Blithely Sailing On Alien Seas

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Stanisław Lem. Photo: PAP/Jacek Bednarczyk

In the new Apple TV series, The Foundation, based on the novels of Isaac Asimov, two mathematicians, an old man and a young woman, wrestle with the concept of psychohistory and what it means for the future of the Imperial Galaxy. Psychohistory combines history, sociology, and mathematical models to predict the future behaviour of very large groups of people. The girl, Gaal Dornick, generates a holographic model designed by her mentor Hari Seldon. She sees a swarm of particles representing trillions of people forming patterns of growth and decay across thousands of millennia, predicting the looming collapse of civilisation. It seems the grand ideas of the classic science fiction writers are back among us after decades of wandering lost in the intellectual deserts of Hollywood, where the clash of alien cultures often became thin remakes of American cowboy and Injun battles of yore. The intelligent swarm of equations in Foundation immediately brought to mind the restless, mysterious, sentient ocean of the planet Solaris in the novel by the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem. The Polish parliament has officially declared 2021 to be Stanislaw Lem Year in honour of its native genius, 100 years after his birth.

Polish embassies have sponsored events worldwide to commemorate an author who is occasionally mislabelled “forgotten” but whose influence is everywhere, lurking beneath the worlds of creative science fiction and philosophical speculation on the meaning of life, the universe and all that. Only in America has Lem had a rough time, which included a torrent of insults from Philip K. Dick and expulsion from the Science Fiction Writers of America shortly after being granted honorary membership. One of the recurring themes in Lem’s novels and articles was that communication is impossible between humans and alien beings who may have nothing in common with earthly intelligence. There was some irony in the failed communication between Lem and his alien colleagues, the American science-fiction authors. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world — his books have been translated into more than 50 languages and have sold over 45 million copies. The basis of Lem’s works was philosophical speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the limitations of humans and the absurdity of their high regard for their achievements. His essays and philosophical books cover these and many other topics. In The Sum of Technology, he anticipated virtual reality, artificial intelligence, computer networks, and artificial worlds.

Our planet has been laid low for almost two years by the invasion of alien swarms of coronavirus that we struggle to understand, so it is gratifying to see Lem remembered at events people can attend as they emerge from isolation. In Baku, Azerbaijan, organisers presented forty films and stage performances based on Lem’s works. Tel Aviv, as part of an international film festival, paid tribute to the writer and screened Przekladaniec, based on a short story by Lem — a panel discussion on Lem’s work followed. This film, made by Andrzej Wajda’s in 1968 from Lem’s script, was the only movie based on his works that the author ever praised.

Stanislaw Lem was born in Lviv (now Ukraine, then it was Polish Lwów) on 13th September 1921. He began studying medicine in 1939, but after Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland and the Soviets annexed Lviv, his family moved to Kraków. In 1945 Lem resumed medical studies but again dropped out because, he said, he couldn’t cope with the sight of blood. In 1946 he started being published, sending poems and short stories to literary magazines — his first short story was The Man From Mars. In 1951 he published his first novel, The Astronauts. It was an instant success and was translated into several languages, convincing Lem that becoming a writer was the right choice. The story is about a socialist utopian future. Still, to get it published, Lem had to contend with Communist government censors who insisted that he insert frequent praise of communist ideals. The novel is noteworthy because Lem, for the first time, introduced his theory that humans will forever be unable to understand alien civilisations. In later years, Lem said the novel was naive, and his idea that a utopia could exist by 2000 was “childish.”

In 1953 Lem married medical student Barbara Leśniak. In 1961, he published Solaris, the novel that made him a legend among science-fiction writers. Because of science-fiction’s early 20th-century ubiquity in cheap magazines, comic books and Hollywood B-movies, book critics have historically treated the genre with contempt. After Solaris, critics praised Lem as the first author since H.G. Wells (nominated four times for a Nobel Prize) to bring serious literary credibility to science fiction. The ocean-covered planet Solaris is itself an alien life-form, and the novel traces the futile efforts of scientists across a hundred years to discover the nature of Solaris and communicate with it. Their lives are slowly destroyed from within as the planet, in turn, tries to understand the alien researchers by physically reconstructing their most troubling memories.

Solaris has been made into a film three times, all the efforts largely unsuccessful and despised by Lem himself. Steven Soderbergh made the most recent version in 2002, starring George Clooney as the lead scientist. Lem declined to see the Soderberg movie, but he read all the reviews before himself publishing a scathing comment. His main criticism of the Solaris movies was their narcissistic obsession with the human characters, ignoring the Solaris sea as the main character in the novel and the frustrating fact that it was an alien that was simply incomprehensible to humans. Lem acknowledged the challenge of making a visual movie based on a literary conceit like incomprehensibility. Still, mostly he wished they wouldn’t try, echoing similar complaints from James Joyce fans about pitiful efforts to film Ulysses. Lem grumbled that reviewers, “like the one from the New York Times“, claimed the film was a love story set in space:

“I cannot say anything about the movie itself except for what the reviews reflect, albeit unclearly, like a distorted picture of one’s face in ripply water. However, to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to the erotic problems of people in outer space… Only after great analytical efforts, critics discovered that the message of Moby Dick was neither whale fat nor even harpoons… Had Solaris dealt with the love of a man for a woman — no matter whether on Earth on in space — the book would not be entitled Solaris but Love in Outer Space.

Always outspoken and often irascible, Lem suffered no fools gladly, and his definition of such ranged widely beyond the film makers. In 1973 Lem was awarded an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America association. He barely considered it an honour since he had made his low opinion of American science fiction well known — “Ill-thought-out, poorly written, and interested more in making money than in ideas or new literary forms.” As Lem pointed out, his views were no secret before he became a member, but a lengthy, often nasty, debate emerged in the SFWA, led by Philip José Farmer and others whom Lem’s comments infuriated. Three years after awarding it, the SFWA withdrew the honourary membership.

Many other members protested against Lem’s treatment, and one member offered to pay his dues. Lem never accepted any offers to reinstate him, saying he had no hard feelings, “but it would be a lie to say the whole incident has enlarged my respect for SF writers”. Ursula K. Le Guin quit her membership in support of Lem and then refused to accept a Nebula Award for her novella The Diary of the Rose. Le Guin later recalled in an essay:

“The SFWA called me to plead with me not to withdraw The Diary of the Rose since it had, in fact, won. I couldn’t do that. So — with the perfect irony that awaits anybody who strikes a noble pose on the high moral ground — my award went to the runner-up: Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors.”

Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick: “Lem is a commie committee”.

In a bizarre twist to the story, Lem had singled out only one American science-fiction writer for high praise — Philip K. Dick — in an essay titled A Visionary Among the Charlatans. The article listed Dick’s many excellent qualities as a writer and revisited the dire state of the rest of American science fiction. Lem considered Dick to be the only writer exempt from his cynical views. It seems likely that Dick was unaware of Lem’s high opinion of him and that instead, he took Lem’s disparaging comments against American writers personally. Dick launched a scathing attack on Lem, suggesting that he didn’t even exist. In 1974, Dick wrote a letter to the FBI, stating that Stanisław Lem was a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Polish Communist Party to gain control over world public opinion. Dick suggested LEM was an acronym for the subversive committee. He wrote:

“Lem’s creative abilities appear to have been overrated, and Lem’s crude, insulting and downright ignorant attacks on American science fiction and American science-fiction writers went too far too fast and alienated everyone but the Party faithful (I am one of those highly alienated). It is a grim development for our field, and its hopes to find much of our criticism and academic theses and publications completely controlled by a faceless group in Krakow, Poland. What can be done, though, I do not know.”

The FBI didn’t know either since there is no evidence they investigated “LEM”, and one report suggested that they didn’t even keep Dick’s letter on file. No conclusive explanation for Dick’s bizarre action emerged — some apologists said it was just defensive patriotism after Lem attacked American writers.

Peter Swirski is one of the world’s leading experts on the works of Stanislaw Lem, and he interviewed the writer at length. His contributions to the field have led many scholars, critics, philosophers and, of course, readers to overlook any old prejudices against science fiction as literature and acknowledge Lem’s literary, critical and philosophical legacy. In Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future, one of several books on the topic, Swirski argues that the versatility of Lem’s work and its ability to speak to literature, philosophy, sciences and contemporary culture has contributed significantly to Lem’s international stature as an important 20th-century thinker. The book covers discussions of Lem as a futurologist, ethicist, humourist and postmodernist. The jury is still debating whether Lem was a philosopher. Not renowned for modesty, he was nonetheless dismissive of this when asked. He told Swirski:

“My answers may not add up to a cogent whole since I do not have at my command a perfectly homogenised and distilled system of thought. In many of the problems discussed here, my opinions may therefore fail to intersect, or perhaps even seem mutually contradictory.”

Lem’s attitude to his legacy is neatly summed up in the Latin inscription on his tombstone at Salwator Cemetery, Kraków: “Feci, quod potui, faciant meliora potentes”. (I did what I could, whoever can, let him do better).  In his works, Lem created many neologisms to describe his concepts and inventions, and these have obscured what appear to be genuine predictions of devices and phenomena we now see in the technical world. In his 1955 The Magellanic Cloud, his characters carried “pocket receivers” — and so do we all now, 60 years later. He predicted that photos, maps, books and music would evolve into digital versions. (He included digital scents also, but we’re not there yet, even if gas chromatography is close). In a 1964 essay, Summa Technologiae, Lem described a phantomaton, a device that could create alternative realities indistinguishable from the real world. We’re getting there with that also with a projected Multiverse under development.

In the 100 years since his birth, Stanislaw Lem unerringly steered the shoddy literature of science fiction away from ray guns and bug-eyed space monsters into a future of digital evolution and synthetic civilisations. He published his last novel, Peace on Earth, in 1987, but he wrote short stories up to 2001. Lem died of a heart attack on 27th March 2006 in Kraków. Now gone, but not forgotten.