First, a picture of Stanisław Lem:
The second part of my list of favorite novels by Lem seems more lightweight – and indeed, the books listed below are definitely easier to read than those described previously. That said, these novels and short stories compilations still tackle all of the principal themes in Lem’s work: ideas of consciousness, identity and intelligence, human morality, philosophical problems of life and death and all that is in between.
I think that was my first ‘mature’ meeting with Lem, some two decades ago. I was fascinated, spellbound and rebellious at the same time. Tales of Pirx are a compilation of short stories centred around the main character, Pirx. Pirx is an absolutely ordinary guy, seemingly no hero material at all (as described with details in the first story, Test) – but… Yes, there’s always a “but” 😉 Pirx is an everyman of a very peculiar type – a down-to-earth, thinking, sensitive, moral man. We see the space and all its different dilemmas through his eyes, and this perspective facilitates our fuller immersion into Lem’s future world of space travel, human interactions with AI, and very mundane problems, such as flies getting into spaceships or machinery flaws. There are some of my absolute favorites in here – coincidentally, all about AI and the question of free will. The Accident is a wondrous, unforgettable story about a robot which (or, more accurately, who) goes on a hike and never comes back. The Hunt depicts an organized, ruthless human chase after a dangerous, insubordinate robot gone AWOL, and Terminus – tells the story of a robot unwittingly repeating messages from the dead. All of them are short, to the point, deceptively simple, surprisingly poignant, evocative and ultimately heartbreaking.
Fables for Robots (1964) and The Cyberiad (1965)
Sarcastic, witty, stylish and laugh-out-loud funny, these compilations of short stories have been the definition of utmost doom for many Polish children, who were forced to read them too early, and, as a school duty, to talk about them during the lessons. I think that’s the worst what could have happened to Lem. His Fables for Robots and The Cyberiad are satirical tales about robots, humans, mathematics, philosophy, geology, history and physics – and to understand them well, one really ought to have the basics covered. Together with at least a passing acquaintance with the pop-cultural view of the Medieval world – because Fables for Robots and The Cyberiad are full of robotic knights, robotic dragons, foolish or wise robotic kings and damsels in distress, robotic hermits and many noble – and futile – quests. The Cyberiad deals with two robotic constructors and philosophers, who are best friends and, at the same time, the worst enemies. They are Trurl and Klapaucius, and they usually are trying to outdo each other in inventing the most crazy machines or recipes for universal happiness, or save each other from self-inflicted trouble. These stories are seemingly light and funny, but they also touch upon deeply philosophical and moral problems. The English edition of Fables for Robots was published in two volumes: Mortal Engines with the addition of three bonus stories, and Cosmic Carnival of Stanislaw Lem. But I absolutely must mention the illustrations to Polish editon by Daniel Mróz – wonderful, caustic, and very detailed, which create a wonderful visual counterpoint to Lem’s stories. There was even a super cool Google Doodle homage to both creators.
Another set of satirical, or maybe rather ironical short stories centered around the Earth character Ijon Tichy. Some of the stories portray Tichy’s encounters with other, extraterrestrial civilizations, some describe Tichy’s absurd space adventures, others still are focused on various events on future Earth – from meetings with mad scientists to a revolt of washing machines. I most vividly remember two stories: I (story of Corcoran and the paradox of a mind in a jar), and Doctor Diagoras, which questions the notion of subject and object. Both are really unforgettable, thrilling, chilling, and thought-provoking. As is The Mask (1974), by the way, a story put in the English version into Mortal Engines and published independently as a novelette in Polish.
By the way, many of Lem’s books are available in audio format (as evidenced by this cover ;))
The last on my list is Solaris. The most popular, and popularized, of Lem’s novels, is a nice blend of his usual heavy-weight questions and amazing imagination. The story of an intelligent ocean, and of a human contact with alien mind, is at the same time poignant, weirdly probable and thrilling. I love the concept of a child-like demigod, cruel and soulless, and absolutely innocent. And I love the old philosophical tenet that the only evil is that which we bring with ourselves. Still, Solaris is not my favorite novel. As to why, I can’t really put my finger on it – I suppose it’s just the matter of comparison with other Lem’s novels. Here his views are both less depressing and less convincing – and that probably says more about me than about this book ;). Or maybe it’s the problem of the main protagonist, Kris Kelvin, who through the length of the novel stays somehow tepid, even in the middle of his emotional ordeals. Still, Solaris is really a great, thought-provoking read.
Information no. 1: the years given in parentheses are the original publication dates, not the English translation dates.
Information no. 2: I have read all Lem’s books in Polish. I have heard that Michael Kandel’s translations are considered the ultimate best.
Lem is the best what science fiction can offer – he shows us the possible futures, sure, but at the same time he gives us a mirror and shows us glimpses of ourselves. He doesn’t force anyone to look into it, but he delicately coaxes, entices the readers to take a peek, and then he surprises all with a blow to the head. You’re left standing in front of the mirror, naked, deprived of safe illusions, asking “Is this what we really are?”. And Lem’s greatness lies in not giving any definite answer. Freedom of choice, of taking risks and making mistakes – and of learning and knowing, of striving – that’s what ultimately Lem’s books are about.