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Stanisław Lem (wikipedia.org)
82 points by axiomdata316 on Nov 4, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

The thing that really struck me about sci-fi from the other side of the iron curtain was the fundamentally different look it took at communication with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lem, and the Strugatsky brothers (probably the best known off of the top of people's heads from that side of the world, thanks to Tarkovsky) both wrote extremely well-received books about how it's likely that this sort of communication would be impossible.

Impossibility of communication (because the very physical means necessary are way beyond our capacity as a species) is also a far more plausible idea than anthropomorphic beings (speaking some language that can be deciphered and uttered by humans).

An ocean-shaped or a polymer-based "lifeform", while formidably uncanny, are still somewhat fathomable.

What about a radio-waves-based "lifeform"? Or a star whose plasma interactions are so complex that some form of artificial "life" emerges within it?

Lem's narrative is indeed intellectually teasing. And, yet, critical of our approaches and behaviors as a species.

> Impossibility of communication (because the very physical means necessary are way beyond our capacity as a species) is also a far more plausible idea than anthropomorphic beings (speaking some language that can be deciphered and uttered by humans).

Lem's work (at least Solaris) explored the intellectual inability of our species to communicate with a vastly superior intelligence. Solaris did not have any problem seeing what people were doing, thinking, signalling to it, and so on. It's just that what possible difference could it make?

The catch is, we simply don't know. We do not know if Solaris is a "superior" intelligence. We may guess it is an intelligence of sorts. There is also very little to suggest that it understands us in turn. My interpretation is that the phantoms were its effort to understand humans, and probably not a very successful one either.

Another fantastic book on the subject His Master's Voice, where a whole massive team of scientists tries to decode an interstellar signal. In the end, they didn't even prove it was a signal, and not a natural phenomenon.

Also - The Invincible. Probably the most western sci-fi styled book among his works, dealing with an interesting concept of mechanical evolution.

I have some opinions on that, but for the purposes of the story, I agree that the level of superiority of Solaris's intelligence is pretty much beside the point (or rather, the futility of attempting to parameterize Solaris's intelligence is the point). Maybe it's not even self aware. Maybe it's hyperintelligent but reaches conclusions in geologic time, or something. Maybe it's amused by us and would find the notion of communicating with us in a meaningful way silly.

On the topic of self awareness vis-à-vis aliens, Peter Watts' Blindsight is a recent classic.


> An ocean-shaped [...] "lifeform", while formidably uncanny, are still somewhat fathomable

It might object to you dropping a lead-line into it to do so, though.

> Or a star whose plasma interactions are so complex that some form of artificial "life" emerges within it?

Close enough? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon%27s_Egg

IIRC in that, the communication difficulties were due to clock speeds not mindsets.

Or, at one point, the Qax in Stephen Baxter's novels, although they evolve as patterns of turbulence in fluids, and then somehow transfer themselves to the solar atmosphere. Communication difficulties there were mostly caused by the Qax being arseholes.

There must be a list of fictional alien races living in stars, but i couldn't find one with some quick googling.

Not sure if there is a list, David Brin's Sundiver [0] is one example of a novel with a fictional alien living in a star.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundiver

>> "Translating his works is difficult due to passages with elaborate word formation, idiomatic wordplay, alien or robotic poetry, and puns."

>> But he is the only writer of European [science fiction, most of whose] books have been translated into English, and [...] kept in print in the USA. Lem's critical success in English is due mostly to the excellent translations of Michael Kandel.

Anyone know if there's an effort being put into newer translations? A quick check of when Kandel made these translations:

    Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (with Christine Rose, 1973), 
    The Cyberiad (1974), 
    The Futurological Congress (1974), 
    The Star Diaries (1976), 
    Mortal Engines (1977), 
    A Perfect Vacuum (1978), 
    His Master's Voice (1983), 
    Fiasco (1987), 
    Peace on Earth (with Elinor Ford, 1994), 
    Highcastle: A Remembrance (1995), 
With notable books missing, it would be great to see the rest, and the above potentially (slightly) modernized.

Side note - are there any open source translation initiatives? Where a book in its native tongue is collaboratively translated and seen as a living document to continually be updated with the times. (With the ability for a user to roll back and see the language of 10 years ago, etc. or by preference for specific translators.)

I'm particularly impressed by the translation of The Cyberiad. There are some amazingly clever poems in there that must have been impossible to translate. I'd love to see an analysis of how much of those poems was translated, and how much was just rewritten from scratch because some things are just impossible to translate while sticking to such a tight form.

> "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!!"

> Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.

> She scissored short. Sorely shorn,

> Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,

> Silently scheming,

> Sightlessly seeking

> Some savage, spectacular suicide.

I've found an article that compares the translation the original Polish. The translator had to change the premise of the poem and write a completely new poem:


As I expected: it's a total rewrite, just with similarly restrictive requirements. But the theme changed from cybererotica (though there wasn't much cyber about the original) to biblical tragedy.

I'm reading 'The Invincible' right now by Stanislaw Lem. Not only is it good science fiction but it's good fiction period. Really can paint a scene and make you feel like you're right there in it.

The Invincible is my favourite book, period. I just love the theme of humanity bringing its most powerful, most advanced weaponry against an "enemy", and discovering not that it can't defeat it, but that doing so is simply....pointless.

I've just finished reading Lem's Hospital of the Transfiguration - I love that this theme of pointlessness is expressed even in his non sci-fi books, it's just absolutely stellar reading.

I went on a science-fiction reading binge a few years ago, and the majority I found atrocious, but Fiasco and Solaris really stood out as excellent novels.

Lem made quite a good prediction about ebook readers:

"The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it."

In old Polish sci-fi I really appreciated the sociological aspect of some of the books, especially these written by Janusz Zajdel (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janusz_Zajdel). Unfortunately it seems none of his work was translated to English.

In Zajdel's Limes Inferior we have a society divided into classes. The monetary system was divided into points (green, red and yellow) and being in the lowest class you would only earn green points that should cover necessities. For premium items you would need red or yellow points. There is of course a black market exchanges etc. Another interesting concept from this book were 'keys' - every one had their own andb they were used as an id and a wallet for the points (I think they would perform similar functions to mobile phones of today).

Funny coincidence, I just watched both the original Solaris and the remake this weekend. They've been on my list to watch for years. I enjoyed both. The original requires a lot of patience, and it's somewhat less accessible I think to non-Russian speakers who have to read subtitles.

Ebert's reviews are pretty spot on.



If you like anything by PKD, or you enjoy 2001, you'll probably like Solaris.

> If you like anything by PKD, or you enjoy 2001, you'll probably like Solaris.

PKD on the other hand (as mentioned in the OP) did not like Lem.


"In September 1974, the FBI received a letter [from Philip K. Dick]. The accusations in the letter were shocking – it told of a communist conspiracy aimed at the hearts and minds of America through propaganda in the subtle guise of science fiction. Major science-fiction publishers and organisations had been infiltrated, and their agents, notable figures in the genre, were abroad in the West. The orchestrator of it all was a communist committee, acting under the name... Stanisław Lem."

Which is ironic, because Lem liked PKD's work:


Humorist, too. The Star Diaries introduced me to recursion back in the day

Tarkovsky butchered Solaris.

He used is as material to make another point. That's what great artists do. I like both the movie and the book, just for different reasons.

I like Tarkovsky's fluid scenes but there was no reason to make the story worse. Lem was trying to make sci-fi into high art and despised the plot-twist endings common in American sci-fi, which is what Tarkovsky does to the story.

...and Roadside Picnic.

I once read something about spies by lem, was really amusing

Memoirs found in a Bathtub, perhaps? One of my favorites.

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