Tag Archives: Stanislaw Lem

On Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance

The Chain of Chance is, first, not a direct translation of the title. The book’s Wikipedia entry—not the greatest source, I know—renders it as Catarrh, or Rhinitis. Hay fever. Not a disease, an annoyance.


Cover of The Chain of Chance

What’s most striking about The Chain of Chance is its structure, which is not conventional at all. (As we’ll see, this book’s themes are directly integrated into the structure and the prose. This is something a lot of SFF could learn from!) The first section is a rambling avalanche of frustrations, raindrops building to a storm of aggravation. The narrator, John, is driving to Rome. Severe allergies clog his sinuses. It’s too hot and too humid. Traffic is heavy; the fan blows exhaust fumes in his face. It looks like rain but the storm won’t break, until suddenly it’s a downpour. “My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel.”

John doesn’t explain what he’s up to. He doesn’t notice he hasn’t explained it. He’s the guy next to you on the plane who spends the flight pouring out his least interesting troubles. We pick out the plot from sporadic details like that sensor: John is posing as a dead man named Adams, using his belongings, monitored by electrodes as he follows Adams’ last journey. How Adams died is a mystery; John imitates his actions precisely, hoping for clues along the way.

Before he took this job John was an astronaut. He didn’t get past orbit, disqualified by allergies. Even his memories of space are annoyances: chasing down floating crumbs and dandruff with a vacuum in zero-G, readjusting to gravity when he came back down.

John stops at a gas station. It’s empty except for a woman who walks in and for some reason faints. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? Just because something seems anomalous, is it important?

An escalator in the station starts when John comes near and stops when he leaves as though, John thinks, it’s announcing the end of a scene.[1] But there’s no intent there, just a sensor. A mechanical process.


Stymied, John flies to Paris, where his journey started. (He still hasn’t gone into details. Who was Adams? Who’s interested in his death, and what’s mysterious about it?) He’s delayed by an airport bombing.

You might assume this is a plot point. It is later, although not in the way you’d expect. For now it’s a thematic bomb. The Chain of Chance was published in 1975 and in the early 1970s terrorism was on everybody’s mind—there was an epidemic of hijackings (over 130 between 1968 and 1972), and Italy was deep in the Years of Lead. In 1975 a bomb would have seemed a logical way to inconvenience the protagonist of a novel in an Italian airport.

Terrorism feels uncanny. The victims are random. The perpetrators are distant, unseen; there’s no direct link. The motive is impersonal—somebody thinks they have to make a point (or that they have a point at all) and to make it they’re going to kill… I dunno, let’s see, maybe you? We don’t know who the somebody is but we know there’s a somebody. When disasters happen in patterns we expect someone is causing them for a reason, an enemy we can fight. As one character observes in an entirely different context, “It’s always convenient to know who’s to blame for everything.”


In the 1960s a programmer named Joseph Weizenbaum created a program called ELIZA. ELIZA was what we’d call a chatbot. It could have followed any number of scripts, but Weizenbaum set it up as what’s known as a Rogerian psychotherapist. (This is the ELIZA we’re all familiar with today, but Weizenbaum called this script DOCTOR.) The technique involves asking open questions and reflecting the patient’s answers back to them, which could be simulated simply by saying things like “That’s quite interesting,” and “Can you elaborate on that?” and occasionally regurgitating whatever the “patient” just typed (“You say the owls are not what they seem?”). What Rogerian psychotherapists thought of all this is not recorded.

In his book Computer Power and Human Reason Weizenbaum described what happened next.[2] When he suggested recording conversations with ELIZA colleagues objected that this “amounted to spying on people’s most intimate thoughts.” Not that Weizenbaum was cool with spying on intimate thoughts, but it hadn’t occurred to him anyone would share intimate thoughts with ELIZA. People were treating ELIZA like a real therapist. Even Weizenbaum’s secretary asked him to leave the room so she could chat privately. Three psychiatrists (including his colleague Kenneth Colby) writing in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease saw a future where “Several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system.” To Weizenbaum this was weird and creepy. Any real therapeutic relationship is based on empathy. How could anyone think this half-assed algorithm was capable of empathy?

Pareidolia is the psychological quirk that makes you see unintended images—often faces—in random or meaningless arrangements of shapes. It’s what’s happening when an electrical outlet looks like a surprised little guy, or when you see a major religious figure in your English muffin. It’s a form of apophenia, the temptation to find meaning in things that aren’t meaningful or even connected. Like, lefty urbanists sometimes insist cities don’t plant fruit trees along the streets due to active collusion between planning departments and supermarket owners, who meet in smoky backrooms nationwide to prevent free food. Nobody thinks of the ordinary and obvious fact—because it’s not an interesting story—that fruit leaves a goddamn mess on the sidewalk. This story takes isolated data points—ornamental trees don’t have fruit, business owners don’t like competition, they’re often tight with local politicians—and perceived a pattern that isn’t there. That’s a form of apophenia.

Humans also tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; some small corner in every human mind will see a stuck Roomba banging around under a couch and imagine it’s frightened. Sometimes people see more humanity in objects than humans. The point of all this being that no one who has accidentally sent a text message about ducks thinks the autotext feature on their phone is smart, but put a better version of the algorithm in a different context and you’ll convince a lot of people—educated people, even—they’re talking to Deep Thought. People like to see people and, more than anything else in the world, people want to believe in agency.


Stymied, John visits Dr. Barth, a computer scientist who consults with the Sûreté. We’re halfway through the book and up to now we’ve had to piece the plot together by picking relevant details out of a torrent of grumbles, but here John finally explains what’s going on.

John’s story is the best kind of telling instead of showing, not a dramatization but a report. It’s a long chunk of exposition, but efficient. The Chain of Chance takes advantage of its status as prose and doesn’t draw the explanation out with flashback scenes or extra dialogue. Lem loved crossing fiction and nonfiction; he was a master of storytelling through exposition and his novels include Borgesian volumes of reviews and introductions to nonexistent books.

Adams was one of a series of men—all middle-aged, all single, all balding, all with allergies—who visited a spa famous for its sulfur baths. Each one subsequently developed paranoid delusions—hinting they were on to some mysterious journalistic scoop, or being hounded by terrorists. (Apophenia again.) Finally each man either committed suicide or died through accidents so careless they might as well have been intentional. Adams’ family noticed the similarities and hired John to make sense of this—not that he’s had much luck. Is it a poison? Is someone testing a chemical weapon? Why balding, allergic men, and why single—is that part of the profile, or did they just not have anyone to notice their strange behavior and get help? Just because it’s a point of commonality, is it important? John isn’t sure what details to pick out; he’s been reading the situation the same way we read the first sections of the novel.


Dr. Barth introduces John to a colleague, Dr. Saussure (no relation). Dr. Saussure doesn’t have a solution but he does have a hunch, expressed in metaphor: imagine a table held together with nails, the nail-heads visible on its surface. Imagine a drop of water perfectly positioned on each nail. You’d conclude someone had been by with an eyedropper. But leave the table out in a rainstorm and of course the nails will be wet, no eyedropper required: in a storm some drops will inevitably hit.

Or imagine a fly landing on a firing range. To hit the fly with a single bullet would be impressive marksmanship. But what about a real fusillade, a room packed with bullets? Shoot long enough, and one’s bound to hit. The dead fly would only impress you if you didn’t notice the misses, if your perceptions were somehow limited to that single bullet.

As an astronaut, John had a metaphorical long-distance view of humanity; he could take in the entire world at one glance. On Earth, he’s one of the flies on the firing range.


Here John returns to his catalogue of annoyances. Chief among them is a tabloid suggesting impropriety between John and the young woman who survived the bombing with him; he’s pissed off enough to get careless. In his angrily random roamings he ingests exactly the wrong combination of snacks, allergy medicine, and shampoo—and now he stumbles into the solution to the mystery, nearly adding to the list of victims in the process. The dead men weren’t poisoned by people. What drove them to suicide was an unlikely chemical reaction involving sulfur, allergy medicine, hair tonic, and candied almonds (hey, everybody likes candy).

Lem opens a chapter of his novel Fiasco by insisting “That which mathematically has an extremely low probability also has this characteristic: that it may nevertheless sometimes happen.” Lem keeps coming back to chance and contingency; when he published a book of literary theory he called it The Philosophy of Chance.[3] The Investigation is another mystery where the villain may be an improbable natural process. His Master’s Voice offers this as one possible explanation for an apparently alien signal.

Any wild improbability may be inevitable including, the last line suggests, the writing of The Chain of Chance, a novel that looks at the twentieth century and sees more people alive than at any point in history and a world moving faster every year. This is a human rainstorm: every day enough people take enough weird and random actions to hit every spot on every table and then some.

Surely such a complex repeating pattern must have been planned? But a lot of people die, and a lot of those deaths also have complex backstories, and a lot of those backstories inevitably happen more than once. It’s just that no one picked those specific wet nails out of the many raindrops hitting the table, assumed they’d found a pattern, and deduced intent. John’s investigation is based in the same kind of apophenia the dead men experienced.

Of course, there is an intent behind The Chain of Chance: Lem’s. But we aren’t living in a novel. We can’t read the world like a story. A lot of political discourse is real people fanfiction about the machinations of perceived enemies who are in reality confused and fumbling. Banal contingencies become plots. Anyone who is at all online has seen people confabulate elaborate stories to explain why strangers took actions that were in fact unimportant or random. Think of the people on Nextdoor who see a van driving slowly and warn that burglers are casing the neighborhood when it was just some guy looking for an address.

Purpose and agency are weirdly comforting even when they seem malevolent. Things don’t just happen. Someone is running the game even if it’s rigged against you. Anyone who’s read a detective novel knows mysteries are caused by villains, and at the end of the story the villain will be revealed. You can do things about villains: arrest them, or fight them, or at least call them out. You can’t call out a random combination of chemicals. You can broadcast warnings and pass laws and regulations; but they take a lot of work, and the work doesn’t feel like a fun adventure, and anyway there’s only so much you can do to protect people from their own haplessness. In that sense a villain is, oddly, less frightening. The Chain of Chance is a detective novel where the villains are nature, chance, and apophenia. These are the enemy more often than most of us would care to admit.

  1. Which is is, but only from the reader’s perspective.  ?
  2. I have read just excerpts of this book and would like to read the whole thing… but it’s out of print, used copies are expensive, and the available ebook for some reason consists of page images cut in half and displayed sideways.  ?
  3. As far as I know this has never been translated into English but there’s a summary at that Wikipedia page.  ?

Microworlds and All Systems Red

Recent Reading 2022–01


Cover of Microworlds

In 1973, the Science Fiction Writers of America gave Stanislaw Lem an honorary membership. In 1976, they found an excuse to take it away. They’d found out what Lem thought of science fiction, and SFF culture is deeply petty. Lem was one of the genre’s harshest critics and Microworlds is 280 pages of what the SFWA was reacting to.

What’s striking about Microworlds is how relevant it feels, though it was published forty years ago and collects essays that are even older. A running theme is Lem’s belief that science fiction’s pulp roots—in his view, its status as a commercial genre—holds it back. One point he keeps coming back to is that science fiction is intensely conformist in the kinds of stories it tells; most defaults to adventure stories or detective stories, and the resulting novels lack the tools to grapple with the bigger themes they gesture towards. And, yeah… this is a phenomenon I’m familiar with even from current SFF.

And Lem calls fans out on that two-step maneuver where they insist science fiction is important literature—maybe the most important literature of all—but when it’s subjected to serious criticism they pull back and insist it’s just entertainment and the critics are being pretentious. SFF fans pull this one out on a regular basis to this day. Fandom likes to congratulate themselves on how much SFF has evolved, but the truth is today’s SFF has a lot of the same problems it had back in the “golden age.”

All Systems Red

Speaking of not grappling with themes…

Cover of All Systems Red

Martha Wells’ Murderbot series has snagged a couple of Hugo awards. In early 2022 I decided I should finally get around to reading the first book, All Systems Red. (Yes, it’s been that long since I took notes for this review.) It’s fine, I guess. It’s entertaining on the same level as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche or one of the better Star Trek novels. I’d have been more impressed if that were what I’d expected going in. SFF grade inflation strikes again.

This is one of the many SFF novels that don’t recognize their own best ideas, or push them far enough. Murderbot is a “SecUnit,” ostensibly a security robot, though in fact it’s (it goes by “it”) a human being with cyborg parts. Murderbot loves television. All it wants to do is watch television and it’s constantly telling us how it spends every spare moment on its shows. But it doesn’t tell us what its favorite shows are like. This is a large and weird narrative hole. First, a chance for fun metafictional commentary on science fiction is left on the table. More importantly, this is a missed opportunity to characterize both the narrator and its world. What stories does Murderbot gravitate to? What kind of stories get told? (Or what kind of propaganda? Because corporations are in charge here and, as in our world, TV is corporate IP.) How are this world’s stories different from our stories, in broad outline or in detail? How does Murderbot’s life differ from the clichés? We don’t find out.

Which means they effectively aren’t different. All Systems Red leans on the reader’s knowledge of what television looks like to fill in the gap. This is admirably baldfaced pandering—Murderbot’s a media fan, just like you! (It reminds me of how so many musicals are about musicals, because the one topic the entire audience is certain to care about is musicals.) But the whole book feels sketched in. We don’t get a sense of what the protagonists’ spaceship or habitat module is like because we’re assumed to already have usable mental models for “spaceship” and “sci-fi base.” We don’t know what Murderbot’s armor looks like because we have a mental model for “space armor.” No good novel catalogs every detail of every environment, but they will offer surprising or thematically relevant details to pull readers away from our mental defaults. Here we’re working with our defaults.

The human characters are an indistinguishable mass. There’s a sympathetic one, a paranoid one, and some other ones. The book could be doing this on purpose to signal Murderbot’s disinterest, but it’s hard to tell.

All Systems Red is one of those books that start in media res with an action scene. These openings make it hard to care what’s happening. We don’t know yet who anyone is, or what world they live in, and can’t put the action in context. It feels like All Systems Red never gives enough context. The narration is a bald and mechanically paced description of events in a generic first person that could easily be converted to third person (a popular default style in contemporary SFF). This happened, then this, then this. Murderbot only narrates what’s happening right now; the structure of the novel doesn’t let it think back or stop to contemplate.

This could be clever, because the book works like a recap of a TV episode where events play out at a steady pace and what isn’t “on screen” isn’t important. But I’m not sure the book is doing this thoughtfully. One important event in Murderbot’s past needed more exploration. This event would have been a traumatic turning point in its life. It would be the first thing to affect how anyone who knew of it thought of Murderbot. But after a brief initial allusion the book mentions this event only a couple of times, briefly, when it comes up in dialogue. The book’s straight-ahead moment-to-moment style doesn’t allow exploration of Murderbot’s past, and doesn’t allow introspection. Murderbot thinks about one of the most significant moments of its life slightly more often than it thinks about rutabagas, and with similar emotional weight.

The end reveals the entire novel was a letter from Murderbot to another character explaining its decision to strike out on its own, rejecting both the security corporation and the second-class citizenship experienced by free cyborgs. But until the reveal the novel doesn’t read like a letter, and at no point does it read like a letter meant to explain anything. Murderbot describes events but rarely has opinions on them beyond mild annoyance at anything that isn’t television. Until the decisive moment all it seems to want is to slide through life with minimal awkwardness or responsibility. The novel never feels like an argument for why Murderbot would make this risky and uncertain decision now, as opposed to any other point in its life. Murderbot has an epiphany just because there’s one scheduled for the end of the novel.

All Systems Red doesn’t explain what it claims to be explaining. It’s more like… well, we can see it’s wrong for SecUnits to be second-class citizens, and we’re meant to identify with Murderbot, so it should be able to see what we do. So we fill in the book’s argument like we filled in the nature of the spaceships and the armor and the planet this all happened on. This book is not about what it wants to be about in any meaningful way.

I’m normally happy when a book hands me implications and asks me to fill in the gaps, but it doesn’t feel like All Systems Red is implying anything. What’s explicit is meant to be enough.

This is not exactly a review of All Systems Red. I mean, it is, but I wouldn’t have bothered to write it if I didn’t have these exact frustrations with so much other science fiction and fantasy. So much popular SFF is so thin. (And by no means am I only talking about current SFF here—but the older thin books are no longer popular.)

It’s not that the All Systems Reds of SFF are bad books. They’re skilled, professional novels. But it feels like that skill and professionalism is focused on streamlining books down to nothing more than a plot and a moral, precision-engineering away any accidental subtext or ambiguity. The resulting novels have skins, and skeletons, but not much of a heart.

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. ↩