Tag Archives: Stanislaw Lem

A Very Confused Detective

This year I read two Stanislaw Lem novels I’d never read before. The Invincible didn’t impress me, but The Investigation is one of his better books.

The Investigation is Lem’s take on the British mystery. As you might expect the subject isn’t the usual mundane murder: Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard is assigned to look into reports of dead bodies found moved with no one around to move them. It seems corpses are getting up and walking.

Cover of The Investigation

Generally[1] I think Lem is at his best in his satirical books, like The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, and A Perfect Vacuum. The Investigation isn’t one of those, but it’s not dry and numbingly earnest like The Invincible. Lem’s prose is good here, with sharp and memorable descriptions, as when Gregory looks at his fellow train passengers and sees “a sea of accidental faces.”

The Investigation is set in detective-novel England as seen from Poland. In the first few pages we hear of places like Engender, Planting, and Spittoon, and minor characters with names like Thicker and Samuel Filthey. Lem drops these into an entirely straight-faced conversation about animate corpses. It reads like a CSI briefing done in Monty Python voices. Lem surrounds straight man Gregory with interestingly grotesque characters.[2] The best is the birdlike, irascible statistician Sciss, who is incensed by the suspicion that someone might be making fun of mathematics.

Where The Investigation shines is in its surrealism. Lem writes like a dream here, literally: when he drops in a dream sequence it’s not a typical allegorical novel dream, it actually has the disjointed, illogical feel of a real nightmare. Yet it’s still one of those dream sequences you don’t initially realize is a dream, which says a lot about the novel’s tone. Gregory is, after all, investigating walking corpses. Meetings with his superior often take place at night, or in darkened rooms, as if Scotland Yard has instituted mood lighting policies. The case culminates with the nightmarish image of a body moving like a wind-up toy, and I can’t imagine a horror movie pulling off a creepier image than the one The Investigation evoked in my imagination.

The more impossible the case seems the more Gregory moves out of the ordinary world, and the more alienated he becomes. His life outside Scotland Yard is a series of small awkward failures to connect to other people, from the bartender whose simple questions about dinner he’s too abstracted to understand to a humiliatingly unsuccessful attempt to give a few coins to a beggar. Gregory is ultimately so confused that he walks down a tunnel, finds another person blocking his way, and only belatedly realizes he’s walked into a mirror.

Like the astronauts in The Invincible, Gregory is dealing with an apparently intelligent phenomenon that may have no intelligence behind it at all. Sciss’s best explanation for the animate corpses is essentially that some random physical phenomena happened to come together in just the right way to make the dead walk. For Gregory this calls to mind a metaphor of the universe as a bowl of soup in which bits randomly clump together to form something whole. Improbable, but as Lem wrote in another novel, mathematically improbable events sometimes happen anyway. Lem was seemingly fascinated by randomness and probability, returning to the theme over and over. (One of the fake book reviews in A Perfect Vacuum covers a book arguing that if the laws of probability are true then the universe itself, being so improbable, cannot possibly exist.) Lem’s characters seek order in statistical chaos. Many of his novels hinge on distinguishing between meaningful, intelligent phenomena and pareidolia: the misapplied pattern-seeking that, for instance, lets us see faces in clouds. His aliens are really alien. Is Solaris bringing visitors’ memories to life for a reason, or is it an autonomic response, like white blood cells reacting to a virus? Is it possible, without anthropomorphizing, for humans to understand what’s happening on Eden? Most of Lem’s stories and themes come back to the limits of human ability to comprehend an infinite, incomprehensible universe.[3] (In this Lem has a weird thematic parallel to H. P. Lovecraft, although happily Lem’s preoccupation with incomprehensibility is based in a sense of wonder, not xenophobia.) The Investigation takes these themes out of their science fictional context and applies them to the detective novel.

How readers interpret the genre of The Investigation will affect how they interpret Sciss’s theory. Gregory can’t decide what genre he’s in. Sometimes he’s seduced by Sciss’s ideas—if the human mind can’t understand everything, he reasons at one point, maybe it’s irrelevant whether an explanation seems to make sense. Sometimes he’s not buying it: the outbreak of walking dead must have some human intelligence behind it, and he increasingly suspects Sciss himself. But because the name on the cover is Stanislaw Lem and not Agatha Christie, the reader knows the impossible may be happening.

And that’s what Gregory ultimately confirms. But his superintendant has a more mundane theory—a truck-driving prankster—that almost fits. And it’s a tidy theory, since the suspect has since died and wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the accusation. In the end it’s not clear what Scotland Yard’s going to go with. Is a tidy but probably wrong explanation better, or an unsatisfactory mystery? Lem, as you might expect from somebody who lived in Communist Poland, suggests the authorities would rather be satisfied than right. The real horror isn’t the walking dead—it’s the thought that the universe might be too big, random, and weird for human beings to get their heads around.

  1. Exceptions include Solaris, natch.  ↩

  2. The biggest problem with The Investigation is that, as is often the case with older SF, it’s lopsidedly male. Only a handful of women appear and we’re well into the novel before one even gets any lines. I’m mentioning the biggest flaw in a footnote because it’s an all too common problem in older SF, and not even an interesting problem. There’s only so much I can think of to say about it beyond “it’s this crap again.”  ↩

  3. I haven’t read Lem’s philosophical book Summa Technologiae, but in it he apparently argues for something like the Singularity: eventually, he suspects, humans will reach the point where we have so much information we can’t process it all.  ↩

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.

  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

There are two Stanislaw Lems. I’m a big fan of the playful satirist who wrote The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. The hard science fiction writer, not so much. Not that Lem couldn’t write brilliantly in that mode–Solaris really is a classic–but his track record wasn’t as good.

For the longest time the only version of Solaris in English was a translation of a translation. A few years ago an ebook of a new, direct translation was released. More recently I came across another new Lem translation of The Invincible, which I’d never read.

Cover of The Invincible

The Invincible is Lem in Hard SF mode. It’s very much not Solaris. In fact, of all the Stanislaw Lem novels I’ve read this is the weakest. Lem was famously unimpressed by American science fiction but reading The Invincible it’s hard to understand why. It underachieves in exactly the same way as most “golden age” American SF.

The Invincible’s prose is nothing more than functional. It’s so straightforward it’s a slog to read. That might seem contradictory, but the difference between functional prose and good prose is the difference between a monotonous drone and a song. What’s more fun to listen to: a Beatles album, or your refrigerator? The Invincible is the refrigerator.

It’s hard to tell whether this is more the fault of Lem or his translator. Lem was usually lucky with his translators,[1] but The Invincible often felt off. For instance, at one point the text refers to “shadowless lamps” where Lem probably meant they didn’t have lampshades.

But never mind the prose–Hard SF fans will tell you the ideas are the star! This argument has problems.

First, if described badly enough even the most fascinating ideas can be boring. The Invincible’s opening sets the tone. Before any of the characters even wake up it spends 500 words narrating a starship’s automatic processes, and we’re halfway through the first chapter before we get any dialogue that isn’t tech jargon like “Full axis power. Static thrust.” This novel cares more about things than people.

We’re told 83 men are on board.[2] That statistic is hard to recall. There might just as easily be 47 men, or a dozen, because they have no personalities or distinguishing features, as even the text acknowledges:

It was baffling, because both men were entirely indistinguishable from the others in their clothing, weaponry, and appearance.

Most of the crew don’t have full names and it’s impossible to remember what surname belongs to who, or which characters we’ve seen before, or when, or where. The Invincible feels like a sketch comedy where all the characters are played by the same two or three people.

Some, again, would argue that The Invincible is the kind of book where the ideas are more important than the characters. But the main advantage a novel of ideas has over a nonfiction book is that it can bounce its concepts and themes off of idiosyncratic characters, with their own concerns and opinions, who will send those ideas in unexpected and strange directions. If the characters are flat, the ideas probably won’t bounce far.

Most of The Invincible consists of long dry descriptions of the crew’s investigation of a planet. Their activities sometimes seem to have equal emphasis regardless of whether they lead to any interesting discoveries. Following one methodical search of what appears to be a ruined city:

Rohan contacted the Invincible, informed the commander of what they had learned—which was essentially nothing

Oh. Okay, then.

Lem built The Invincible around ideas that were, for 1960s science fiction, ahead of their time. The planet is inhabited by self-organizing, self-replicating nanites which aren’t truly conscious but display pseudo-intelligent behavior as an emergent phenomenon. Most of the genre didn’t pick up on concepts like this for a couple of decades. But The Invincible doesn’t do anything with them besides argue that the universe is rather complex and incomprehensible, a theme Lem handled better in other books. “Here are some ideas!” says The Invincible. “I’ll just leave them here. My work is done.”

Which is a problem, because, well, the rest of the genre eventually did pick up on emergence and nanotechnology, and did find more interesting things to do with them. Heck, Doctor Who has done more interesting things with them. That’s the other problem with science fiction that only exists to drop a few ideas: science fictional ideas have a sell-by date. Once a SF novel is conceptually past its time it needs to give us some other reason to keep reading it. The Invincible didn’t manage that.

  1. Michael Kandel in particular is brilliant. Lem’s more playful works include wordplay that sounds completely natural in Kandel’s English but must have been hell to translate.  ↩

  2. Literally all men, which only serves to make the crew even more bland and indistinguishable. ↩