As we reach the end of our month of European writers, Graeme Shimmin takes us to Poland to meet one of the masters of sci-fi, Stanislaus Lem.
A lot of what passes for science fiction these days is not science-fiction at all.
For example, I went to see Star Trek Beyond a couple of days ago. It’s a good film, but it’s not science fiction. “What?” I hear you say. “It has spaceships and lasers and aliens, how can it not be science-fiction?”
Because there is nothing in Star Trek Beyond that could not be set in the Caribbean Ocean instead of space. Change the spaceships to sailing ships, the lasers to muskets and the aliens to pirates but keep the exact same plot. What have you got? Pirates of the Caribbean Beyond.
And don’t even get me started on Star Wars…
Once upon a time, this was not the case. Science fiction dealt with ideas. Which brings me on to today’s European writer: Polish science fiction icon Stanisław Lem, author of Solaris.
Born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland, Lem is one of the most-read authors in science fiction. His books have sold over forty-five million copies in forty-one languages. He remains one of the few European writers of science fiction whose work has been translated into English.
In general, Lem had a poor opinion of English-language science fiction. He described it as too commercial, of not, in short, being science fiction at all. At the time Lem was writing his masterpieces, English language science fiction featured aliens who looked like men in rubber suits. English-speaking aliens travelled for eons across the vastness of space in order to… steal our women.
Lem regarded that as ridiculous, and rightly so. One of his major preoccupations, was the ‘alienness’ of any alien intelligence we may one day encounter.
And Lem had plenty of experience of humanity’s so-called intelligence to draw on. Although not practicing Jews, Lem’s family had Jewish ancestors and so only survived the Second World War by going underground. After 1945, Poland was part of the Soviet bloc and had a communist government which censored all novels.
Although training to be a doctor, Lem began writing stories in his spare time, gaining first publication in 1946. He began to focus on writing science fiction partly because it was seen by the censors as low-brow entertainment for children. Inherently unimportant, science fiction faced less ideological pressure. That gave Lem room to explore his ideas.
The most famous expression of those ideas is the sentient ocean in Solaris. In that novel, the alien ocean attempts to communicate with the humans by physically manifesting their repressed thoughts and memories. This ‘communication’ is perceived by the humans as intolerable mental torture. The alien mind of Solaris is so different from the human mind that inter-species communication is impossible.
Try rewriting that with Jonny Depp in a bandanna.