January 16, 2019

The Beautiful World of Stanislaw Lem

“The science-fiction writer and futurist Stanisław Lem was well acquainted with the way that fictional worlds can sometimes encroach upon reality. In his autobiographical essay “Chance and Order,” which appeared in The New Yorker, in 1984, Lem recalls how as an only child growing up in Lvov, Poland, he amused himself by creating passports, certificates, permits, government memos, and identification papers. Equipped with these eccentric toys, he would then privately access fictional places “not to be found on any map.” Some years later, when his family was fleeing the Nazis, Lem notes that they escaped certain death with the help of false papers. It was as if the child’s innocent game had prophesied a horrific turn in history, and Lem wonders if he’d sensed some calamity looming on the horizon—if his game had sprung “perhaps from some unconscious feeling of danger.”

The idea of a private world spilling over unsettlingly into reality is also at the heart of his novel “Solaris,” from 1961, about a sentient ocean with the power of “seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life,” as the Lem fan Salman Rushdie once described it. The massive popularity of “Solaris”—made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, in 1972, and then again in 2002, by Steven Soderbergh, as a moody near-future love story with George Clooney—helped Lem become one of the most widely read science fiction writers in the world. Yet his writing reached far beyond the borders of the genre. In addition to many novels and stories, he composed a huge philosophical treatise on the relation of human beings and machines, a good deal of pungently argued literary criticism, a volume of reviews of nonexistent books, a stochastic theory of narrative fiction, an experimental detective novel, speculative essays dealing with artificial intelligence, cybernetics, cosmology, genetic engineering, game theory, sociology, and evolution, radio plays and screenplays. Such staggering polymathic curiosity over such a vast range of material, all of it explored with lucidity and charm, gives his writing a unique place on a Venn diagram in which the natural sciences, philosophy, and literature shade into one another with mutually intensifying vividness and fascination.”

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