Monday, 10 October 2016

Stanislaw Lem: One British Writer's Response

NSFWG chairman Ian Watson on the Polish writer

The first science-fictional Lem I knew about was actually called Lemmy.  Lemmy  was the radio operator on board the rocketship Luna which went to our Moon in the popular BBC radio series Journey into Space, commencing in 1953, a big influence upon the 10-year-old schoolboy who I was at the time.  Journey into Space was the last radio drama in the UK to have ratings figures higher than television. 
            Lemmy was a nickname derived from Lemuel, Christian name of the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels.  Lemmy could be brave when the chips were down, but he was easily spooked when eerie alien music came over Luna's radio.  Scarily, UFOs render the Luna powerless on the Moon.  This certainly prepared me for when Stanislaw Lem's hubristically named Invincible meets its come-uppance on Regis III. 
            The next LEM which I encountered was the Lunar Excursion Module which took Armstrong and Aldrin down to the surface of the Moon in 1969.  I was teaching in Japan at the time, and while the landing was in progress on black and white television in my house I was also attempting to improve the English pronunciation of my Japanese professor's daughter and a friend, both about 12 years old, a surreal juxtaposition.
            The Eagle has landed
            "Say: London."
            "Rondon.  Rondon."
            "No, London"
            That's one small step for man
            —one giant leap for mankind.
            "Rondon.  Rondon.  Rondon."
            The word 'Lem' became closely associated in my brain with space travel.
            Lem's 1964 novel The Invincible appeared in English in 1973, the year of my own first SF novel, The Embedding, and I read the book quite soon after, a hardback borrowed from Oxford public library.  I had returned from Japan to Oxford where I had been a student and then a postgraduate student, so I knew how to go about getting a flat in the centre of the city, and Oxford was a nice place to live.  (Borrowing The Invincible from that library may be a false memory since amongst my books I just found the Penguin paperback edition of 1976, the spine cracked by being read and with an index card of notes in my handwriting tucked inside.)
            I wasn't sure what to make of The Invincible.  To tell the truth, I didn't exactly enjoy the book, but it did stick in my mind powerfully while memories of other novels faded away.  The Invincible seemed to be an anti-adventure compared with the American-style SF that was mainly to my taste at the time.   As with any glib generalisation, there are many exceptions to this, which I shall not explore here.  Suffice it to say that the younger me liked to read interstellar adventures—involving aliens, for instance.  And I still enjoy such stories, although by now I'm very sceptical about the likelihood of advanced alien life anywhere in our galaxy, let alone relatively—relativistically—nearby. 
            The masses of micromachines on Lem's world of Regis III did not exactly push my button of sense-of-wonder, though they damned well ought to have done, as I see in retrospect.  Evolution need not lead to individual intelligence, a very important insight arrived at by scientific logic; these days I am much more interested in such questions. 
            Solaris also passed me by somewhat, for similar reasons.  Too enigmatic, for my taste, as though the author was deliberately avoiding writing a 'proper' SF novel, or unable to. 
            I view my reaction now as akin to the irritation recently voiced through megaphones by the so-called 'Sad Puppies' and 'Rabid Puppies' in America who have wrecked the Hugo Awards by steam-rollering space adventures on to a ballot which they view to be increasingly unrepresentative of popular tastes and biassed towards towards lefty 'literature'.  (Though note that the Hugos are voted for by SF fans.)
            Compare and contrast the dismal 'Lem Affair' of 40 years ago—the expulsion of then honorary member Stanislaw Lem from Science Fiction Writers of America because he was critical of American-style SF.  Maybe the most bizarre aspect of this witchhunt was a psychotic letter from Philip K. Dick to the FBI warning them that Lem was probably the collective name for a committee of Polish communists intent on subverting the West by corrupting SF readers.    Since Lem uniquely praised Dick as a writer and even brought about the publication of Dick in Poland—leading to Dick complaining about not being paid properly—this fully vindicates the saying 'No good deed should go unpunished'.      I myself also had trapped Zlotys, which became devalued due to my not visiting Poland soon enough to spend them, so I assigned them to the excellent Dorota Malinowska to pay for alcohol at a party for Polish fans.  Cheers! 
            I never met Dick himself,  though I would have done so if I had gone to a notorious French SF convention held in Metz in 1977, but I didn't go there; probably just as well, since by then Dick was in his late period, of—shall we say?—mystical insights.  (However, one of Dick's epiphanies—namely that we live within a computer simulation—is nowadays accepted by several authentic physicists as at least plausible and, what's more, even testable.  This is a bit surprising.)  I treasured up many of Dick's 'classic' novels, anticipating rereading them with joy in my old age.  Unfortunately, a few years ago, I was invited as a panelist to a 'celebration' of Dick at a university, so I reread those same books— including Ubik, which Lem recommended for publication in Poland.  Oh dear me.  So badly written, most of them, so fundamentally idiotic.  Dick knew nothing and cared less about science, physics, planets, moons, what they are, where they are, why they are.  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch did stand up as a novel on rereading.  But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  A living animal is the most precious thing in the post-apocalyptic world; so, if you're fortunate enough and rich enough to own one, you keep it on the roof of your apartment block where radiation blows past like sleet?  Dick had no idea what radiation is; even aside from that, what a gigantic non sequitur!  Well, I said so at that university symposium, and this went down like a lead balloon.
            Perhaps it may seem that I am participating in this celebration of Lem in a similarly unenthusiastic way.  But no!  I feel likewise, but in reverse, about Lem: books which I formerly put aside are presently going to illuminate me!

            For reasons of cultural (or uncultural) patterning, I have to confess that Lem wasn't the writer most influential upon my own work, at least not overtly (though who knows about below the surface?)—until The Cyberiad came along.  The Cyberiad absolutely enchanted me.  These collected tales of the two cosmic constructor super-robots are a witty and wonderfully inventive masterpiece of world literature.  And the wordplay is sublime—at least as it comes to me in the translation courtesy of the ingenious genius of Michael Kandel.  I expressed my enthusiasm in a story which I wrote about Trurl and Klapaucius for a British volume of tribute to Lem initiated by the Polish Cultural Institute in London. This project underwent significant mishaps before it ended up as Lemistry published by Comma Press, of Manchester, in 2011.  I wrote my story in the style of The Cyberiad (at least the style as Englished by Michael Kandel), and I was pretty pleased with the result—as a text that Lem himself might have written—but seemingly this wasn't much appreciated by reviewers in the UK who ignored my story while highlighting many other contributors.  I may be deluded about the virtues (or otherwise) of my homage to Lem, but I would much rather that that story was here in this present booklet in Polish instead of this series of evasions.     Yet, as George Washington apocryphally told his father about cutting down a cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie."  My response to Lem may at least be symptomatic of one Anglosaxon SF writer's experiences.