Author: Stanisław Lem
Title: The Truth and Other Stories
Other: Short story collection
Stanisław Lem is one of my absolutely favorite SF authors, as you probably already know from here and here. His brain really seems to have been wired differently, perceiving correlations and consequences and possible outcomes that not many others – or none – had seen. He’s also a very pessimistic writer, at least when it comes to humans and human cognitive and moral abilities – and reading Lem is a bit like gazing into a very unflattering mirror, one from Andersen’s tale The Snow Queen. In our times full of wilful denial and escapist pleasure, though, I contend that Lem’s passionate critique is something sorely needed.
This collection gathers stories from different periods of Lem’s life, from 1956 to 1996. Many of them have never been translated to English before. This anthology offers a great opportunity to acquaint oneself with the key themes and topics of Lem’s writing: artificial intelligence, first contact, human psychology and cognitive limitations, ethical problems inherent in human perception of the world. Even though some of these stories are nearing their seventieth year, apart from the odd outdated technological detail they seem as bold and fresh as written today by the greatest in the field. Lem was particularly preoccupied with the concept of Otherness – and this, maybe more than any other theme, makes his writing so enduring and important to his day.
As usual, I’ll present a short review of each story and offer a quick summary and rating of the collection at the conclusion of my post.
The Hunt 10/10
This is a very Lem story; and one so deeply rooted in his personal experiences that without the context might seem too pessimistic. Alas, for all its SF accoutrements it’s a WWII story about the meanings and definitions of “humanity.” The Hunt is one long exhalation, a violent gut punch, and its message is enhanced by a very visceral, visual and dynamic storytelling. It reminds me of Tales of Pirx the Pilot, both in terms of themes and execution, and I find it hard to believe this story is almost 70 years old – it feels so fresh and rabid and desperate. I knew what to expect, and yet I still hoped for a different ending.
A very strong opening to the collection.
Rat in the Labyrinth 7/10
A preparatory sketch to Solaris; interesting but not surprising, with Lem exploring various concepts that will later find their way into the novel. I appreciated the time loop twist, it was well done and lent the whole a suitably nightmarish feel, but the overarching metaphor was a bit too blunt.
Invasion from Aldebaran 7/10
Unfortunately, satire ages quickly; and here it wasn’t helped by the noticeably clunky translation. I must say that in general the translation of the stories in this collection is really good, so hats off to Antonia Lloyd-Jones – but here, she simply didn’t manage to catch the subtexts and contexts, and somehow lost the delicious irony of the tale. The premise and plot are funny, but their acerbic humor stems mainly from the utter believability of the situation – in fact, this story is a satire on Polish rural culture in the 50’s more than anything else. It avoided censorship because it was clad in an iridescent SF cloak, but really, it’s a viciously accurate reportage from Polish boondocks. It’s still spot on, actually.
The Friend 10/10
Wondrously creepy, twisty and dark, The Friend is one of the highlights of the collection. A feeling of constant oppression, infiltration, and fear permeates this tale that starts like a noir detective story, turns into a morality tale, and switches gears again to become a tour the force in empathy and imagination, with a finishing touch of body horror. Once again, this story seems as if it was written today, not in the 50’s. Perfect.
Okay, I get what Lem was trying to accomplish here, but the tale is long and winding, and because I’ve read so many better stories from him I don’t really have patience for this one. It’s still good, and admirably, insightfully contrarian to the general mood of the times it was conceived in, but it’s not one of Lem’s best. Still, a great antidote to conspiracy theories of various provenance – not everything in the universe has to be humanely meaningful.
Darkness and Mildew 8.5/10
A creepy, creepy twist on Goethe’s poem called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (The Zauberlehrling) – though this one, characteristically for Lem, doesn’t end well. The growing anxiety and a feeling of discomfort are palpable; it’s a testament to Lem’s skill that after reading this little tale one may start to look upon the ever-present, common dust and mildew with certain trepidation or outright suspicion.
The Hammer 8/10
A fascinating pre-sponse to not-yet-existing Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Tight, suspenseful, detailing with clinical precision a slow downward spiral toward madness during a solitary yearslong space flight. Lem had a soft spot for his thinking machines; here, though, the main emotion is ambivalence and subtle understatement.
Lymphater’s Formula 10/10
A wonderful twist on Goethe and Shelley this time, the mad scientist’s creation as the next step of evolution. Written in the second person perspective, it creates an uncanny image of a genius obsessed with and then broken by his invention. Deliciously idiosyncratic in his mannerisms and patterns of speech, Lymphater nevertheless comes across as a protagonist of a morality tale: a sort of a tragic hero to whom greater knowledge brings only terror and grief. It was written in 1969, but, just as its inspirations, it’s timeless.
The Journal 7.5/10
An atheist’s image of god. Convoluted, complex, elaborate, ruthlessly logical and yet empathetic, it constitutes a fascinating thought experiment that nevertheless left me cold. I guess this story can be viewed as a consummation of Lem’s lifelong obsession with the philosophical concept of ‘the brain in the jar’ and I’d have certainly been more awed if I hadn’t read and learned about this idea more than once already. Definitely prefer The Friend.
The Truth 10/10
Wonderfully imaginative, vividly descriptive – a fascinating account of unacceptable knowledge born from tragedy. It’s also absolutely, unapologetically crazy, in that rabbit hole way that hooks you in and drags you ever deeper. Mad scientists feature heavily in this collection; for a lot of reasons. Censorship, be it political or academical, is usually born out of fear and personal/institutional interest, and Lem was well acquainted with political censorship in 1950s and ‘60s in Poland. But he also points out to Kuhn’s concept of the structure of scientific revolutions, where new knowledge is usually rejected at first only to be accepted later on under the weight of new evidence and growing consensus.
One Hundred and Thirty Seven Seconds 10/10
All right, Lem did it again.Led me on a merry chase through physics, macro and quantum, the nature of time, the nature of consciousness, only to end with a gallows humor and a knowing wink to the audience. A lovely story, much in the style of The Saragossa Manuscript or Decameron, or other oral tales fit to be told by the campfire, it showcases the strengths of both Lem’s writing skill and his amazing capacity for applying knowledge. One for Bart and the concept of free will, certainly 😉
An Enigma 8/10
A wonderfully ironic trifle, a perfect lightweight dessert at the end of a very filling eleven-course meal. It shows Lem’s other face, that of a wise jester, inviting us to laugh wholeheartedly with him at our own expense. Reminiscent of Cyberiad, this tiny story makes a perfect conclusion to the collection, imploring us to keep an open mind and be curious, always.
All in all, this was a real pleasure. Not all stories are equally wonderful, as usual with anthologies, but there’s an unusually high percentage of great stories in this collection. They are all thought-provoking, bold, unapologetic, and ruthless in their unrelenting seriousness with which Lem approached everything, and which KSR so aptly describes in his foreword. A word about the foreword: I think that it should rather be read as an afterword – Robinson not only shares his appreciation for Lem’s work in general and the influence it had on his own writing, but also discusses some of the stories from this collection.
I will be coming back to some of these stories. Their superb quality, their clinical poetry of structure and image, is haunting. While I obviously prefer the original Polish version of Lem’s works, I am surprised, really, to have enjoyed them so much in translation – which is a testament to both Lem’s enduring skill and breadth of vision, and to the faithful translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Very highly recommended.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher MIT Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.