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Lem sci-fi tales shine

By M.V. Moorhead

April 29, 2006

The Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, who died last month at 84, was one of those science-fiction writers for whom the term “science-fiction writer” somehow seems, fairly or unfairly, like an insult.

If you've seen the pileup of Lem volumes available at Changing Hands Book Store, you know what I'm talking about.

Lem wrote thrilling tales of distant planets and distant futures and rocketships and aliens, yet the complex inquiry into human identity and the sardonic yet sympathetic wit that inform these yarns makes most works of sci-fi seem like they were scribbled in crayon.

Probably the same could be said of the leading lights in any genre. Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson are maligned by their association with most of their fellow noir-ists.

Zane Gray deserves better company than most other writers of traditional westerns.

But Lem is more than just the best that his genre has to offer. He’s one of the important and innovative literary figures of the 20th century. This may be because, like Karel Capek—another European great who employed sci-fi devices to talk about the here and now—Lem could see that the acceleration of science and technology wouldn’t only effect how we interacted with the world around us, but also how we saw ourselves, how we understood our own humanity.

Probably Lem’s most famous work in this country, mainly because of its high-profile movie adaptations, is his 1961 novel Solaris. For the Lem novice, it’s both a good and a bad place to start—good because about two-thirds of it is a compelling story; bad because the other third of the book—still readily available in a tie-in edition from the 2002 movie—is a chore to read, and these parts are not sequential. They alternate.

The setting is a space station in orbit of the giant planet of the title.

The oceanic surface of the planet is, itself, a sentient being, and it makes terrifying contact with its human visitors by reading their minds, then generating flesh-and-blood duplicates of the people it finds in their

memories. The hero, for instance, finds himself in the presence of a new version of his late wife, a suicide. This gives the novel the creepy kick of a classic ghost story, but the scenes that ensue aren’t cheap thrills. They’re a deeply unsettling and touching meditation on the impossibility of true understanding between separate minds.

The downside of the book is that it contains lengthy passages in which the fluctuating topography of the planet is described, in excruciating scientific detail. It must be admitted that these sections add to the gravitas of the book—it would have a far less other-wordly feel without them. But this makes them no less tedious to read.

There were two film adaptations—Solyaris, an overlong 1972 Soviet version, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, with a plodding pace and crude special effects but superb, gutsy performances from the Russian cast, and Solaris, a 2002 American version directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney, with a sleeker look but a less substantive feel.

Both of these undeniably flawed films were reportedly dismissed by Lem, but both have their merits, in the opinion of this more objective viewer.

My favorite piece of writing by Lem, however, is the title essay from his collection One Human Minute, an ironic yet awe-inspiring gem (it’s a review of a fictitious book) which offers an epic, sweeping view of the immense activity of the human species during a single minute.

It’s a fine, brief introduction to Lem’s one-of-a-kind imagination.

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