Communication Breakdown: The Novels of Stanislaw Lem

2009 All rights reserved by Daniel Ust

Stanislaw Lem (born 1921) is considered one of the most cerebral writers of science fiction alive today. For an author who writes science fiction in a language other than English – in Polish to be exact – he has a huge following in the US. Virtually any book retailer carries copies of his novels and short story collections.

His novels are novels of ideas. That alone is a good reason to read him. Still, ideas come in many flavors. Even authors who focus on them, have varying degrees of skill at dealing with them. They can hide as well as reveal much about the writer's philosophy and sense of life.

Since ideas are about reality, in some way or other, it is natural to ask what Lem's stories tell us about the world as he sees it, or as he wants us to see it. This can be unfolded into many questions. How does he see reality on a basic level – as knowable or unknowable, as a place where people (even nonhuman people!) can succeed in their efforts, etc.? How do people come to know this reality – through faith or trances or lab experiments or everyday experiences? How should they live, both as individuals and in society? Since Lem also deals with political themes, we might also ask: Is there an antagonism between people and the society they live in? If there is, is it avoidable?

These questions are a skeleton his tales give flesh to. The other side of this equation is how the reader reacts to Lem's work. As a stylist and storyteller is he easy to read and humbly poetic? Or tedious and over-cerebral? Or mysterious? Or does he ramble on incoherently? Are the places, technology, people, and aliens he creates scientifically believable, since most science fiction places a high value on this quality?

To show how the two sets of questions interact and can be separated, think of an author's works whom you ideologically disagree with, yet are still entertained by and on a certain level find real. Since Lem is a science fiction writer, let's use another example from science fiction: Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather. This is a story about storm chasers in the near future, after society basically collapses and the weather has gone wild. This is a novel which I found believable and captivating, yet I did not buy into Sterling's environmental message or his dark commentary on free markets. This did not stop me from seeing his characters as real people or his world as basically true to form. Somehow, his story telling ability and his skill at painting seemingly real gadgets plus melding the two was not sunk by other things in this novel.

A special problem that arises in evaluating Lem's work is that he wrote most of it under a communist regime which heavily censored all forms of writing. A lot of his work is written to get his ideas past the censors, often while parodying Polish and Soviet leaders. This adds another layer of confusion as well as interest. To ignore this makes a novel such as his Eden almost into a pure surreal fantasy, rather than a hidden and intricate critique of social utopianism. (In Eden five men crash-land on a planet on which the natives, the Doublers, have performed all sorts of inhuman experiments on their kind.) Imagine if Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four or Ayn Rand's Anthem were written under a similar regime. Certainly, they would have been very different from their current incarnations.

Putting this all together, let us examine one of Lem's mid-career novels, Solaris. I choose this one both because it is one of his most popular and because it is among his best. It was also made into a film by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris is the story of humans trying to understand and communicate with a seemingly intelligent entity.

The entity is a planetary ocean of red fluid. It creates geometrical figures out of its substance. These intricate designs appear to be attempts to talk to the humans. The humans are "visited" by important people in their lives who are dead. It is hard to tell if this is communication or just insanity. Some members of the research team barricade themselves away from the others. It becomes impossible to tell if the entity is attempting to communicate, protecting itself through psychological attack, merely reacting, or if it is all in the minds of the researchers.

In a way, Solaris is a novel about the failure of communication. This is a recurring motif in Lem's writing. The humans in Eden have a hard time talking to the Doublers and understanding their society. For a writer living under censorship, perhaps this should not astound us. He had to hide his message and live with the knowledge that many people would not or could not understand him. It is interesting, though, that part of his message is to show how communication fails. He focuses on his own plight, especially on the imposed-from-the-outside limitations on what he could write.

To take another example, in Fiasco, his last science fiction novel, we see Quinta, a world gone mad with warfare. The natives have flooded their world with radio noise to prevent communication and their defensive systems extend far into space. They are locked in a stalemate until humans arrive. Again, the communication problem arises. How can one communicate with a species which is stuck in an endless cold war and fears every new factor might lead to a final defeat? This is how Lem saw America's SDI program. (See also his "The Upside-Down Evolution" in One Human Minute. Many of the same ideas used in Fiasco appear in this "book review.")

The humans who visit the planet fit right into the role as participants. They use deception and force throughout. Their fears combine to make communication impossible. All that the humans come to understand is that the Quintans are at war. Rather than coming to understand the Quintans, ultimately, the humans wind up destroying them with a laser. The laser was first used to communicate with the Quintans. The word becomes the sword.

This is a novel of extreme tragedy. It's not just that Quinta is a strange world. It is the first time humans come into contact with aliens. The whole mission is the crowning achievement of human scientific development. The ship is packed full of experts in almost every important field, from linguistics to physics. If humanity's best cannot succeed, can anyone?

His Master's Voice, set in America, deals even more directly with the issues of communication – or the breakdown thereof. Much like the movie Contact a message is detected from an extraterrestrial source, albeit in a most unlikely manner. A team of experts if put together to decode the message. The theories they come up all seem to make progress toward understanding it, though, in the end, for all their hard work and theorizing, they find nothing save for a few magic-side-show-like phenomena. As in Fiasco, the military mindset looms large. Some of the scientists discover weapons potential in the findings, which they try to hide, but their leaders soon uncover.

In Memoirs Found in a Bathtub we are plunged into a future human society of intrigue and conspiracy, so ubiquitous and multileveled that the protagonist doesn't know not only which side he's on but how many sides there are. Nor do the various factions even know which side he's on. No doubt, this novel is partly a satire of the secret police apparatus at work in Eastern Europe.

Lem's vision challenges us on many levels. The explicit tale, the hidden messages, and the self-examination motif combine to make complex tales. However, he does fail in some respects. His stories tend to be too intellectual, reading too much like nonfiction at points. This takes away from the story insofar as actions become minor when the expository text speeds past them or changes focus to another level.

In the end, we have a writer who uses writing to show how writing and even thinking can fail. In Solaris and, especially, in Fiasco, thinking outruns the evidence. The characters wind up ensnared in their hypotheses. In Lem's world, stimulating and provocative as it might be, despair is the final stopping point.

Can his work be considered a distillation of his experience, a warning, entertainment, or something else? I think the answer is all of these. He provides entertainment on a very cerebral level. He offers us a warning of where we might wind up. However, some of this is probably a reflection of where Lem has been projected out into space and far into the future.

He might actually believe this is what life is like. A recent interview with Wojciech Orlinski of Wiadomosci Kulturalne seems to confirm this. Lem sees both East and West, the Communist society he lived in and its aftermath, and America, as in many ways, woven from the same cloth of duplicity. His criticisms are so evenhanded, perhaps due to the brevity of the interview, they make one feel he would never be satisfied. Some of his reasons are cogent, though one wonders if any real society would satisfy Lem. Certainly, Polish society, despite its new problems, is an improvement over its communist past. It is no utopia, but real gains for civilization, freedom, and decency have been made.

The answers to the basic questions should now be obvious. Lem's world is one where the meaningful aspects of reality are unknowable and where reason is impotent (and no alternative is presented, most likely meaning none is possible). This despite numerous and dogged attempts to understand this reality, as exemplified best in His Master's Voice and Solaris. Michael Lopez pointed out that in Solaris, the "Solariana," a collection of writings on the mysterious entity in that novel, actually contains the seeds for all the traditional science fiction plots Lem could've limited his tale to. (Posted to 1999 September 08.) Aside from being a critique of how science fiction generally is done, it also speaks to the matter of human understanding being very limited. Again, we have a problem of understanding and of communication. His Master's Voice contains a similar collection. (Both reveal Lem to be excellent at cataloguing the myriad possibilities. One can admire the near exhaustiveness of his mind.)

Though there are genuinely good people in his novels, it seems most, even the well-intentioned wind up doing evil. Happiness does not enter the picture – unlike, say, in Philip K. Dick's novels, where people can live happily ever after with a certain amount of the unknown. Sometimes, the evil they do is because of some corrupting concern, such as the mistrust of aliens in Fiasco. Other times, it's the raw inability to understand as in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. The former points to human nature being mixture of good and bad elements; the latter to a pure epistemological problem for ethics. The latter is akin to the unintended consequences noted by Friedrich A. Hayek in his work in the social sciences.

Since Lem's characters rarely, if ever, achieve good, there is a necessary antagonism between people living in society. This is portrayed in Eden's mad world where any two Doublers form a society that goes against any other Doubler, in the self-imposed isolation and exile of the people in Solaris, the paranoid democratic brutality of Fiasco, the inability of scientists to work together in His Master's Voice, and the plots within conspiracies of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. It is no surprise that he presents us with chilling (and often poetic, as in his description of the "fossils" on Titan in Fiasco) visions, even if they are draped in scientific discourse. His assumptio