The Literary Legacy of Stanislaw Lem: Beyond “Psychemization”

Stanislaw Lem, 1921–2006

Science fiction, as William Burroughs once remarked, is our “literature of ideas.” While Burroughs almost certainly meant transformative ideas, to the serious public this has too often been the genre for ideas of a different kind: escapist, overly sentimental, what have you. I can only argue against these criticisms so much, and I can certainly understand why my alma mater decided to offer writing workshops in a genre known as speculative rather than science fiction: it’s a semantic twist which has gone some ways towards separating works of philosophical and aesthetic challenge from giddy adventure stories, but hasn’t totally obliterated public preconceptions that the two tendencies are one and the same. There are plenty of “go-to” authors that can be recommended if you want to illustrate the “speculative” / “sci-fi” split to a curious friend, among them Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Leguin and J.G. Ballard, but more and more I find myself reaching for the work of Stanislav Lem (1921–2006) for themes that are relevant to the anxieties of the here and now.

In order to stave off accusations of being a simple contrarian, though, I have to mention that Lem is perhaps the most widely read science fiction author not from an English-speaking country. Before his translator Michael Kandel began to act as his main emissary to the West, Lem’s available English-language work was limited to books that were already being translated from languages other than the author’s native Polish, making readers justifiably skeptical as to how much original insight was getting eroded away with successive translations. Even now, I’d contend that Lem’s name in the U.S. is mostly spoken within film circles, since he did of course write the book that would inspire Tarkovsky’s masterful 1972 work Solaris (and a later remake that I doubt I’ll ever need to see). While this obscurity partially owes itself to the trans-cultural misunderstandings mentioned above, it can also be attributed to Lem’s own indifference to mass acceptance (if not an outright allergy to it). Indeed, a favorite motto of the author’s was the Latin sobriquet mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur (“the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived”), a statement worthy of Schopenhauer and one which showed the author’s awareness of his limitations when it came to the matter of changing and / or saving the world.

Lem’s skeptical and pessimistic bent is unusual among “sci-fi” authors even today, and this necessitates a little bit of qualification about his own role within the cultural world: Lem was as much a philosopher as he was a novelist (a fact that was first made clear with the publication of the non-fiction “technology assessment” book Summa Technologiae in 1964, and now available in English on its fiftieth anniversary.) His nurturing of a symbiotic relationship between these two activities guaranteed his uniqueness in a world where serious thinkers are “supposed” to critique fictional works rather than to create them outright, and where serious novelists are expected to limited their cultural critiques to allegorical or “what if” scenarios. Lem’s turn-of-the-century “Challenging New World” column for the heady journal Dialogue and Universalism, later collected in a Polish title called Okamgnienie [“Blink of an Eye”], is an excellent introduction to his proficiency as a universal thinker: here his discourses on life extension, artificial intelligence, neurobiology and cosmology stand up against some of the most thoughtful essays of their time, and manage to say more in less space (and with less resort to cute buzzwords or neologisms) than the bulk of his contemporaries in Continental philosophy. Though even a decent synopsis is beyond the scope of a short column like this one, there is a simple recurring theme in these writings: humans believe that they know more than they really do, and make the fatal mistake of projecting this incomplete knowledge of consciousness onto their built automatons and extraterrestrial explorations, ensuring nothing more than an infiltration of ignorance into new territories. In short, the technological approach to problem solving is inherently flawed, or at the very least has never figured a way to solve major crises without symmetrically introducing new ones.

More unique than the “Challenging New World” columns, though, is the volume A Perfect Vacuum: an unabashed personal favorite of mine that uses reviews of non-existent books, thus allowing Lem to make deep ontological inquiries without having to drop the mantle of “speculative fiction writer.” This book-length exercise, rightfully compared to Borges’ similarly-minded works, is a fascinating experiment in creative process: it reveals how thoughts flow when those thoughts are projected onto someone else, and how this form of distancing frees one up to more conclusively weigh the good and bad of any appealing new brainstorm. A Perfect Vacuum is also a fine introduction to Lem’s barbed sense of humor: it is an occasionally hilarious poke at what I would call “novelty anxiety”; committing creative acts for the sole apparent purpose of doing something that hasn’t yet been done. To this end Lem “reviews”, among other things, a novel in which the reader is personally addressed and mercilessly harangued on every page, a novel in which every action mentioned is in the negative (e.g. “the train did not arrive…he did not come”), a postmodernist make-your-own-novel kit and much more. In the process he shows a keen awareness of society’s tendency towards over-specialization of intellectual roles, and finds a new way to merge the roles of philosopher and fiction writer without alienating the readership of either.

It is also interesting to note how, of all the best-selling authors of cutting-edge science or speculative fiction, Lem is the most convincing as an actual scientific thinker. We could contrast him with someone like, say, William Gibson, who is often celebrated as a prophet for his envisioning the extent to which networked communications would affect and define the 21st century. It it is easy to forget sometimes that Gibson has far more in the way of counterculture credentials than experience with actual scientific research (and at any rate Lem’s premonition of “ariadonology” was as accurate a prediction of 21st century “search engines” as was Gibson’s idea of cyberspace.) It also doesn’t take too much digging to realize exactly why Lem, despite his having the bona fides to write science fiction with a passably ‘scientific’ content, was not always on the greatest terms with the other representatives of that literary community. The Science Fiction Writers of America revoked Lem’s honorary membership in 1976 upon discovering that he had written a none-too-flattering article about the genre in a German newspaper. Later on, he would memorably claim that science fiction “comes from the whorehouse, but…wants to break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored,”[i] a scathing quote that only really scrapes the iceberg of his disdain for sci-fi’s mass-produced nature.

Lem’s training in the sciences notably began in the post-WWII period of Soviet occupation. As a junior research assistant with the Konservatorium Naukoznawcze [‘Circle for the Science of Science’], he was a first-hand witness to the dubious genetic theories of Lysenkoism and, seeing these ludicrous ideas as worthy of his scorn, had plenty of opportunities to run afoul of state censors. Lem’s first-hand experience with Lysenkoism, I’d imagine, incubated in him a distaste for scientific thinking hijacked for ideological ends. Though there is certainly more to the story than just this, I do feel that Lem’s writing provided some of the most devastating critiques of techno-scientific progress put to paper in the late 20th century (honorable mention to Ballard as always), and he makes his ‘futurology’ the heir to the thought of both Schopenhauer and Karl Popper: in other words, Lem’s stories and essays suggest that tragedy regularly accompanies perfectability, and that even meliorist solutions regularly come before questions are formulated (e.g. the famous example of the cosmic microwave background being discovered during the process of scraping pigeon droppings off an antenna at Bell Laboratories). Lem’s slogan “overtake and surpass nature / biological evolution” appears throughout his work, not immediately as a condemnation of such an aim, but as a thought experiment that forces readers to ask themselves why such an aim is really desirable at all.

Lem’s departure from triumphal anthropocentrism was one feature of his writing that truly allowed his imaginative juices to flow, particularly where “astrobiology” and the imagining of new life forms was concerned. His disappointment at the lack of imaginative diversity in the sci-fi of his age — i.e. its ability to proceed like “speciation…a new animal species generating a diverging, fanlike radiation of other new species”[ii] — neatly aligned with his skepticism over whether man could ever develop a laboratory-born sentient life that was self-perpetuating (and, again, he begged the question why this would even be necessary). Some of his most memorable creations — including the oceanic, planetary consciousness of Solaris — deviated from the stock sci-fi template of “humanoid” extraterrestrial intelligences. It is striking how, even today, that book’s titular entity differs so greatly in all respects — in sheer physical scale, in communicative behavior, etc. — from the types of beings that still populate fantastic fiction. Incidentally, it is within that same book that the protagonist Kelvin makes the realization that, even in the age of space exploration, “we are only seeking man. We have no need for other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us — but we can’t accept it for what it is.”[iii]

Kelvin’s memorable lines here also apply to one of Lem’s most prescient views of modern terrestrial life, i.e. the satire on neuropharmacology (and the utilitarian philosophy that precedes it) included in The Futurological Congress (1974.) Lem’s view of what he calls a “psychemized” New Society of 2039 here vastly expands on Huxley’s critique of the drug Soma in Brave New World: he creates an entire inventory of pacification drugs like “benignimizers,” but also drugs which can implant false memories of lived experience (“authentium”), and “psycholocalizer” drugs which then up the ante and dissolve the boundaries of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ experience by making users unable to discern between chemically altered and actually experienced realities. This pharmacopeia is brought into being by planners who found its mass deceit to be the only way of really dealing with a global population of 69 billion people: with “Mascon” drugs that fool users into perceiving miraculous reverses to the bleak ecological situation, real and enduring planetary solutions never have to be attempted. The seemingly intractable situation posed by this book makes us question — going back to Lem’s motto from above — what to do with a world that “wants to be deceived” in such a way. Finding a solution to this problem of willful ignorance — if one exists — would mean the creation of a finally workable utopia, and the eradication of countless problems branching off from this one tenacious root. And while Lem never explicitly promises that, he does seem to propose throughout his work that a greater acceptance of chaotic or chance operations — in effect accepting reality’s uncertainty as the true “ideal” — is a significant step towards a world less cruel and insane.

Philip K. Dick, an author who Lem once proclaimed as an exception to the “hopeless case” of science fiction, claimed that he chose that literary field as a calling partially because it abrogated the need for “happy endings” (a fact which Dick attributed to its being one of the only “fiction fields” not “dominated by women.”)[iv] This relief at not having to concoct a happy ending can be too easily misinterpreted as an enthusiasm for dystopia, but I feel the truth lies elsewhere: namely, that writing this kind of work provides one of the few socially acceptable outlets, at present, for being an honest diagnostician of the human condition. Dick’s concurrent realization — that sci-fi writers worked with the realization of having no financial reward — was at odds with Lem’s own low estimation of sci-fi culture as a pandering one. Yet that culture was just far enough removed from mainstream appeal to allow singular figures like Lem to infiltrate it and use it as a staging ground for a hybrid expressive form that defied easy categorization. This “diamond in the rough” aspect of the Lem story gives me hope that a modern culture drunk on technologial solutions can still produce its philosopher-fantasist-satirist hybrids — those rare birds who can both fascinate us with visions of a new world, and then just as easily make us question whether the new world is what we really want. Lem warned that we have begun to draft up the blueprint for the “posthuman” when he have hardly even found a working definition of what being “human” means, and for this reason alone his work is worth revisiting now.

author’s note: this piece previously appeared on my Typepad journal in 2016.

[i] Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds, p. 59. Mandarin, London, 1991.

[ii] Ibid., p. 17

[iii] Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, p. 72. Trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steven Cox. Walker, New York, 1961.

[iv] Philip K. Dick, The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, p. 63. Ed. Lawrence Sutin. Pantheon, New York, 1996.