The binding on the first edition of “Solaris,” the bestselling book by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, is almost entirely black. It features a somewhat faded round yellow star dwarfed by the black space around it, space that takes up nearly the entire binding. You won’t find spaceships or laser beams or robots or astronauts here. Also, the illustrated binding and the sense that it conveys are totally out of keeping with what one would normally find on the covers of Western science fiction.
On the covers of works by the leading authors of the genre, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, space is depicted as something conquered by human beings in colorful spaceships, inviting the reader to be part of the adventure. The contrast in design is significant, reflecting the basic difference between pioneers of the genre in the West and Lem – the most important science fiction author who did not write in English.
While the works of Asimov and his colleagues around the middle of the 20th century reflected the endless possibilities provided by science – human colonies on Mars and humans building galactic empires and defeating hostile aliens – Lem’s books deal with the other side of the coin: the limitations of human knowledge, the insignificance of man in the universe and the futility of technology if human beings don’t know what to do with it.
Monday marked the centennial of Lem’s birth on September 12, 1921 into a Jewish family in what is today the Ukrainian city of Lviv. At the time, during the period between the two world wars, it was part of Poland. Lviv, or Lvov, as it is also known in the West, was captured by Soviet forces in 1939 and two years later by Nazi Germany. Lem’s family survived the Nazi occupation using forged documents. When Lvov was annexed to the Soviet republic of Ukraine, the family moved to Krakow in Poland. Lem remained in Poland for most of his life.
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So Lem spent the first part of his life between battles and occupying armies and most of the second half was spent under Communist rule. It could be that the stark contrast between his life’s experience during both of these periods and that, for example, of his counterparts in the United States partially explains his fundamental skepticism regarding humankind and technology, in contrast to the fundamental optimism of the American science fiction writers.
Such doubts are also apparent in Lem’s first book, “The Astronauts,” which was published in 1951 and subject to Communist censorship. The book describes a reality in which the world is efficiently and serenely run by a utopian Communist party, as befits an author writing until the watchful eye of Communist censors. On the other hand, vestiges of an advanced alien culture are found on Venus, although it turns out that its members exterminated one another in a nuclear civil war. In Lem’s works, technology is never a guarantee of significant progress, understanding or salvation – and in many instances, it’s quite the opposite.
“Solaris” remains Lem’s bestselling book, in part thanks to two film adaptations – a wonderful one by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and a more mundane one by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. The book was published in 1961, following an easing of restrictions on expression in the Communist bloc. The book may be the best example of the motif that Lem engaged in most frequently – the encounter with non-humans and the incapacity to understand them.
In “Solaris,” psychologist Chris Kelvin goes to the space station near the planet Solaris, which is covered in a kind of ocean of organic material that turns out to be an entirely conscious living being. Scientists had for years been trying unsuccessfully to communicate with the being or explain its behavior. From the space station, Kelvin discovers that a “guest” being has surfaced on the space station for every member of its crew – someone from the crew members’ past, either dead or alive, and that the only explanation for their presence is something done on Solaris. In Kelvin’s case, the guest is his late wife, who had committed suicide.
Understanding how exceptional Lem’s approach to the encounter with aliens was compared to Western science fiction requires us to remember that in Western fiction, aliens are generally described either as friendly and humanlike or seeking to destroy humanity. But Lem offered a different, more pessimistic and frustrating vision. He rejected the proposition that human intellect is capable of understanding every phenomenon or life form that it may encounter in the universe.
No, Lem says, human capacity is limited, and the greatest obstacle is overcoming one’s own culture and language. What pretense it is to think that if there are other life forms out there, they will be subject to the same desires, needs and aspirations as our own.
And the riddle that Lem presents to the researchers on the space station in “Solaris” demonstrates more than this. Kelvin is haunted by his past, unable to reconcile himself with his wife’s suicide. Lem is asking how human beings can understand other forms of life if they cannot understand themselves.
No satisfying answers
Science fiction is currently falling victim to a cruel dilemma. It’s forced to choose between anonymity and success in a form that takes the genre in a different direction. Anyone who watches Apple TV+’s new series “Foundation” or the upcoming film “Dune” might think that the two major works in the genre on which the series and the film are based are mostly full of explosions and melodrama, and that “the destiny of the galaxy is in danger!” The truth is that they contain a lot more than that: depth, the creation of wealth, philosophy, complex scientific questions, humor and at times also good literature.
Lem authored more than 30 books and dozens of articles. No less important, he was very versatile – writing novels, short stories, philosophical articles, literary criticism, radio plays, screenplays, an autobiography and essays on science. His science fiction writing is equally diverse, including thrillers, hard-core works with a focus on science and technical detail, political satire and black humor, as well as literary criticism.
His body of work testifies to the richness and variety that science fiction has to offer. Perhaps that’s why he had disdain for American science fiction (other than Philip K. Dick). “The scientific ignorance of most American science fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output,” he once said.
But unlike his Western counterparts, some of whom became real cultural icons while some others gained a following after their deaths thanks to adaptations of their work, Lem remains relatively unknown outside the science fiction community. That may be because his stories aren’t full of explosions and collapsing empires and intergalactic love stories. Worst of all, he didn’t provide satisfying answers. Instead, he recognized that out there beyond the most modest confines of humankind lies mostly darkness.