Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Stanislaw Lem

Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Stanislaw Lem Hot

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engineer Alengineer Al   July 05, 2017  
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Stanislaw Lem made me fall in love.

 Listen:

When I was in college I took a course on Science Fiction.  It was a fun class with lots of great reading and it allowed me to buy piles of Science Fiction books with my “text book” money.  There was one author, however, that didn’t come with a book.  Instead we were handed some photocopied, stapled together pages in class as assigned reading.  Flipping through the pages I saw it was a collection of short stories with titles like “The Twenty First Voyage”, “The Fourteenth Voyage” and “The Eleventh Voyage”, though the voyages were strangely not in the correct order.  I dove right in as I always did (for this class) and was astounded by what I read. It was like nothing I had ever come across before.  Smart, challenging, Sci-Fi that was loaded with humor and astoundingly new ideas.  I noted the author’s name: Stanislaw Lem.

Over the next few years I looked for the name Stanislaw Lem in the many New and Used bookstores I frequented, but without any success.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember the days before the internet, but it was the mid 1980’s, and there was no easy way to find ANYTHING.  Of course, this wasn’t a frustration because we didn’t know any other way.  It was more like a hunt.  Same thing for back issues of comics. The eventual find was always exhilarating.  But I digress. . .

Years later I was in Grad School living in Boston and I came across an old copy of THE STAR DIARIES by Stanislaw Lem in a used book store.  Tremendously excited I brought the book home and forgetting about the piles of text books I was SUPPOSED to be reading, lost myself instead in the continuing escapades of Ijon Tichy, Lem’s time-traveling, galaxy-hopping, philosophizing rocket jockey of the future.  The stories were great and upon finishing them I held up the book enthusiastically to my girlfriend, knowingly advising “You have got to read these stories.”   Much to my surprise she replied, “Why don’t you read one to me.”  This sounded great to me, so we sat cuddled on my futon bed/couch (the only piece of furniture I owned other than a desk and a chair) and I started with the first story in the book titled “The Seventh Voyage”.

I am going to attempt to avoid giving too much away, but this story starts with our hero in a bit of a bind as he is traveling alone in space and suffers damage to his ship that can only be repaired by two men.  Fortunately for Ijon, and much to his surprise, his spaceship becomes caught in a time loop, and he begins running into future and past forms of himself.  Ijon finds getting along with himself to be somewhat more difficult than he initially surmised.  As the space craft begins to fill with Ijons they are forced to identify themselves by using the day of the week they are currently living in: “I’m the Friday me”, or “I’m the Tuesday me.”  Eventually, there is an altercation in which Ijon hits another version of himself with a wrench, and hoping to escape retribution runs away falsely claiming “I’M THE SUNDAY ME!”

Well, that line just broke her up!  She couldn’t stop laughing. And I fell in love.

It wasn’t just the infectious laugh that got me.  It was her obvious understanding of the many levels of humor contained in that one line.  It is a joke that registers on sociological and psychological levels as well as incorporating Science Fiction tropes.  Add political commentary to that mix and it pretty much sums up the best of Stanislaw Lem. 

Now Lem has many styles of writing and it is not always humorous.  He writes “straight” science fiction also, as well as essays, philosophy, “fake” book reviews and a number of other formats.  It is his humor, however, that I have always found most entertaining. I have read and reread THE STAR DIARIES, TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT, MORE TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT and THE CYBERIAD.  I had THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS sitting on my bookshelf for a long while until I found my (now) wife practically choking with laughter as she read it.  It is an astoundingly funny comment on government, science fiction and psychedelic drugs.

Lem’s life as a Polish Jew living through difficult times and changing leadership (including Hitler and Stalin) gives a distinct bite to his views on government and society.  His humor is raw and unabashed.  I have also been constantly impressed by the difficult task of translating his work to English from the original Polish.  His use of word play and puns makes this task particularly daunting, but it is always handled remarkably well, especially in those books that were translated by Michael Kandel.  Kandel is also an impressive author of his own work.  I very much enjoyed PANDA RAY, which is possibly the most unusual work of Science Fiction that I have ever read.  I recently added CAPTAIN JACK ZODIAC to my collection, but have yet to crack it open.

Despite my affection for his more humorous stories, Lem is perhaps better known for his more “serious” works, particularly the novel SOLARIS which has been translated to film numerous times. Solaris is an interesting take on one of Lem’s repeated themes; “When we finally encounter intelligent alien life, communication will be impossible.”  Personally, I found his later novel FIASCO to be a more enjoyable expression of this theme.  It does have long sections of discussion and dialogue, but I found even these “slow” parts to be intriguing and exciting just in terms of the ideas that are explored.  I am fond of the novels HIS MASTER’S VOICE and RETURN FROM THE STARS which are also representative of Lem’s more serious works. 

Still, I found THE STAR DIARIES to be the most enjoyable of his writings, and a great place to start if you are interested in exposing yourself to this tremendous and unusual author.  Just be careful who you share it with. . .

 

Posted: 05 Jul 2017 03:27 by LilRed #250855
LilRed's Avatar
Thank you for this article. I'm currently struggling through solaris. I,loved,the beginning but really feel the book gets bogged down towards the latter half.

If it wasn't for you I would give up on his book from here. But I will try out some of his more humerous books now for sure!
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 04:01 by Turek #250856
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Great article. Thanks from Poland!
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 09:36 by Bojack #250865
Thrun's Avatar
some great stuff here. I'm intrigued to read these but wish I had access to an English language library. Dont know why books are still so expensive, even Electronic ones cost the same as physical ones, outrageous! By now i thought we would have some kind of streaming/subscription based service where you could rent out a book to read for a small sum. Maybe it will happen one day.
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 09:51 by cranberries #250867
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Bojack wrote:
some great stuff here. I'm intrigued to read these but wish I had access to an English language library. Dont know why books are still so expensive, even Electronic ones cost the same as physical ones, outrageous! By now i thought we would have some kind of streaming/subscription based service where you could rent out a book to read for a small sum. Maybe it will happen one day.
Amazon has some sort of Prime/Kindle library with unlimited checkouts. United States libraries have something called Overdrive, if you have a friend with an account who will share. You can often search for "book title" and "full text" and find an Epub or PDF file. And there is always Project Gutenberg and its descendants.

Why don't you have access to an English library?
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 12:36 by JonJacob #250876
OldHippy's Avatar
Thanks for doing this. I've been trying to read more sci-fi lately... it's not usually my thing but my old man is a nut for the stuff and I've been trying to get into it a bit more lately. Someone bought me a copy of Solaris years ago and I enjoyed it but never looked further into his work. I'm just finishing up PKD's Valis trilogy (I think the third isn't really part of it but that's the way it was presented to me) and was going to read 'We' (Yevgeny Zamyatin) next, I'm really curious about that one. So I'm going to throw The Star Diaries, His Masters Voice and Return from the Stars on there too. Hopefully my local library has them... thanks again. Great write up.
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 17:19 by engineer Al #250901
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Thanks for reading Folks, and thanks for the kind comments. I enjoy writing these articles almost as much as I enjoy seeing what you all have to say. When I get around to writing about Manly Wade Wellman, and Gene Wolfe it will be because of recommendations I received in response to what I wrote.


LilRed wrote:
I'm currently struggling through solaris. I,loved,the beginning but really feel the book gets bogged down towards the latter half.
I agree.


JonJacob wrote:
. . . my old man is a nut for the stuff and I've been trying to get into it a bit more lately.

Cool! What does he like to read? Also, I love PKD, but VALIS is SOOO not where I would start, Thanks for teaching me about WE, seems to be a classic that I somehow knew nothing about.
Posted: 05 Jul 2017 17:23 by engineer Al #250903
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Bojack wrote:
I'm intrigued to read these but wish I had access to an English language library.

Lem's works have been translated into just about every language out there. Wherever you are, you should be able to find something. And just where the heck are you?
Posted: 06 Jul 2017 14:16 by JonJacob #250936
OldHippy's Avatar
engineer Al wrote:
JonJacob wrote:
. . . my old man is a nut for the stuff and I've been trying to get into it a bit more lately.

Cool! What does he like to read? Also, I love PKD, but VALIS is SOOO not where I would start, Thanks for teaching me about WE, seems to be a classic that I somehow knew nothing about.

Well the old man's the one who gave me the PKD stuff (5 books as presents in the last three years) and Solaris so those two for sure. As a kid I remember lots of Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Douglas Adams, Phillip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny... some others I can't recall at the moment. Some trashy and some literary, he had hundreds of the things hanging around. I still remember being a little kid and my father had me read him a chapter or two from Riverworld while we drove to Toronto together but then part way through the reading there were some explicit sexual bits and he snatched the book away from me... I thought for sure I'd read it in secret as soon as I got home but I was ten or so and I never bothered. I still haven't read a thing that guy wrote.

Valis isn't quite where I started with PKD... although I've only read a collection of shorts and two other novels (Man in the High Castle and Ubik) ... but I love Valis so far. I just started book two last week. I normally read religious stuff ... theology, mythology etc.. so it's right up my alley. Although more info on his life would be useful since it seems very personal.
Posted: 06 Jul 2017 19:03 by engineer Al #250944
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JonJacob wrote:
As a kid I remember lots of Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Douglas Adams, Phillip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny...

That's awesome. Those guys are a bunch of my favorites as well. Except for Farmer, he never really did it for me.


JonJacob wrote:
Valis isn't quite where I started with PKD... although I've only read a collection of shorts and two other novels (Man in the High Castle and Ubik) ... but I love Valis so far. I just started book two last week. I normally read religious stuff ... theology, mythology etc.. so it's right up my alley. Although more info on his life would be useful since it seems very personal.

Good, those two are some of my favorites of his and your choice of Valis makes a lot more sense now. What's going on with Valis is obviously subject to debate, but I do think it is personal and I think it is a doorway into the mind of a man who is going insane. HAVE FUN!
Posted: 06 Jul 2017 19:19 by Sagrilarus #250945
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Have you read Daemon Al? I'm getting it recommended to me by three different people.

I know I know, hasn't aged sufficiently yet. But I can get it from the library at no charge.
Posted: 06 Jul 2017 23:05 by engineer Al #250951
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Sagrilarus wrote:
Have you read Daemon Al?

Sorry SAG, but my tastes tend toward the older sci-fi for the most part. I've read SOME more contemporary stuff but not much and not that one.
Posted: 07 Jul 2017 11:04 by iguanaDitty #250969
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Thanks as always for the great article Al! I never really tried much Lem so it's good to know where to start. Look forward to your Manly Wade article :)
I've been reading more modern stuff lately and one you might enjoy is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its standalone sequel. Fun feel-good character focused space adventure. On the flip side of that is Blindsight, a complete mind-fuck with a ton of ideas and a neat take on an unreliable narrator.

Happy reading!

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