THE OPEN-ENDED PARABLES OF STANISLAW LEM AND “SOLARIS” by Darko Suvin

2017-12-20T16:04:51-08:00 December 20th, 2017|Categories: LITERATURE|Tags: , , |
  • Stanislaw Lem

by Darko Suvin

Solaris is the first novel of the distinguished Polish writer Stanislaw Lem to be translated into English. In order to understand its context, which is Lem’s rediscovery of science fiction as a supple and satisfactory form of literary cognition, the English-language reader should be acquainted with Lem’s staggering range of interests and achievement. For Lem is not only the most important SF writer on the continent of Europe, he is a cultural phenomenon unto himself.
Do You Exist, Mr. Lem?
Our author has denied rumors that he is a computer using the acronym of the Lunar Excursion Module. Although his encyclopedic knowledge and furious productivity make one sometimes wonder, his sly sense of humor and sudden self-critical twists lend credence to this denial. In sober fact, Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 in the Galician city of Lwow, where both his father and mother were medical doctors. The Nazi occupation forbade university studies to Polish intellectuals, so young Lem worked during the war as garage mechanic and welder,1 maintaining some contact and sympathy with the Resistance movement. He has described his prewar childhood and adolescence in the charming autobiographic booklet High Castle (Wysoki zamek, 1968). Lem moved in 1944 from Lwow, incorporated into the U.S.S.R., to Cracow where he has henceforth resided. He received a degree in medicine there, and worked for some time as an intern. The wartime and immediate postwar milieu form the background of Lem’s only non-SF novel, Time Saved, Czas nieutracony, apparently written during the years 1948 to 1950 but published in 1955, and awarded the literary prize of the city of Cracow. The protagonist is a young Polish doctor who finds his way from solitude to social meaningfulness.
Lem wrote articles and verse at the outset of his career, but his most important pursuit at that time was the study of history and methodology of science, especially the development and implications of cybernetics. This fascination has remained with Lem, and he has kept abreast of developments in modem science, and maintained a deep interest in the philosophy of science, its aims and ways (see the discussion of “solaristics” in this novel). Lem’s first SF novel The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1950, filmed as The Planet of Death) grew out of his concern about the destructive powers of irrationally used science. It featured an expedition to Venus from a twenty-first century utopian and classless Earth: after many dangers and adventures, the international crew discovers that intelligent life had been annihilated by nuclear warfare. Though the novel follows the standard Vemean adventure form, supplemented with socialist utopianism and with a warning of catastrophic alternatives, it stands at the beginning of a long list of his parabolic SF (eighteen published to date, not counting reeditions, which sometimes contain much new material). Lem’s works are parables speaking about ourselves through startling situations in other worlds.
Lem’s provocative and pioneering nonfiction stems from the same preoccupations as his SF and throws much light on it. Many of his articles on medicine, cybernetics, philosophy and literature have not yet been collected, but the following books indicate main areas of his interest: Cybernetic Dialogues (Dialogi, 1950, written in the Rationalist form of discussion between “Hylas” and “Philonous”); Getting Into Orbit (Wejście na orbitę, 1962, essays on Camus, Dostoevsky and futurology, written in the 1950’s); Summa Technologiae (1964, a brilliant and highly controversial five hundred page volume on the “Man-Nature game,” socio-cybernetics, and prospects of cosmic and biological engineering. Already translated in the U.S.S.R., the book awaits only an intelligent publisher to create an analogous sensation in the English-speaking world); The Philosophy of Chance (Filozofia przypadku, 1968, a correspondingly fat volume on theory of literature and culture); and Science Fiction and Futurology (Fantastyka i futurologia, in print).
Yet for all his Renaissance-type universalism of interests and immense erudition, Lem is primarily a writer who chose the form of science fiction as being potentially adequate to his preoccupations, and raised it to the dignity of a major literary genre. European science fiction —notwithstanding scattered efforts of Zamiatin, A. Tolstoy, Huxley, Capek, and most notably Stapledon—had not attained this standard since the major phase of H. G. Wells’. Lem’s writing developed parallel to the rebirth of British SF with Wyndham, Clarke, and Aldiss, and a little earlier than the rebirth of Soviet SF with Yefremov, Dneprov, and the Strugatskys. Indeed, he strongly contributed to the latter through his example of non-dogmatic, open, yet scientifically plausible and philosophically pioneering speculation. Together with the British and Soviet writing—and with American SF—Lem has singlehandedly become the fourth major pillar of global SF since World War II.
Obviously, Lem has been very aware of the U.S. science fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s. If the internal evidence of his books were not sufficient, a remark published in Austria in 1969 testified that he had in the 1950’s read “people like Knight, Bradbury, Brown, Bester, Pohl, Blish, Kutter, Russell, Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Campbell. Heinlein …” In other essays he refers to Wyndham, Boucher, Leiber, Seabright, van Vogt, and Sheckley. He has also been a reader of the French edition of Galaxy until 1965 (a point at which he seems to have given up western SF in disgust). Thus, Lem has had some of the same antecedents as British and Soviet SF after World War II: Verne, Wells, Stapledon, Capek and the “techno-sociological” antifascist U.S. science fiction of the 1940’s-1950’s. Yet it is equally obvious that other antecedents, stemming from a different tradition and environment, have mingled with this common denominator or minimum treasury of all present-day SF, making for the specific creative method of a highly personal writer. Lem’s approach or angle of vision will be discussed in the analysis of Solaris, following this annotated list of Lem’s SF works, which might provide some first clues:

1 The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1951—see above); 2 Sesame (Sezam, 1955, short stories); and 3 The Magellan Nebula (Oblok Magellana, 1955, a utopian novel of life and discoveries on a huge spaceship, revealingly named Gaea). Lem considers today his early works, such as these first three books, too optimistically naive; I would argue that this utopian naivete remains one of the poles of the Lemian creative tension even in his richest works.

4 The Star Diaries of Ion Tichy (Dzienniki gwiazdowe, a series of “journeys” by a cosmic Don Quixote, Gulliver or Candide—several stories published in 1954, first collected edition 1959, final augmented edition 1966). This is undoubtedly one of Lem’s masterpieces. The satirical and grotesque humor of these stories and their well-aimed allegorical shafts probably account for this being his most translated work.

5 Invasion from Aldebaran (Inwazja z Aldebarana, 1959). A collection of disparate stories written in the 1950’s, including some very good satires of the U.S. science-fiction story type, and the first stories of the “pilot Pirx” cycle.

6 The Investigation (Sledztwo, 1959). A borderline SF mystery: Scotland Yard investigates a number of cases that might have been resurrections from the dead; a number of hypotheses are presented without any clear final solution.

7 Eden (Edem, 1959). A short novel about a crew of explorers on an unknown planet ironically named Eden, and their difficulties in understanding biological and social relations among its strange intelligent species, which is devolving into a biosociological monstrosity.

8 Return from the Stars (Powrot s gwiazd, 1951). A time-contraction astronaut returns to a pseudo-utopian conflictless humanity and finds it degenerating into a hedonist anti-utopia.

9 Solaris (1961—see below).

10 Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Pamietnik znaleziony w wannie, 1961). A novel formally similar to the double horizon of London’s Iron Heel: in an utopian future, excavations in the Rockies find the memoirs in the ruins of an underground Fifth Pentagon. The whole “caves-of-steel universe” of the memoirs-writer, cut off from any empirical verification, is a giant espionage center, existing for the purpose of competition with an inimical “antiuniverse” whose existence is unprovable; the despairing narrator commits suicide.

The above four novels—echoed in Nos. 13 and 18 below—arc variations on an eighteenth century “conte philosophique” model of the Voltaire or Diderot type, satirically stood on its head and inflected toward black humor, much as in Swift. Lem is not so much concerned with “progress,” which is in all the novels assumed, as with the price of certain kinds of progress, and the impossibility of a “final solution” in his exemplarily open, unpredictable situations. He has impressive success in stylistically transmitting the opaqueness, created by “information noise,” through a rigorous but puzzling precision of details and structure. This allows him to rival the density of the best modem American SF and to renew the great SF tradition running from Swift through Wells to Stapledon and Capek by means of a new arsenal of devices based on cybernetics, information theory and modem philosophy of science.

11 The Book of Robots (Ksiega Robótów, 1961). More stories of Ion Tichy and Pirx, as well as The Lymphater Formula, a tale of an artificial microcosm.

12 Lunar Night (Noc Ksiezycowa, 1964). Stories, as well as four TV plays in the margin of the Tichy cycle, some of them performed in the theater too.

13 The Invincible (Niezwyciezony, 1964). A long story whose basic situation is similar to Eden’s, with the further black twist that the planet explored has had a cybernetic instead of a biological evolution.

14 Robotic Fables (Bajki Robotów, 1964). A humoristic retelling of folktales in cybernetic guise and for our times.

15 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1965). A series of grotesque stories featuring the rival robot constructors Trurl and Klapaucjusz.

16 The Hunt (Polowanie, 1965). Collection of stories, including some about Pirx.

17 Tales of Pilot Pirx (Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie, 1968). Collection of nine stories about an unheroic astronaut’s developing from a Heinleinian juvenile lead to a complex protagonist.

18 His Master’s Voice (Geos pana, 1969). Novel dealing with a giant project to decipher information from space, which results in partial decoding, with new problems following each success. As usual in Lem’s parables, there are several levels of meaning, reflecting satirically on social dilemmas of our own times.

About forty translations of these works are extant in the Soviet Union, Japan, both Germanies, Yugoslavia, France, Italy, and all eastern Europe, running (with the Polish originals) to more than 5 million copies—2.7 million in the U.S.S.R. alone. Except for one mangled story in an old anthology, Lem’s work has been presented to the English-language reader only in my anthology Other Worlds, Other Seas (New York: Random House, 1970), which contains two Ion Tichy stories, one Pirx story and one of the “robotic fables.”
What Are You, “Solaris”?
Lem’s novel Solaris has several levels. It is a puzzle, a parable about human relations and emotions, and a demonstration that anthropocentric criteria and “final solutions” of the religious kind are inapplicable in the modem world.
On the plot level, the novel is built as a detective puzzle, with a first-person narrator who is catapulted into an unknown major disturbance, and gradually pieces together the evidence about the strange phenomena on the planet Solaris. The planet is completely covered by an organic ocean; in Summa Technologiae Lem defined Reason or Intelligence as a “second-degree homeostatic regulator able to counteract the perturbations of its environment by action based on historically acquired knowledge,” and in that sense the Solaris Ocean is undoubtedly an intelligent entity. It finally reacts to the activity of a human research station by synthesizing for each scientist a living person, which it had in some uncomprehended way “read off’ his deepest memory encoded in the brain cerebrosides. Since that memory is, by Lem’s not wholly convincing hypothesis, a trauma of erotic guilt, each scientist is visited by the woman he has in some way lost or slighted. At least—since Lem is on purpose unclear on this point—that is the case with the protagonist Kelvin and his wife Rheya, who had died after being estranged from him. Much as with van Vogt’s Gosseyn, the resurrected “Doubles” (or Phantoms, as Lem calls them) are human, although the Ocean has constructed their albumens from neutrinos and not from atoms. The Phantoms evince some non-human traits, such as a compulsion to stay near the “source” person, and superhuman strength when impeded in that; yet they not only possess human emotions and sclf-consciousness, they also quickly become socialized in human company, growing increasingly independent of the Ocean. Kris Kelvin soon becomes emotionally attached to the “phantom” Rheya as strongly as he was to his wife—though in a subtly different way.
Such a biopsychological puzzle is characteristic of a whole group of American SF tales, for example Blish’s story A Case of Conscience. Lem uses this convention in a masterly way, applying its cognitive bias to the most intimate and painful personal relationships rather than to exotic xenobiological oddities. This endows his novel with its particular warmth and immediacy of reference. However, he uses the convention also as a means to a richer, multi-level novel. The detection-mystery model suggests and connects with one of Lem’s basic themes—the erroneousness of pretending to a final solution or total knowledge of any complex situation. Man always projects his mental models upon the foreign universe: on Solaris, the universe obligingly materializes one projection. Thus, the stars are for Lem in a way what Utopia was for More or Brobdingnag for Swift: a parabolic mirror for ourselves, a roundabout way to understand our world, species and times. The Ocean—the basic device of this novel—is a magician more potent than the sorcerers of Glubbdubbdrib, who materialized the past for Gulliver in order to teach him the true history of mankind. Lem’s Ocean materializes, in a very Swiftian way, the central moral trauma of each man. It shows thus to Kelvin a country stranger than Solaris or Laputa: the back of his own mind. There be tygers in that country: “we can observe, through a microscope as it were, our own monstrous ugliness, our folly, our shame!” proclaims one of Kelvin’s fellow-sufferers. On the other hand, that is also the country of lambs, indeed, of resurrection of slaughtered lambs: the age-old dream of a second chance for our mismanaged personal encounters in the role of slaughterer or slaughtered can also materialize on Solaris. All depends on the particular personality: Gibarian commits suicide, Sartorius goes into seclusion, Snow is more than half paralyzed, but the narrator-protagonist Kelvin wins through to a painfully gained, provisional and relative new faith in an “imperfect god.” The science of solaristics as a search for the Grail of the “Holy Contact” between cosmic civilizations has been a tragicomedy of errors, yet the true Holy Contact between bloody but unbowed personalities such as Kelvin’s and Rheya’s is still possible. The novel’s parable level implies that such resurrection and contact is a materialist rather than a spiritualist mystery, a matter of history and earthly people rather than of abstraction and heavenly stars. It draws its potency from some of the deepest life-affirming heresies about human relations in European history, from the tradition flowing through Gnostics and Joachimites to the warm utopian socialism of Fourier and Marx.
Most noteworthy, perhaps, this is a parable without reference to any known system (for example, the Polish cultural environment, the Bible or the sacred books of Stalin). The truth it teaches through its fable is an open and dynamic truth. 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. Now twentieth century sciences are polyvalent, and can be used for widely differing purposes. The only sure thing about their methodology is that they lead into vast unfathomed areas of new findings, techniques and orientations—to new cognition, which gives mankind new sets of contingencies to choose from. Modern sciences are open-ended, and anticipation in our age will be the more significant the more clearly it rejects both the classical utopia of the Plato-More type and the whilom fashionable dystopia of the Huxley-Orwell type. Both of them are static and closed; neither does justice to the immense possibilities of modem science fiction in an age polarized between the law of large numbers and ethnical choice. Of course, science fiction has adopted a vaguely materialist philosophy of history ever since Wells; but without dialectics, this can easily lead back to the old antinomy of facile optimism or cynical despair. Therefore, the pet horror of the dialectical artist Lem is eschatology—a claim to final static perfection, be it religious in the Christian sense or a lay myth in the liberal or pseudo-Marxist way. Reliance on familiar imaginative frameworks is erroneous in radically new situations; even a whole new science such as solaristics—whose description, with all its twists and turns and a complete history of saints, heretics and buffoons, makes for some of the most brilliant pages of modem SF—can become simply a sublimation of mystic nostalgias for a final Revelation, “a liturgy using the language of methodology.”
An important motif within Lem’s refusal of final solutions is the stripping of man’s illusions about human and cosmic reality. This is what makes self-knowledge so imperative; refashioning the tradition of ‘‘educational novels” dear to Rationalism, Lem’s major novels feature a single or group protagonist learning painfully the truth about himself, his limitations and central strengths, by way of investigating a new SF situation. The puzzle-plot and the parable from both flow organically out of this central concern for a Copernican or Brunoan dethroning of anthropocentric theory. Man is not the measure of all things except for other people, and his mental models cannot be usefully projected onto the universe. It is especially pitiful, Lem notes, to limit the possibilities of new worlds to the anthropomorphic role of our rulers or our subjects—a swipe at western SF projecting the Cold War into cosmic warps.
One might call this enmity of Lem’s to the two-valued either-or logic and to the closed horizons of history anti-Aristotelian (in a sense much wider than van Vogt’s “Null-A” approach, which quickly bogs down into plot gimmicks). However, as Lem once remarked, if history has no beginning, middle or end, a play or novel certainly has. But the end or upshot of a novel that is to be adequate to the open-ended cognition, demanded by modem natural and anthropological sciences, will also have to be open. Therefore, neither a liberal-technocratic faith in automatic progress nor a decadent love of easeful death prevails at the end of Solaris. In the final chapter, the protagonist, who came from Earth with his notebook, his apartment key and his certainties, has once and for all times been shown how useful they all are. The eschatological illusions have been shattered, man can rely only on himself and the dialectics of reality: “I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody . . . And this future Kelvin will be no less worthy a man than the Kelvin of the past; who has prepared for anything in the name of an ambitious enterprise called the Contact. Nor will any man have the right to judge me.”
This renunciation can be sociologically traced to the bitter experiences of Central European intellectuals in this century. For Lem comes from the region, coextensive with the old Habsburg empire, which has in our century bred so many great writers attuned to the indifferent march of history: Musil and Svevo, Krleža and Andric, Hoffmansthal and Kafka, Hasek and Capek come immediately to mind. The baroque tradition of this environment is unmistakably present in Lem’s imagination. Yet this has also been the region of great hopes, exploding after both World Wars. Lem’s unique place in SF is due to his personal genius in fusing the bright hope with the bitter experience, the vision of an open road into the future with the vision of sure dangers and possible defeats inseparable from the risk of openness. This angle of “double vision” subverts both the “comic inferno” approach of most American SF and the deterministic utopianism of most Soviet SF, using the strengths of both; it juxtaposes the black flickerings of the first with the bright horizons of the latter, so that each color shows the other up, Lem’s dialectics envision in each endeavor first of all its internal contradictions: he is a writer in the great tradition of wit, which is shifting between different cognitive levels. No wonder his favorite book is Don Quixote, and the epoch that haunts him is the seventeenth-eighteenth century. If Kelvin is at the end of the novel a wiser and a sadder man, sadness has been a high but perhaps not unfair price to pay for the wisdom gained. It is expressed in theological terms by the final parable of “the imperfect god . . . whose ambitions exceed his powers.” We may disagree with Lem philosophically, but we have seen too many alluring gods of history turn into all-devouring monsters because of their pretended infallibility to shrug off his insight. National and religious ideologies of all kinds are still too much with us for that. The brightest hopes of humanity, we know, are liable to degenerate into justifications for the Inquisition, the Stalinist purges or the My Lai massacres.
The imperfect, despairing, but also evolving god is a concept close to the “Star Maker” of Stapledon, one of the rare SF writers Lem admires and is comparable to in scope. This cosmological insight, correlative to the earlier quoted ethical declaration of independence, is what Lem’s protagonist Kelvin has provisionally learned from the planet Solaris. We, the readers, may learn more from the novel Solaris: we may learn how cognition can become parable—and wisdom, aesthetic pleasure. We might have begun to doubt whether science fiction can be equal to our often depressing but also exciting times. Lem’s work is a persuasive testimony that such doubts can be laid to rest. For Solaris—puzzle, parable and cognition of freedom—is neither a warning nor a solution. It is an example of what science fiction can do: show us our age as “the time of cruel miracles,” and the time of keeping the faith.

1 Since Lem is too busy to answer biobibliographical questions, my information had to be obtained from his agent Mr. Franz Rottensteiner and a variety of minor secondary sources of unknown accuracy, indeed intermittently contradictory. The biographical data are thus in a few places tentative. The bibliography should be fairly accurate, since Mr. Rottensteiner’s data (very helpful in this endeavor) have been independently checked by myself.

Published as afterword to Stanisław Lem, Solaris; New York: Berkley Medallion, 1971; pp. 212–23

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