October 29, 2020

Sci-Fi Master Stanislaw Lem’s Four Dazzling Challenges to Expand Our Minds


The literary work of one of the great masters of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem, offers very different paths and joys to readers who are interested in it. Especially known as a result of the audiovisual adaptations of his work Solaris, the author also wrote realistic novels about his native Poland, detective stories, fictions that mixed espionage, the aerospace career and Kafkaesque (sad?) humor as Memories found in a bathtub… He even signed some kind of Gulliver’s Travels– a series of medieval echo fantasies, set on interstellar ships, which he collected in the delicious volume Cyberiad.

The science fiction of Stanislaw Lem: when aliens send messages, humans look for weapons

The science fiction of Stanislaw Lem: when aliens send messages, humans look for weapons

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Lem invented worlds and lives (some of them artificial), but above all he told us about the human being, his imperfections, his biases (such as looking for causality where perhaps there is only chance), his disabilities and stubborn attempts at overcome them that some of us insist on perpetrating. He amused and stimulated us with delusional plots where we can see crossovers of the Kafka tradition and the fantastic grotesque mutated in the paranoid breeding ground that was the Cold War. And he did so by rejecting the idea that humor and entertainment were at odds with reflection in literature.

Lem populated his works with astronauts and magicians from space, with aliens, but he also dealt with the silence of the cosmos, the silence of gods that perhaps do not exist or perhaps “keep a tenacious silence”, as he ironically expressed (and throwing a dart against mystical literature) in the pages of Imaginary magnitude. And the possibility that, if a message ever appears (be it in the form of the vague stellar message of The voice of the master or contact with an extraterrestrial civilization that is staged in Fiasco), we are not able to understand it.

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Provocation, which adds to the long list of Lemian works that he has published the publisher Impedimenta. It is another example of that Lem who, already consolidated as a prestigious novelist within science fiction, stopped understanding literature and essays as two playgrounds separated from each other. The author mixed both fields to convey ideas, to amaze the reader and to put him to the test. In this volume, the Polish writer cultivates a playfully erudite essay where scientific speculation, philosophy and the analysis of history take the reins, without discarding the imaginative component.

The four texts collected in Provocation they represent an abandonment of narrative adventures in favor of intellectual adventure. Lem cultivates a philosophical, speculative, almost futurological literature that does not develop specific plots but plays with fiction and, on occasions, makes reference to other works of his own. Some readers may miss character portraits or situational descriptions, but Lem seems to challenge them with his bird’s-eye accounts of the past, present, and future of societies, the planet, or the cosmos. Why do we need to invent a plot, an anecdotal story, if we can speak of human history brimming with horrors and wonders, of more or less well-founded speculations about the genealogy of the universe, the mysteries of physics or the enigmas of artificial intelligence ?

The four texts collected in ‘Provocation’ suppose an abandonment of the narrative adventures in favor of the intellectual adventure

Overflowing stream of wit and erudition

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Perfect vacuum, a Borgian library of impossible book reviews (or not so much), gave life in this indirect way to texts that its author did not have enough patience to compose. The resulting volume had something of a very playful summary of the melting pot of approaches and themes that its author accumulated over the years. The texts of Provocation, also belonging to the group of works baptized as 21st century libraryThey use the same artifice, but they are more extensive, more serious and project a greater thematic unity. Covering her reflective acrobatics with a layer of wit and a few doses of impassive humor, Lem seems to tell us above all about the enduring relationship of the human species (and of life itself?) With destruction.

The book opens with a lengthy commentary around an alleged essay on the Jewish Holocaust by the invented author Horst Aspernicus. Perhaps it is the text that most justifies the title of the volume: indeed, it is provocative to apply the most characteristic Lemian gaze, one where rationalism displaces emotion and is intertwined with irony, to a historical fact as sensitive and tragic as mass industrialization of death in the Nazi death camps. The Pole analyzes it as a symbolic deicide that he relates to the work of the Marquis de Sade … and to which he gives kitsch components. Despite the mask game, it seems clear that the Pole shares objectives with the invented book to which he alludes: to integrate the Jewish holocaust into the bloody continuum of Western culture and its periodic genocides.

The two texts that close the book tell us about the world as a holocaust and about the possible future of an arms race that he imagines delegated to artificial intelligences (this element would be central in the satirical novel Peace on Earth). Lem explains to us that the human species and its progressive dominance of the environment was possible thanks to the catastrophe that eradicated the dinosaurs, but his gaze does not lead to an acceptance of destruction as something that we must assume and almost embrace. In Lemian pessimism (or realism) about scientific experimentation for destructive ends, and his increasingly skeptical of technology in general, we glimpse a man harshly criticizing human anthropocentrism and warmongering. And that, like the Karel Capek who wrote The war of the salamanders, another sharp pen of Slavic fantasy literature, it does not fail to see a darkly comic grace to our path to perdition.

It is difficult to summarize the texts of Provocation, as consistently brilliant as it is potentially puzzling because of its mix of popular science, speculation, and sheer fiction that can expand our minds. In part, the Lem of the 21st century library I was playing to anticipate the future. The game is serious and fun, also demanding, at times thorny. Some predictions are on target, but the author is not infallible. Although he claimed that there would never be a film adaptation of “One Human Minute”, a false statistical book on the actions of our entire species for sixty seconds, its text ended up inspiring (very freely) the Hungarian film one.

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