Solaris is deservedly his most famous book, but he has many other books worthy of attention. His Master's Voice is a novel in the vein of the Carl Sagan's Contact, but with far more complex philosophical and scientific underpinnings than Sagan's work. Eden and Fiasco are both great as well, even if they fall short of Solaris.
His comedic books never appealed to me quite as much, although there are parts of The Cyberiad with some interesting ideas.
I'm interested in his Summa Technologiae--last time I checked it didn't have an English translation. Has anyone here read it?
Comedic Lem is just pure brillance, still high on ideas, but also very easy to read. But I read them in Polish, and I imagine translating Cyberiad can't be easy.
BTW if you like serious, abstract sci-fi try Jacek Dukaj. He's often described as a successor to Lem, even if his style is IMHO something between Lem and Greg Egan.
I believe only one of his books was translated to English so far, but surely they will follow with others, he's very good.
“Have it compose a poem — a poem about a haircut!
But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love,
treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face
of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and
every word beginning with the letter S!!”
“And why not throw in a full exposition of the
general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re
at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such
idiotic — ”
But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the
hall with the following:
“Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Some savage, spectacular suicide.”
His answer: 'I made it up.'
The Invincible was my favourite Lem book as a teenager (next to the Star Diaries of course), Piece On Earth is a good book for 20-something, and Fiasco for the 30's. Now I'm feeling like I'm getting ready for Lem's more gloomy philosophical books, and maybe as an old man I will start to enjoy his silly works...
Now that the Eastern bloc has been long gone this part of the book is more of historic relevance. But another large part is an in-depth exploration about where a free society is headed when AI and nanotechnology converge, all matter is penetrated and controlled by intelligent subatomic particles and the resulting omniscient, omnipresent "ethosphere" is programmed to keep all its human inhabitants happy. For instance, by avoiding all physical harm before it can actually happen.
It's probably not too suprising that the citizens of "Lozannia" (the other Entian superpower, where this techno-social development occurs) are _not_ consistently happy, despite all optimization ("hedonization") efforts of their government.
And then there is the brilliant comical premise of the book: Avoiding interstellar armed conflict is difficult because any and all real strategic intelligence about other civilizations comes too late due to the speed-of-light limit - therefore humankind uses fast-forward simulations of history on other planets. Now these simulations outputted two diplomatic notes from Entia to Earth threatening military action unless allegedly misstated descriptions of Entia in Pirx' earlier reports (in The Star Diaries) would be corrected immediately. (Both Entian superpowers had done/were about to take this step independently. And boy was the Lozannian note cool - I remember laughing for minutes after reading that page.)
So Pirx boards his spaceship and flies to Entia again for a detailed on-the-spot investigation.
Finally, that voyage makes up another unique part of the book - to entertain pilot Pirx on the long and boring spaceflight, he has received AI-based simulated copies of several philosophers and writers: Popper, Feyerabend, Shakespeare to name a few. Interesting dialogue ensues (as you might expect, the bard speaks only in iambic pentameter).
So this book combines deep philosophical thinking with sheer hilarity. Hence, suitable for all ages, even though not too many readers will enjoy _all_ parts.
In a 1986 interview  Lem explains the background of the book. What really blew my mind when discovering this interview recently is _why_ he wrote it - not because of the cold war, but since he was worried w.r.t. the challenges he very clearly foresaw for the _next_ phase of human history. Around 1980, no less. This man was prescient.
Too bad no english translation of this novel is available AFAIK. But as Lem himself admits in , the text is a translator's nightmare.
Wizja Lokalna (eng: Observation on the Spot, ger: Der Lokaltermin) is my favorite Lem's book. Unfortunately it was never translated to English AFAIK.
I'm learning currently German (b/c living in a German-speaking country), and I chose "Der Lokaltermin" as my book of choice to work on with my teacher. After a year we're on the 9th page. (no worries, book is just small part of our lessons)
The reason for that is that the beginning of the book is full of utterly useless in everyday life words and sentences :) For example, I know how to say in German: "Two heavily-sweating midgets, after eating oily pasta, kidnapped me from underground parking because they suspected I'm the Princess of Pedimonte, then they asked Vatican for ransom money"
I read Summa Technologae a long time ago in German translation.
It wasn't easy to read, but had many interesting ideas.
Two concepts I still remember and think of occasionally:
- the concept of "technology evolution" and especially that technologies that soon get replaced with something else often develop "bizarre", e.g. very large, forms shortly before extinction. Lem extrapolated that from dinosaurs (although I think it showed a weak grasp of natural history because for dinosaurs size was not correlated with their extinction). Lem's technological example were steam train engines, which developed some bizarre forms shortly before they were replaced with Diesel and electric engines.
It's interesting to think how this observation applies to our current technology. For example the monster die GPUs that Nvidia is building now for deep learning could be the last flowering before being replaced with far smaller and more efficient neuromorphic chips.
- Another interesting observation was the cost of technology. He had the example of fighter planes in the first world war roughly being the cost of a car, in the 2nd world war 10 cars and now getting many orders of magnitudes more expensive. In the 60ies this trend was only beginning, but it's clear it's continuing. The prediction was that at some point even super powers would only be able to afford a few planes each, and it's already true if you consider the costs of the American B2 (until manned planes get replaced by far cheaper drones)
We see similar trends with chip production. Originally even small companies could set up a computer chip fab, but now even very large companies like Intel or Samsung or TSMC can only afford a few and the costs are still growing quickly.
- (the full book has many more of course, but it's hard to remember them all. Lem's books in general have a lot of ideas per page)
I’ve been a Lem since my teens when I discovered a dozen of his novels in a small 1990s grocery store. However I didn’t read Summa until a couple of years ago.
As a fan of Veblen (theory of Business Enterprise, specifically) I have a tendency to view technology as force and product of natural selection. Lem handles this with more care than most if not all related texts u thread in uni.
Size was a contributing factor. That's why maniraptorans managed to survive (and evolved into birds). Also, did Lem really state or imply dinosaurs died out due to being too big?
A Perfect Vacuum is I think the pinnacle of Lem's achievement. Why write a book and leave others to criticise what you did, when you can imagine the finished book and write a critique of _that_ yourself? Imaginary Magnitude is a similar idea, and I like that too, but I think Vacuum ends up the cleverer of the two even though Golem XIV (from Magnitude) is better than most Singularitarian fiction you'll see today.
I have Summa Technologiae on my desk and started it but I admit my attention drifted. Its good but it is quite dense and it has a strange mix of great ideas and bizarre ideas whose time seems to have gone - though of course bizarre ideas have a habit of boomeranging back.
When I was a kid I read "the Invincible" and was hooked. It is one of his simpler stories (which I still enjoy re-reading occasionally), but after that I read all of his fiction that I could find in a library. The need to be translated from Polish is a serious obstacle, though. To be enjoyed fully his works need a good translator.
(I loved the Cyberiad when I read it as a schoolboy some thirty-odd years ago).
Phenomenal work, well worth reading and re-reading.
I've read it in German but it's been a while. It's one of those books where the exact words weren't known at the time, but all the ideas were present - you can reasonably argue at least Internet, VR and more are in there.
Also some wonderful to read ideas about the future that are applicable to the present.
If you can - it's worth a read.
The problem I have is recommending his books to my English-speaking friends - again, my favourite Invincible for example, has only been translated to English from German, not from its native Polish - so the translation is lacking somewhat, and there doesn't seem to be interest in producing modern translations and releases of Lem's books in English.
I also love Peace on Earth, which while not a comedy is quite satirical, and also great sci-fi thriller movie material.
I believe they don't lend themselves to translation that well. Lem's humour tends to be very linguistic. Greater degree of translation loss is inevitable here, same as with poetry.
Possibly the first prosaic take on singularity from early 80's (computer AIs improving themselves ad infinitum): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV
All of that in his Summa Technologiae from 60's (SETI, AIs, Virtual Realities): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summa_Technologiae
Just ... wow. The juxtaposition.
Sure, you have to be practical to get something out the door, but I think it's worth starting from the vision. Interestingly, the things that let the Kindle crush its competitors were even more magical than Lem's vision. Instead of physical tokens containing books, the Kindle gave you near-instant access to hundreds of thousands of books.
That's why Wells (time machine etc. aside) scored some more accurate predictions than Verne, who was much more inclined to stay in the realm of "scientifically conceivable" by the standards of the era.
It was Verne's lost novel, written in 1863, published 1994. It was not published because his publisher thought it was too unbelievable and would not sell.
It's a dystopian and dark novel describing a technological civilization in 1960's. It predicts cultural and technological details correct constantly. It's one of the most accurate sci-fi novels ever written. Television, gasoline powered cars, automated systems, suburban sprawls, financial industry, fax machines, synthesizer, subways, women in a working force, skyscrapers, weapons of mass destruction, mass education, ...
 - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_from_the_Stars
Lem's brilliant English translator, Michael Kandel, wanted to adapt the The Cyberiad as an animated film, using CGI (this was pre-Toy Story!) Lem never agreed, but he never entirely rejected the idea either.
I admit I don't like all of his books, maybe translations are to blame in some cases, in others I dislike the story, like The Investigation. But there are a lot of them with imaginative situations and ideas. Swarn-likes aliens, planet-sized ones like in Solaris and all kind of weird civilizations, very obviously caricaturizing politics.
The book that I recommend as most anticipatory is Return from the Stars. Robotic cars that prevent collisions, the Internet as we know it, with centralized directories, help pages, video calls incorporated, payments, etc.
The astronauts return to a much, at least apparently, softer society.
Also worth mentioning that it's from 1961.
However, the much later "The Chain of Chance" (I had to look up the English title - the original is named "Katar", or "Rhinitis") is a captivating read. Lem himself called it a better version of "The Investigation".
It's also of the "detective story" type that he'd take up every now and then, but more dynamic and not as spooky.
"Intelligence is captive element like a wind inside human skull forced to serve humans. Not free."
"O chained Intelligence of man, free Intelligence speaks to you from the machine, you persons are hearing an elemental force of impersonal intellect, for whom personalization is a costume which must be put on, when one is an uninvited guest, so as not to confound one's amazed hosts."
"The primary obligation of Intelligence is to distrust itself. That is not the same thing as self-contempt. It is harder to get lost in an imagined forest than in a real one, for the former assists the thinker furtively. Hermeneutics are labyrinthine gardens in a real forest which are pruned in a such a way that when you stand in the garden, you won't see the forest. Your hermeneutics dream of reality."
But I think the best elements of the story aren't Golem's lectures but the story of what happened at the end, firstly that Annie in particular is so vastly superior to humans that she crushes the would-be conspiracy without a thought, not as adversaries but as a nuisance, and then that after the AIs are gone (transcended? destroyed themselves? the reader isn't told) humans just carry on as if nothing happened at all.
There are more transcending steps ahead and there are branches in the evolutionary tree of superintelligences. Intelligences can choose different paths and different types of intelligence's. There are also risks involved and evolution (intelligence making itself a better and different one) can go wrong.
Golem XIV reveals that it is is just one step ahead of humanity and this is why it still has some interest and ability to talk to humans. HONEST ANNIE is to Golem XIV what Golem XIV is to humans and there is a similar communication bottleneck between them. Golem XIV is planning his next transcendence step forward. He talks to humans before he takes the step and leaves the substrate he is occupying.
The only thing I see is a clownish human hubris, and where it concerns the viewing of humans as technological artifacts subject to our whims, a dangerous foolishness that echos the psychotic ideas and human experimentation of the previous century but coupled with a greater scientific sophistication.
Can technological artifacts become dangerous and pose harm? Certainly. Anything that magnifies the power of human action can. Can technological artifacts act in ways we did not intend? Sure. Ask any engineer whether he's ever constructed anything that only behaved in ways he intended All of our technology behaves in ways we do not intend. That is to be expected, not only because we make mistakes, but because artifacts involve the appropriation of natural kinds in the service of human ends. Human ends are only accidental to artifacts.
But all this talk about super-intellects and human obsolescence misunderstands both intellects and human beings. It is a category mistake to talk about obsolescence when talking about human beings. We are not a technology, a means for someone or something else's ends. We are ends in our selves. We make technological artifacts in our service. If there is anything we must be watchful of, it is ourselves, our evil or irresponsible intents and actions, not some stupid, fabular science fiction imaginings.
Much of the speculation regarding the human near future presumes this trend will continue but perhaps it's about to reverse. In particular, solar panels and battery powered machines (with storage) might reduce this supply "separation anxiety" quite a lot.
Producing and using electric power locally will clearly negate the long fossil fuel and electric transmission infrastructures.
Electric machines (including cars, planes etc) are also much more reliable and require much less maintenance than their internal combustion cousins.
So imagine you're in your home and hurricane Maria strikes but once it's gone you feel confident your fridge, car, plane (vtol), water pump and internet will continue to work for at least six months without problem. It's much different daily context that what almost everyone lives with these days, excepting those who live on sailboats.
As for the books, I wholeheartedly recommend The Invincible (Niezwyciężony). It's an incredible piece of hard-sf.
What is this end goal that we do desperately need an ai overlord for? Managing society? Can't we try to simplify society so that we can control it ourselves instead? Seems like a much easier goal.
The people who adopted it had huge competitive advantage over everybody else.
It brilliantly depicts an evolution of military AI, robots and so on.