A articulate Polish universal fiction writer, who thinks that Philip K Dick is a Visionary Among the Charlatans.
Nobody can figure out how he writes in Polish, yet the English translations of his books are full of brilliant poetic puns and neological phonetic jokes. He's got a great translator, Michael Kandel, to say the least.
Date: 9 Aug 1981 0057-PDT
From: Stuart McLure Cracraft <MCLURE at SRI-AI>
Subject: Budrys reviews
SCIENCE FICTION column
By Algis Budrys
(c) 1981 Chicago Sun-Times (Field News Service)
... Among the anthologies, here are the ones worth looking at: Tales of Pirx the Pilot; by Stanislaw Lem (AvonBard, $2.95). Lem is the enigmatic contemporary Pole whose agent claims he ranks with Verne. On the surface, these stories mostly recall back-page material in a 1940 American SF magazine. But Lem's novels, for all they sometimes seem more enigma than substance, do go deeper than that. So for students of SF as a world literature, this collection is obligatory. ... [See also "More Tales of Pirx the Pilot".]
Date: 21 Jan 82 15:03-PDT
Subject: Lem book review
By JOHN LEONARD
c. 1982 N.Y. Times News Service
MEMOIRS OF A SPACE TRAVELER.
Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy.
By Stanislaw Lem.
Translated from the Polish by Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
It ought to be possible - certainly I tried hard - to find something in Stanislaw Lem's new collection of science fictions that would permit us to think out loud about the Polish crisis. The mordant Lem, after all, is Poland's best-known writer in the West, a Jorge Luis Borges for the Space Age, who plays in earnest with every concept of philosophy and physics, from free will to probability theory.
The trouble is, we have an impossible time sorting out modern history from science fiction in its lurid phase. All laws in both realms seem to be martial. When Lem introduces us to the Voluntary Universalizer of Absolute Order, a machine for harmonizing the discordances of human vagary, he must be talking about many states besides Poland. The principle of Civic Initiative - according to which a proletariat called the Drudglings is permitted to be free as long as it does not interfere with the property arrangements of the Eminent - is incorporated into the Voluntary Universalizer. As a consequence, in the Rainbow Palace, human beings are turned into hockey pucks.
Is this capitalism or socialism or both? Science fiction is to the totalitarian state what Aesop's fables were to the institution of slavery in the sixth century B.C. It is, of course, subversive. By taking ideas too seriously, it ridicules people. But it depends, for its subversive power, on people who are smart enough to be afraid of laughter. Modern history, especially as it expresses itself in the totalitarian hockey puck, has an excess of almost everything except a genuine appreciation of the ludicrous. So science fiction seems sometimes to be talking to itself, or to Sirius the Dog Star, or to the caps on our teeth; we receive its signals as if by light-years too late beyond the bend. It's all relative.
Lem knows this. I can't imagine what he doesn't know. And he seldom approves. In "A Perfect Vacuum" he purported to review a dozen books which, thank Heisenberg, have not been written. Modern history, on the other hand, writes these books on our skin and brain; they are not fiction. Many critics thought "A Perfect Vacuum" was a little heavy-handed, as are many critics. Lem must wonder how heavy his hand must be in order to get our attention. Then he would probably bite it, because he was laughing at criticism.
In "The Star Diaries," to which "Memoirs of a Space Traveler" is an appendix, he sent Ijon Tichy out into the galactic wastes to find those neuroses and psychoses we deny at home and in the laboratory. In the appendix, Ijon stays home most of the time. He likes to tell stories, and he is expected to, but what he has seen in his planet hopping and his space warp is so domestic that he worries: doesn't this tale "sound like the complaint of a peddler who knocks about provincial towns?"
Ijon is the one character in a book of ideas on whom Lem is willing to bestow anything like a many-faceted personality. He reminds me of Dr. Watson, open-minded, a trifle slow but willing, in search of someone to admire. His Sherlock is science, the explication of paradox by industry and verve, an imagination of possibilities and the pounce of proof. He attracts madmen - monomaniacs belonging to "the gray brotherhood of obsession" - and it is these he proposes to discuss. Another's mind, we ought to remember, is the most alien of planets. On occasion, those who think they are geniuses might really be geniuses, but who would want to live in their fixity of perception? And those who are not geniuses nevertheless approximate in "their talentlessness a creative frenzy worthy of a Leonardo."
And we we are introduced to brains in boxes, "Leibnizan monads," attached to a drum full of "shiny tapes covered with white zigzags, like mold on celluloid." The drum contains an approximation of the world - "sultry Southern nights, the murmur of waves, the forms of animal bodies and the crackle of gunfire; funerals and drinking binges; the taste of apples and oranges, snowstorms on evenings spent with the family by the fireside, and the pandemonium aboard a sinking ship; the convulsions of illness, and mountain peaks, and graveyards, and the hallucinations of the delirious."
Someone stuffed the drum; that someone thinks he is God, and therefore allows the brains in the boxes to choose which tape in the drum they want to hear. Free will means that God does a vanishing act.
Another madman invents the soul and then finds that it is more expensive to produce and market a soul than an airplane; besides, nobody really wants to live forever. A third invents a time machine, in which he ages and dies. A fourth improves on medieval alchemy by inventing the homunculus; oddly, the homunculus, a clone, wants to live more than his creator does. A fifth invents kitchen appliances so good at their job that they might as well be wives or slaves or both, and they demand emancipation, and they are short-circuited, and according to Lem, we are all refrigerators and washing machines.
Lem, of course, merely satirizes other science fictions. None of this pertains to Poland or to modernity. Imagine workers wanting to own the means of production and share in the profits. Imagine asking a nation to vote on its ultimate economic arrangements, its imaginative constructs. Isn't that subversive? Isn't that a hallucination? There are lots of Polands and kitchen appliances.
Date: 21-Aug-82 20:16:25-PDT (Sat)
Re: Lem again [V6 #41, from JAF at MIT-EECS]
I beg to differ with some of JAF's judgments about (and titles of) Stanislaw Lem's books. I would rank Lem among my top five or so favorite authors of science fiction and I hope more Americans take the time to read the books of this remarkable Pole. I have a fairly extensive set of books by Lem in translation and I thoroughly enjoy all of them, not just the satirical books. I will profile them quickly and give my own recommendations.
SOLARIS: This book of his seems to be most widely known in the West, partly because the Russians made a movie out of it and partly because it was translated a long time ago. The current paperback version (I think it's Berkley) has a translation that is just awful and spoils the book. I think the book might otherwise be quite compelling: it is a rather Dickian story of reality and surreality on board a research station on the sentient planet Solaris.
THE INVINCIBLE: Also spoiled by a bad translation. This is a serious novel about the nature of intelligence in a similar vein to SOLARIS. The spaceship Invincible discovers a planet that once held a civilization yet now appears to be lifeless; but it is and it isn't.
THE CHAIN OF CHANCE: Another bad translation. An ex-astronaut is called in to serve as a guinea pig in an experiment to find a reason for the deaths of several middle-aged men. As things turn out, this is the wrong way to go about it. This book is a statement of Lem's unique philosophy of nature.
THE INVESTIGATION: A quite good translation. This is a very atmospheric science fiction detective novel, but the atmosphere is more that of Lovecraft than of Chandler. A number of cadavers have disappeared and some of them appear to have simply gotten up and walked away. The setting is England, and Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. The solution to the mystery will never satisfy Chandler fans but I found it extremely intriguing (unlike JAF, apparently). One of my favorites.
TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT: A reasonable translation. These are (somewhat dated, and incomplete) stories of Pirx, a young man who progresses from space cadet to space pilot. The first stories are amusing, light pieces; these change to stories with an Asimovian concern with life amid technology and conclude with a darkly impressive science fiction ghost story.
RETURN FROM THE STARS: Just finished reading this one. It was written nearly twenty years ago but only was translated recently (a good job, too). Hal Bregg has returned from an interstellar mission that lasted 10 years ship time and 127 years Earth time. Earth's culture has changed radically in this period of time and Bregg's (and the reader's) experience is very disorienting. A very good treatment of a classic theme.
THE CYBERIAD: (Is Cyberaid a powdered soft drink for robots? ("Just add a few tablespoons of positrons and stir...") Sorry.) These are the crazy adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, the great (and sometimes not-so-great) robot inventors. The exuberant style is amazingly well translated by Michael Kandel. A fave. Give this one to your most dedicated computer addict.
MORTAL ENGINES: This book contains the Robot Fables, along with a new Ijon Tichy story, a new Pirx story and a strange and beautiful novellette called "The Mask". The Robot Fables are a kind of prequel to the Trurl and Klapaucius stories. Excellent translation by Michael Kandel, with a long and interesting foreword.
THE STAR DIARIES (of Ijon Tichy): More wonderful silliness, with even sillier illustrations by the author. Ijon Tichy lives and travels in a universe that manages to contain parodies of almost every science fiction construct ever thought of, and a few that are yet to be. Another brilliant Kandel translation. Highly recommended. The preface gives a good etymology of Lem's name.
THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS: An independent tale of Ijon Tichy, in novel form. This one travels through Philip Dick country when a congress Tichy is attending is attacked with pharmaceuticals. This is yet another comment on the nature of reality.
MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB: A harsh satire of military bureaucracy which takes place in the underground bastions of the Pentagon after the bomb. The depiction of police paranoia in this absurd novel makes me wonder if it is just the Americans whom this barb is meant to prick. A book which I haven't managed to read and which I would love to get my hands on is A PERFECT VACUUM, which is a series of prefaces to very profound (but alas, unwritten) books. I'm not sure if it exists in translation yet; I may have to learn Polish, sigh....
[A comment on the medium: I really like the book reviews in SF-L even when I disagree with them; I hope we see more. I'm afraid I've really gotten tired of reading movie reviews in SF-L, and there's so many good books out there I know I've read that other people ought to hear about, and even more I haven't read which I would like to hear about...]
UCSD Chemistry Dept.
Date: 15 Sep 1982 21:34:38 EDT (Wednesday)
From: John Redford <DM.JLR at BBN-RSM>
Subject: Lem's "A Perfect Vacuum"
To: sf-lovers at sri-csl
Cc: vlsi at dec-marlboro
A few weeks ago someone asked about Stanislaw Lem's "A Perfect Vacuum". [See this also.] I too looked long and hard for it until I found it in the MITSFS's library. It came out in hardback in 1979. Call me a fan; I've been tempted to order it from the publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 757 Third Avenue NY,NY 10017).
The book is a collection of reviews of imaginary books. It starts, of course, with a quite unflattering review of itself. And, as is also natural, most of the books are about reality distortion.
In "Gruppenfuhrer Louis XIV" a fleeing Nazi general sets up his own version of the French court in the hinterland of Argentina.
In "Being Inc. the mega-corporations discover the ultimate in consumer satisfactions: arranging the circumstances of the customer's life to make him the hero or villain of his own personally tailored drama. The FTC, however, prevents the companies from merging, so they must compete with one another when their client's demands conflict. By the time of the book's action, they secretly arrange every event in the United States.
Some of the reviews are philosophical parodies, Eg. Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake), where a stolid German proposes that culture arises when sufficient misunderstandings about the world accumulate to form a closed system of belief.
The best two pieces, though, are the last, "Non Serviam", and "The New Cosmogony". "Non Serviam" was reprinted in Hofstadter and Dennett's book "The Mind's I". It is supposed to be a paper by a researcher into "personetics", the science of creating artificial personalities inside worlds inside the computer. The researcher has absolute power over his creations; he can bring them into existence, destroy them, and change their world at will. He is to these creatures as God would be to us. His main interest in them, therefore, is having them argue theology. Most of the paper is a debate among the personoids on what should be their proper attitude towards their creator. Their conclusion: "we shall not serve".
"The New Cosmogony" is the acceptance speech of a Nobel prize winner in physics. He describes his remarkable theory about the source of physical laws. The universe is more than ten billion years old. Several generations of stars have come and gone. Billions of years have elapsed since the first civilizations could have arisen, so the question becomes, where are they? Why don't we see their names spelled out with galaxies for pixels? His answer is, they are there, in fact they are everywhere, and the structure of physical law is their handiwork. Laws did not arise out of the inherent structure of the universe; they are rules established by competing primordial civilizations. All the players are operating under game theory, so they adopt certain conventions to prevent catastrophic upsets. Thus, physical laws are homogeneous throughout the universe because all the players pick the same, optimal strategy. There is no travel through time because that would give an unfair advantage, and for the same reason information cannot travel faster than light. Relics of past conflicts can be seen in quasars and in the microwave background radiation. We haven't been visited by a dozen space-faring races because the big boys suppress young cultures that get too uppity. And the clincher is that the "psychzoics" (how the hell does that get translated from Polish?) have not yet finished with physics. There are subtle little asymmetries still to be worked out. For instance, left and right are indistinguishable except in the beta decay of a certain kind of muon. If we can see these inconsistencies being smoothed out we can tell that the psychozoics are still at work.
Whoo-ee. Eat your heart out, Niven.
Date: 28 Aug 83 5:58:26-PDT (Sun)
From: harpo!floyd!cmcl2!philabs!sdcsvax!sdchema!donn @ Ucb-Vax
Subject: Book Reviews (II)
Some reviews of my recent reading.
Stars next to titles indicate collections or anthologies.
All the books are paperbacks, with the publisher or series title shown.
Ratings are 0-10:
0 = 'I don't know why I bought this trash,'
5 = 'Readable but disappointing,'
7.5 = 'I liked it (but I don't know about other people),'
10 = 'Kill for this book.'
*MEMOIRS OF A SPACE TRAVELER.
Stanislaw Lem, translated from the Polish by Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek,
with illustrations by the author.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
This book forms a set with THE STAR DIARIES and THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, being the collected works of the fictional space traveler, social observer, futurologist and all-around nice guy, Ijon Tichy. In fact, this book and THE STAR DIARIES were published as one volume in the original Polish. These stories are just as fantastically funny and thought-provoking as those in THE STAR DIARIES, and I fail to understand why they weren't all published at once. In 'The Eighteenth Voyage' Tichy is responsible for creating the universe (but the job is bungled); in 'The Twenty-fourth Voyage' the state is threatened by 'disorder and disregard for the law,' so it commissions a Machine to bring 'perfect and absolute order,' with results which any computer programmer can predict. In 'Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy', Tichy remains on Earth and finds that adventure may be encountered even in one's living room. I won't spoil these five little gems by giving away their plots, except to note that the last one is subtitled 'The Washing Machine Tragedy' and it deals with the end of life as we know it. In 'Doctor Diagoras' Tichy finds a man who has created not one but two unique life forms which appear to communicate with each other but have no apparent means of communication which the poor Doctor's experiments can uncover. 'Let Us Save the Universe: An Open Letter From Ijon Tichy' is a public service announcement where the service is pure silliness, with illustrations. What can I say? No one else is Ijon Tichy. (9.0)
*A PERFECT VACUUM. [See this also.] Stanislaw Lem, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
This book is so good it leaves me speechless. Well, almost. The device of the book is that it is a collection of reviews of nonexistent books. This makes it extremely difficult to review properly, of course, and the task is not made any easier by the fact that the very first review in the book is a review of the book itself! How does one cope with such subterfuge? Willingly, and with much amusement in my case. I will make a stab at describing a few of these pieces without giving any of the good parts away: 'Gigamesh' is a review of a book that outwakes Finnegan; 'Gruppenfuehrer Louis XVI' is a review of a novel that tells how a Nazi squad leader named Taudlitz becomes king of 'Parisia', a copy of France in the midst of the Brazilian jungle; 'Being, Inc.' is a review of a story about the ultimate consequence of the existence of companies who can make your dreams come true; 'Non Serviam' is a review of the latest report on the cruel science of 'personetics', the study of intelligences that are created within universes built by computer simulations; 'The New Cosmogony' is a speech by a recipient of the Nobel Prize describing the work of his predecessors which led him to conclude that the physical properties of the universe are a consequence of a game being played by incredibly ancient and patient beings. This book may seem too literary to some and too philosophical to others, but for me it captures the spirit of the best of science fiction. (10.0)
[A question: There is also apparently a book by Lem called IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE that consists of introductions to (as opposed to reviews of) nonexistent books. Does anyone know if this has appeared in English, and if so, from what publisher? A note: 'Non Serviam' appears in THE MIND'S I by Hofstadter and Dennett, along with a review (!?) by the editors.]
Date: 20 Apr 84 22:24:31-PST (Fri)
From: decvax!ittvax!dcdwest!sdcsvax!sdchema!donn @ Ucb-Vax
Subject: Beneath the Son of the Attack of the 50-Foot Book Reviews
Even more book reviews. Again, '*' marks a collection or anthology.
HIS MASTER'S VOICE.
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, c1968,
English translation by Michael Kandel.
c1983 (hardcover -- I understand the paperback is out now).
Faren Miller in LOCUS called this book 'more a readable meditation than a novel' and after reading the book I would have to add my qualified agreement. The book is a philosophical retrospection by one of the key members of the 'His Master's Voice' project, the mathematician Peter Hogarth. The HMV project was secretly founded by the US government to analyze and (if possible) translate a signal discovered in modulated neutrino emissions from deep space. The military hoped to extract technology which could be used for new weapons against the Russians. Hogarth and the other scientists held the military in contempt, and sought instead to interpret the message and find a way to understand the Senders. Several strange results came from the study of the signal. One result was a peculiar protoplasm-like material created by irradiating a chemical soup with the signal. This goo had the peculiar characteristic of sustaining itself not through normal biological energy cycles, but through atomic reactions. Hogarth and friends then discovered that the material had the capacity for causing remote nuclear reactions: an explosion near it released its energy at a distance. The possibility arose that detonating a hydrogen bomb in a roomful of the protoplasm in Nevada might cause Moscow to be destroyed. Hogarth and his colleagues had to decide: what should they tell the military? Besides this ethical problem, Hogarth also considers the question of whether there really were any Senders... This novel is very difficult but I found it to be rewarding.
*MORE TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT.
English translations by Louis Iribarne and Michael Kandel,
The Pirx stories are much more playful than HMV, but still show a serious undercurrent. Pirx is a spaceship pilot at a time when the solar system is well explored enough to be routine and other systems are just becoming known, but there are still plenty of surprises at home. The first story, 'Pirx's Tale', is a fish story about finding and losing the only alien spaceship ever seen. All the remaining stories deal with robots, a continuing preoccupation of Lem's, and in particular they deal with malfunctions of robots as seen from a human (Pirx's) viewpoint. 'The Accident' occurs on an Earthlike planet that is just being opened for exploration; the exploration party's robot disappears and Pirx must determine why it left as well as where it went. 'The Hunt' occurs on the moon when a mining robot goes insane and begins attacking transport vehicles and communications lines as well as lunar ore; Pirx is recruited to help track it down and destroy it, but in the process discovers that even a mere mining robot can be more intelligent than a human being. 'The Inquest' takes Pirx to Saturn on a trip with six crewmen, some of which are androids being tested as replacements for human crew -- but Pirx doesn't know which are which. An accident occurs: who is responsible? The answer is surprising. In 'Ananke' a robot-controlled spacecraft causes a disaster on Mars when it suddenly reverses thrust during a landing approach because its meteorite-detection algorithm determined that Mars was a meteorite and hence it must take evasive action; Pirx must figure out how the programming error occurred. I liked these stories better than the original TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT.
Donn Seeley UCSD Chemistry Dept.
32 52' 30"N 117 14' 25"W
Date: Sun, 28 Oct 84 01:50:26 mst
From: donn@utah-cs (Donn Seeley)
Subject: Stanislaw Lem's IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE
IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE is the latest in a series of new Lem translations from HBJ; this particular hardcover edition was translated by Marc E. Heine from an original that appeared in Poland in 1973, with later revisions. (Curiously, the dust jacket claims that Lem lives in Vienna -- when did he leave Poland? Part of IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE was published in a Polish literary magazine in Krakow in 1981...)
IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE is a companion to A PERFECT VACUUM; the latter book is a collection of reviews of nonexistent books, the former is a collection of introductions and excerpts from the same. These pieces run the gamut from silliness to facetiousness to pedantry to philosophy. NECROBES is a curiously rationalized introduction to a book of pornographic X-ray images; ERUNTICS prepares us for the story of a mad biologist who tries to teach bacteria English, and succeeds beyond his expectations; the introduction to A HISTORY OF BITIC LITERATURE is a rather dry and scholarly discussion of a catalogue of texts written by machine intelligences; and the introductory offer for VESTRAND'S EXTELOPEDIA IN 44 MAGNETOMES drowns us in a tide of ridiculous neologisms as it gives us the hard sell for an encyclopedia that is so up-to-date, it predicts the future:
"In an extreme instance, in which there is a Propervirt of less than 0.9%, the TEXT OF THE PRESENT PROSPECTUS may likewise undergo an ABRUPT change. If, while you are reading these sentences, the words begin to jump about, and the letters quiver and blur, please interrupt your reading for ten or twenty seconds to wipe your glasses, adjust your clothing, or the like, and then start reading AGAIN from the beginning, and NOT JUST from the place where your reading was interrupted, since such a TRANSFORMATION indicates that a correction of DEFICIENCIES is now taking place."
The core of IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE, however, is the extract from GOLEM XIV, a book by and about a superintelligent computer. Golem XIV was the last in a line of machines produced by the US military in an effort to close the artificial intelligence gap with the Russkies (who, it turned out, were so far behind that the idea of competition was silly). Unfortunately, when called upon, Golem XIV refused to act; it had better things to do... Two of Golem XIV's lectures are included in IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE: the first one discusses Man, concentrating on the nature of human intelligence; the 43rd lecture is about the potential for machine intelligence -- it expresses the belief that not only are human beings incapable of appreciating the reasoning of a computer as smart as Golem, but Golem is incapable of understanding thought on the next level of intelligence, and so on forever. Is there any hope for advance? Lem walks a narrow line by pretending to be a superintelligent machine, and I don't think he quite pulls it off, although the story is nevertheless very interesting.
I found IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE to be less fun than A PERFECT VACUUM, mainly because the prose seems a bit lifeless in places. This may be due to the different translations (VACUUM was translated by Michael Kandel, the same fellow who was responsible for the fantastic translation of THE CYBERIAD), although it's always possible that the original was simply more turgid. The best part is Golem XIV's 43rd lecture, which (perhaps not coincidentally) was written 8 years after the rest of the book. Unless you're a diehard Lem fan like me, you should probably wait for the paperback edition...
University of Utah CS Dept
40 46' 6"N 111 50' 34"W
PS -- A quote for John Redford: 'Chronocurrent exformatics is based on the existence of ISOTHEMES (q.v.). An ISOTHEME is a line in SEMANTIC SPACE (q.v.) passing through all thematically identical publications...'
Date: Sun 3 Feb 85 17:16:13-EST
From: Peter G. Trei <OC.TREI%CU20B@COLUMBIA.ARPA>
Subject: Lem's 'Microworlds' (reveiw)
The following is passed on from a friend of mine who lacks direct net access.
Responses sent to me (email@example.com) will be passed on to him.
Peter Trei Review of Stanislaw Lem's "Microworlds"
[ By Richard Bielak, firstname.lastname@example.org ]
The new book by S. Lem, "Microworlds," (HBJ, 1984) is somewhat different from his other books published in English. It is not fiction. "Microworlds" is a collections of essays dealing with science fiction. Lem is a harsh critic of western science fiction, therefore this book is not for the weak-stomached sci-fi fan.
The book opens with an autobiographical essay, entitled "Reflections on my life". This essay appeared previously in the New Yorker under a different title.
The next three essays: "On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction", "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case - with Exceptions", and "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans" contain the most severe criticism of the genre. Lem's main objection is that science fiction falls among trivial literature (such as westerns, detective stories, or romantic fiction) despite claims to the contrary. To Lem sci-fi is a consumer good whose production is driven by the whims of the market. Therefore, the quality of a novel or a story is often equated with the number of copies sold.
Another problem with the current science fiction writing that Lem sees is its lack of deeper meanings. Although many novels describe in a self-consistent way fantastic settings or events, they are only "empty games". Futhermore, Lem says,
"...ninety to ninety eight percent of the empty games in science fiction are very primitive, very naive one-paramter processes. They are almost always based on one or two rules, and in most cases it is the rule of inversion that becomes their method of creation. To write such a story you invert the members of a pair of linked concepts. For example, we think the human body quite beautiful, but in the eyes of an extraterrestrial we are all monsters: in Sheckley's 'All the Things You Are' the odor of human beings is poisonous for the extraterrastrials. (...) What appears normal to us is abnormal to others - about half of Sheckley's stories are built on this principle." (pp. 37-38)
The deep ideas Lem seeks are not of the type involving sweeping statements about the oneness of man with the universe, God, or whatever. He wants to see more realism in science fiction instead of fairy tale ideas disguised in psedo-scientific terms. To Lem "Science fiction involves the art of putting hypothetical premises into the very complicated stream of sociopsychological occurences. Although this art once had its master in H.G. Wells, it has been forgotten and is now lost." (page. 43)
As the titles of the essays suggest Lem considers Philip K. Dick, as an exceptional author. Lem likes P.K. Dick because his novels exhibit more structure and put forth some coherent ideas, even though they are still constructed with "trash" (i.e. telepaths, pre-congs, psi, ESP, etc..). The books that Lem likes most are "Ubik", "Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", and "Solar Lottery".
The remaining essays include a discusion of time travel plots ("The Time-Travel Story and Related Matters of Science-Fiction Structuring"), relation between cosmology and science fiction, and critcism of the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. The essay entitled "Todorov's Fantastic Theory of Literature" was the most tedious to read. It debunked the theory proposed by Todorov (a Russian writer, I presume), and it read like chapter from a textbook on literary criticism.
The final essay is a review of the book by the Strugarsky brothers "Roadside Picnic". I believe that "Roadside Picnic" was the basis for the film "Stalker" by the Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky (he also made "Solaris"). Before discussing the book Lem talks about the theme of alien invasions in science fiction books.
I think that "Mircoworlds" is worth reading, however I expect that many science fiction fans will be disturbed and angered by it. As for my reaction, I loved the book, but then I am prejudiced. Lem is my favorite writer.
About the reviewer:
Lem is the first science fiction author I read and he is still my favorite. I must agree with his point that most science fiction, although entertaining, is very shallow.
I was born in Poland, and lived in the same city as Lem. I began reading his books at the age of 12. Although I read other science fiction (Asimov, Bradbury, Clement, LeGuin, Pournelle, Niven), Lem is the only author whose books I have read more than once.
I think that my all time favorite is "Star Diaries" (which I first read in Polish at the age of 12), however some chapters of "Perfect Vacuum" come close.
Lem's strength comes from the tackling questions which are usually ignored by everyone else. For example, in most books that describe contact with alien beings, communication between aliens and humans is easily established (e.g. "The Mote in God's Eye") - if discussed at all. This is due to excessive anthropomorphizing. This does not happen in "Solaris" or "The Invincible". In these books we cannot say for sure that the other being is intelligent. But that's how it is in real life. To presume that communication would be easy to establish between being evolved on different worlds is wrong. Witness the research on dolphins; we can't even say if they are intelligent or have a "language", but we evolved on the same planet.
I know that many readers object to open-ended books, but any science fiction book which answers every question at the end is unrealistic. In real science an answer to a question, only leads to many other questions, there are very few final answers.
Bye for now....