Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Stanislaw Lem

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

As a child, I read Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. As an adolescent, I discovered Anthony Boucher and Alfred Bester. I was an adult before I found Philip K. Dick, who is best known for the source material for the film Blade Runner. And yet I had never heard of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006), whose work first began to appear in English translation in the 1970s, and who is said to be the most widely read science fiction author in the non-English-speaking world. Then I saw Solaris on cable.

In Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (2002), based on Lem's 1961 novel of the same name, George Clooney plays a widowed psychiatrist who is asked to investigate apparent psychological problems on a space station. It is a brilliant, subtle psychological drama. (The novel was turned into a movie once before, the tedious and puzzling semi-experimental Russian film Solaris (1972), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.)

The range of Lem's work is astonishing to explore and difficult to describe. I began by reading The Star Diaries (1966), the Gulliver-like adventures of Ijon Tichy, a pedantic time traveler in a one-man spaceship. The first story, "The Seventh Voyage," is the most hilarious time-travel story, in fact the most hilarious science fiction story, that I have ever read. Tichy's adventures, continued in Memoirs of a Space Traveler (1971) and The Futurological Congress (1974), are highly imaginative satires with premises that range from a monastery of thoughtful, religious robots; to a planet of people who, for political reasons, pretend to be robots; to the strangely recurring Lemmian motif of cyborg furniture; to, of course, a drug that makes people think they have taken a drug.

In contrast, a novella titled "The Mask" (1974), available in the collection Mortal Engines (1977), has the familiar theme of human / robot confusion, but explores the human condition, even specifically the feminine condition, seriously rather than satirically. In "The Mask," a machine/android created to impersonate a woman begins to question her own motives. The story is simultaneously bizarre--more bizarre than I can possibly recount here--and deeply moving.

Return From The Stars (1961) addresses what it means to be human from the middle ground (neither satirical nor ethical) of traditional science fiction. An astronaut of our own near future returns from a space voyage that lasted ten years for him and 130 years for Earth. The society he finds on his return is unrecognizable and unnavigable. To his shock, he discovers that even human nature, from his perspective, has been altered by technology.

His Master's Voice (1968), a mature and more complex precursor to Carl Sagan's Contact (1985), concerns a type of Manhattan Project devoted to the deciphering of a supposed alien message, as told by one of the eccentric scientific genius participants.

Lem was ahead of his time. Don't be fooled by the dates of his works; he not only understood modern trends in technology but made bizarrely accurate predictions. In addition, he clearly influenced today's science fiction books and films. All books mentioned are in print.

Copyright © 2006 by Heidi Boudro