shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2011
I first came across Lem in a story of his which was included in Hofstadter and Dennet’s 1981 popular philosophy book, The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul. I went on to read His Master’s Voice and Solaris with an attitude of reverence that here was someone with insight into the future of mind in the electronic age. I gave up on his Tales of Pirx the Pilot. It was years before I could appreciate these stories for what they are: entertaining sci-fi adventures. Then over a decade later when I lived in Poland, I mentioned to a Polish colleague that I was an old Lem fan. He shook his head. All this fiction, he averred, was just Lem playing around and earning his crust. His real work was in the many untranslated essays.
Which all goes to back up the editors claim that “there are several Stanislaw Lems,” as they put it in their introduction. And appropriately this celebratory anthology contains a wide range of approaches: new translations, fiction, essay, and criticism. It starts off with three Lem stories that have not previously appeared in translation. There follow thirteen pieces of fiction by British and Polish authors, grouped under the provocative heading “Reconstructed Originals.” Perhaps this is to suggest that elements of Lem’s consciousness have been transferred, through the medium of his writing, to the minds of these writers. The book concludes with four essays: three by scientists and one by science fiction critic and editor Andy Sawyer.
The three Lem stories have never before appeared in English. The selection captures Lem at his most impish (in the tale of an alien invasion defeated by a drunken villager) and also in a speculative frame, wondering at how to distinguish the virtual from the real. These might not be stories that convincingly demonstrate Lem’s genius, but they will be a rare treat for fans.
The first ‘story’ in the middle section of the book seems to be a review by Lem of a novel by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s up to the reader to figure out (OK, I used google) that the book is fictional, and the review is a “reconstructed original.” The piece is a fitting tribute to Lem’s own ingenious collection of reviews of fictional books.
5-Sigma Certainty by Trevor Hoyle is a journalist’s account of tracking down Philip K. Dick to get his theories on his Polish rival. The details are so convincing, I thought this might be a real account: there is after all no explicit indication that the middle section of the book is entirely fiction. Both here and in the first piece, there is a provocative blurring of lines between reality and fiction, just as some other stories blur the lines between virtual and conventional reality, or between organic and digital minds.
Some of the stories here can be enjoyed for their retro sci-fi feel, others because they play around with some of Lem’s favourite tropes. Apart from the two already mentioned, stories to note include Stanlemian by Wojciech Orlinski, and Terracotta Robot by Adam Marek. There are a few weak ones among them, it has to be said, and maybe too many whose sci-fi elements are based on the state of science in the 1960s and not as it is today.
None of the stories meet the challenge Lem set himself in his greatest novels. That is, to be “a literature of ideas, reporting on mankind’s destiny,” and in particular, what shape mind/consciousness will take with the advent of new technologies. Childcare robots are upon us, software which buys and sells on money markets, computers which can drive cars and grade college exams. Neuroprosthetics is in rapid development. Digitally-enhanced human memory is around the corner.
This is not to be taken as a criticism of the selection in this book. But it is worth pointing out that just as the race to the future is accelerating, science fiction no longer takes on a role of prediction and exploration. And Lem took this role very seriously – or at least one of the Lems did.
Andy Sawyer’s excellent essay Stanislaw Lem – Who’s he? is the high point of the book, and should be the first piece to turn to. The three essays from working scientists are also fascinating. It was a brave and innovative idea from the editors to include such a section. Hod Lipson’s essay is particularly thought-provoking.
Lem was always way ahead of us, the blurb states. This collection makes some attempt to catch up.
Find out more about Stanislaw Lem here
About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly graduated in mathematics and spent seven years living in Germany and Poland. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Prairie Schooner, The Sunday Tribune, and The Dublin Review among others. In November 2008 he won the McLaverty Award. He was awarded a 2012 Arts Council bursary for literature.