מגזין "מקו ועד תרבות"

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מגזין מקו ועד תרבות “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”<br><br>Stanisław Lem<br><br>The Solarist <br><br>100 years since the birth of Stanisław Lem - anyone who reads Solaris might think that the cobwebs are being cleaned from deep recesses of their brain.

“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”

Stanisław Lem

The Solarist

100 years since the birth of Stanisław Lem – anyone who reads Solaris might think that the cobwebs are being cleaned from deep recesses of their brain.

By Tami Klein

Posted in ,

Solaris is cataloged as science fiction, only because of our need to classify things. Disregard the classification and read the book. Dr. Aaron Hauptman has retranslated the Solaris from Polish to Hebrew, simply because he was captivated with the book’s extraordinary qualities. We asked him to write this article and he gladly agreed, again because he recognizes the greatness of Stanisław Lem, and understands the importance of the extraordinary observations that Solaris contains.

Dr. Aaron Hauptman

In 1983, an American literary critic wrote that if Stanisław Lem did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature by the end of the 20th century, it would be only because someone told the judges that he writes science fiction. Lem is deeply appreciated by tens of millions of loyal readers around the world, including in Israel. Many consider him one of the greatest writers in the second half of the 20th century. He is undoubtedly one of the greats of science fiction literature, but the admiration for his original, witty, and sophisticated writing – even in the reference books he wrote – extends far beyond the declared circles of avid science-fiction enthusiasts.

Lem, of Jewish descent, was born on September 13 (or 12, not entirely clear), 1921 in Lviv (also known as “Lvov”), the capital of Galicia. Before World War II, the city belonged to Poland, and it is now in Ukrainian territory. Its German name (when it was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was Lemberg, which is the origin of author’s family name Lem. Stanisław Lem died on March 27, 2006 and was buried in the Polish city Kraków, where he spent most of his years after World War II.

מגזין מקו ועד תרבות “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”<br><br>Stanisław Lem<br><br>The Solarist <br><br>100 years since the birth of Stanisław Lem - anyone who reads Solaris might think that the cobwebs are being cleaned from deep recesses of their brain.

If I were asked to recommend one and only one book to a person who has not read (and may never read again) any science fiction, I would undoubtedly choose Solaris, Lem’s most famous book, which has been translated into 41 languages. Solaris was published in Poland in 1961. After it was translated into English, British author and critic Brian Aldiss wrote that was one of the greatest books of the decade, even though the first English translation of the book (from the French) was far from satisfactory, to say the least. Quite a few sentences, including especially important (and difficult to translate) passages are omitted, a fact I discovered to my horror and astonishment when, in 1980, I translated the book from Polish, while “glancing” at the English translation. The book was translated again in 2011, this time directly from the Polish. However, because of a copyright dispute this translation does not exist in print, but only as an e-book or audio recording.

I read Solaris after watching its first cinematic version (discounting an earlier, forgotten version made for Russian television), that of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, from 1972. It was at the London Cinematheque. Advertisements at the time declared it, “The Russian answer to 2001 A Space Odyssey…”

Like many others I was captivated by the book’s mesmerizing charm, its sophisticated use of language and imaginative portrayal of an extremely strange and bizarre world, at the limit of human ability to explore, understand and communicate with a terrifying alien, the living (and thinking?) ocean of Solaris.

While trying, almost pathetically, to explore Solaris’ ocean, human explorers are exposed to the truly terrifying things – the demons hidden in their minds are actually the things haunting them, taking physical form by interfering with the ocean’s incomprehensible forces (forces that probably also allow it to control its gravitational field, in the presence of two suns). This entire situation, in addition to being the basis of a fascinating plot, allowed Lem to say some things (quite ironically or sarcastically, as was his wont), about the human psyche and fears, the nature of scientific research, and the purpose (or lack thereof) of longing for contact with alien intelligence. These multi-layered elements, combined with a virtuoso use of language and imagination (spectacular descriptions of the “nature” of Solaris, the ocean) make Solaris, the book, something very close, in my opinion, to the “perfect” science fiction book, assuming that there is such a thing. And that is without mentioning the many additional – cultural, psychological, linguistic, and even theological – layers, including some that are probably related to Lem’s Jewish roots. You can learn about these from fascinating studies by Abraham Joseph (dealing with Lem’s entire oeuvre), “The Meaning of Solaris,” “The Erotic Lem” and “Overt and Covert in the works of Stanisław Lem,” published in Hebrew by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The Hebrew edition of Solaris was published in 1981 by Hyperion Publishing (the second publisher of Fantasy 2000 that had previously been published by A. Tene). A second edition was published by Keter in 2003. The English edition quoted below was translated by translated from Polish by Bill Johnston and originally published in 2017.

For those who have not read Solaris, or have read it but forgotten, here is a selection from one of the most impressive passages in the book, a dialogue between two scholars on the possibility of coveted contact with an inconceivable intelligent (?) entity, the ocean of Solaris:

“We head out into space, ready for anything, which is to say, for solitude, arduous work, self-sacrifice, and death. Out of modesty we don’t say it aloud, but from time to time we think about how magnificent we are. In the meantime—in the meantime, we’re not trying to conquer the universe; all we want is to expand Earth to its limits.

“We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. That’s another falsity. We’re not searching for anything except people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled.

…“It’s what we wanted: contact with another civilization. We have it, this contact! Our own monstrous ugliness, our own buffoonery and shame, magnified as if it was under a microscope!” (From Chapter 6, “A Minor Apocrypha”).

Lem did not particularly like Tarkovsky’s cinematic adaptation of Solaris, and among other things claimed that Tarkovsky did not film Solaris but a kind of version of Crime and Punishment. The New York Times called the film “a love story set in outer space.” “To my best knowledge,” Lem responded with typical irony, “the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space.…” Later, he wrote: “As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. To create an image of a human encounter with something powerful, but unconvertible to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not “Love in Outer Space.”

As a man with multidisciplinary knowledge and extraordinarily original thinking, Lem was a guest at various scientific conferences. Among other things, he was the only non-scientist invited to attend the first American-Russian conference on alien intelligence in 1971. In the last twenty years of his life, Lem rarely wrote fiction, focusing on writing philosophical books, articles, and essays on philosophy, society, and futurism. On his website, he often expresses himself on current events, occasionally expressing sharp criticism of political events. (I remember that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lem remarked that he would not be surprised if Russian President Vladmir Putin “secretly danced a kozachok in the Kremlin.”) (When writing this article, I tried to find this comment on the internet, but without success. Might it have been removed?)

Lem had a unique voice that combined his perspective on scientific inventions and developments, a mocking and amused look at humanity, and human’s interplay with the achievements of science and technology.  Various publications highlight his response to the internet: “I hadn’t known there were so many idiots in the world until I started using the Internet…” (Lem’s biographer, Wojciech Orliński, claims he did not say this, but the quotation does appear on Polish websites praising the Lem, in honor of the “Year of Lem” that Poland declared to honor the centennial of his birth). It may be a curiosity, but his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice includes a fascinating, thought-provoking sentence that relates directly to the world of “fake news” “post-truth” and disinformation that we are now experiencing:

“Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors…?”

As mentioned, Lem also wrote essays on science and futurism (as opposed to fiction). In the context of futurism, it is important to mention his book The Futurological Congress (1971), a kind of dark comedy starring Lem’s well-known hero, Ijon Tichy. This work also prominently features an ironic look at human beings, who in a (seemingly) utopian future find their happiness with the help of hallucinogenic drugs. The book received a very interesting and award-winning cinematic adaptation (2013) by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, who combined human actors with excellent animation.

Lem’s sharp humor is more pronounced in his other books, but I think his key traits are already found in Solaris, especially in his description the history of research about the mysterious ocean. This description appears scattered throughout, as a caricature of scientific research (or a faithful description of it?), just as the ocean’s creatures are caricatures (or faithful replicas?) of repressed human thoughts. These quotations from Chapter 2 of Solaris describe the history of these studies and the heated debates between the supports of various theories about the ocean:

“When this emerged, one of the most tempestuous storms of our century broke out in the scientific world. Some of the most venerable theories, universally regarded as correct, collapsed in ruins, the most heretical articles began to appear in the scientific literature, and the ‘brilliant ocean’ versus ‘gravitational jelly’ debate set every mind on fire….

“…but scientists and opinions were legion. Besides, all the attempts at ‘establishing contact’ were nothing compared to other branches of solaristics, in which specializations grew so advanced a cybernetician was barely able to communicate with a symmetriadologist. Veubeke, who at the time, during my studies, was director of the Institute, once jokingly asked: “How can you communicate with the ocean if you can’t communicate with each other?

“…anyone plunging stubbornly into all this literature cannot resist the impression that though he encounters fragments of perhaps brilliant intellectual constructions, these fragments are mixed indiscriminately with the products of utter foolishness bordering on insanity, as an antithesis to the concept of the ‘oceanic yogi’ there arose the idea of the ‘oceanic idiot.’ These hypotheses resuscitated one of the most ancient of philosophical problems—the relationship between matter and consciousness.”

Even wilder humor abounds in the stories about Ijon Tichy, the pilot of Pirx, and in the tales of the marvelous duo Trurl and Klapaucius. These reach the heights of grotesque humor in the wonderful collection of stories Cyberiad (in an excellent Hebrew translation by Paulina Tzelnik, and into English by Michael Kandel), in which Lem mocks the many faces of human folly, such as the path of torment followed in pursuit of supreme happiness.

I could say that even after his death Lem would probably continue to chuckle at our folly from above, but he would certainly not have liked such a statement. He was very far from all types of religious or mystical beliefs, and treated any irrational belief with disdain. In response to a question from a surfer (“Internet nut” to use Lem’s language) on his website about his belief in the next world, Lem wrote:

Although there are those who see me as a science fiction writer, I am a rationalist and at the same time a terrible skeptic. I do not believe in the Bermuda Triangles or UFOs, nor in telepathy and psychokinesis, in the spiritual life of plants and in the thousands of other silly things found in this literature. If I ever wrote anything about these in my book, it was only in an absurd-humorous context. Because there is not the slightest hint of scientific evidence for them.”

As a young Jew in the city of Krakow, Poland, Lem was friends with a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II. Lem debated faith or lack of faith in God with him. Later, in one of his many interviews, Lem explained what made him an atheist: “I am an atheist – for moral reasons. I am of the opinion that you would recognize a creator by his creation, and the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created by anyone than to think that somebody created this intentionally.”

מגזין מקו ועד תרבות “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”<br><br>Stanisław Lem<br><br>The Solarist <br><br>100 years since the birth of Stanisław Lem - anyone who reads Solaris might think that the cobwebs are being cleaned from deep recesses of their brain.

User:Nikola Smolenski/Dominique Signoret

If a planet similar to Solaris is ever discovered, it will probably be called Lem. If you ask me, he is worthy of having a planet outside of our solar system named for him, even now. In the meantime, you should be happy to know that in 2007, a planet was named Pirx, after one of the protagonists of Lem’s stories, and a planetoid discovered in 2013 is Ijon Tichy, named after another of his heroes. In 1979, Asteroid 3838 Lem was named in honor of Lem himself.

Now all we can hope for is the appearance, in the not-too-distant future, of a brilliant literary heir, on Lem’s order of magnitude. For, as the last line of Solaris states: “that the time of cruel wonders was not yet over.”


* We recommend the article about Lem and his work, “The Writer Who Reinvented Science Fiction” by Rami Shalhevet, published on the website of the Weizmann Institute’s Davidson Institute website, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Lem’s birth. The English version is here: https://davidson.weizmann.ac.il/en/online/firefly/writer-who-reinvented-science-fiction

** Stanislav Lem’s official website – https://lem.pl/

*** This interview with Lem in English, which appeared a few days before his death, is fascinating: https://stanislaw-lem.fandom.com/wiki/Intelligence_is_a_razor_blade

Dr. Aaron Hauptman is involved in research and teaching on technological-social prediction and future research. He formerly edited the journal “Fantasia 2000,” where this article was originally published. Fantasia 2000 publishes new stories and articles in Hebrew.

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