Stanislaw Lem made me fall in love.
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. . .