Stanislaw Lem and Science Fiction

My first year of university, I took a course on Russian and Eastern European sci-fi. This was, of course, to fill a gen-ed requirement, and the only time I actually use anything I learned in it is to explain why Animorphs is an excellent series that should go down in the ranks of classic sci-fi stories. I figured this is as good a time as any to try something else: let’s talk about Stanislaw Lem.

Lem was a pioneer of Eastern European science fiction despite not even liking the genre and considering most works in it terrible – the exception being Philip K Dick, who did not return his respect (though probably not due to any extreme feelings about Lem’s work, just his own paranoia and belief that Lem wasn’t a real person.)

His most famous work is Solaris,  which is okay. I don’t love it, but it was readable. For me, it, like most of Lem’s work, is more memorable for its impact on science fiction than its own merits. It has had two film adaptations that Lem disliked, including one that I find ridiculous because it somehow managed to fade into obscurity despite being directed by Steven Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron, and  starring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Natascha McElhone, and John Cho (though granted, before the last three of the aforementioned actors were well known). It’s had multiple theatre adaptations, and apparently even an opera.

Lem’s work, even beyond Solaris, has been highly acclaimed. I don’t get it. I’m all for themes and philosophical questions and moral quandaries in books, but in order to address those things, the book has got to be entertaining, first. Most of what I’ve read from Lem is just boring, and almost painfully pretentious, with the one exception being The Star Diaries.

It’s possible that part of the reason it stands out to me as so much better is that it had a better translation. Maybe if I knew Polish, I’d find that Solaris, too, was filled with a mildly snarky narration. But I don’t. So Solaris seems to me like two hundred odd pages of dry nothingness. The Star Diaries, on the other hand, is hilarious. It’s largely a parody of common science fiction tropes, and involves aliens horrified by humans as a species; the lead character being hit with a pan being wielded by his future self; and space travel so casual, that the aforementioned lead character turned his ship around and went some huge distance because he’d forgotten something at the spaceport. I’m told there was a German sitcom adaptation, and if anyone knows where I can find that, I will be eternally grateful.

It raises an interesting point about science fiction in general. Fans of the genre, as well as its writers (Lem himself being an obvious example), are often divided on almost every issue. Hard vs soft sci-fi? Do the space opera Star Wars-esque works count?  Hell, I’ve even seen people debate the term sci-fi. One thing that I frequently see is complaints about the lack of appreciation for the genre when it comes to literary communities and awards.

When it comes to film and television science fiction, I’ll admit that they have a point. There aren’t many sci-fi movies or shows that get critical acclaim. But when it comes to literature, I think we need to broaden the question, because there are plenty of authors and works that get heaped with critical praise. Before we talk about if/why science fiction gets looked down upon in the literary community, we need to address how said community judges books. There’s a valid discussion to be had about what we consider a “classic”, or a work of “literary merit”.

I find the whole concept of literary fiction to be a nonsense, made up category. The way I see it, there are four categories a work can fall into:

  1. Entertaining with no deeper themes.
  2. Boring with no deeper themes.
  3. Entertaining with deeper themes.
  4. Boring with deeper themes.

Obviously, the first and second shouldn’t be considered classics. But I’ve found that often, the third is overlooked in favour of the fourth, especially in regards to science fiction. Things that are entertaining and that don’t necessarily delve into the minutia of the science – which is probably a smart choice, given that technology marches on and doing so could leave a work extremely dated in a few decades – are sometimes dismissed as nothing of merit, just popcorn for the masses. Even setting aside for a moment the arrogant pretentiousness of claiming that popular works don’t have merit, that’s a shame.

You can see it in Lem’s work. Solaris as a book bored me, but it was short enough that I could get through it quickly. The movies were worse – we watched them in class, and I fell asleep. In both of them. I recognize that it raised interesting questions, but God, it would have been nice if it had done it in a more entertaining way. The Star Diaries, though? That also raised important philosophical questions, like the nature of humanity, and the consequences of scientific progress. But it did it in a humorous fashion. It never felt like a lecture, or like it was dragging on. But it’s Solaris that’s considered the classic, not The Star Diaries. Works like that being considered representative of the genre instead of the more entertaining and accessible pieces is alienating and contributes to the lack of widespread appreciation.

Stanislaw Lem was himself rather obnoxious and arrogant, dismissing other writers in his genre as ignoring the possibilities in favour of writing nonsense, so perhaps it’s fitting that some of his works are ignored in favour of focusing on others. His work and exploration of sci-fi tropes before their popularization was very valuable to the genre he disliked. But unfortunately, he exhibited the same kind of elitism that prevents excellent works from being acknowledged and alienates readers that could otherwise find a great deal of science fiction enjoyable.

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