Mar 09

SF Writers: Stanislaw Lem

The Brown Wedge7 comments • 455 views

Lem was a Polish SF writer, occupying a strange place within the genre. He despised most SF (Dick was the only American SF writer he admired – an opinion that was not remotely reciprocated) for its vacuity and shallowness, which accurately implies the seriousness and philosophical bent of his own work.

His most famous novel is Solaris, made into a great film (the Tarkovsky version is my favourite science fiction movie) and later a decent one. It concerns a first contact with aliens: the distinct idea behind most of Lem’s several approaches to this standard SF trope is that Lem believed communication with an alien mind, or comprehension of it, would be all but impossible. (I imagine Tarkovsky felt the same, as he also adapted the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic as Stalker, and that expressed a similar position.)

Lem was also, extraordinarily in this genre, something of a luddite: he regarded many scientific advances, real ones and those portrayed in his fiction, as a bad thing, as a move away from and enemy of the better human traits. He wrote little SF later in his life, instead pronouncing on technology and the future – he was very against the internet, for example.

This all makes him sound grim and po-faced, and some of these works are indeed among the most demanding SF ever written. However, he also wrote some extremely funny stories, generally about a robot civilization. The Cyberiad is hugely imaginative and varied, and often hilarious. There’s a brilliant story about a poetry machine that must have been one of the hardest things ever to translate, this side of Georges Perec.

There is other work worth reading too: collections of reviews of or introductions to nonexistent books, for instance. His essays on SF and science are very astute too – he was writing about the human implications of things like virtual reality and nanotechnology over 50 years ago.

He’s well worth trying, but you might want to choose carefully, as I suspect different works will appeal to different readers.


  1. 1
    Alan on 25 Mar 2009 #

    pretty much the only SF writer i can stand to read – my copies of his books have got lost and lent out all too often. the longer novels are hard to like, but the short stories are beautiful. You mention the cyberiad and allude to Perfect Vaccuum – both among my favourite books – genre aside. Outside SF, Alasdair Gray’s Ten Tales Tall and True comes close to evoking the same charm.

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    lonepilgrim on 25 Mar 2009 #

    I’d recommend The Futurological Congress – I must have read it over 30 years ago but it’s still lodged in my memory. It has strong echoes of Philip K. Dick’s work in its preoccupation with altered layers of reality – although I think it may have more political than cosmic undertones.

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    lonepilgrim on 25 Mar 2009 #

    …and it’s interesting to read on wikipedia that Ari Folman, director of Waltz with Bashir, is set to make a movie of the book later this year.

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    Matthew on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I don’t see what’s “extraordinary” about a SF author being against scientific progress for its own sake. A lot of SF is dystopian, whereas if progress was always deemed good you’d expect it to be invariably utopian, wouldn’t you?

    SF writers need no more be in favour of the advance of science than, I don’t know, economists need advocate constant aggressive market growth.

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    Martin on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Agree completely but would pair The Star Diaries and Cyberiad as somewhat connected works, i.e. would appeal to the same kinds of readers. To me, those two are the best two Lems.

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    Martin Skidmore on 26 Mar 2009 #

    But dystopias are not inevitably because of scientific progress being a bad thing – often they are for political reasons or because of a single disaster, and often the LOSS of scientific advances is part of what makes them dystopian. I don’t think there have been many SF writers as unequivocally opposed to so many scientific advances as Lem. There are plenty who are uninterested in such things (Keith Roberts might be a good example) but very few who are positive and vociferous in their opposition to them.

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    Pete Baran on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Many science fiction dystopias seem to be the result of a misuse of scientific advances, rather than the fault of the advance itself. Being against progress can be seen to be a very anti-humanist argument, there is a belief that people simply cannot be trusted with it.

    I should give Lem a go again, I have never really liked the few I have tried. The Cyberiad seems like a good place to start for me, I like the idea certainly.

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