Some thoughts on Stanislaw Lem

Somewhere along the way, I read something to the effect that Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem’s books are all highly original, or that each one is so different from the others, or that the worlds he creates are so unique that there’s nothing like them under the sun. I really enjoy Lem, and have read a chunk of his work. Though, to be honest, I haven’t read what are possibly his most popular works—the Prix the Pilot materials and the Cyberiad—since I first read him more than 20 years ago, nor have I read his most notable—Solaris—which has been made into not one not two but three (three!) movies. In recent years I’ve read his mystery novels, and Return from the Stars, and His Master’s Voice. And I return to Memoirs Found in a Bathtub fairly often.

Now, it is true that Lem’s writing ranges from contemporary settings and forms out to the near and distant future, and he plays with form (he has a book of introductions to imaginary books, a book of book reviews of a whole different set of imaginary books, and in Memoirs, there is an introductory section of the same length as an introductory section of the text considered “by some to be apocryphal”). I think there can be no question that Lem’s work is unusual, yet I think it is so without being unusual-for-its-own-sake. I also think it seems less unusual now in a world where Dave Eggers publishes than it must have in the 1950’s to late 1970’s when he was most prolific and first being translated into English. His work is also less unusual, once one has read a few books, for it is in a house style, in much the same way as Anne Rice or Michael Crichton has a house style. Or, possibly, more like Vonnegut. Lem’s style is like a citrusy dessert in a world of double chocolate fudge chunk lava cakes, sharp and acidic you see. Nevertheless, it is a style, and though his settings vary, his voice and—in the narratives, anyway—point of view is generally stable. There is usually a first person narrator, and the real topic of the story is usually humankind’s inability to full grasp the enormity of the world as refracted though some rather mundane problem.

Even in His Master’s Voice, where the plot problem is the deciphering of a ‘first contact message from the stars,’ which would seem to be of great and unique importance, the problem of the story isn’t the problem of the novel; though for both of these, the problem is figuring out what the problem is, or if there is actually a problem to solve, and behind that lurks the real problem of getting past the preconceptions and habits of mind we humans carry around with us, and which individuals carry around with them.

Bear with me on that one. The problem of the story is translating a message from the stars. What is the key to the code? However, the existence of the message adds a layer to the problem: who sent it? Merely the fact of the message indicates a sending civilization with, at a minimum, greater technological sophistication than we posses. Who, then, is the intended recipient? Is it a two-way stream? If so, what meaningful communication could take place across the centuries, millennia, or billions of years it must take the message to travel just one way?

And that’s just the mere existence of the message, what of its content? Wait, there’s more! A portion of the information is decoded, and the scientists manage to create a sort of goo with properties analogous to metabolization of nuclear reactions—it can create and, apparently, teleport teeny nuclear explosions. Is this the gist of the message, or a side effect of it? Or something else?

Imagine, as one of the analogies in the novel has it, that you run some computer punch cards though a player piano. You might get music, but you won’t be getting out of the cards what the programmer put into them. You simply don’t have the right tool, and if you get something that makes sense to you, you might spend the rest of eternity trying different ways of running the cards through the piano, never even suspecting that you’re on the wrong track. And that assumes there’s a sender, and that the information in the signal is a communication of some sort… and… and… and…

You see, in His Master’s Voice there is a lot going on. There is a good plot, a compelling narrative, interesting characters, and a real problem for them to work on. But the author never gives them the real solution. And that is the problem of the novel—we readers never get the real solution, either. Note, please, that this is the problem of the novel, as opposed to a problem with the novel. . We don’t even get the consolation of the author telling us there is no ‘real solution’ for us to argue against. We are left only with the fact that the characters have struggled with a nut from which they have managed to extract just enough meat to convince themselves that it is really information, and not just noise. I don’t think that the author’s refusal to give us a solid place to stand and regard the work as a whole is a failing.

We see similar things at work in his two mystery novels Chain of Chance and The Investigation. Something has happened, someone is charged with figuring out what, and his boss knows more than he’s telling (it’s always a him in Lem, sometimes there’s a woman in the book, but the plot always happens to a him or, sometimes, a team of hims). By the end of the book everything the characters think they have discovered is shown to be, in some way, insufficient to solve the mystery. Yet the mystery gets solved, somehow—satisfactorily? There remain gaps. Like the gaps in a tumbler full of ball bearings of a certain size, you can pour in smaller balls, or even liquid to fill in the gaps, but if you look ever closer there are quantum gaps where relevant uncertainty can be found. So says Lem, or at least some of his proxies, the ones whose arguments he seems to favor, anyway.

Something related, though less directly similar, is going on in his fish-out-of-water books Return from the Stars and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. In Return, our hero is a space explorer who’s been away for 150 years or so, and has to get with the flow of a new world on his return to earth. The only person he knows from his previous life is a nearly unbelievably old man who was a child when he left for his mission. (Due to relativistic effects, he has aged about 10 years in the time he was away.) The only people truly in his cohort are the few men (always men) who went on the mission with him and survived. In the time he was gone a biomechanical process has become essentially mandatory. This process short circuits the aggression and risk-taking center of the brain. It is applied to people, animals, you name it.

Certain science fiction elements of the book are pulled from the hopper of futurism. For instance, books are distributed on memory crystals and read on a screen. Anything the least bit necessary is supplied at no cost, and even luxuries appear available at extremely low cost (a week’s vacation at a high-end retreat house for what may be understood to be a few dollars). Among other things, we also find: trial marriages by contract, vaguely anthropomorphic robots with an all-but-independent robot economy and society still subordinate to the human one. But these are mere trappings of a strange world designed to keep our hero off balance while Lem does what he’s interested in doing. Lem is interested, as science fiction writers often are, in what it means if aggression and risk-taking are removed from the human equation. Nothing good, or almost nothing good, from our hero’s point of view.

Strangely, I found the book suffered as the main character developed into a more fully-rounded person. It isn’t that the one- and two-dimensionality of Lem’s typical characters is anything to really enjoy. But, typically, the characters don’t get in the way of Lem’s other business of picking apart the conventions and assumptions that underlie contemporary society, including society’s attitudes toward science and technology. If the character’s inner life and regrets had been the main plot from the get-go, I might feel differently, but by the time it arrived, I just didn’t care about this particular character’s particular problem when it finally surfaced from his subconscious. Of course, this seemingly contradicts a previous post about And Another Thing… where I crabbed about thinkiness getting in the way of the story in a novel, and Ayn Rand and so on and so forth. Maybe the difference is that in Rand the thinkiness is polemical—an edifice to be appreciated, accepted, and adopted, but not challenged—and in Lem the thinkiness is an invitation to figure things out—a box of humility Legos. Or who knows. I’m not building a School of Thought here.

In Memoirs, the unnamed character finds himself in a hermetically sealed society in the apparently (but how?) hermetically sealed Building. This is a satirical take on the typical thinking of Cold War power in specific, and paranoid power in general. It cannot be understood as a serious possibility (unlike Return, which could be seen as both a meditation on the uses of risk-taking and a sincere warning about the possible actual outcomes of an effort to suppress it). If the Building were even a possibly real place it would collapse from a lack or air, food, and water far before any of the more outrageous elements that make it up, and that figure so prominently in the narrative could become a factor. (This is leaving aside the purely technological challenges of recycling and logistics.) The society is so paranoid that anyone competent enough to develop, operate, or maintain the necessary equipment would be rounded up and shot in short order to ‘eliminate the possibility of sabotage.’

There’s not much of a plot in Memoirs, though truthfully, there isn’t much of a plot in any of the Lem novels I’ve mentioned in this post. There is, however, always at least some narrative. Things happen, and they happen to characters who react, and who cause other things to happen. But mostly the plot is skeletal to allow for extended meditation on various aspects of whatever is preoccupying Lem’s mind. In Memoirs, Lem indulges in a great deal of wordplay, and list making. The set pieces where the narrator encounters functionaries of the Building could, for the most part, happen in just about any order. The philosophical musings don’t overwhelm the narrative portions, and the underlying darkness of the situation rarely obscures the humor of the scenes. Memoirs is a funny book, but the humor is absurdist, so it’s probably not to everyone’s taste. As with His Master’s Voice, there is no final answer to the questions. Not, at least, the sort of answer we as readers can take and say, “Lem has given us through our proxies (the characters) a question, and by the end of the novel we know what Lem’s answer is, and everything that happened before makes sense now.” No. There is no easy comfort in Lem. There is only the experience that any answer is incomplete, and the growing feeling that—even when taken all together—every answer is incomplete.

Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: