06 April 2006

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

When Stanislaw Lem died last week, I wanted to note it, but didn't know quite what to say, as of Lem's novels I had only read Solaris, and that so long ago that my memory of it was vague. I thought about gathering up various obituaries, but other sites were doing a pretty good job of that, and I was too busy at the time to roam far and wide searching for more obscure obits. (I should note here, though, that one of the best appreciations I've seen is from Mr. Waggish.)

I quickly thought to ask Eric Schaller to write something about Lem, because visiting with Eric recently I'd seen a bunch of Lem books on his shelves. Eric graciously obliged. I do hope eventually to write something about Lem's essay collection Microworlds, a book that strongly influenced my view of SF when I first read it years ago, but I may not be able to do so for a little while.

For those of you who don't know him, Eric Schaller is an associate professor of biology at Dartmouth College, an illustrator perhaps best known for his work on Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, and quite a fine writer himself.

"Reading" Lem in Krakow

by Eric Schaller

Two years ago, I attended a science conference in Krakow, Poland. On the Main Market Square, not far from the cafe where my wife and I drank our beers and coffees, filled out postcards that would reach the States sometime after we did, and listened to the lone trumpeter on St. Mary's church call out the hours, we discovered a small bookshop. I had to go in. That's not too surprising because I search out bookshops wherever I travel. But here all the books were in Polish, and I don't read Polish. That, however, was the point. I wanted to buy a novel by Stanislaw Lem printed in the language of its inception, the template for what I had read in translation. I knew that I would never read this book, but it would go on my bookshelf next to the other Lem novels in my collection. Later, when I looked at it, I would be reminded that I had been to the city where Lem lived, walked the streets that he walked, and bought a book by him from a bookshop that he had probably browsed. Below are some thoughts engendered from reading Lem's novels, which like all the best science fiction are launching pads and booster rockets for ideas, the titles of the novels given here in their original Polish in deference to that bookshop in Krakow.

Solaris (1961). No movie can recreate a novel, nor should it, but how a movie differs from the book that inspired it can be revealing. Has any other science fiction author of the modern era had two different directors take on the same novel? Okay, that's pushing it because the Soderbergh film is so clearly inspired by the earlier Tarkovsky film that it must be considered as twice-removed from the novel. Not surprisingly, the Soderbergh version is a drab beast of institutional gray that disappears unless you keep a steady eye on it. Tarkovsky at least has a sense of color and the last scene of his version is achingly sad and beautiful. But neither movie comes close to capturing the pace of the novel, the dynamic thinking of the characters. Tarkovsky chooses to linger, as is his nature, letting time stand in for depth of thought. But, simply put, Lem is not a boring writer and both movies leave the impression that he might be.

Cyberiada (1967). I love this book, not just for its sheer loony humor, the human-like foibles exhibited in the folktales assembled by its society of robots, but for how it plays with ideas of evolution. "First, they were creeping molds that slithered forth from the ocean onto land...and then they stood upright, supporting their globby substance by means of calciferous scaffolding, and finally they built machines. From these protomachines came sentient machines, which begat intelligent machines, which in turn conceived perfect machines." Here we have organic life serving as a step in the evolution to machines, an idea that mirrors and predates one modern idea on how organic life may have first arisen. Before organic life arose on earth, there may have been clay crystals that replicated and changed (read evolved). At some point nucleotides were incorporated into the crystals, forming molecules of RNA. The RNA/clay hybrid continued to evolve until a point was reached where the clay was superfluous, the RNA then serving as the primordial organic molecule that with proteins and lipids gave rise to the cell. So, incorporating scientific conjecture and science fiction, evolution works something like: clay crystals assembling organic life and thus becoming obsolete, then organic life assembling robotic life and thus becoming obsolete. But it doesn't end there. Just like we build robots, the robots strive to assemble and perfect organic-based forms. And so on in a never-ending cycle.

Fiasko (1986). This is my favorite of Lem's novels. It starts out like one of his Pirx the Pilot stories, seeming to imply an arc in which a problem will arise and be resolved within the span of twenty or thirty pages. But nothing is that simple here. The book slingshots itself into a novel, and a big one at that, an epic tragedy encompassing Lem's utterly pragmatic viewpoint on the astronomical odds against our ever having a meaningful meeting of minds with an alien culture. But nevertheless we try because, being human, we're driven by a romantic notion, one that's animated us since before we deserved the name Homo sapiens, that all problems have a solution if only we can think clearly enough. The novel ends unhappily, as you know it must from the title, but along the way there is an interstellar mission, nanotechnology, and truly alien aliens that have still fallen prey to some of the same problems we face on earth.

It's Fiasko that I intended to buy while in that Krakow bookstore, studying the spines of the shelved books, pulling out each in turn to check the cover illustrations and the prices. But I was stymied. Fiasko cost significantly more than the slimmer volumes by Lem, and I didn't know if I could justify the additional expense for a book I would never read. Maybe I should buy Cyberiada? Or Powrot z gwiazd (Return from the Stars)? Or something else? Although completely mundane, this indecision, my shelving and reshelving the same books while outside dark clouds began to spit rain, was a Lemian moment. I had been struck by a romantic impulse that did not quite dovetail with pragmatic reality. Here the consequences of my decision were slight, but on the canvas where Lem worked his calculated magic the effects could be broad comedy or devastating tragedy. Recognizing and dramatizing this distinctly human conundrum is at least part of the legacy left by Stanislaw Lem.