It is hard to classify Lem as a writer. Surely, among those who are devoted to hard Science Fiction none stands higher than Lem. The writers of hard SF are a breed mysterious for I do not feel the impulse under which they write. I can understand space opera. Those who write and read it just want a few basic things, rockets, ray guns, aliens and omnicompetent protagonists. And I understand the speculators who ask ‘what if’ and try to answer the question. Both of these seek something alien, but not quite the way the hard SF does. The hard SF seeks something alien anchored in the certainties of modern science.
The space opera and the speculators just want something different. Figuring out how worm holes work, or how hyperspace must be is not their concern. They just want to exploit the concepts for the sake of having a different place. But the hard SF wants little more than the explanation. The strangeness achieved all must come from examining something they believe is plausible because it is anchored is some fixed certainty, as modern science accounts certainty.
Of course you have the combinations and varieties that each peculiar writer produces. Some of the guys writing space opera have Ph.Ds in one or another science. Some speculators keep the speculation as close to plausibility as they can instead of running wild. And perhaps it is in this way that I can classify Stanislaw Lem. He makes the strangest hard SF I have ever read; never was the hard SF more alien.
It may be my ignorance (my tastes are probably more catholic than a real Science Fiction fan’s should be), especially my ignorance of hard SF that makes me say this, but I have the sense that Lem is considered a strange bird all around. Being in the middle of one of his books is a very disorienting experience. You have to think and pay attention and then wade through pages of conglomerated puns and jokes. Here is a very simple example of the sort of joke Lem puts into a conversation. It takes place as our hero finds himself thawed back to life in a society entirely dependent on pharmacological hallucinogens (which all turns out to be a dream):
“Why run nuclear tests if you have fungol gum?”
“You chew it and see mushroom clouds.”
And really, some of his books are not stories as much as they are elaborate jokes. Lem likes to end with a little sleight-of-plot that is really a trick and not a story. He does not care about characters, it seems to me, quite as much as he cares about the situation. This shifting of focus in which the character becomes an instrument for exploring the situation rather than the situation being an instrument used to reveal the character is a habitual failing in the genre. Maybe, you will say, it is all the genre really is; it is the essence of Science Fiction to explore a situation rather than a character; it is a perversion of the novel and shows that what we call Science Fiction is only the classification of an error so persistent as to have become a genre.
Considering the provenance of Science Fiction, this notion that the genre is a parasitic portion of the market is not altogether improbable. Indeed, with the open-mindedness of a modern scientist who pretends to consider various points of view without going to the trouble of ever setting his own aside we might dismiss it, but not in the face of the evidence. Just go looking at the covers of the Science Fiction paperbacks sometime, and see what you conclude: character or situation?
Still, I have found Science Fiction that explores the human condition and not merely a human situation. It may be the exception, but I will use the exceptions to make my rules. And I do not think that Lem would mind, for he himself decided that most of the writers of Science Fiction were pretenders, and made them mad. He made up his own rules for Science Fiction, and by them judged the world. (See his essays: “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions,” and “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary among the Charlatans,” in Microworlds.) The question is: does Lem escape the criticism I have made of the genre as a whole? After all, it was an observation of his work that started my speculation.
You cannot read Lem’s criticism without understanding that he knows what he says. He takes Science Fiction to task, breaking it down to insignificance rather deftly. Consider:
The substance that fills the entire millieu of science fiction, and upon which the work of its authors feeds, is kitcsh. It is the last degenerate form of myths. From them it inherited a rigid structure. In myth the story of Ulysses is the prestabilized structure of fate: in kitsch it becomes a cliche. . . . In literature, kitsch results when all the complexity, multi-sidedness, and ambiguity of the authentic product is eliminated from the final product.
That is a small bit, but that gives you the idea. What he hates the most are the pretensions which some Science Fiction writers have of addressing the climate of opinion. He examines with some detail the parallel world in which influential literature resides and the popular copy that Science Fiction makes (fanzines for journals, Hugos for Nobels, etc.). The difference is not found in quantity, but in influence and authority. He keeps using a comparison to the brothel. The ladies of high society may go down there for a look around and still return to their society. Science Fiction writers are like the tarts in the brothel having pretensions to high society. And he means to call them whores as well. He was not well received, but his criticism accounts for what goes on in Science Fiction in ways that are very telling.* He shows how in Science Fiction the good is mixed in with the bad, how criticism (proper contempt for the bad, proper praise for the good) is defrauded by the lies of advertising and the culture of the clan, and how this situation must change if the good stuff is ever to be raised from obscurity.
But let us return to Lem’s fiction. What about the characters? I could be wrong. I have not read what are known as Lem’s best works (I really only read him as I find the hardcover, and those show up irregularly). Lem wanted to achieve a realization with his plots. This is the legitimate exploration of a character. The thing is, if the realization is the realization of a delusion that is dispelled for the first person narrator, it is hard to avoid making it seem like a trick. One wants the realization achieved to expand one’s consciousness, to add something to the reality one perceives, to add a shade, or the refinement of a shade or a whole new dimension to the cosmos of which one is aware.
Debunking is a legitimate practice. If one has a whole dimension in the cosmos of which one is aware which is a false dimension, the loss of it cannot fail to enrich one, however painful. Still, it seems to me that the process of removing the false bit, the debunking, must be done with a view not of strictly curtailing but of seeing more accurately. I think the pejorative sense that travels with the idea of debunking is that it is done with a view to curtailing the world, in a mean spirited way, or in a way that cannot be interpreted as anything but mean spirited. Lem does not give you the idea that he is mean spirited, none of his humor is bitter for all that his endings do not seem to be happy. The difference between illegitimate or legitimate debunking perhaps is that one leaves one directionless, feeling only defeat, and the other leaves one with a better idea of what direction to face (something that is also influenced by the relative patheticness of the reader, a consideration which should not influence the proper evaluation of an author’s worth).
I think Lem has a hard time leaving one with a direction to face. I do not think he means to leave us without direction, but rather that he fails. I see his failure when I read his criticism of Philip K. Dick. Much of his criticism is legitimate, but what Lem fails to realize is that the logic of novels is fundamentally the logic of human motivation. It seems to me that Lem believes the logic of novels is the logic of a situation that exists whatever character’s awareness of it may be, whether partial or complete. This is never the case, no real situation for the purposes of fiction (or history for that matter) exists outside of the awareness of the human agent faced with the situation. Lem seems to treat them as if they do.
What is my satisfaction with Stanislaw Lem, then? I want to prove myself wrong in my evaluation of him. I have not been successful, yet, but three things keep me reading. First, I know that in one case (Fiasco) I did not understand what he was doing at all but was left with the impression that he was doing more and I want to know what I missed. Second, I have not read his main work. I’m looking forward to the more significant works. Third, the works I have read might bet taken as attempts that failed, but attempted the right thing. I just need to find a success.
*And Lem was very well read. For example, he has a footnote explaining the differences between American and English Science Fiction that is well informed; it excites admiration for his judgment. It seems Lem was unfamiliar with the work of Kurt Vonnegut jr., or he would undoubtedly have praised it. I wonder if he would have distinguished it from Science Fiction. Vonnegut is an example of an author who exploits the kitsch of Science Fiction and remains mainstream; he has some Science Fiction elements but his work satisfies a desire more literary. I know Lem would have praised Vonnegut because he praised Dick even though he found one could not look too closely at Dick’s books they were so full of trash. Lem suggests that the problem Dick has is the millieu in which he writes; Lem wants to get him out of the culture of Science Fiction. Vonnegut is out, so I wish I would find something by Lem on Vonnegut. It is an interesting thing to consider Dick and Vonnegut together though, they both conceive of man in the grip of a cosmic malevolence. Lem does not stand with Dick and Vonnegut saying ‘humanity is hosed.’ In Lem’s comparison of Dick to Schopenhauer, Schopenhauer comes out the optimist.