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More wonderful fiction from Lem – at Shiny New Books!

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No doubt you’ll all have been exploring the lovely new revamped Shiny New Books with its wonderful array of reviews and recommendations! I have a few reviews coming up on the site, and one is published today – my thoughts on the latest reissued Stanislaw Lem book from Penguin, “Mortal Engines”.

cover

Like the other Lem books I’ve read from Penguin, this one contains a collection of shorter works. However, in this volume they’re selected by translator Michael Kandel, and they’re an intriguing bunch with some longer stories moving away from the kind I’ve read so far.

My review of this fabulous collection is here – do go and have a look! 🙂

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In Search of New Worlds

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I’ve had “Solaris” sitting on my TBR for some time now, and despite loving the Lem I’ve read, for some reason I’ve held back from picking this one up. I’m not sure if it’s the film tie-in cover that’s put me off, or what, but as I’d hit one of those phases where I wasn’t sure what to read next, I decided this would be the time for “Solaris”.

solaris paper

Film tie in paperback

I had imagined that this would be a more serious type of science fiction than the slightly lighter collections of his I’d read, and indeed it is. The book is narrated in the first person by Kris Kelvin, a psychologist. The story begins with Kelvin travelling to Solaris where there is a space station studying the planet. However, on his arrival things are not as they should be; the station seems almost deserted, there is nobody there to meet him and if it wasn’t for the remote-controlled systems helping with his entry from space he might not have made it. There should have been three men on Solaris, as well as a number of robots, but the latter are entirely missing and Kelvin’s first encounter with one of the crew (Snow/Snaut) is problematic; the man is edgy, unnerved and unwilling to have much contact with Kelvin. It is revealed that the captain, Gibarian has committed suicide; and Sartorius, the other crew member, is locked away elsewhere in the station.

Solaris itself is a mystery; there have been enormous amounts of research, books, theses, investigations and experiments, none of which have revealed its real nature. It is made up of what appears initially as a kind of sea, but it eventually has become clear that this is a living entity of some kind, although no way has been found to contact it in any kind of meaningful way. The living ocean creates fantastic structures and destroys them; exhibits no hostility but can destroy if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time; and all the humans can do is observe.

However, it transpires that shortly before Kelvin arrived, the crew had tried an unauthorised experiment by bombarding the ocean with high-energy x-rays. The results were unexpected; each crew member has received a ‘visitor’ apparently created by the living ocean from somewhere deep down in their psyche. Gibarian’s was a “giant Negress”; we never find out who or what visited Snaut/Snow or Sartorius; and Kelvin soon encounters a perfect replica of a dead woman, Harey/Rheya, whose suicide he regards as his fault.

Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.

The replica is perfect, but needs to be close to the subject who created it; and Kelvin is torn between a wish to believe that this is the really Harey/Rheya, and the knowledge that it isn’t. While he grapples with the guilt tormenting him, the other two crew members struggle with their demons, and Sartorius attempts to find some way to destroy the visitors. Kelvin is face with a dilemma; if he leaves Solaris, then Harey/Rheya will die, but to stay means madness…

Ebook cover

Ebook cover

As soon as I put aside the silly film images on the cover, “Solaris” was a winner on so many levels. The book excels in capturing the creeping menace of dealing with something completely unknown and the atmosphere of the space station is conjured brilliantly. As Lem so clearly identifies, when men reach into space they’re looking for something human-like – more advanced than us, yes, but similar. In all of his fictions I’ve read so far, contact is often a fumbling, difficult affair (in Star Diaries an ambassador was mistaken for a soft drinks vending machine!) but here it seems impossible. The entity on Solaris is something completely incomprehensible to the human mind and this is a more likely scenario for finding life in the stars than some bug-eyed alien from a 1950s trashy movie.

A human being is capable of taking in very few things at one time; we see only what is happening in front of us, here and now. Visualizing a simultaneous multiplicity of processes, however they may be interconnected, however they may complement one another, is beyond us. We experience this even with relatively simple phenomena. The fate of a single person can mean many things, the fate of several hundred is hard to encompass; but the history of thousands, millions, means essentially nothing at all.

Not only does Lem suggest that it’s pointless for us to look to space for contact, he also suggests that we don’t really know what we are yet ourselves and until we do we would do best to avoid alien cultures.

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“Solaris” is a wonderful and thought-provoking book, though it isn’t perfect; the narrative is a little uneven, and there are long sections looking at the history of Solaristic studies which perhaps don’t sit quite comfortably into the story. However, putting this aside, it has to be one of the most interesting and provocative science fiction books I’ve read. The concept is brilliant; the idea that there are creations we can’t even begin to understand is a novel one for the time the book was written; and the tale itself is gripping and spooky. The science lost me occasionally, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the plot. And the descriptions of the ocean’s creations were so vivid that the images they painted in my head will stay for a long time.

I’m now very glad that I haven’t seem either of the “Solaris” films, because I imagine that particularly the US version would have focused very much on the story of Kelvin and Harey/Rheya at the expense of the philosophical ideas behind the book. As it is, I’m even more convinced of Stanislaw Lem’s greatness and I really can’t wait to read more of his work.

******

You might well have wondered why I gave alternative names to some of the characters above, and I think an extra paragraph or two needs to be spent explaining the translation issues I had with “Solaris”. The version I had (tree book) was the Faber film tie in version translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steven Cox. However, I had also picked up an e-book version and when I had a chance to read a few pages on the electronic device, I did so, but noticed that this was a different version, by Bill Johnston. A little online research led to me finding out that the Faber version was a translation of a French version of the Polish original, which Lem had described as poor (the French version, that is). The Johnston version, direct from the Polish to (American) English, was described as “careful and accurate”.

Some of the differences were obvious – the names, for example; in Polish, the woman’s name is Harey, but this was changed to Rheya for no apparent reason, and the same with Snaut/Snow. As for the other differences, I can’t say as I haven’t made a comparison, but I did end up switching from the paper book to the e-book halfway through as my confidence in the Kilmartin/Cox version had been shaken.

And yet – that’s not the full story, as just because a translation is “careful and accurate” doesn’t mean it’s going to read best… When I was preparing this review, I compared the two versions of a particular passage I wanted to quote and here they are:

We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. (Kilmartin/Cox)

We’re humanitarian and noble, we’ve no intention of subjugating other races, we only want to impart our values to them and in return, to appropriate their heritage. We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. That’s another falsity. We’re not searching for anything except people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled. (Johnston)

There are quite a few differences here, and I have to say that if I was ignoring the background issues to the translation, I would certainly prefer the Kilmartin/Cox. Whether that’s a US English vs proper English thing, I don’t know – but it certainly muddies the waters of appreciating “Solaris” a lot!

Where no man has gone before

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The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

Early last year I had the pleasure of reading my first book by Stanislaw Lem – The Cyberiad – and it was a wonderful experience. I found his mixture of slightly spoofy, satirical sci very appealing and clever, and so when I noticed that Penguin Modern Classics had brought out another of his books, “The Star Diaries” I was awfully tempted. I resisted for a while, settling for recommending that the Offspring bought a copy as a birthday gift for a sci-fi loving friend. But I kept coming across the book and finally succumbed in Norwich recently!

star diaries

Lem is probably best known for Solaris (and I do have a copy of that book sitting on my shelves); this book, however, features a space traveller called Ijon Tichy who apparently appears in several of Lem’s books. “The Star Diaries” collects together several accounts of his journeys through the stars and once again, in stories a little reminiscent of The Cyberiad, we’re met with a wonderful mixture of humour, satire and deeper meanings.

… every great idea must be backed by force, as one can see in numerous examples from history, which illustrate that the best argument in defense of a theory is the police.

There are twelve Voyages in all, starting with the Seventh, ending with the Twenty-eighth and losing several in between. Tichy has all sorts of strange encounters, including a couple that involve severe temporal confusion – in fact, the Seventh Voyage has multiple versions of our hero from different days of the week trying to sort out all sorts of issues in the spaceship and the resulting confusion is very, very funny.

In another, Tichy travels to the United Planets as Earth’s delegate, encountering a confusing number of different and strange life forms only to find out that humans were the result of a very strange evolutionary process…. He comes across planets occupied by robots; becomes involved in another time travelling project intended to correct the mistakes of evolution; visits another planet attempting to use ‘evolution by persuasion’ to turn its occupants into underwater creatures; and so on. Each tale is individual and intriguing and very, very clever.

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For, much as there was with “The Cyberiad”, there are plenty of hidden meanings here. Lem is quite clearly having a dig at those who try to control everyone; to fit everyone into the same mould; and to re-write the past. On one particular planet, each inhabitant becomes someone else the next day so no-one has an individual identity, and as one character states:

“Know, O uninvited alien… that ours is the knowledge of the ultimate source of all the cares, sufferings and misfortunes to which beings, gathered together in societies, are prone. This source lies in the individual, in his private identity. Society, the collective, is eternal, obeying steadfast an immutable laws, as do the mighty suns and stars. The individual, on the other hand, is characterized by uncertainty, indecision, inconsistency of action, and above all – by impermanence. Therefore we have completely eliminated individuality on behalf of the society. On our planet there are no entities – only the collective.”

Quite how Lem got that past the Soviet censor I don’t know… And in one of the other stories we hear:

You forget where you are and to whom you speak… For six hundred years there has been among us no a single “natural” mind. Thus it is impossible, among us, to distinguish between a thought spontaneous and a though imposed, since no one need secretly impose a thought on anyone else, in order to convince him.

Obviously, using space age settings to make comments on a totalitarian regime was a sensible move. Yes, the stories are very, very funny (I was laughing aloud all the way through) but they’re also a very clever way to get across Lem’s points about the repressive regime under which he was living, human foibles and failures and the dangers of messing with science. The wonderful mix of the absurd and the serious reminded me in some places of Douglas Adams and in others of Calvino; but Lem has a voice all of his own and “The Star Diaries” was a fabulous read.

*****

As an aside, I think translator Michael Kandel definitely deserves some kind of award for rendering this book so brilliantly in English. As I mentioned before, Lem is notoriously hard to translate because of his punning and wordplay in his original language; Kandel has obviously handled this brilliantly and given us English versions that are just as funny, while presumably retaining the brilliance of Lem’s storytelling. There are other collections of Tichy’s stories available, but I’m a little nervous of trying them because they aren’t translated by Kandel…

A little diversion…

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It’s been a couple of years since I visited Norwich, but as Youngest Child wanted to pop up and attend some kind of gaming event that’s been going on, I decided to go along on the train with her and spent a happy Saturday having a day out!

Of course, I did have an ulterior motive…. For while YC was doing her thing, I got the chance to wander round the bookshops of Norwich – a most enjoyable pursuit with pleasant results!

norwich buys

Of course, Norwich is home to the wonderful Book Hive and I spent some time browsing there. They do have excellent stock but I exercised restraint and simply purchased three Penguin Little Black Classics from the new range. I do have a lovely Faber Emily Dickinson collection somewhere but I simply can’t find it….

new LBCs

There were a number of charity shops in the city centre, and also an Oxfam and the City Bookshop, though none of those had anything to tempt me. I then headed off down a side road to a bookshop I’d read about online, JR and RK Ellis. This turned out to be lovely – a proper, old-fashioned second-hand place, stacked with piles of books and all sorts of interesting volumes. In the end I only picked up one book:

wolf solent new

I do have another copy of this, but it’s old and small and hard to read plus I wanted the A.N. Wilson introduction this edition has. Hopefully, with a physically easier to read copy I shall have no excuse not to get started on John Cowper Powys.

And the there was Jarrold, the lovely traditional department store (love its architecture). I had been looking for a particular book in the Norwich Waterstones and they didn’t have it (tush!) so I thought I’d pop into the Jarrold book section – which turned out to be in their basement, was absolutely lovely and very well stocked. And had the book I was after!

lem star diaries

With the sun shining and a very tasty lunch at the Wild Thyme vegetarian cafe (highly recommended!), it turned out to be a fab day out in Norwich – with some nice bookish finds thrown in!

Mediaeval Steampunk and Political Satire

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I’m playing catch-up a little with reviews, as I got somewhat behind over the Christmas period. And despite reading quite a lot, it’s been long books (like Dickens!). Nevertheless, I aim to get up to date as soon as possible and so here goes with an intriguing recent read!

Actually, it’s odd that I should follow my review of “Flatland” (ooh, weeks ago!) with the next book I read also being a sci-fi title of sorts – despite the fact I don’t read an awful lot of that genre. However, I think “The Cyberiad” is not so straightforward that it can be dropped into a single category, as will be revealed.

cyberiad

First, a few words about author Stanislaw Lem. Born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, he of course spent much of his life living and working under the Soviet (Stalinist) regime, and he managed to publish many books – sci fi, of course, philosophy and satire (in fact, I’d be inclined to argue that this volume covers all three genres!). His most famous work is “Solaris”, which was filmed notably by Tarkovsky and remade by Hollywood, but “The Cyberiad” is also a well-known title. According to articles I’ve read online, he’s suffered from having bad translators at many points in his life, and because of his punning and poetry and scientific terms he’s reckoned to be hard to render in other languages.

However, the consensus of opinion is that with this particular edition, translated by Michael Kandel, Lem found a linguist worthy of the task and it comes highly recommended. I had to marvel here at the translator’s art – this book is a case of author and linguist creating a wonderful work of art together. “The Cyberiad” is a series of short pieces, telling the tales of the adventures of the two constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, who seem to be capable of inventing and putting together just about anything. They seem to be motivated by a mixture of pride, scientific curiosity and a love of acclaim and rewards, and so they’re constantly setting off on sallies to see what they can build and what they can be recompensed with! The adventures range from dealing with the foolish king of a planet who oppresses his people with parlour games; a PhD pirate who holds people up in space and demands knowledge instead of gold; and a very sinister machine that can create anything that starts with the letter “N”, an escapade that ends up being particularly dangerous. Trurl is the more panicky, flight and arrogant of the two and often gets into scrapes from which Klapaucius has to rescue him. And the world they inhabit is a strange mix of futuristic and historical – so much so, that you might find yourself thinking that Lem invented Steampunk, if it wasn’t for the fact that the historical bits are more mediaeval than Victorian! Nevertheless, it’s an engaging mix and stops the scientific stuff from being too overwhelming.

The book is a wonderful read, full of strange and obscure terminology; not being a scientist I can’t tell what’s real or not, although with many of the names I’m sure they’ve slipped into parodic territory! But despite the humour and the silliness, the author throws up dazzling ideas which keep you thinking for days and weeks after finishing it. Of course, it goes without saying that there is another level here; the book was written under Soviet rule and in much the same way as the Strugatsky brothers used sci-fi as a way to sneak in social commentary, Lem is doing the same here. It’s quite obvious to the modern western reader where the parody is, and it often beggars belief that the censors didn’t pick it up!

In one pivotal passage, Lem reveals the philosophy that informs all of the stories:

Individuals it’s impossible to make happy, and civilisations – civilisations are not to be tampered with, for each must go its own way, progressing naturally from one level of development to the next and having only itself to thank for all the good and evil that accrues thereby. For us, at the Highest Possible Level, there is nothing left to do in this Universe, and to create another Universe, in my opinion, would be in extremely poor taste.

The collective is seen to be imperfect and not the solution for everything, and yet in one of the stories, when the cheeky inventors create interlocking armies for two opposing rulers which should technically be unbeatable as they create a huge unit, it is the unified armies that realise they hold control within their power and overthrow the tyrants – obviously an allegory for what the Soviet-controlled societies could achieve if they worked together.

You mustn’t think, said Trurl, that your way of thinking is altogether new to me. Indeed, it’s well known that whatever comes in sufficiently large quantities commands the general admiration. For example, a little stale gas circulating sluggishly at the bottom of an old barrel excites wonder in no one; but if you have enough of it to make a Galactic Nebula, everyone is instantly struck with awe. Though really, it’s the same stale and absolutely average gas – only there’s an awful lot of it… I do not share your faith in the glory of great numbers when there is nothing more to them than what may be counted.

Of course, the monolithic Soviet system was perpetuated very much by bureaucracy, and in one story, a hostile machine is defeated by that very entity:

Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B; for, as the Cosmos is the Cosmos, no-one’s licked it yet.

Stanislaw_Lem_2

It would be easy to read the tales here as simply an entertaining mixture of scientific bumbling and political commentary. However, it’s always worth bearing in mind the harsh regime under which the stories were written; Lem sold millions of books and has been hailed as the most famous Polish writer, but during his lifetime his stories were dismissed as mass market, lowbrow works which probably helped him to slip under the radar of the censors. There is much here about the human condition, about the way people will behave when survival is at stake and about how human beings are not fit for the perfect world – if we had everything what would we aspire to?

There was no need, of course, for him to tell me that plenitude, when too plenitudinous, was worse than destitution, for – obviously- what could one do, if there was nothing one could do?

In its imaginative sweep and breadth of vision, “The Cyberiad” reminds me of nothing less than Calvino’s wonderful Cosmicomic fables, and both works share a philosophical wish to make human beings think about the way they live and the cosmos they live in. Reading “The Cyberiad was an exhilarating experience and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work.

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