An introduction to Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish science fiction writer, by Jonathan Lethem

Was Stanislas Lem? The Polish science fiction writer, novelist, essayist and polymath is perhaps best known for his 1961 novel Solaris (adapted for the screen by Andrei Tarkosvky in 1972 and again by Steven Soderbergh in 2014). Lem’s sci-fi appealed widely outside of SF fans, attracting people like John Updikewho called his stories “wonderful” and Lem a poet of “scientific terminology” for readers “whose heart beats faster when the American scientist happens every month.

Updike’s characterization is just one version of Lem. There are several others, writes Jonathan Lethem in a test for the London book review, written for Lem’s 100th birthday – at least five different Lems with five different literary personalities. Only the former is a “hard science fiction writer“, the genre not originating from Mary Shelley. Frankensteinbut “in HG Wells’ technological prognoses”.

Represented best in the pages of amazing stories and other science fiction pulps, hard science fiction “advertises consumer goods like personal robots and flying cars. It values ​​space travel that results in successful, if difficult, contact with the supposed extraterrestrial life scattered across galaxies.The genre has also become linked to “American exceptionalist ideology, technocratic triumphalism, manifest destiny” and “libertarian survival bullshit,” Lethem says.

Lem had no use for these attitudes. In his critical and critical guise, he wrote, “The scientific ignorance of most American science fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.” He admires the Englishman HG Wells, comparing him to the inventor of chess, and the American Philip K. Dick, whom he calls “a visionary among charlatans”. But Lem hated the toughest science fiction, even though he himself, Lethem says, was a hard science fiction writer “with visionary gifts and inexhaustible diligence when it came to the task of extrapolation”.

Much of Lem’s work was of another genre, as Lethem explains in the short film above, a condensed version of his essay. The second Lem “wrote fairy tales and folk tales of the future”. The third, “has only written two novels, but it could easily be, on the right day, his favorite”. Lem number four “is the pure post-modernist, who has unified his essayistic and fictional self with a Borgesian or Nabokovian gesture”. This Lem, for example, wrote the very Borgesian A Perfect Void: Perfect Reviews of Nonexistent Books.

Lem number five, Lethem says, is “another major figure”, this one a prolific literary essayist, critic, reviewer and non-fiction writer whose breadth is staggering. Rather than confining it with the ‘futuristic’ label, Lethem calls it ‘all-in-one’, a point Lem proved with his 1964 Summa Technologiaea “masterpiece of non-fiction”, Simon Ings writes to new scientistwith the ambition and scope of the 13th-century work of Aquinas for which it is named.

This fifth and final Lem “will be a fabulous shock to those who only know his science fiction,” writes Ings. Only translated into English in 2014, its Sum portends search engines, virtual reality and technological singularity. It attempts a “comprehensive discourse on evolution,” commented biophysicist Peter Butko, “not only…of science and technology…but also of the evolution of life, of humanity, of consciousness, culture and civilization”.

The last Lem is a heady read, but it imbues this work with the same spirit and wickedly satirical voice that we find in the first four. He operated, after all, as Lethem writes in his essay celebrating the Polish author at 100, “in the spirit of other Iron Curtain figures who flew under the censorship radar using forms considered unserious”. Yet few have taken the form of science fiction more seriously.

Going through infinite time

Related content:

Author in Space’: A Video Essay on How Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Transcends Science Fiction

Revisit back issues of Amazing Stories, the 1930s magazine that gave birth to science fiction as we know it

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia: 17,500 Entries on All Things Science Fiction Now Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness

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