrasies into their work, elevating stories of space travel and psychic powers and other standard tropes, and so singling them out in these cases allows for additional reflection on how the genres can become more. I would actually find it interesting to have seen those authors discussed in the other book – Atwood on Dick, Lem on Le Guin – as reading their thoughts on them would have added something I felt missing in their collection of critiques (in Atwood it was of the new wave and related sf, and in Lem more authors outside the white/male demographic.) (Incidentally, according to the introduction to Microworlds by Franz Rottensteiner, Lem had included a recommendation for Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea in the same book that his chapter on PKD originated from.)

Stanislaw Lem, “Mortal Engines” (1977, 1992) & The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978)

September 29, 2014


The robots in Lem’s futurist fairy tales are really more like people than machines – in their societies, in their whims, and even in the format of the stories told (going beyond the fourth wall) – just with some modifications. Modification is one of the central themes of many of the stories, actually – as the robots can be or become anything, and can seemingly also create anything, their forms and the changes they make to themselves are often shown to be folly, with the more adaptable (or sly) coming out on top, as in “How Erg the self-inducting Slew a Paleface” (which is one of the stories to end up as a parody of fairy tale moralizing.) This gets used to absurd degrees in “Uranium Earpieces” and “The Tale of King Gnuff”, where characters can change to become impossibly massive and all-encompassing, yet still are outwitted. In this way, despite the medieval setting, the robot tales become an indictment of our own modern times, showing how technological solutions to problems, and the arrogance of technological might, are tripped up, or in some cases create as many problems as they solve. This is even integrated into the origin stories like “How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand” – Genesis reinterpreted as technology giants trying to one-up each other.

That the robots come to represent our worst excesses is clear, but they’re not the only ones – Lem uses the actual humans who appear in these stories, the fairy tales especially, to demonstrate much darker views of us. The contrast between the perfectly crafted machine-people and the (to them) disgusting and oozing biological form is played for laughs, but in stories like “Two Monsters” and “The White Death”, humans are portrayed as hate-filled destroyers of their robot creations (the last line of “Two Monsters” is “The universe is infinite and has no bounds, but their hatred also has no bounds and…it can overtake us too.”) While the tales show humanity more as a monstrous or trickster figure in the world of robots, the more traditional stories near the end of the book explore their relationship further – “The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius” showing robots unable to adjust their own psyches in a shared world, and “The Hunt” a more standard adventure story with a rebellious robot worker that suddenly turns into a question of humanity.

The longest of those stories, “The Mask”, is also the most interesting, as it goes through some of the same ideas, but all from the robot’s perspective. Like “Dr. Vliperdius,” it has a machine who shows great difficulty adapting to its true nature (though in much different circumstances), and once it does figure out what it is, it constantly struggles with the after effects of its brief human existence once it becomes a single-minded killing machine. The robot constantly questions its identity, never being able to tell if its feelings are “real” or have been pre-programmed, and so it even becomes an unreliable narrator at points. Even in the ending, the narrator’s actual goals remain ambiguous – which actually makes it all the more tragic.


The Ballardian wasteland always feel like the culmination of some human experiment, even in the few cases where it isn’t one explicitly – but the glare of some controlled disaster always seems omnipresent. In a few of the stories (“Manhole 69”, “Chronopolis”), its an experiment in attaining maximum human efficiency, altering biological and sociological situations to reach the potential – only for it to come crashing down, the unforeseen psychological after effects coming into play. “The Concentration City” feels the same – a landscape created to efficiently cram in as much of humanity as possible (as explored in the population explosion-based “Billenium”), so perfect that it turns out to be inescapable – new or created societies of such scope also being a regular feature of these stories. The destruction of freedom is inevitable in pursuit of these perfectly cyclical civilizations, and by the time the protagonists in Ballard’s story discover this, they too end up being destroyed by it. That theme recurs in stories of another tact, as any rebellion or attempted outmanoeuvring of the world in decline ends tragically – no human ingenuity can seemingly reverse it.

The common fate amongst the protagonists in these stories is an attempt at mastering their strange environment, either by the aforementioned subversion or understanding – their folly being their inability to accept a situation much larger and more powerful than themselves. One of the best examples is in “Thirteen for Centaurus”, where the scientist Francis finds himself battling for control of his wide scale social experiment, outside of it against his government backers and (as he discovers) inside from one of the younger test subjects, and ends up losing in both situations – having given himself that much power (and no longer able to justify it), it inevitably spirals out of control. Ditto for “End Game”, where the prisoner tries his best to manipulate his mysterious prison guard/eventual executioner – but realizes he is in a game where he cannot know what moves his opponent will make, or when, that he is utterly powerless in the situation, despite his best efforts to convince the guard (and himself) otherwise. These stories accentuate the smallness of the individuals, the futility of their attempts to overcome a natural world or societal mechanism – attempts to overcome them are futile, as they exist in a reality utterly outside their control.

On the other end of the spectrum, “The Overloaded Man” is about someone who has no control of his life finding a way to regain autonomy, by essentially dissolving concepts into their meaningless component parts – with horrific results. That theme ultimately culminates in “The Atrocity Exhibition”, where a man inundated with media images and broken landscapes attempts to reconcile them in his own mind (under the auspices of “starting World War III” – one important symbol the outside world has projected onto him), blurring the lines between internal and external in the process – as in “Overloaded Man”, modern life has reduced him to deconstruction of his environment to make any sort of sense of it. These are not dystopias like the other stories (although you’ll find enough literature about suburbia like “Overloaded Man” to suggest otherwise), but posit modern life as a very similar sort of thing – a deluge of outside forces with a jumbled meaning and nowhere to go, making the only solution disassociation and destruction, a fleeting but seemingly worthwhile way of finding meaning in a meaningless existence. No matter how scaled the fantasy is, from world-ending scenarios to small-scale personal breakdowns, it always feels like the whole of everything is fundamentally broken.

Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Michael Kandel), “His Master’s Voice” (1968, 1983, 1999) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Dispossessed” (1974, 2003)

August 25, 2014


Then anthropocentric view of extraterrestrial life, which forms the basis of our attempts to communicate with the stars (I.E. SETI), is the inevitable result of our general pattern of thinking: that the human organism is, for whatever reason, an evolutionary constant, that things have meaning that we can ultimately define, and that our knowledge has no limitations. If one civilization has arisen, why not another? And if there are multiple civilizations, no matter the differences between them, they should be able to communicate through sheer will, and the fact that communication is possible at all.

Lem will have none of that. His novel is made entirely to argue against these points – and he even specifically goes after American science fiction, whose unimaginative and banal ideas directly influenced our approach to stellar exploration.

His Master’s Voice is primarily a philosophical dissection of the idea of human knowledge being “pure” and limitless, with Lem, through the mathematician Hogarth, wondering if basic linguistic and cultural roadblocks would ever allow us to understand a message from an alien civilization. Scientific knowledge, despite the idea that being based in physical phenomenon prevents bias and agenda from leaking in, is entirely hobbled by our individual mentality and cultural consensus, and is subtly dependent on context (the personalities of the scientists and the political atmosphere of the times, with the Cold War setting of the novel being a perfect example.) Hogarth’s preface, where he goes over his defects as a human being and how they are intrinsically tied to his work in mathematics, are meant to demonstrate just that – no matter his arguments about mathematics as a “pure” science, he knows that it, and the knowledge derived from it, are not wholly removed from the people who devise them.

During the His Master’s Voice project (which is as much another game in the arms race as an attempt to advance human civilization,) the message from space is “decoded” in several different ways, all of which lead to multiple theories that prove inconclusive. Especially in the chemical-biological interpretations, the creation of the “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the Flies” substances, the interpretation goes further than simply reading the message, but attempt to put a face on their origins – the motivation for the message, and thus some inkling of the alien civilization. The suggestion that the message itself, which might encode some part of a species genetics or may have even kick-started life on earth, provides the most openly anthropocentric possibility – either way, the senders are trying to create (or have already successfully created) a kinship with humanity. But no theories in the novel can be proven, and its entirely possible that the biological functions of the message are entirely coincidental.

The other possibility, that the message may in fact be destructive in nature, becomes the basis for one of the more intense episodes, where Hogarth and a fellow scientist think they may have discovered a weaponized use for one of the substances derived from the code – fearing that it would allow atomic weapons to become inescapable, and that the discovery would be inevitable. This, like all the other theories, turns out to be wrong or inconclusive, but the very idea – and the fact that something of that nature might be what the government and their cronies in the project were after all along – is another fearful constant in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, that it could end up being misused (though not specifically connected, Rappaport’s Holocaust memories remind us of the destructive capabilities of humanity.) This Armageddon scenario could have been a coincidence as well, but that only adds more unwanted baggage to the project – not only denying us the meaning we want, but also making the very act of trying to find into something self-destructive.

The story ultimately becomes Lem turning our belief in the inevitability of discovery into the inevitability of failure. On one hand, it is entirely possible that any civilization capable of sending an interstellar message might be too advanced for us to understand – but Lem seems even sceptical of that notion, wondering if inevitable evolutionary-linguistic distinctions would render any attempts to communicate more or less impossible. This leaves any message to be more or less interpreted in any way one can wish – so when we want to see us in the unknown, we will, and no amount of scientific method will mitigate that “impurity.”


Though maybe more optimistic, Le Guin is working in the same context as Lem (six years later) – the Cold War exerting its influence on the practice and purpose of science. The novel being more concerned with the method and mode of societal/political thought, Shevek, the protagonist, finds himself brushing up against the idea of scientific “utility” – whether he was in the anarchist society of Anarres or the capitalistic country he visits on Urras, his value as a physics researcher was in what he can produce – either some benefit to his society, or a technological advancement to win the space race. Though his research was able to produce certain things (which was why the government of A-lo was willing to house him), his theoretical approach is the exact opposite of “practical science”, but is essential to his work. In His Master’s Voice, that overbearing oversight was more subtle – but not so in The Dispossessed, where Shevek has to deal with either societal disapproval or conspiracy in order to protect the “purity” of his research.

Le Guin is likewise also upfront about the relationship between science and ideology – but posits a more stable relationship, the two working in tandem rather inhibiting one another. Shevek’s theories were ultimately meant to be a reflection of the revolution his society represents but has fallen away from – in his attempt to more or less rethink time, he is taking the Odonian belief system and applying it to physics, butting heads with the increasingly rigid views of the current Anarres. One kind of revolution begets another – a society needs to be able to rethink the basis for their ideologies before they can truly make a change. In that regard, the broad implications of Shevek’s theory can be seen as more important than the substance, which is what the A-lo government completely misunderstood, and even the anarchists refuse to get.

Of the sections where the novel turns to Shevek’s life on Anarres, the development of that revolutionary ideology is put into greater context. From the earliest chapters, Le Guin sets Shevek as someone who is ill-at-ease among his people, and with the rest of the book revolving around his (literal) flight from that society, we may be led to believe that he has in some way abandoned the anarchist way of life. But the further it goes, the way he works his way through the traditional cycles of work of the Odonian, and overcomes his frustrations and finds peers in his wife and friends, Shevek comes to understand and revere his society far better – and his trip to Urras is seen in a different light, as someone willing to sacrifice his own place in his society in order for it to continue. Especially when he speaks with the Terrans and other aliens near the end of the book, Shevek becomes a figure of idealization – he believes in the morality of his society, and though it may be in a conservative era, the basis and everyday workings of it (through him we can see how the inhospitable nature of Anarres’ environment shapes the society, both negatively and positively) is still something he is willing to fight for, and his assurance inspires the off-worlders.

Much like Lem, Le Guin is also interested in language and how it shapes ways of thinking – and limits them. Even beyond the fact that Urras and Anarres have developed different languages (which for the reader is only implied), their languages are based on such diametrically opposed political systems, that even when Shevek can speak with his hosts on Urras, they find that there are many terms and phrases that each cannot grasp – how can Shevek understand all the ideas about ownership and money and class when he comes from a society without any of those things? At first, Shevek and his counterparts on the homeworld seem to avoid this by speaking through a third, seemingly neutral language – physics – but very quickly, he learns that even that has walls, when considering how those sciences are thought of and used (going back to the discussion of “practical” science.) Eventually, Shevek seems unable to even stand the upper crust citizens of Urras (and, especially when he gets drunk for the first time, could even see them as a corrupting influence, though his trip was partially to prove to Anarres that such an influence did not exist), and goes on his own to seek out the working class, and then to the extraterrestrial emissaries. Through conversation and through language, he seems to come to the same conclusion the propaganda about Urras on Anarres did – but he tries to hold out hope for them still.

Ideology, language, and knowledge are all seen as three interrelated systems – but that is not something that necessarily prevents change and expansion, as Shevek’s beliefs strongly influence his important theoretical work. There are limitations, things that lock out the minds of others and prevent them from seeing future possibilities – the governments of Urras fear the alien visitors and hope to push them aside with technological advances, while Shevek is ultimately willing to give his findings to the Terrans and Hainish because there is a greater chance they will be understood, both in use and in implication. And with that idea, he can then offer those other people, and the people of Urras as well, the chance to understand how his seemingly impossible society could continue – the seeds of something new.

Stanislaw Lem, “A Perfect Vacuum” (1971)

January 21, 2012

Let’s play a game. Let’s pretend to take the line from introductory faux-review of the book, where Lem pretends to critique his own book by saying that these read like story ideas he could never finish, seriously. A difficult task, considering that this review itself is intentionally unreliable – for example, making reference to an introduction that doesn’t exist. But it sounds like fun, and Lem himself devotes a good portion of the book to postmodern literary games, so why not?

Of course, it’s a lot easier to make these judgement on the faux-fiction that takes up the first half of the book rather than the faux-non-fiction in the second. Most of the reviews of those are Lem basically laying out some philosophical concepts down for the readers – the “De Impossibilitate Vitae/Prognoscendi” being a spiel on causality, “Die Kultur als Fehler” on culture and evolution, and so on. The final entry, “The New Cosmogony” is a truly bizarre feat, and the culmination of the rest of the book; after being played by Lem for the entire book, we suddenly have a speech about how the universe is a giant game. So for the most part, we’ll leave out the non-non-fiction reviews, which are actually quite clear in their intention, and are about as complete as they will ever be as philosophical tracts.

The one exception is “Non-Serviam” which, being as it a non-fiction book from what to Lem-of-the-early-70s was the future, is slightly different. I mean, the reviews of these fake books suggests they come from alternate universes anyway, but this is one of the few where the review includes honest-to-god world building. And because of that, and the completeness of the narrative about the artificial life presented in the book (as seen through this review), I can say that it is more or less a Science Fiction short story masquerading as a fake review. You could probably read “Non-Serviam” independent of the rest of “A Perfect Vacuum” and get about the same experience. It’s an interesting mind bender of a Science Fiction short story, too.

(Actually, come to think of it, “U-Write-It” probably qualifies as a perfectly intact short story as well – albeit, one that’s much shorter and pithier than “Non-Serviam”)

But let’s get to the fiction. The idea that most of these fake novels were real ideas Lem failed to realize is an interesting one, especially after you see that most of them are thought experiments with narratives thrown in. I mean, “Les Robinsonades” and “Gigamesh” especially fall into this category, being thorough riffs on other works. Neither seem to offer anything beyond the synopses provided in the reviews (although those reviews are probably among the most fun – the underlying concept of “Les Robinsonades” is pretty funny, and the etymological games the fake reviewer gets into in “Gigamesh” are very clever); no interesting characters to follow, no world beyond their secluded faux-reality (much like the faux-realities proposed by the fake books themselves, huh?); just the basic idea, which really only takes a few paragraphs to run its course. The same could also be said “Gruppenfuhrer Louis XVI”, whose basic idea about the way we relate fantasy and reality is in the same vain as “Robinsonades”. Not to say that a talented writer couldn’t craft a captivating narrative based on the concept – but really, the details of the characters and events in the proposed novel are the least interesting parts of the entry. I feel I get the gist of what Lem was trying to say just through the barebones description of what happens, and if he were to try to apply anything more to it, it would probably end up outstaying its welcome. Which is the main theme for a lot of the fake novels he reviews – they are more about the central concept than about crafting a plausible-sounding concept for a novel. I have a hard time seeing Lem ever considering any of these as anything other than jokes. Funny jokes, but jokes nonetheless.

The two main exceptions to this are “The Sexplosion” and “Being Inc.”, both of which (in my mind at least) could have been very entertaining full-length narratives. Both are very high concept – “What if sex became the biggest industry on earth and then everyone lost all joy from it?” and “what if every event was arranged by a computer?” – and both seem to be described fairly completely in their reviews (although not nearly to the extent as the others – maybe a sign Lem thought the same thing I do now?), but there’s something there, something a little more substantive than the others. Both these reviews share some elements as well: both are about corporate control of peoples’ lives, and both reviews propose a more developed narrative conceit than the other reviews (having “Sexplosion” be a recollection of an old man, and a conspiracy plotline in “Being Inc.”). These two are still very much anchored by their concept, just as the others, but the worlds they propose feel like they could fleshed out further without being stretched too thin. These very well could be exactly what Lem-reviewing-Lem describes: ideas that just didn’t get off the drawing board. If they were real, I’d read them.

While not on the same level as those two, the fake novel that is supposedly written entirely in negations, “Rien de tout, ou la consequence”, could have been (or maybe still could be?) an interesting experiment. How long that experiment would remain tolerable in book form, I don’t know.

What, if anything, should be taken from this? That the fake version of Lem is a liar? We already knew that. That I would buy a book where people reach ecstasy by eating? Maybe I’m a liar, too. Let’s just say it was a game.