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Stanislaw Lem


There are deveral separate trends in the work of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. He has written a considerable body of satire, some verging on the farcical, some much more subtle. He has written serious novels with hints of adventure, and adventure stories undertones. Eden is one of the latter, a planetary adventure story that rises above the melodramatics of its plot, although the story itself is intense and intelligently conceived.

Six astronauts crash-land on the planet Eden, a bizarre world where the ordinary laws of the natural universe seem irrelevant. The planet's sun has an unusual shape; the very texture of the ground is strange; and the local life-forms are bizarre and, as the reader and the characters will soon discover, uniquely dangerous. There are artificial features on Eden as well, evidence of a once highly evolved civilization that built robots to satisfy its needs. The stranded humans absorb the data they have gathered and believe that they have figured out the underlying structure of this alien society, but they are wrong.

The inhabitants of Eden are as unconventional as their environment, with bodies that vary and exhibit perplexing and sometimes nonsensical features. The conclusions made by the humans are revealed to be false, shaped by preconceptions that cannot be justified by the new evidence that presents itself. The inhabitants of Eden have let their society get out of control. Genetic engineering and cultural conditioning have trapped them and deprived them of the ability even to strive to free themselves. Where a lesser writer might have chosen to deliver the aliens from their self-made trap by human intervention, Lem makes it clear that anything humans might do would only make matters worse. It is hard to imagine that Lem did not mean this as a commentary on the belief of the colonial powers of our own world that they were bringing civilization to benighted peoples by dominating and altering their cultures.


Lem, Stanislaw

(1921– )

Although there was a considerable body of science fiction published in the former Soviet Union and the erstwhile Warsaw Pact nations, most of it was tame and unimaginative by Western standarts and very little has been translated into English. The Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is the outstanding exception to the rule. He had published mainstream novels with modest success before turning to science fiction in the 1950s, and this has been the main outlet for his work ever since. Communist state policy placed restrictions on literature, but Lem's recurring theme of the dangers of unrestrained military ambitions caused him no difficulties with the authorities.

Lem's most famous novel is Solaris (1970), filmed twice but with only modest success. A group of scientists are studying a newly discovered planet whose world ocean is essentially a single sentient being that is capable of showing the humans manifestations of people who have died. The scientists speculate that the ocean being is the repository of disembodied memories from which a quasi-reality can be generated. The Invincible (1973) is perhaps Lem's best-sustained suspense story. Space explorers find the remains of an earlier expedition that was apparently attacked by an unknown force and prepare as best they can to resist their unseen enemy. Eden (1989) has a similar premise. In this case the space travelers are stranded after a mishap with their ship, on a planet whose original native race appears to have disappeared, supplanted by its own creations, both mechanical and biogenetically engineered.

The situation a group of explorers find themselves in is considerably less personally threatening but no less tense in Fiasco (1988). The human race has finally become relatively enlightened about the dangers of military posturing – at which point it encounters a less advanced race on a distant world that seems to be on the brink of destroying itself in a senseless war. It is the Earth that becomes the strange planet in Return from the Stars (1980). Because of the time dilation effect, a space pilot returns to a world that has changed dramatically since his departure. Everyone voluntarily submits to a procedure that removes the violent tendencies from their personalities, but the pilot resists efforts to make him conform.

In The Investigation (1974) police officials are puzzled by a strange new phenomenon. Dead bodies are mysteriously moving from one place to another or disappearing entirely, and all efforts to discover the cause of the phenomenon fail. The solution lies not with criminals, however, but with the existence of another world impinging on our own. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1974) has one of the most interesting premises in Lem's work: A new virus attacks paper products, destroying them completely and spreading so quickly that no counteragent can be found in time. The last bastion of conventional paperwork is the Pentagon, which has sealed itself off from the rest of the world and evolved into a strange new culture of its own. Lem's satiric side is evident in even those works with a serious tone.

Chain of Chance (1978) is another story of scientific investigation. The laws of chance have been altered, and unlikely events have become more common. His Master's Voice (1983) makes use of another familiar theme – the message from space that might be a great boon for humanity but might also be the first sign of a deadly threat. Unfortunately, Lem uses the plot as a forum for extended musings about the nature of humanity that continually encumber the story.

Lem has made use of at least two recurring characters. Ion Tychy is a spaceman who discovers the truth about a supposed Utopia after nearly falling prey to its drugged inducements in The Futurological Congress (1974). He travels to the Moon to investigate the activities of some suspicious robots in Peace on Earth (1994), achieving considerable humorous effect because the protagonist's brain has been altered so that different parts of his body act of their own volition. Tichy's shorter adventures are collected in The Star Diaries (1976) and Memoirs of a Space Traveler (1982). The second recurring character, Pirx the Pilot, has even less-likely adventures in his two collections, Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1979) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1982). Two other books, The Cyberiad (1974) and Mortal Engines (1977), collect loosely related stories involving robots.

In the latter part of his career, Lem has concentrated more on short fiction than on novels; some of these stories have been collected in The Cosmic Carnival (1981). Also of interest are three books that consist of whimsical essays; reviews of nonexistent books, some of which were written in the future; and other unusual pieces that generally avoid traditional narrative forms: A Perfect Vacuum (1978), Imaginary Magnitude (1984), and One Human Minute (1986), respectively.


Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Stanislaw Lem


Most of Stanislaw Lem's fiction was published while Poland was under a repressive Communist regime, and it is unclear how much effect that situation had on his work. Lem, who is certainly the most important science fiction writer to have emerged in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period, often used satire in his work, and was able to poke occasional fun at totalitarianism and bureaucracy, although it was often displaced to Western venues. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is the best of his book-length satires, set in a near future after Earth has become infected with a virus from outer space – one that does not threaten humans directly but causes the destruction of all paper products. The dependence of bureaucracy – and in fact virtually every aspect of human civilization – on paperwork was even more pointed during the early 1970s when this novel was written than it is now, when we store much of the same data electronically.

As the outside world collapses into disarray, the last stronghold of the "papyrocracy" is the American Pentagon, sealed to prevent entry by the virus, inhabited by a bizarre cast of characters who live within an atmosphere of paranoia and secrecy, with technological devices unknown outside its walls. Into this labyrinth of espionage and mania Lem introduces a naive outsider, whose explorations allow the reader to take an exaggerated, often very funny look at the extremes to which we sometimes subject ourselves in the name of order, security, and conformity. The Pentagon becomes a world in itself, and the protagonist begins to doubt that anything really exists beyond its outer walls. The Pentagon was an approved target for satires under Communism, but Lem and his readers certainly knew that his excoriation of the manic aspects of that culture was equally applicable to the Kremlin.


Lem, Stanislaw

(Dates are for the first English version)

Solaris (1970)

The Invincible (1973)

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1973)

The Cyberiad (1974)

The Futurological Conference (1974)

The Investigation (1974)

The Star Diaries (1976)

Mortal Engines (1977)

A Perfect Vacuum (1978)

Chain of Chance (1978)

Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1979)

Return from the Stars (1980)

The Cosmic Carnival (1981)

Memoirs of a Space Traveler (1982)

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1982)

His Master's Voice (1983)

Imaginary Magnitude (1984)

One Human Minute (1986)

Fiasco (1988)

Eden (1989)

Peace on Earth (1994)


D'Ammassa Don. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. – New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. – P. 127-128, 227-228, 256, 481-482.


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© 2005 D'Ammassa Don, текст