Spawn of Mars
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In Which I Criticize the Great Stanislaw Lem
Just to Set the Internet Straight
Thursday, August 8, 2019 11:03 am
At least two people on the internet — let's call them Bob and Ted — have been dissuaded from reading Stanislaw Lem. That is a shame; not least because, as usually happens on the internet, they are reacting to something that isn't true.

It began with a list of the best literary SF books. Lem's Solaris is on that list, and the listmaker — let's call him Harry — said this:
Lem's humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
To Bob, this quote is asserting that the best-written character is one who fails — indeed, that humanity itself equals failure; and who wants to read such misanthropy? To Ted, this quote is praising the irrational screw-up rather than the flawed yet ultimately competent character; and who wants to read about incompetent characters?

I'm not about to tell Bob and Ted that Lem is actually imbued with a cheerful vision or that his characters are badass heroes; because he isn't and they aren't. I suspect that Bob and Ted might dislike Lem even if they judged him by actually reading him. But it is unjust that Bob and Ted now have a distaste for Lem because of what Harry said.

You see, Harry is wrong. To say that Lem has the best humans in science fiction is to say that Frosted Flakes have the best jalapeƱos in breakfast cereals. There are no humans in Lem's books. There are barely any characters.

I've been reading Lem for over thirty years. I have read Solaris four or five times. I love Stanislaw Lem. But honestly, there is no denying the lack of characters in his work.

While it is true that one can point to Ijon Tichy, Pirx the Pilot, or the robots Trurl and Klapauscius, and one could say that each is distinctive, ultimately each is just a character type meant to sustain the type of story he appears in: SF comedy, SF adventure, or robot fable. Indeed, when someone like Tichy ends up in a non-comic tale, it becomes even clearer how merely flexible each character is: an appropriate Protagonist with, at most, a pinch of flavor.

This is especially true in Lem's serious novels. Not one of his characters is memorable as a person. I admit this has always disappointed me. Notably I consider Solaris so good because, rarely among his works, it utilizes actual human emotions. Another of his very best stories — The Mask, about a robot assassin who falls in love with her target — is best precisely because it engages one's sympathy (and has one of the best final sentences ever). But most of the time Lem doesn't care about people, nor emotions qua emotions. His concerns are philosophical; cosmic. His interest is in the man as an atom of mankind, not in the man as a fellow soul.

So does that make his work deficient? Dry? Dull? Not often. He writes wonderfully and sets your mind a-thinking. His robot fables are damn delightful. But, contra Harry, you will never find irrational screw-ups nor the proud and the vain in Lem's dramatis personae. Harry's statement asserts too much. What you will find in Lem is irrationality, screwing-up, pride, and vanity: that is, human weaknesses all but disembodied. A character in Lem is playing a fairy-tale role, at best demonstrating an aspect of human behavior, contributing to Lem's exposition of the cruel mysteries of the universe. Lem's characters are vessels with nametags.

You will find a Snow White in Lem, but never a Falstaff.

In the end I agree with Bob and Ted that Harry is wrong about the "best" humans. It is a pernicious lie that humans are most human when they fail. That is the self-serving excuse for sin, after all. But as I have tried to point out, Harry is wrong about Lem as well. In no sense does Lem contain the best "humans" in science fiction. So ignore Harry.

But read Lem. Yes, you may have to be selective, since at times he can get so philosophical the fiction disappears. Seek anything with Tichy, Pirx, or robots; read the novels Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, Peace on Earth, and above all His Master's Voice; and just be ready to focus on those nametags, because the characters won't really stand out otherwise.

P.S. Lem also wrote excellent reviews of, and introductions to, non-existent books and treatises; but of course these are even more removed from character-rich fiction.
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