The science-fiction writer and futurist Stanisław Lem was well acquainted with the way that fictional worlds can sometimes encroach upon reality. In his autobiographical essay “Chance and Order,” which appeared in The New Yorker, in 1984, Lem recalls how as an only child growing up in Lvov, Poland, he amused himself by creating passports, certificates, permits, government memos, and identification papers. Equipped with these eccentric toys, he would then privately access fictional places “not to be found on any map.” Some years later, when his family was fleeing the Nazis, Lem notes that they escaped certain death with the help of false papers. It was as if the child’s innocent game had prophesied a horrific turn in history, and Lem wonders if he’d sensed some calamity looming on the horizon—if his game had sprung “perhaps from some unconscious feeling of danger.”
The idea of a private world spilling over unsettlingly into reality is also at the heart of his novel “Solaris,” from 1961, about a sentient ocean with the power of “seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life,” as the Lem fan Salman Rushdie once described it. The massive popularity of “Solaris”—made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, in 1972, and then again in 2002, by Steven Soderbergh, as a moody near-future love story with George Clooney—helped Lem become one of the most widely read science fiction writers in the world. Yet his writing reached far beyond the borders of the genre. In addition to many novels and stories, he composed a huge philosophical treatise on the relation of human beings and machines, a good deal of pungently argued literary criticism, a volume of reviews of nonexistent books, a stochastic theory of narrative fiction, an experimental detective novel, speculative essays dealing with artificial intelligence, cybernetics, cosmology, genetic engineering, game theory, sociology, and evolution, radio plays and screenplays. Such staggering polymathic curiosity over such a vast range of material, all of it explored with lucidity and charm, gives his writing a unique place on a Venn diagram in which the natural sciences, philosophy, and literature shade into one another with mutually intensifying vividness and fascination.
Lem also became known for a certain kind of techno fairy tale, some of which were collected in 1964 as “Fables for Robots.” The stories are far from the robot pulp made famous by Isaac Asimov and are almost disturbing in their bristling plenitude: wind-up princesses with crystal minds, planet-size computers battling antimatter dragons, energy castles built in the interiors of glass moons, thinking mountains, clockwork clouds. Although the tales have the compact dimensions of fable, they often unfold with cosmological timescales (“the apprentice waited a thousand years, then another thousand, but the engineer did not return”), or their facets ramify with the logic of a Rube Goldberg contraption. I remember reading these stories in an English edition that I happened upon in my high-school library and feeling (to borrow a line from Emily Dickinson) as though the top of my head had been taken off.
The other “fables” seem to be cautionary satires about the psychic rot that breeds within totalitarian regimes. “Uranium Earpieces” imagines a greedy and suspicious king who lives in platinum palace and requires that his subjects wear earpieces made of an electromagnetic uranium to prevent them from congregating. (The proximity of the earpieces creates a chain reaction leading to an explosion.) Another, “Trurl’s Machine,” tells of an eight-story-tall computer which insists that two plus two equals seven. When the inventor, Trurl, tries to coax it into giving the correct answer, the huge machine rears up and physically threatens him, stubbornly adhering to its answer. (Trurl is on the verge of acceding to a revision of mathematical truth when the machine breaks down.) Another tells of a ruler with a vast cybernetic military who laments the absence of enemies on which to use it, and so builds an equally vast cybernetic enemy against which to fight. (His subjects, at least those who survive, complain that these synthetic wars are an unnecessary extravagance.) Lem’s novel, “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub,” is an acid sendup of bureaucracy at its most insane and dehumanizing, as its bewildered memoirist navigates through a Department of Verification, Department of Misinformation, Department of Instructions, Department of Codes, eventually coming up against more sinister sounding subdivisions, like the Department of N.
Lem’s incorrigibly curious mind was naturally drawn to philosophy and he wrote a massive work of speculative futurology, “Summa Technologiae,” from 1964. The title is already a clue to the book’s ambition. Where Thomas Aquinas, in his thirteenth century “Summa Theologica,” wished to systematize all of Christian doctrine, Lem wrote a secular organon of human civilization’s entanglement with machines. At the center of the book is the (at the time new) discipline of cybernetics. Systems of energy expenditure—like steam engines or people or fish or information itself—Lem called “islets of decreasing entropy,” and, in the course of unfurling his explication of such systems, Lem rehearsed strikingly prescient versions of ideas that were at the time exotic at best. What he calls “phantomatics” we would now instantly recognize as virtual reality; “ariadnology” seems pretty close to a Google search engine (tracking Ariadne’s thread of some sought-after piece of data through tangled labyrinths of information). There is also a penetrating and original discussion of Alan Turing’s imitation game as imagined in his epochal 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Turing, the British logician who accidentally invented computer science in his effort to tackle the problem of completeness in mathematics (and also helped crack the German Enigma cipher, leading to Allied victory in the Second World War), imagined a criterion for determining if a computer can be called intelligent. If an interrogator can’t tell the difference between a human respondent and a machine, the machine must be counted as thinking (now commonly known as the Turing Test). When confronted with all of the branching possibilities of how a conversation might unfold during such a test, Lem, in his “Summa,” imagined a “Cosmic Gramophone,” which would “record not only particular answers to possible questions but also whole sequences of conversations that can potentially take place [and thus] requires memory . . . which probably cannot be contained in the solar system.” And the historical counterfactual—the eternal friend of the science-fiction writer—comes up in the “Summa” in typically playful scenarios, as when Lem wonders how human history might have unfolded had there been typewriters in the Mesozoic era.
The scrupulous review of a nonexistent book—a genre more or less invented by Jorge Luis Borges—was utterly suited to Lem’s ludic sensibility, and he took the form to exhilarating extremes. Among the books under discussion in his collection “A Perfect Vacuum,” from 1971, is a modernist novel of Joycean ambition based not on “The Odyssey” but on “Gilgamesh,” called “Gigamesh,” which expounds upon the significance of the missing letter “L,” complete with a commentary by the (fictional) author more than twice as long as the novel. Another—“Gruppenführer Louis XVI”—is about a Nazi officer who defects to Argentina after the war with a trunk full of cash, heads to the countryside where he enslaves the natives, and commands them to build a meticulous re-creation of the world of Louis the XVI. Anyone who so much as intimates that the surrounding castle and court life are not absolutely real is tortured and shot. (This piece makes one wonder if Lem might have been the source for Roberto Bolaño’s own compendium of reviews of nonexistent books, “Nazi Literature in the Americas.”) Another is a pitch-perfect sendup of the nouveau roman and the breathless structuralist theorizing that went with it; another invents an Italian pastiche of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” then faults it for an insouciant lack of reverence for the original. Taking the premise to its vertiginous reductio, the introduction to “A Perfect Vacuum” is a review of “A Perfect Vacuum” by a certain “S. Lem.” These delightful pieces end up transcending their constraints and become tales of pure information, occupying the rarified upper air where we also find Borges’s “Pierre Menard” and Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”
Lem wrote lots of actual reviews, too, many of them about American science fiction, which he mostly did not like. In one piece, he notes that “the scientific ignorance of most American science-fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.” Another compares H. G. Wells to someone who has invented chess, then accuses Wells’s American successors of merely “applying the rules only with smaller or larger variations.” Such judgments did not go over well with many in the American S.F. community, and in 1976 the Science Fiction Writers of America revoked Lem’s honorary membership. (Amid the kerfuffle that followed Lem’s excommunication, a rumor arose that he had to denigrate “Western” science fiction to appease Polish authorities.) Still, he had unreserved admiration for Philip K. Dick—whom he called a “visionary among charlatans”—and was attentive to non-S.F. American fiction. He read and admired Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” thought its ruminations about life on Earth in the wake of the 1969 moon landing profound, yet nevertheless took Bellow to task for the inaccuracy (when Mr. Sammler is remembering his own childhood as a Jew in Poland) of giving a maid a name that could not have been Polish. In other pieces, we get a sense of Lem’s views on literary taxonomy, as when he claims that a reader interested in crime should read Dostoyevsky but not Agatha Christie. Still, Lem admitted to a weakness for detective stories and wrote one himself, “The Chain of Chance,” a novel as much about probability and chaos theory as it is a whodunit.
The question of what sort of Lem we get in translation is an often tangled one. For many years, “Solaris” existed in English only through a French translation of the Polish. The “Summa Technologiae” was made available in English in 2014, in a, as far as I can tell, lucid translation by Joanna Zylinska. John Updike, a regular reviewer and admirer of Lem’s work, liked Michael Kandel’s English translation of Lem’s stories enough to call them “marvellous” (though one wonders how much Polish Updike knew). And Lem himself was known to break with various of his translators, apparently unsatisfied with how the many Russian and German and French and English editions of his books turned out (all languages he read). Still, one can get pleasure from reading him in much the same way one enjoys the cognitive frisson of a thought experiment. Like Einstein’s theory of relativity asking us to imagine a set of twins, one of whom remains on Earth while the other approaches the speed of light such that the Earth twin ages faster—the premise, incidentally, of Lem’s novel “Return From The Stars”—Lem can be read profitably at the level of ideas alone. If Updike calls Lem of a poet of “scientific terminology” and says his books are thrilling “especially for those whose hearts beat faster when the Scientific American arrives each month,” it is that synthesis of style and fact that has allowed Lem to have survived translation at least enough to have become one of the most widely read science-fiction writers of all time.
In an essay on Borges, Lem said he loved the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” because it had a “perverse, but logically perfect structure.” The same could be said for much of Lem’s best writing. Perverse invention and rational coherence lock into each other at weird, compelling angles in his work. And it’s no wonder he liked “Tlön,” a story about an entirely fictional planet which slowly usurps the actual history of the Earth. It’s a version of how Lem’s fabricated government documents ended up, according to some occult mechanism of the imagination, seeing a little way into the future. They seem also to have been Lem’s passport into a life of writing, in which he set out not so much to transmit knowledge or expound a philosophy as to amaze.