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The Invincible – 1964 novel (wikipedia.org)
102 points by tosh 63 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 33 comments

Lem had a seemingly inexhaustible imagination, and this was one of his most fascinating books. If you like his more serious sci-fi books it's definitely worth a read. He always seems like he was operating on an entirely different plane than the science fiction writers of the USA, and even today his books feel fresh and insightful. Truly one of the greats.

Like many Lem books this one explores how difficult it may be to understand truly alien life (albeit machine life)...Solaris and Fiasco being other examples. Good read, though not peak Lem for me

+1 for Solaris, the anti-Star Trek

Why anti Star Trek ?

I remember several episodes in TOS where the crew got easily overpowered by the aliens, and they were cryptic and truly alien.

It was in TNG where the 'guy in a mask' alien became commonplace.

What's interesting in Lem, as well as the Strugatsky, is first how alien their aliens are; then how powerless humans are. In contrast to the too common US trope of "everything is possible, and if you want it you can make it", their heroes are constantly sent back to their limitations and deep powerlessness.

Indeed. One of my favourite anti-anthropocentric Strugatsky stories is "Wanderers and Travellers" [1], from 1968. It's a very short story, almost a vignette, about a scientist ("stro-archaeologist") who returns from space. He happens to talk to a marine biologist whose project involves putting tracking transmitters on a newly discovered species of cephalopod that seems to have become partly land-dwelling. The scientist then tunes the biologist's radio receiver to a certain wavelength, and reveals, sadly, that the signal they're hearing is coming from himself. He has no idea how, but ever since he and some other scientists visited a certain planet, he's been emitting radio waves. He's been living, powerless and in fear, knowing that, apparently, something out there has "tagged" him with a tracker, just like the biologist with his cephalopods.

The story ties in with the Strugatsky's "Noon universe" explored in several other books, such as Beetle in the Anthill [2], which explores the same purported aliens, the Wanderers, which seem to operate invisibly behind the scenes, subtly manipulating humankind. The aliens may or may not be same ones that caused the Zone in their masterpiece Roadside Picnic.

[1] https://archive.org/details/WanderersAndTravellers

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beetle_in_the_Anthill

Lem's "His Master's Voice" is a great example of this. The novel is all about humans trying to decipher an alien transmission. There was a 2018 film adaptation, but I haven't been able to find it yet.



Wow. I know films take liberties when translating novels to the screen, but the story shown in that trailer contains only a few hints of Lem's original novel (the scientist father's research and he isn't a father in the novel).

> In contrast to the too common US trope of "everything is possible, and if you want it you can make it"

Lem himself said pretty much exactly this, in one of the essays in the collection “The Mask.” Humans in Western SF had distinctly colonial tendencies: they went to space and bent whomever they met to their will.

(Not sure if the collection is translated to English, the eponymous short story is among the stories in the book along with the essays. The book might even have been compiled by an editor for the Russian market.)

I've just yesterday discovered that there was this thing called ‘New Wave science fiction’, which corresponded closely to Lem's position on SF―though his is a mix of this New Wave's social topics and more technicky hard-SF.

The Wikipedia article is curiously full of original motivation and sentiments of the ‘New Wave’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Wave_science_fiction

> With negligible exceptions (Wells, Stapledon and who?), nearly every science-fiction writer up to a very few years ago made one very hidden—and indefensible—assumption. They assumed that science changed; that the world changed; that everything you could imagine changed, except one thing. They assumed that the human race did not change at all.

— Frederik Pohl, 1965

Wells and Stapledon happen to be exactly the two whom Lem cited as his primary idols, and he lamented that later authors didn't live up to that impressive start of the genre.

(Personally I keep getting irked by the term ‘science fiction’ for writings that predominantly have nothing to do with science and everything to do with space cowboys and dramatic robotics―such that people had to invent the qualifier of ‘hard SF’. Russian, and possibly other Slavic languages, call it simply ‘fantastica’, which IMO describes the genre much more accurately.)

This is a great novel just as a sci-fi book.

But if you read it through the lens of 1960s communist-era Poland, it adds a layer of poignant political and philosophical commentary.

TLDR: under post-WW2 communism there was a huge emphasis on the superiority of socialism, and a narrative of evolution and conflict that will inevitably bring the advancement of society and the victory of communism - and that this struggle was a necessary crucible to forge this victory (e.g. dialectical materialism [0], etc).

But The Invincible throws a different light on it. Yes, you can have evolution, you can have wars, but all this doesn't have to lead to anything better. It can just produce a swarm of automatons that do their thing thoughtlessly, just following simple rules that have been programmed into them, and reflexively harming anything that gets in their way.

And the only way for a human being to survive in those conditions is to shield their thoughts, and pretend to just go with the flow, in order to avoid being targeted by the swarm.

This is a striking metaphor of life under communism, and what it takes for a human being to survive in it - the kind of a metaphor of which Lem was a master.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Currents_of_Marxism#Summa...

>This is a striking metaphor of life under communism, and what it takes for a human being to survive in it

Or any large capitalist corporation. Survival is a stretched term in both cases. (We should not confuse the general idea of communism with periods of brutal purges, that many/most "communist" countries went through). If you stand against any large system, guess who is likely to win.

"Memoirs found in a bathtub" worked the "life under a surreal bureaucracy" angle much more directly (this time with an alternative history Pentagon as the setting).

Can anyone speak to the different translations? My local library doesn't have this book and the cheapest Amazon version is the 1973 translation of the German translation of the Polish original. But I wonder if it's worth getting the direct Polish translation from 2006.

If you can get your hands on a translation by Michael Kandel, you should read that. He translated directly from Polish, sometimes even spoke directly with Lem regarding his translation, and I'm told he did a pretty good job with Lem's books.

Agreed! Michael Kandel is an astoundingly great translator. He translated Cyberiad, including these poems by the electronic bard:



Stanisław Lem is my favourite sci-fi writer, and this is one of his best books!

I feel like this book was more in line with the Pirx the Pilot stories & remixed Asimov's robot puzzle stories too much to be his best. Cyberiad is the most fun, The Chain of Chance & The Investigation are better mysteries, Fiasco is a better veilled critique of Soviet groupthink (collective decision making) & alien encounters.

A Perfect Vacuum is my pick for his best, as it's heavily inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' works.

This was one of first books I red and my first SF book followed by Peace on Earth. I found both on my father's bookshelf even though I was expressly told not to touch it (they didn't think at 7 I would use it for reading and also there were much more adult positions on same shelf...) After that I devoured everything from Lem I could find and it started my love of SF which continues to this day.

"In the face of defeat and imminent withdrawal of the Invincible, Rohan, the spaceship's first navigator, undertakes a trip into the "enemy area" in search of four crew members who went missing in action – an attempt which he and the Invincible's commander Horpach see as certainly futile, but necessary for moral reasons. Rohan wanders into canyons covered by metallic "shrubs" and "insects" and finds some of the missing crewmen dead. He gathers some evidence and returns to the ship unharmed thanks partially to a device which somewhat cloaks the electrical activity of his brain, and partially to his calm and unthreatening behavior."

This is almost exactly like a Star Trek episode where they search for crew members abducted by the borg. I see shades of the Matrix in there too.

No doubt a great influence!

This is one of Lem's most approachable, fun to read books.

I also much recommend his books starring Ijon Tichy, the only books that make me laugh out loud - "The Star Diaries" and "The Futurological Congress":


German broadcaster ZDF made pretty fun loosely based TV series 'Ijon Tichy: Space Pilot'/'Ijon Tichy: Raumpilot' out of it. You can find couple episodes on YT with eng. subtitles.

It's incredible to see this book mentioned on HN's front page. This is literally my favourite book of all time. The only issue is that there's a lack of decent English translation so it's very hard to recommend it to my English-speaking friends.

The direct translation by Johnston from 2006 is not good? The more negative reviews on Amazon don't seem to mention the translation much.

There is a newer translation than the ancient Polish->German->English translation? I wasn't aware!

Such great timeless stuff from the old Polish and Russian SF masters. I do sometimes wonder what gets lost in translation though. I'm kinda envious of native speakers who I suspect has a even higher appreciation for these bedrock SF classics.

Indeed. Esp. Cyberiad and Robot's tales are full of wordplays, including the famous Elektrybałt's (Electro-poet's?) poem. Comparing the Polish (my native tongue) version end the English one (not a native speaker myself), I think that the Polish version is a bit better, using better-fitting rhymes and bigger amount of wordplay, but Michael Kandel (the translator) did an amazing job with the translation anyway:

--"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,
  Silently scheming,
  Sightlessly seeking
  Some savage, spectacular suicide.”*

Not that much for _The_Invincible_ I imagine, but there are definitely challenges in translating Star Diaries.

Thanks for this. I have read "Code of the Lifemaker" multiple times for enjoyment, I will now get a copy of this one.

I love this book. Swarm robotics evolution in 1964.


Singularity/AGI from early 80's (computer AIs improving themselves): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV

Ebook readers from the 60's predicted stunningly - http://i.imgur.com/e1x76Nz.jpg

Summa Technologiae from 60's (SETI, AIs, Virtual Realities, Machine Learning): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summa_Technologiae

One of my favorite sci-fi novels.

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