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The Future According to Stanisław Lem (theparisreview.org)
205 points by dnetesn on Sept 13, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 109 comments

Just an interesting aside: Lem is famously known for Solaris, mainly due to the movie adaptations. According to Lem the movies don't really reflect his vision:

..to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space... As Solaris' author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled "Solaris" and not "Love in Outer Space".


I loved Solaris (the book). It's one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written, because it points to the unsolvable question of consciousness that lies near the heart of all of humankind's greatness and flaws. It was the first piece of literature I encountered that actually made the typical human idea of the divine God palpably ridiculous; the idea of the planet Solaris palpably holy. The universe was revealed forever larger after I turned the last page.

I really enjoy this theme of a struggle to communicate or make sense of non-Earth origin life. You mention the Solaris really changed your views of the universe. I highly recommend Diaspora by Greg Egan or Blindsight by Peter Watts if you haven't already read them.

Diaspora fundamentally changed my view of life and the universe.

I second the Diaspora recommendation, but I found Permutation City even more mind-expanding. It's not such a cohesive story as Diaspora, but the sheer amount of big ideas crammed into that little book is amazing.

I actually like the Soderbergh version on its own merits, although it may not have much more in common with the book than the title. The soundtrack is amazing.

Book was great, I really liked it. I haven't seen the older adaptation yet, but the more recent one (with Clooney) was IMHO terrible. Such adaptations make more harm than good.

The Tarkovsky version is fantastic, definitely find time to watch it. It's visually stunning. Kurosawa wrote about how much he aesthetically loved Solaris, particularly the way Tarkovsky captured water.

I am a bit late to the conversation, but apparently Mosfilm has made Solaris available online:

Part 1:


Part 2:


(Links are from:


there are more Tarkovsky film links there).

Word of warning: do not expect Star Wars or Inception type special effects. And this is Tarksovky's reading which, if you know Tarkovsky, he was concerned more about the human condition, than technological aspects of Sci-Fi.

I both read the book and watched the clooney movie and I liked both of them. The key to enjoying movie adaptations is to imagine they're two completely separate stories that just happen to have certain names in common.

Stanisław Lem had a genius for making fun of bureaucracy. I strongly recommend his novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. He could not criticize the Communists, so he made it about the USA, but I think it works perfectly well as criticism of any large bureaucracy. The story is about a man who is just joining The Organization and looking for his first assignment, however, everyone he runs into is unsure if they have been told the truth about him, and if they have been lied to about his assignment, and can they trust that he is who he says he is, or they don't know the assignment, but they can not reveal their ignorance, and if they are being kept ignorant, does it mean that they have been marked for elimination? The man spends the novel trying to find out what his assignment is. It's both funny and sad. Check it out:


IMHO it is the best book by Lem (but not the most typical one).

In any case, for me it was more cognitive/philosophical: about trying to reach/understand the reality, after passing (yet another) layer of illusion.

It's hard to pin down a "typical" book of Lem's, but there are certain themes he returned to time and again.

1) The role of probability in life: "Chain of Chance" and "The Investigation" (the former is much the better book)

2) The role of scale in our understanding of the universe: "His Master's Voice", "Fiasco" and "Solaris" all touch on this, and are all excellent (I have a special fondness for HMV as a book that describes how scientists actually think and work in a way that nothing else I've encountered does)

3) The role of systems of control in the future of humanity: "Memoirs..." and most of the Ijon Tichy stories fall into this category, and are in my view his weakest work, although "Return from the Stars" is a brilliant book on this theme.

4) The role of cybernetics in the future of evolution: "The Cyberiad" etc.

The problem of the "silent universe" (explored mostly deeply in "Fiasco") is also one that comes up repeatedly, including a long and interesting essay in "Imaginary Magnitude".

For anyone who doesn't speak Polish and is curious, Lem's name is pronounced 'Stan-ee-swav Lem". The l with a slash is similar to a "w" sound, and the w is similar to a "v/f".

Here's a great free course for anyone interested in learning the language: http://polish.slavic.pitt.edu/firstyear/

Thanks a lot for that! In my current project there are quite a few Polish people, so I always thought it would be nice to learn a bit of the language.

So far we're only picking up the swearwords, so this may be a good complement.

I think Lem wrote sci-fi just by coincidence. Soviets would not allow any sort of criticism on serious stuff. But they adored sci-fi and cosmic future of mankind. Lem could write undisturbed on this field.

Western sci-fi authors such as Asimov and Clarke were great, but they were not best what literature can offer. In many cases they use story as boilerplate to present some technical marvel. Lem was one of the best authors, even outside sci-fi.

Lem had a genuine and lifelong interest in technology. Polish authors found plenty of ways to be critical without having to divert into genre fiction. Lem wrote it because he loved it.

I wholeheartedly agree that the need to read between the lines politically, and the belief that science fiction is a serious literary endeavor, put Polish and Soviet scifi on a completely different level of quality than in the West. (The same is likely true for other countries in the Eastern Bloc, but I'm out of my depth there).

>Polish and Soviet scifi on a completely different level of quality than in the West

That isn't entirely true, Lem praised the work of Philip K. Dick (American)[0][1] and Olaf Stapledon (English). He has two essays in which he analyzes Stapledon two great works: Last and First Men, and Star Maker[2].

I think you might also be suffering from a filter. The best of Polish writers were translated, whereas you have access to the glut of all American writers. It is probably true that there was a greater number of bad American writers.

[0]: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/lem5art.htm

[1]: Dick returned the favor by reporting Lem to the FBI as a communist conspiracy against the west. Arguing that Lem was in fact a committee and not a person. Read the letter here: http://english.lem.pl/faq#P.K.Dick

[2]: http://dpuadweb.depauw.edu/icronay_web/lem%20stapledon.html

Those are good points, and I hadn't even heard of Stapledon. Thank you!

Last and First Men isn't really a story in the normal sense, so if you're quite plot and character driven it can be fairly hard to get through, but the perspective it gives you is like being woken up by a blast of icy air in the face.

Last & First men and Starmaker are in a single book, and it's great. One of the classics of SF, if you can't find a copy let me know and I'll send you mine when I'm back in NL.

'Last and First Men' tends to be a book that science fiction authors read and borrow from.

I suspect that there is a slight conspiracy: "the first rule of science fiction writers club is that you don't talk about Stapledon". It inspired most of modern science fiction but very few outside of the field have heard about it. Accelerando, The Shape of Things to Come, 1984, That Hideous Strength, 2001, Blindsight, most of HP Lovecraft, etc... all borrow from him.

To C.S. Lewis and AC Clarke's credit, they do acknowledge the importance of Stapledon to their work.

I got quite seriously ill when I was 22, right after starting my first company. Bad timing. 3 months in bed with nothing to do. My neighbour Erik donated me his entire SF collection, which he'd been putting together for more than 2 decades, a gift for which I'll be eternally grateful. This was one of the gems in that stack of books. I'd have never heard of it until this thread today otherwise.

I often encourage people to view current events from the 30,000 foot view of Stapledon, but people don't this naturally. Recent events loom extremely large in our minds. To my surprise US policy people have told me that the United States will "never end".

Do you think 'Last and First Men' changed your perspective?

Absolutely, and the 'everything is temporary' bit really hit me. It makes you look in a completely different way at your own life, both the parts already past and the parts still in the future. Think 'total perspective vortex' but without cheating.

The timescale of the book is staggering. It's like that 'pale blue dot' picture.


For those that haven't read the book or that don't have access to it, the book follows the 'first men' (us) and their successors across billions of years. Not all movement in time is progress and not all change is natural. Very much recommended, I won't write any more here to not spoil the book for future readers.

> US policy people have told me that the United States will "never end".

Cut them some slack. If they say anything different it's likely some lunatic will label them "unamerican". While the country, as it presently stands, will not endure for long in a planetary timescale, we'll be fortunate if some of the core ideals behind its foundation last for a longer time and help guide our descendants into the deep future.

> Polish authors found plenty of ways to be critical without having to divert into genre fiction.

There is this misconception popular even among young Poles that the communism in Poland was a period of hardship and oppression. Sure, many things were bad, but if one talks to one's parents and grandparents, they seem to be mostly happy with that period and in many ways would gladly trade it for what we have today.

Especially censorship in Poland was mostly a façade. The system paid lip service to it, but generally people were free to criticize the government, communist reality and made a great lot of self-criticizing works of art.

Living might have been harder in other Soviet states. It definitely was bad in Russia. But here in Poland, we had as benevolent socialist system as one could be. You could be known as a religious person and not a member of the Party, and still hold a top accounting position in a strategic government enterprise.

Beware of romanticizing of the past by the older generation, who will be good at remembering their own relatively trouble free lives while ignoring the hardships that others endured.

Poland had a ton of things that were very very wrong, look no further than the SB and their victims. The fact that 98% of a nation experienced no significant hardships does not detract from that at all.

It is very well possible to have a totalitarian dictatorship in which everybody has a job and there is food on the table and an outward appearance of relative prosperity, but totally rotten underneath.

Poland did not have a 'benevolent socialist system' by any measure.

I'll just leave this link here, you can research the SB and Jaruzelski on your own good time:


Anyway I wouldn't trade a 'benevolent socialist system' (somehow Polish case) for a 'benevolent fascist system' (somehow Portuguese case). Average life standards in Portugal were light-years distance from Polish ones.

Ex: While living in Poland, once I commented to a friend that my grandparents could barely read and one grandmother couldn't read at all. He thought I was joking. Or another example: my grandfather got his first shoes when he went to military service. These situations were unthinkable in Poland during communist times. In Poland at the same time lots of people were having university education and most people from lower classes were having holidays.

When I think "benevolent socialist system", I think Denmark rather than tanks in the street. But this is a thread about scifi, so I'll stop there.

I think he could be best compared to earlier authors such as Karel Čapek (inventor of word robot),

I think he would call himself 'futurologist'. Scifi on west was defined by laser-guns and girls in bikini on comic covers. East scifi just adored soviet ideal of future. Hard scifi was recognized much later.

Lem had complicated approach to technology. From his wiki page:

> His criticism of most science fiction surfaced in literary and philosophical essays (Fantastyka i futurologia) and interviews.[24] In the 1990s Lem forswore science fiction and returned to futurological prognostications, most notably those expressed in Okamgnienie (Blink of an Eye). He became increasingly critical of modern technology in his later life, criticizing inventions such as the Internet.[25]

> Karel Čapek (inventor of word robot)

Funnily enough, his robots were actually androids - biological, rather than mechanical, beings.

He also wrote, in 1922, a pantheistic gem called The Absolute at Large: mankind finds out how to get energy from matter annihilation. But that frees up "the absolute", which inspires religious devotion ...

(Pierre Boule, in "Les jeux de l'esprit", probably wrote up the opposite premise, general triumph of rationalism, with pretty much the same result, general conflict.)

Actually the word robot was invented by his brother Josef Čapek.

What other Polish or Soviet authors are worth reading? (and translated into English)

I love Lem's work but that's the extent of my familiarity with Eastern Bloc sci-fi.

I highly recommend the Strugatsky brothers. There's a new translation of "Roadside Picnic" out, that would be a great place to start.

Another good one is "We" by Evgenii Zamyatin. It's a dystopian novel Orwell cribbed from for 1984.

I mostly know Czech authors by name. Some are probably not translated to english:

Karel Čapek (pre soviet)

František_Běhounek (part of Italia north pole expedition) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franti%C5%A1ek_B%C4%9Bhounek

J. M. Troska https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=y&pr...

Ondřej Neff (post soviet) and his stories around Clarkes monoliths.

Jacek Dukaj is great, but I don't know when he will be translated.

He mostly writes hard sci-fi with political and philosophical elements, often about transhumanism, but he also did weird philosophical alternative history book - "Lód" (Ice).

Some English reviews of his books:



Actually, on a polish fantasy convention Polcon Dukaj told a story about the attempted translation of "Lód". Hea gathered a group of seven people, Polish to English translators, russophiles, cultural experts and what not. He said, that after two days they gave up after not being able to agree on the first page. The historical and cultural baggage this book carries is just too great to be even remotely translated into english, although he also mentioned that there is a steggering amount of pirate translations into russian.

Yeah I wonder how you can translate "Pomyślało się" :)

Dukaj is amazing, his "Other Songs" ("Inne Pieśni" in polish) is one of the best books I've ever read. I really hope it gets translated to english so non-polish speakers can read it.

I strongly recommend the works of Jacek Dukaj. His "Black Oceans" is one of the most idea-dense science fiction book I have ever read. And eerily relevant to our times, especially wrt. HFT and proliferation of surveillance.

I am from xUSSR and happy to recommend Strugatsky brothers. Their sci-fi books are deep, thoughtful and authentic.

Can't agree enough.

Is there any more recent Russian sci-fi that you recommend too?

Not really :(

I've heard some good things about Metro 2033 by Gluhovskiy, a post-apocalyptic novel about survivors living in Moscow underground train system after the nuclear war in 2013, but haven't read it myself.

Metro 2033 is a good read, I've been reading the German translation, and this still had that specific 'Russian soul' in it which is hard to describe. I was shocked how bad Metro 2034 is though in comparison, and I am not sure whether it was just a very bad German translation or whether the original book was also 'soul-less'.

Unfortunately there not so many soviet and contemporary russian authors are translated. So besides already recommended Strugatskie borthers there almost nothing.

Does Pelevin count as sci-fi? Omon-Ra?

Why not? Pelevin and Vonnegut are in the same boat.

Which ones should we translate? :-)

Vyacheslav Rybakov and Andrey Lazarchuk

Try Sergei Lukyanenko (multiple spellings). Most of his works are not translated in English (German has many more), but at least the Night Watch and Day Watch are. They were both made into movies too, though the movies absolutely sucked comparing to the books.

I can recommend Kir Bulychov and his funny stories about Great Guslar (fictional city somewhere in USSR that was frequently visited by aliens). I'm not sure, however, if this has been translated to english. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kir_Bulychov

I would argue that the best science fiction is about putting humans in unlikely places and seeing how they adapt. Great sci-fi is definitely not about technology, with technology merely being the instrument to set a stage that couldn't exist in a non-scifi work. See asimov's foundation or leguin's left hand of darkness as examples of technology being just a stage-setting device to tell a great story.

I have read a lot of non scifi literature, and I would argue that quite a few of those books are more about impressing with linguistic marvels than about telling a great story. For example, I had such a hard time getting to the story behind the writing in books like Ulysses and The Satanic Verses that I didn't even finish reading them.

I have to strongly disagree there. There may have been some anti-establishment satire in his writing, but that is not the main thing he wrote about.

Lem was probably one of the most pure sci-fi authors out there. He was not that interested in using sci-fi as a metaphor for everyday issues, but he genuinely wanted to explore issues that were outside of our everyday lives. Such as what would an artificial intelligence or an artificial consciousness look like, what would an alien intelligence or consciousness look like, how could we possibly communicate with a being that is truly alien, i.e., it is completely different than everything we know about life and biological development on earth. His two most famous novels -- Solaris and Fiasco were both about communicating with an alien intelligence, and did not have any anti-communist or anti-soviet satire in them.

I agree he is a great writer. But I do not like it when people say "he was not really a sci-fi writer" as a precursor to saying "he is a great writer", as if one could not be a great writer while being a sci-fi writer. Lem is a great writer and a sci-fi writer. He possessed the most important thing in a sci-fi writer he could think up of interesting and/or important ideas, and he could describe them in an engaging manner and explore the consequences.

By the way, now that sci-fi is a billions of dollars a year business, sci-fi writers still have not bothered to deal with the ideas suggested by Lem. Aliens in modern sci-fi are almost always based on humans in one way or another. Today's sci-fi authors are committing the same mistake the scientists of Fiasco did by thinking too much about themselves when trying to imagine a being that is truly alien to humanity.

And just to get at the topic of anti-establishement satire in poish literature, the prime example has always been Janusz Zajdel. Especially his late two most aacknowledged works, "Limes Inferior" and "Pardyzja" primarily depict totalitarian, dystopian systems and the means of people to game them. It is a great shame that he has been taken by cancer at a relatively young age because the world view he presented in his books was darker and more bitter compared to Lem.

Lem was actually pretty critical of the whole "SF by coincidence". By his own definition, if you can easily replace lasers and spaceships with cloaks and daggers, then it is not SF.

I disagree wholeheartedly (except for your last sentence). Books such as Eden and Fiasco are firmly rooted in the tradition of the sci-fi adventure, even if he adds additional philosophical and scientific concerns that were completely his own. But Lem's work is mostly explicitly grounded in scifi.

As an aside, I find Lem's prose to be rather dry, most of the time (though The Cyberiad is a notable exception). I don't know if this is something one can blame on the translators. In his scientist-focused novels, especially Solaris and The Futurological Congress, this works well; also, those are short works where the stodgy prose doesn't overwhelm. In other, longer works such as Fiasco and His Master's Voice, I find the prose almost unbearable. (Those latter two could really use some editing, too. Fiasco opens up with a seemingly endless chapter wherein a guy wanders around on an ice planet in an exosuit, and the prose catalogues nearly every single step the guy takes; it's infuritating and sleep-inducing at the same time.)

> they were not best what literature can offer. In many cases they use story as boilerplate to present some technical marvel.

There's an awful lot of sneering at science fiction writing as subpar literature and it's completely unfair. Some of Asimovs work actually is good literature, despite the fact that some is just filler that he wrote because he was more or less forced to by his publishers. I've never particularly rated Clarke, so perhaps your criticisms there are fair. What about Ray Bradbury, or Philip K Dick or Frank Herbert or Zelazny? There are more I could mention too, including some writing today.

Having said that Lem is pretty special. I loved some of The Star Diaries and there's a scene in the Futurological Congress that still brings a smile to my face (sewer rats on hallucinogens hallucinating they're human and playing bridge).

I just watched The Congress -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Congress_(2013_film) -- and WOW, it was excellent. Quite different from the book The Futurological Conference that it's based on: for example, it had cockroaches playing poker instead of sewer rats playing bridge. ;) But well worth watching for its unique take on the entertainment dictatorship. If you liked Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Looker, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you won't be disappointed! Something weird happens in the middle of the film, that's all I'll say...

>According to director Ari Folman, some elements of the film were inspired by the science fiction novel The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem in that similarly to Lem's Ijon Tichy, the actress is split between delusional and real mental states. Later, at the official website of the film, in an interview, Folman says that the idea to put Lem's work to film came to him during his film school. He describes how he reconsidered Lem's allegory of communist dictatorship into a more current setting, namely, the dictatorship in the entertainment business, and expresses his belief that he preserved the spirit of the book despite going far away from it.

It took longer than its length of two hours to watch, because I had to stop and rewind to replay and and freeze frames frequently. (Check out what's going on in the fish tank while she's saying "I wish you could see me animated, it's pretty sick. It's like a genius designer on a bad acid trip. Oh my god, I don't know, I look like a combination between Cinderella on heroin and an Egyptian queen on a bad hair day".)

I'm going to have to watch it many more times, because there were a lot of details to absorb -- time will tell if it's up there with Blade Runner as one of my favorite movies very loosely based on a great book.


In many cases they use story as boilerplate to present some technical marvel.

I find that to be more true for Clarke than for Asimov. Clarke likes to present technical marvels, and the stories themselves are quite bare, but Asimov focuses more on the characters, leaving the technical marvels in the background.

That's incredibly unfair. Scifi is a very broad category. Some of the best imagines just a small change to the world and watches how people live around it. Some is imaginative flights of fantasy, some is realistic futurism. And yes some is the presentation of technological ideas using the story as a simple vehicle.

Lem is great, as are a variety of other eastern authors, but they're not head and shoulders above their western counterparts nor is the genre lacking in literary skill in the west.

See for examples - Phillip K Dick, Iain M Banks, Daniel Keyes, Frank Herbert and many others.

Setting critical literature in fantastical or allegorical contexts is as old as writing. You'll find it in Aesop's fables, Dante, Shakespeare, Swift, and more. Soviet rule was particularly harsh in this regard, and music was another outlet (Shostakovich in particular wrote a number of pieces now considered highly subversive).

Lem is excellent, though.

And doing it in SF is as old as the genre itself - Wells wrote War of the Worlds so that he could criticize British colonialism at one remove.

Shelley, Poe, and Verne had the jump on Wells. Their works also had an element of social criticism. It's hard for any adult writing not to.

As I said, it's part of literature. Sci Fi filled that role as it came into existence, in part a result of science emerging as a thing in the 19th century, distinct from natural philosophy.

Just to be clear: Lem is critical of such literature.

Any specific references on that?

There's also the fact that society during his time was extremely techno-utopian. That was just as true in the Soviet Union.

I thought he was Polish.

He was.

Censorship in Poland had a funny element, as weird as that may sound. It wasn't un-typical for postcards or letters to contain 'greetings to the censor' at the end or even as the salutation.

It was a surreal society where everyone had to pretend to be living in an imaginary world. Luckily there weren't too many hard-liners; the jackboot was applied without much enthusiasm after 1956. Life was way harder for the Russians.

Lem is easily my favorite science fiction author. His intelligence, breadth, and sense of humor are unsurpassed in the genre and rarely found in any writer.

Anybody with a math or software bent that hasn't read his "Cyberiad" should rush out and buy/download a copy right now.

Agree. It's a fantastic book. The "Electronic Bard" (one of the stories in the Cyberiad) is one of my all time favorites. It features a computer that learns to write poetry. (The translation is masterful, too). Don't read it while drinking coffee as you will snort it out your nose. It's brilliant and wise and you're right -- few writers match Lem.

I anyone wants to get into reading Lem and finds Solaris too heavy (dare I say 'boring') I recommend to start with:

- The Invincible

- all of the Pilot Pirx short stories

- all of the Ijon Tichy short stories

- Peace on Earth (the conclusion to Tichy's story)

- Fiasco (the conclusion to Pirx' story)

Also of note is that Lem essentially "invented" Virtual Reality in the mid 60's (he called it Phantomology).

The "Cyberiad" is an incredibly great introduction too. For example, it contains an electric bard which produces a long poem about tensor algebra, starting with:

> Come, let us hasten to a higher plane > Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn, > Their indices bedecked from one to n > Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

The whole thing is here: http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Art/tensor.html

Needless to say, Michael Kandel's translation is also hugely impressive.

His Master's Voice is also a good entry point, especially if you've read Contact by Carl Sagan. Same conceit taken in two completely different directions.

HMV also is the best single book ever written about the process of science, and the way scientists actually think. I can't over-state this. I read first read it while an undergrad in engineering in early 80's and during my graduate work in physics slowly came to realize it was the only book I'd ever read that accurately described what I was learning to do as a scientist.

Even though the narrator is nominally a mathematician, his approach to problems is fundamentally that of an empirical scientist, and has nothing at all to do with the cartoon hypothetico-deductive nonsense that philosophers have foisted upon the world as "scientific method".

>it was the only book I'd ever read that accurately described what I was learning to do as a scientist

What, politics? ;)

I read it as truly brilliant and scathing social commentary about what's wrong with the "scientific process" as practiced (and corrupted) by academic and government institutions.

The initial premise of the book, how the message was discovered, is deeply hilarious: somebody was fraudulently selling some old computer tapes of raw space telescope data as truly random numbers, and then one of their customers got pissed off that the numbers were't random enough because they repeated, and demanded their money back.

His Master's Voice took the conceit in at least two completely different directions, itself: the "frog eggs" and the biophilic effect -- nobody could figure out how the same message could be interpreted to produce two such completely unrelated effects.

I wonder if Ijon Tichy would better be translated as "Ion Slow" - after all his name is a word-play (compare to Buzz Lightyear, haha).

Actually Tichy translates best to "quiet".

“because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?”

This accurately describes one of the main failings of the Internet. It was supposed to give us an age of transparency, but instead it's delivered a choking fog of contradictory nonsense and rumors. It's almost impossible to see what's actually happening through all the propaganda, spin-doctoring, rumor-milling, fear-porn, and wild speculation.

The Fukushima meltdown really drove this home to me. While it was unfolding -- and after -- the Internet was simultaneously telling me everything from "it's not a big deal" to "this is an issue of human survival!" I suspected the truth might be somewhere in between, but this is a fallacy as well as an admission of profound ignorance. Somewhere in between nothing and doomsday is not saying much.

This problem has always existed; the only difference with the Internet is that it's now harder to ignore it.

It was supposed to give us an age of transparency

I don't think it was ever supposed to do that.

I started reading Summa Technologiae last year, after a copy showed up at the local Barnes & Noble. I was not familiar with Lem at the time, but it caught my eye anyway. I'm ashamed to admit I got distracted, set it aside, and haven't finished it yet. My initial impression is that it's a great work, and now that I've been reminded, I plan to pick it back up and finish it sooner than later.

One of the amazing things abut Lem's "Solaris" is how invested humanity became in Solaris, the planet that housed the being they chanced upon. In the story, all of science basically revolved around Solaristics - the study of Solaris. By the time the events in the book take place, Solaristics had existed for over a hundred years. In one scene somewhere in the middle of the book, the protagonist actually sits in a library and starts to describe the key works of the field, but in an indirect way of course. Lem depicts humanity's obsession with the being perfectly, yet never actually spoon feeds the reader. Even so, the reader ends up investing himself/herself into humanity's struggle of understanding the being. I was simply amazed at how he was able to achieve this using only words. I've read a good amount of sci-fi, yet no author, not even the great Asimov, was able to execute such a thing so flawlessly. I'll be sure to read more of Lem's work as soon as I can.

I think Solaristics is basically a metaphor for religion or God. How people would be able to communicate with God or a super-being if we get the chance to experience it directly. Solaris keeps cloning the psychic/memories of the visiting scientists. It can’t communicate with people, but it digs through memories to understand, what are the most important thing to each scientist. But this is freaking them out. Memories are the DNA of the individuality. Without memories people would like a bulb of collective consciousness, like Solaris itself. I think Tarkovsky avoided the religion subplot because the Soviet Union's restriction to discuss religoin. Highly recommended read or watch.

funny note: it seems no one reads posted articles on hacker news... people just talk about other stuff related to the topic of the article..

That makes sense I guess.

The struggle of science to study Solaris is actually the point of the book, something which was discarded by the movie adaptations. People who know the story solely through the movie adaptations know that Solaris is manifesting people; but that is arguably the least interesting aspect of the story.

If you like Lem's description of fictitious scholarly research, I strongly recommend Jorge Luis Borges' short stories ("The Library of Babel", "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and "Funes the Memorious" come to mind). The collection Labyrinths has some of the best ones.

You might also like "A Perfect Vacuum", it is a collection of reviews of nonexistent books, it has a similar feeling of a deep invented world behind the text of the book.

A bit off-topic, but one great polish writer/journalist that deserves to be more known is Kapuściński. His style mixes journalistic objectivity with fiction in a brilliant way.


His most known book:


> A bit off-topic, but one great Polish writer

I'll pipe up for another, the dazzlingly imaginative Bruno Schulz. His work is half an evocation of his family's life in a small early 20th-century Polish city, and half cosmic and out-there. He's like a Polish Kafka, but more whimsical, less austere. He haunts his own writing like a ghost because of his shocking death and the fact that his major work was lost. This adds poignancy to reading him that wouldn't otherwise be there, like a painting that was damaged in a way that became part of the art and made it a different whole.

Two other Polish modernists that I've been meaning for years to read are Gombrowicz (Ferdydurke) and Witkiewicz (Insatiability). Both are said to be fabulous.

Gombrowicz is a genius. It's nice to see him mentioned since we just had a Borges thread, and the two were the greatest living authors in Argentina for years.

There's a recent translation of Ferdydurke that's supposed to be good. Be careful not to get the earlier translation, which was translated indirectly from a French intermediate and really doesn't have much to do with the original as a result.

Gombrowicz was a genius, indeed, and I cannot recommend his books strongly enough. However, honestly, I think that a good translation of his books is something extremely hard to do, and I am not too sure if possible at all. For me a hugely important aspect of his writings is a creative attitude to the Polish language, he was playing with it (and at times, forgive me, taking a piss of it) like no one else. I just cannot imagine how this can be translated to a different language. But it's not the only aspect of his works and I believe his dramas were successful not only in Poland.

Gombrowicz's diaries are a classic of contemporary literature and testament to the man's genius (and temperament!). Strongly recommended to anyone who wants an ambitious, but rewarding read.

+1 to Gombrowicz (Ferdydurke). I've never read it but I watched a theatre play. Trans-Atlantyk (also from Gombrowicz) is also a very good read.

Sometimes it also mixes objectivity with just making stuff up, which was heartbreaking to discover.

It's the fiction part..

Yeah, in the style of Mike Daisey

Well, I would strongly agree with the Kapuściński recommendation, but while we're going off-topic with great Polish writers, let me suggest that readers re-visit Joseph Conrad.

Re-reading Heart of Darkness as an adult was a totally different experience from the forced read of it as a child.

I also really enjoyed Conrad's Nostromo, a true masterpiece.

This is a great introduction to Lem & his writings:


Alas, another thread on Lem and again no-one mentions the one text of his most pertinent to HN: Golem XIV. Think transhuman intelligence, think quantum computing, think singularity, and imagine Lem thought about this stuff in the _seventies_ and published in 1981. See http://www.bohemiandrive.com/excritement/1/ for a short review and summary; the e-book is available on Amazon.

I know about this author from growing up listening to 'Hans Kloss Misery Hour' who is a Polish student that runs an apocalyptic/dystopian broadcast that has consistently recommended Lem.

I like his Patrick Allen narrated post-atomic disaster intros. http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Citr--MiseryHour/~3/gWL4KB91Z...

>As in Lem’s novella, however, this future promises not social and scientific progress, but technological hedonism and senescence.

How does one qualify such an extensive and penetrating understanding of human consciousness as to make books an edible substance as "not ... scientific progress"?

I take offense with the last sentence in that article: "Nobody can really know the future. But few could imagine it better than Lem."

This simply can't be true. Lem did have a great imagination, coupled with huge talents as a writer. You could say that he was a writer with the greatest imagination.

In a world consisting of 7 billion people, it is very likely there are people out there that have much better and much more accurate imaginations, perhaps people who are correctly predicting detailed outcomes for the next 50 or 100 years.

The problem is that they are not great communicators.

I think you're reading the last sentence too literally which is probably not the way it was meant to be read. Instead it is simply a compliment to the author.

And if you really want to be pedantic then please also note that the sentence does not say "more accurate", it says "better". This can mean many things: more entertaining, more inspiring, and yes, also more accurate. But because "better" is rather vague, I don't think it's very fair to criticize it as irrational.

Inspired that you found something to get offended by in the very last sentence of the article.

Never give up!

taking exception maybe more proportionate to the claim rather than taking offense

true, I was feeling dramatic

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