5 January 2022
Stanisław Lem’s Fables for Robots sowed division with my classmates at school. I was captivated by it, and it was the first time I realized that I love a specific literary genre: science fiction.
I was genuinely surprised that not everyone felt the same, and not just because it was a set text. Worse still, I was in the minority!
Although it was written for children, many students have difficulties with reading it. It is also something of a conundrum for literary scholars, because it doesn’t follow the standard format of “protagonist, antagonist, who, why, how”. This also applies to Lem’s other works: his protagonists are avatars of his ideas. In any case, Lem frequently puts machines rather than humans at the forefront of his prose. In Fables for Robots, people are almost semi-mythical beings barely worthy of consideration.
Today’s science fiction is rather different. I don’t mean the kind of popular novels dressed up in elements of SF but those which treat the science element seriously. They focus more on the human, cultural and social elements; on how people and machines interact, with a clear focus on the former. Lem’s epic descriptions of space technologies now resound with echoes of charming retro-futurism, which simply doesn’t stand up today. Detailed descriptions of spaceship drives and computers/electronic brains have largely fallen into oblivion a few decades ago, for three main reasons. First, we now accept technology and ongoing progress as something natural and obvious; something that just happens and there’s no need to preoccupy ourselves with how it actually works. Second, today’s technology is so complicated and specialised that it would be virtually impossible to explain its complexities to non-experts. Finally, rapid progress means that detailed descriptions become dated almost immediately.
Interestingly enough, Lem’s Return from the Stars, penned half a century ago, is an accurate prediction of social changes in developed countries. I think this is because this time Lem doesn’t focus on the ins-and-outs of technology; instead it’s shown from the perspective of the protagonist, who doesn’t understand it and can only passively observe it in action.
The start of Lem’s career coincided with a period of radical censorship in Poland. This meant authors were forced to bow down to the expectations of communist authorities, or simply quit writing altogether. This provided a fertile ground for the development of the thriving genre of social science fiction. It served as a kind of encoded message for readers who were “in the know”, and some of this message may be lost today. Lem was always more interested in technology, and he pushed the human element into the background. It’s unclear whether he really outsmarted censors better than other authors, or whether his thoughts ran so far into the future he wasn’t too concerned with the latest political situation. However, it also means that an in-depth grasp of the political realities of Poland under communism isn’t necessary to understand his writing.
Lem wasn’t especially sympathetic towards his protagonists. He was interested in scientists and cosmonauts, with the job counting more than the personality. This could also be said for his plots: even the most dramatic twists and turns served to present Lem’s vision. Many of his novels and stories, especially his earlier ones, are filled with humour he used to critique humankind with all its stereotypes and social norms. His later works carry a note of pessimism. In fact, by 1989 he decided that he no longer wanted to waste his time dressing up his thoughts and ideas in plots, or adorning his writing with protagonists and spinning intrigue, and gave up on fiction altogether.
It would be difficult to recommend Lem to a novice reader, since his writing has a rather high accessibility threshold. His complex phraseology, multilayer sentences and myriad neologisms don’t make the task any less daunting. Lem foresaw a future shared between humankind and machines, perhaps even shaped by the latter. The absence of emotions and interpersonal relationships make his books very difficult for some readers. On the flip side, this is exactly what attracts others to Lem’s prose, myself included.
If we were to apply the concept of “Lem’s razor”, a large part of fantasy literature would likely need to be moved to a different shelf. The principle states that if all fantasy elements can be removed from the work without having an impact on the story, the work cannot be truly classed as fantasy. Lem’s own fiction – perhaps with a few exceptions – certainly couldn’t exist without the fantasy elements, because it would simply make no sense.
If you’ve never read Lem but want to give him a go, I’d suggest starting with novels featuring one of his favourite motifs: contact with extraterrestrial life. The allegories can easily be interpreted as musings on the human condition.
In Eden, the protagonists shipwrecked on an alien planet struggle to make sense of the new world around them, although they are able to reach a level of communication with the local sentient species. In later years Lem became far more sceptical about the idea. Solaris, perhaps his greatest work, chronicles the ultimate futility in attempting to communicate with an alien megaorganism covering the entire planet. The protagonists gradually turn from studying their environment to becoming the subject of study, and perhaps they simply aren’t smart enough for things to turn out any other way. The Invincible paints an ever bleaker picture: the single aim of the quasi-alive swarm of autonomous, self-replicating machines is to destroy all other matter. There is no question of reaching any kind of agreement. The title of Lem’s last novel, Fiasco, is something of a spoiler of the ending. When an exploratory mission attempting to make first contact with alien life on a distant planet, they reach for the universal language of violence. But even this cannot overcome the barrier. The novel’s message makes clear what Lem thought of the human condition: Homo sapiens is a primitive species with access to powerful technology, and our own stupidity and limitations mean that we could use it to destroy others and even ourselves.
So who would Lem’s writings appeal to today? Anyone interested in the future of our civilisation, especially in the perspective of the coming decades and centuries. These motifs have always been and will always remain current and relevant. (Rafał Kosik)
Rafał Kosik – Polish author and screenwriter. His writings combine science fiction with elements of horror and thriller. Author of the popular young adult novel cycle Felix, Net and Nika.
The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.
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