Lem and Solaris

Stanisław Lem, SolarisInformation on the Writer | Questions for Reading

photo of Lem with some futuristic toys

Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) was born in Lwów, Poland (which after WWII became Lviv, Ukraine), but after the Second World War his family settled in Kraków. He studied medicine and developed a strong interest in mathematics and other sciences. Although his early novels were rather traditional science fiction, his individual style and philosophy were in full bloom by the 1960s. Lem is extremely various in his styles and genres, and towards the end of his life he even objected to being classified as a science fiction writer - though he really had gotten to be a cranky old man by the end of his life. His work often stresses the disharmony between technological possibility and human intentions. He attracted some bad press because of (carelessly? justifiably?) critical remarks about the quality of North American science fiction, which one might discuss in the context of the different roles of the genre in East and West over the past many years. Lem was both well-respected and a popular and widely-read writer - note the large number of his books in translation, and their relatively reasonable prices! (Back when the Web was new, Lem had more hits than almost any author, because so many of his fans were math and science geeks who knew how to create web pages.)

As someone who gets to teach Lem from time to time, I appreciate both his popularity (how cool to know that his books will be in print when I want to order them!) and his variety: if you've read other things by Lem, but not Solaris, this one might surprise you. (It was also made into two movies - see the questions below.) His Takes of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot are aimed at young adult readers and were added to the required curriculum for Polish junior-high school students after the Change in the 1990s. Solaris was the first of Lem's books to be translated into English (via French, a linguistic triangulation that is not always a good idea), but we are reading a brand-new translation direct from the Polish by the prolific and accomplished translator Bill Johnson. Since that first translation, almost all the English versions have mostly been made from Polish, and by some extremely good translators too. (More on that later.)

Several books by Lem, many of them available in Tripod:

  • Szpital Przemienienia, 1948. Hospital of the Transfiguration, translated by William Brand, 1988
  • Dzienniki gwiazdowe (1957, expanded until 1971). The Star Diaries, translated by Michael Kandel, 1976
  • Eden, 1959, translated by Marc E. Heine, 1989
  • Śledztwo, 1959. The Investigation, translated by Adele Milch, 1974
  • Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, 1961. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, translated by Michael Kandel and Christine Rose, 1973
  • Powrót z gwiazd, 1961. Return from the Stars, translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, 1980
  • Solaris, 1961, translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (from French), 1970
  • Niezwyciężony, 1964. The Invincible, translated by Wendayne Ackerman (from German), 1973
  • Cyberiada, 1967. The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel, 1974
  • Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie, 1968. Tales of Pirx the Pilot, translated by Louis Iribarne, 1979
  • Fantastyka i futurologia, 1970. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, translated and ed. Franz Rottensteiner, 1984
  • Doskonała próżnia, 1971. A Perfect Vacuum, translated by Michael Kandel, 1981
  • Katar, 1975. The Chain of Chance, translated by Louis Iribarne, 1978
  • Fiasko, 1986. Fiasco, translated by Michael Kandel, 1987
  • One Human Minute, translated from other editions by Catherine S. Leach, 1986
  • Pokój na Ziemi, 1987. Peace on Earth, translated by Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel, 1994

A new translation of one of his collections of non-fictional writing, Summa Technolgiae, just came out in February (I've ordered a copy but it hasn't arrived yet...).

There are numerous clips of Lem on the web - for example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pm0VXfxlQlk, which unfortunately doesn't have English subtitles but might inspire you to go study Polish.

Questions for reading:

  1. You'll immediately note some "speaking" names of characters and spaceships - Kelvin; the Prometheus. What mighgt be the implications of the names? (What does it suggest about humans and the universe that they - and Lem among them - name new characters and places for old ones, so we are constantly reminded of what we have known before?)
  2. How do the first few pages prepare us for the very strange things to come? Besides reading the blurb or the "front matter,", how and when does the reader figure out what's going on? (This is one that really rewards rereading.)
  3. Since we'll be reading two more books by Lem this semester, pay particular attention to the style of this one and how it works with the themes of the book.
  4. Another note on names: what is the effect of all the double-barreled names of scientists' discoveries or hypotheses? What kind of scientific activity and community does this book imagine?
  5. How wuold you describe the terms in the biological description of the ocean of Solaris, or other sections where Kelvin passes on to us Solaristic science?
  6. For those of you who know the work of French Surrealist André Breton (1896-1966), what associations might he lend to the testimony of the helicopter pilot André Berton?
  7. What kind of crew is on the station? What can you tell about the national, age, professional, and gender relations?
  8. Here as elsewhere, how are scientists presented, and how do they handle the events in the story?
  9. What is the effect of the departures into long quasi-scientific discourses? (LIke the historico-philosophical bits of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace?) How does Lem make it plausible that so much information of this kind is introduced into the narrative?
  10. This book is not especially devoted to dissident narratives, but do note Sartorius the thought-censor, telling Kelvin what he should be thinking while they beam his thoughts down to the ocean.
  11. What kind of protagonist is Kelvin? What do we learn about him from his relationship(s) with Harey? Why would Solaristic science need a psychologist?
  12. Is this story a romance, or an anti-romance?
  13. As you come to the end of the book: What mysteries remain in the story, what curiosity unsatisfied? Chekhov once famously said that there shouldn't be a pistol on stage unless it will be shot later in the play: what is the effect of the bits of information or hints (the straw hat) that turn out not to lead anywhere certain?
  14. To what extend are the G-Formations human? What do we know about them, and what can we infer from that?
  15. How does the idea or ideal of Contact, as discussed here, compare to humans' treatment of and eventual relationship with the Newts in Čapek's novel?