Skating on thin ice had always
been my forte, cursive figure
eights my specialty. I’d never
stubbed my toe, never eaten
crow. Four leaf clovers lined
my path with Irish luck. I thought
sin a dark age fiction banished
by the Galilean’s golden
rule. Later and luckless, my amulets
up in smoke in the holocaust,
I and all my friends were loved.
EUGENE H. PETERSON
Stanislaw Lem is a “major writer and one of the deep spirits of our age,” wrote critic Theodore Solotaroff. After reading six of Lem’s novels, a number of short stories, and an essay, I am convinced that Solotaroff is right. Yet few American readers have ever heard of Lem. I keep asking my friends if they have read The Futurological Congress (1974) or The Investigation (1974) or Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1973) or The Cyberiad (1974) or The Invincible (1973) or Solaris (1971) or Star Diaries (1976) or Mortal Engines (1977). Their blank expressions tell it all.
Nonetheless, Stanislaw Lem is a giant of Eastern European literature: his work has been commended by well-known American writers and critics. Six of the titles listed above have appeared in mass-market editions in the United States (Seabury has published the bulk of these titles in hardback; Avon is the paperback publisher of these). Remaining yet untranslated from the Polish are numerous articles and nonfiction works on culture, medicine, cybernetics, and philosophy, especially the philosophy of science.
Stanislaw Lem was born in Lwow in 1921. In 1944 he moved to Krakow, Poland, where he now lives. During the Nazi occupation he was forbidden a university education, but he subsequently studied medicine and, following in his parents’ footsteps, became a doctor. Writing, however, has always been his first love.
There are two reasons for Lem’s obscurity in the English-speaking world. First, his works have only recently begun to be translated and published. Second, he has chosen to express himself primarily in science fiction. And only in the last decade—with the burst of interest in such writers as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—has science fiction become a respectable literary form. With Stanislaw Lem I believe that the science fiction genre has reached maturity.
Lem’s novels and stories generally take the form of parables. To Lem the world of twentieth-century man has been completely naturalized. No myths are left in which to believe. “Culture has been robbed of all its coats and veils,” he writes in “Culture and Futurology,” and “we have been freed of falsity and given a truth instead that is incapable of effectively replacing this falsity.” The result is that we no longer have a place to stand. Lem’s agony of spirit is expressed again and again in parabolic form. In The Cyberiad Trurl tells a tale pregnant with philosophic import. The king to whom the tale is directed then says, “Go then in peace, my friend, and continue to hide your truths, too bitter for this world, in the guise of fairy story and fable.” This comment could stand as a motto for Lem himself. Another of his characters says, “If but for a single instant you could see this world of ours the way it really is—undoctored, unadulterated, uncensored—you would drop in your tracks!”
So Lem’s approach to narrative art is to conceal in story in order to reveal in principle the enigmatic nature of a world that stands before us bearing no ultimate meaning at all. Lem, in other words, is a naturalist who realizes that all meaning is meaning made up by those who are conscious—whether as biologically conscious machines (human beings) or as mechanically conscious beings (robots).
Three themes recur in Lem’s novels: the problem of meaning in a naturalistic world governed by chance and necessity, artificial intelligence and consciousness (cybernetics), and the problem of distinguishing between illusion and reality.
In The Cyberiad the first two themes are intricately interwoven. Consider, for example, one episode, “the story of how the Great Constructor Trurl [himself a robot], with the aid of an ordinary jug, created a local fluctuation, and what came of it.” Trurl, on one of his many journeys across the galaxies, passed by a planet on which a huge pile of cybernetic garbage had accumulated left over from a previous cybernetic civilization long since dead:
“Nothing took place in this garbage dump but garbage.” Then along came Trurl who, in order to get out of the way of the tail of a comet, began “frantically jettisoning out the spaceship window whatever lay in reach … [including] an old earthenware jug with a crack down the middle. This jug, accelerating in accordance with the laws of gravity and boosted by the comet’s tail, crashed into a mountain side above the dump, fell, clattered down a slope of junk toward a puddle, skittered across some mud, and finally smacked into an old tin can; this impact bent the metal around a copper wire, also knocked some pieces of mica between the edges, and that made a condenser, while the wire, twisted by the can, formed the beginnings of a solenoid, and a stone set in motion by the jug, moved in turn a hunk of rusty iron, which happened to be a magnet, and this gave rise to a current.”
In short, after a whole series of “necessary” consequents prompted by the chance strike of a jug, “there came into being a Logic Circuit, and five more, and another eighteen in the spot where the jug finally shattered into bits.” So emerged “a creature of pure accident.” Lem calls him “Mymosh the Selfbegotten, who had neither mother nor father, but was son unto himself, for his father was Coincidence and his Mother—Entropy.” Mymosh, then, not knowing his origin, sees his image reflected in a puddle and exclaims, “Truly, I am beautiful, nay perfect, which clearly implies the Perfection of All Created Things!! Ah, and how good must be the One Who fashioned me!”
As the story unfolds, Mymosh, just by thinking, creates a whole universe (he calls it Gozmos), which in turn is destroyed as Mymosh’s “rust-eaten skull cracked open at the touch of an earthenware shard, pushed by a puff of air.” So the logical Mymosh and the rational world of Mymosh was created and destroyed by accident.
What are we to make of this parable? Here is an accident-produced, self-conscious, intelligent machine who reasons that it has been created by an all-wise and good creator. Is Lem satirizing Christians who argue that finite personality implies Infinite Personality as its cause? Or is he pointing out the essential irrationality of thinking that intelligence and consciousness could come from accident?
Perhaps he is doing both. As a naturalist, Lem must account for the origin of personality from that which is not personal. But as he accounts for it along familiar naturalist lines, he realizes that such an account is essentially absurd. So he is stuck. Either he acknowledges an Infinite-Personal origin to the universe and man, or he is forced into some kind of nihilism. Lem, it would seem, wants neither. Yet there is no third alternative. Since he is too honest to take an irrational leap to faith in human “Logic Circuits,” he leaves us facing the Enigma, hiding his bitter truths in the guise of fable.
The third major theme is treated in depth in The Futurological Congress, as Lem sets the problem of distinguishing between appearance and reality in a far-flung future world where consciousness is controlled by drugs. Ijon Tichy, a character who appears in many of Lem’s stories, is attending a futurological congress in an overpopulated city in Costa Rica on the verge of revolution. While a guest at the Hilton Hotel, Tichy drinks water from the faucet and immediately begins to hallucinate. Gradually he realizes what has happened and is put on guard against a repetition. Nonetheless, during an attack on the hotel by revolutionaries Tichy and several other futurologists retreat to the sewer system. While he awaits a return to normal, Tichy succumbs to a chemical-warfare agent and again begins hallucinating. The bulk of the book details his illusions during the next few hours.
The hallucinated events themselves cover a period of several months. It is not, however, the events that concern us here; it is the argument about appearance and reality—an argument that takes place during the hallucination.
“Listen, Professor,” says Tichy to Trottelreiner, another futurologist, “do you happen to know any foolproof method of telling whether one is in his right mind or not?”
“Well, I always carry some vigilax on me,” says the Professor. “Vigilax disperses all states of somnolence, trances, illusions, figments, nightmares.”
But Tichy sees the problem immediately: “The medicine may work … but it certainly won’t if it’s a figment of itself.”
For a major portion of his hallucination Tichy lives in a totally “psychemized” (drug-controlled) world. There were no more churches; the place of worship was the pharmacy. “Spontaneous feelings are not to be indulged.… One should always use the drug appropriate to the occasion.” Throughout this long episode Tichy struggles to determine whether he is hallucinating or not.
The problem is one of ground rules for the game of knowledge. Unless we have some reason to believe our perceptions fit reality, we are left with only an endless series of masks; there is no real face to the world. The reductionist view of naturalism does not provide a ground for that certainty. One of the characters in Tichy’s psychodrama says, “All perception is but a change in the concentration of hydrogen ions on the surface of the brain cells.” Knowledge is chemistry. If so, so is one’s reasoning about knowledge. We can therefore be certain about nothing: “By introducing properly prepared mascons to the brain, one can mask any object in the outside world behind a fictitious image—superimposed—and with such dexterity, that the psychemasconated subject cannot tell which of his perceptions have been altered, and which have not.” Obviously if everyone were to live under the manipulative power of drugs, no one would know what is really the case. So, Professor Trottelreiner says, there are soothseers: “Soothseeing is the right to take vigilanimides—for the purpose of determining how things are in reality. For someone has to know.”
But, you will notice, even the soothseers get their ability from drugs—vigilanimides. No one in such a society can be sure he is not being manipulated. Even Professor Trottelreiner is not really aware of what the truth is.
Eventually Tichy “wakes up” back in the sewer underneath the Hilton, no wiser about illusion and reality than before. Still, he has run through all the tricky permutations of the problem. And one thing emerges clearly—at least for me: There must be a ground zero for human perception—something so basic that it remains certain or at least unquestioned. On this a structure of knowledge can be built. Without it one is an epistemological vagabond, a nihilist nomad.
Where does Stanislaw Lem stand in relation to this issue? That is a question I have asked myself over and over as I have read and reread such books as The Futurological Congress, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and The Investigation. The answer is not easy. A critic puts Lem clearly in the camp of the relativists: “Lem’s major novels have at their cognitive core the simple and difficult realization that no closed reference system, however alluring to the weary and poor in spirit, is viable in the age of relativity theory and post-cybernetic sciences.” If this is what Lem is saying, then he is leaving us with no moorings of any kind. Tichy’s struggle to distinguish between appearance and reality is, then, on principle unresolvable. The story line of The Futurological Congress with all its fits and starts, all its shifts without transition from one vision to another, into nothing and out of nothing, from the sewers of Costa Rica to a psychemized society fifty years into the future and back again, is a giant paradigm of every human life.
That is, it is a giant paradigm of human life on naturalist principles. For a Christian, Lem’s ruminations are a brilliant symbol of life as it must be understood if God is not there, if he has not created us in his image, if he has not redeemed us by his Son, if he has not revealed to us the essential nature of himself and thus of us as well. Indeed, Stanislaw Lem is “one of the deep spirits of our age.” And that tells us a lot about our age—a lot we need to know.
James W. Sire is editor of InterVarsity Press and author of “The Universe Next Door” and “How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading With the Mind.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.