Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Stuff Like This Always Happens To Me

Just as I was beginning to hunt down and enjoy his work, namely The Invincible and The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem has up and died at the frankly decent age of 84. Having read only two of his books, I am already of the mind that he is (well, was) one of the finest science fiction authors the world will ever see. Certainly such populist luminaries as Philip K. Dick and, I don't know, Harlan Ellison, while fine speculative authors in their own right, have a difficult time maintaining their excellence when compared directly with The Mighty Lem, but I mostly admire Lem for being probably the first antihumanist sci-fi author.

Science fiction by definition mostly concerns itself with the accomplishments of humankind, be they unique achievements with no real purpose, or spectacular victories in the face of extrasolar adversity. Lem's genius is that he was one of the few writers ever to realise that, in the scheme of an infinite cosmos, human ingenuity and human preconception are matters of enormous irrelevance. Lem’s human space adventurers don’t simply struggle for a few weeks or months or years to understand an alien artifact, or mysterious BDO, or communicate with a species from another corner of the universe, before finally there’s a breakthrough and some great realization is realized – Lem’s adventurers forever labour in darkness because the aliens they encounter are just so fucking alien, so completely beyond even a fraction of our understanding. The scientists of Lem’s stories are as petty and self-absorbed as the scientists of today, his politicians are just as useless, his civilians just as stupid. His imagination (not just his capacity for manufacturing novelty, or taking modern technology and upgrading/miniaturizing/implanting it) far surpasses that of most any other writer of speculative fiction, and his prose is of the highest order. At least, it seems to be, as I am reading English translations of Polish/German books. His humour is cynical and warm (yes, it is possible), and though his pages can be dense and a little tough to chew at times, the mental protein acquired from them is enough to nourish the spirit indefinitely, with equal nourishment acquired at every rereading.

Anyway, I’m not about to write a dissertation on the themes I have been able to detect in only two of Lem’s works, likely poorly-translated ones at that. His stuff is extremely difficult to find secondhand and the new editions are ridiculously expensive. And now what’s going to happen is, just as I had found a new author from whom I could glean genuine enjoyment, the public is going to start murmuring. Death always means that your name is going to appear somewhere, and suddenly whole armies of fuckwits who never read a sci-fi book outside of Hitchhiker’s Guide or whatever piece-of-shit William Gibson deposit is winning awards this year are going to hear about Lem, are going to demand Lem, and all his books will be released in fresh translations for the mass consumption of the great unwashed. The thrill I get from chasing down his books will be gone, and my status as an elite connoisseur of fine speculative literature – stuff you just wouldn’t get – will suffer severe damage.

Some good Lem quotes here.

From the Metafilter post (my first notification of the event).

UPDATE: It isn't all bad news though - apparently Robert Jordan is dying. Prick that he is, he insists on living longer than the predicted four years, because he has more books to write. His revolting Wheel Of Time series - wholly and solely responsible for the widespread depreciation in quality and snobbish denigration of fantasy writing - is already 9743 pages in length, which, spread over twelve books (including the recently-released "prequel", New Spring), is eight books and thirteen forests longer than it needs or deserves to be. But he wants to live another thirty years. At an average rate of one book every three years, that's ten more books, and probably 10,000 more pages. No matter when he dies, Robert Jordan will have killed more rainforest than McDonald's. What. An. Asshole.


At 11:45 PM, Blogger TimT said...

You should read Stapledon. He's like Lem, only more Englisher. (I use English-talk good, yes? This wonderful language is!)

Ahem. Anyway, I've wanted to read some Lem, ever since I saw Tarkovsky's brilliant Solaris.

At 4:25 AM, Blogger Martha said...

I have managed to miss Lem in my science fiction reading. But now I will have to join the masses who are going to make him popular, dammit. My husband has a few battered old copies of some of his work-- can I still be cool?

Also, I am so with you on Robert Jordan-- my brother was reading those for a while, and oh my god, how can you write such crap for what-- 10 huge books? 12? Aaaagh!

At 4:48 AM, Anonymous Ella said...

I once moved into an apartment that had a carton of Robert Jordan books in one closet. At first I thought, "How sad, someone's favorite books got left behind" and then I read 1 or 2 and realized that it was probably more like someone had made a lucky escape from the books.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Tim: I've read me some Olaf. He's pretty good but he waffles on a bit. Star Maker is certainly a work of genius, but it hasn't aged very well.

According to Lem, neither of the Solaris movies has the slightest thing to do with his book. I can't judge because I've not read the book and have seen only fragments of the latter film.

Marta: I think you can get away with it because they're secondhand copies, obviously well-read. If anybody asks, you can tell them that "After I heard the terrible news, I wanted to pay my respects." Then they'll says "Respects? I mean, what are you doing?" and you'll say "Reading a book" and they'll just stare at you, and something will slowly slide out one of their nostrils.

Ella: A lucky escape indeed. I think Jordan books are a lot like that videotape in The Ring - you can't ever destroy them, and if you want to rid yourself of them, you have to give them a whole house.

At 7:28 AM, Blogger tom l said...

I'm glad to see somebody who got the main point of Lem's work. Contrasted with 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', Lem understood that we have as much possibility of communicating with extraterrestial beings as we do with the other animals we've shared the same planet with for millennia. It seems obvious, but almost no other science fiction writer explored these issues. The Solaris movies both miss the point, by focusing on the humans in the story, whereas the story is really about the planet, as feebly reflected through the humanss limited perceptions.

There is more to Lem than this. He was wonderfully playful and creative, very much like a Borges of the Iron Curtain. For example, he wrote books of reviews of imaginary books, and many of his stories of Ijon Tichy, astronaut deluxe, are quite funny.


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