The Alien and the Human: 4 Novels by Stanisław Lem, from Wikipedia

Summarized narratives of four philosophical novels from the greatest science fiction writer. Spoilers.
⁓The Voice before the Void

Solaris

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Solaris is a 1961 Polish science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem. The book is about the ultimate inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem science fiction classic Polish sci-fi novel book cover first English edition

In probing and examining the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris from a hovering research station the human scientists are, in turn, being studied by the sentient planet itself, which probes for and examines the thoughts of the human beings who are analyzing it. Solaris has the ability to manifest their secret, guilty concerns in human form, for each scientist to personally confront.

Solaris is one of Lem’s philosophic explorations of man’s anthropomorphic limitations. First published in Warsaw in 1961, the 1970 Polish-to-French-to-English translation of Solaris is the best-known of Lem’s English-translated works.

Plot summary

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism, with whom Terran scientists are attempting communication. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions.

Kris Kelvin arrives aboard “Solaris Station,” a scientific research station hovering (via anti-gravity generators) near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, a scientific discipline known as Solaristics, which over the years has degenerated to simply observing, recording, and categorizing the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only achieved the formal classification of the phenomena with an elaborate nomenclature — yet do not understand what such activities really mean in a strictly scientific sense. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin’s arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.

The ocean’s response to their aggression exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists — whilst revealing nothing of the ocean’s nature itself. To the extent that the ocean’s actions can be understood, the ocean then seems to test the minds of the scientists by confronting them with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories. It does this via the materialization of physical human simulacra; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The torments of the other researchers are only alluded to but seem even worse than Kelvin’s personal ordeal.

The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for their limited earth science to explain, deeply upsetting the scientists. The alien mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human consciousness that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.

Characters

The protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist recently arrived from Earth to the space station studying the planet Solaris. He was married to Rheya, who committed suicide when he abandoned their marriage. Her exact double is his visitor aboard the space station and becomes an important character.

Snow is the first person Kelvin meets aboard the station, and his visitor is not shown. The last inhabitant Kelvin meets is Sartorius, the most reclusive member of the crew. He shows up only intermittently and is always suspicious of the other crewmembers. His visitor remains anonymous, yet there are indications it might be a child with a straw hat.

Until recently, there was also another member of the crew, Gibarian, who had been an instructor of Kelvin’s at university, and who committed suicide just hours before Kelvin came to the station. Gibarian’s visitor was a “giant Negress” who twice appears to Kelvin; first in a hallway soon after his arrival, and then while he is examining Gibarian’s cadaver. She seems to be unaware of the other humans she meets, or she simply chooses to ignore them.

Rheya, who killed herself with a lethal injection after quarrelling with Kelvin, returns as his visitor. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotions after confronting her, Kelvin lures the first Rheya visitor into a shuttle and launches it into outer space to be rid of her. Her fate is unknown to the other scientists. Snow suggests hailing Rheya’s shuttle to learn her condition, but Kelvin objects. Rheya soon reappears but with no memory of the shuttle incident. Moreover, the second Rheya becomes aware of her transient nature and is haunted by being Solaris’ means-to-an-end, affecting Kelvin in unknown ways. After listening to a tape recording by Gibarian, and so learning her true nature, she attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. This fails because her body is made of neutrinos, stabilized by some unknown force field, and has both incredible strength and the ability to quickly regenerate from all injuries. She subsequently convinces Snow to destroy her with a Sartorius-developed device that disrupts the sub-atomic structure of the visitors and prevents their reappearance.

Cinematic adaptations

Solaris has been filmed three times:

  • Solaris in 1968, directed by Boris Nirenburg.
  • Solaris in 1972, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film loosely follows the novel’s plot, emphasizing the human relationships — especially Kelvin’s Earth life, before his space travel to the planet — instead of Lem’s astrobiology theories. The film won the Grand Prix at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.
  • Solaris in 2002, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney and produced by James Cameron, also emphasizing the human relationships, and again excluding Lem’s scientific and philosophical themes.

Lem himself observed that none of the film versions depict much of the extraordinary physical and psychological “alienness” of the Solaris ocean:

“…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… 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. This is why the book was entitled ‘Solaris’ and not ‘Love in Outer Space.'”
–Stanislaw Lem, “The Solaris Station,” 2002 December 8

The Invincible

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Invincible (orignal title in Polish: Niezwyciężony) is a science fiction novel written by Stanisław Lem and published in 1964. It originally appeared as the title story in Lem’s collection Niezwyciężony i inne opowiadania (“The Invincible and Other Stories”). A translation into German was published in 1967; an English translation of the German translation was published in 1973. It was one of the first novels to exploit the ideas of micro-robots (somewhat similar to the concept of nanobots), artificial swarm intelligence, and “necroevolution,” a term suggested by Lem for evolution of non-living matter.

Plot summary

A very powerful and armed interstellar space ship called Invincible lands on the planet Regis III, which seems uninhabited and bleak, to investigate the loss of its sister ship, Condor. During the investigation, the crew finds evidence of a form of quasi-life, born through evolution of autonomous, self-replicating machines, apparently left behind by an alien civilization that visited the planet a very long time ago. The evolution was controlled by “robot wars,” and the only form that survived were swarms of minuscule, insect-like micromachines. Individually, or in small groups, they are quite harmless to humans and capable of only very simple behavior. However, when bothered, they can assemble into huge swarms displaying complex behavior arising from self-organization, and are able to defeat an intruder by a powerful surge of electromagnetic interference. The members of the Condor’s crew suffered a complete memory erasure as a consequence. Big clouds of “insects” are also able to travel at a high speed and even to climb to the top of the troposphere. The angered crew attempts to fight the perceived enemy, but eventually recognizes the futility of their efforts in the most direct sense of the word. The robotic “fauna” has become part of the planet’s ecology, and would require a disruption on a planetary scale (such as a nuclear winter) in order to be destroyed.

The novel turns into an analysis of the relationship between different life domains, and their place in the universe. In particular, it is an imaginary experiment to demonstrate that evolution may not necessarily lead to dominance by intellectually superior life forms. The plot also involves a philosophical dilemma, juxtaposing the values of humanity and the efficiency of mechanical insects. In the face of defeat and imminent withdrawal of the Invincible, Rohan, the spaceship’s navigator, undertakes a trip into the “enemy area” in search of four crew members who went missing in action — an attempt which he and captain Horpach see as certainly futile, but necessary for moral reasons. Rohan betakes himself into canyons covered by metallic “shrubs” and “insects” and finds the crewmen dead. He gathers some evidence and returns to the ship unharmed thanks to a simple anti-detection device and his calm and peaceful behaviour.

Reception

Theodore Sturgeon praised The Invincible as “science fiction in the grand tradition,” saying: “The Science is hard. The descriptions are vivid and powerful.”

His Master’s Voice

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

His Master’s Voice (original title in Polish: Głos Pana) is a science fiction novel written by Stanisław Lem, first published in 1968. It was translated into English in 1983. It is a densely philosophical novel of the “message from space” subtype of the “first contact” type stories about an effort by scientists to decode, translate, and understand an extraterrestrial transmission. The novel critically approaches humanity’s intelligence and intentions in deciphering and truly comprehending a message from outer space. It is considered to be one of Lem’s best-known books, along with Solaris.

Plot summary

The novel is written as a first-person narrative, the memoir of a mathematician named Peter Hogarth, who becomes involved in a Pentagon-directed project (code-named “His Master’s Voice,” or “HMV”) in the Nevada desert, where scientists are working to decode what seems to be a message from outer space (specifically, a neutrino signal from the Canis Minor constellation). Throughout the book, Hogarth — or rather, Lem himself — exposes the reader to many debates merging cosmology and philosophy: from discussions of epistemology, systems theory, information theory, and probability, through the idea of evolutionary biology and the possible form and motives of extraterrestrial intelligence, with digressions about ethics in military-sponsored research, to the limitations of human science constrained by the human nature subconsciously projecting itself into the analysis of any unknown subject. At some point one of the involved scientists, Rappaport, desperate for new ideas, even begins to read and discuss popular science fiction stories, and Lem uses this opportunity to criticize the science fiction genre, as Rappaport soon becomes bored and disillusioned by monotonous plots and the unimaginative stories of pulp magazines.

Acting on Hogarth’s suggestion that the signal may be a mathematical description of an object (possibly a molecule), the scientists are able to use part of the data to synthesize a substance with unusual properties. Two variations are created: a glutinous liquid nicknamed “Frog Eggs,” and a more solid version that looks like a slab of red meat called “Lord of the Flies” (named for its strange agitating effect on insects brought into proximity with it, rather than for the allegorical meaning of the name). There is some speculation that the signal may actually be a genome and that “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the Flies” may be a form of protoplasm — possibly that of the alien creatures that presumably sent the signal. This theory, like all the project’s theories about the signal, turns out to be unverifiable.

For a short time, Hogarth suspects that the message may have a military use, and is faced with an ethical dilemma about whether and how to pursue this angle. “Frog eggs” seems to enable a teleportation of an atomic blast at the speed of light to a remote location, which would make deterrence impossible. Hogarth and the discoverer of the effect decide to conduct further research in secret before notifying the military. Eventually, they conclude that there is no military use after all (which Hogarth sees as a proof of the Senders’ far-sightedness), since the uncertainty of the blast location increases with distance. The two scientists face ostracism from their colleagues, some of whom consider their conduct unpatriotic.

Some of the scientists pursue a theory that the neutrino signal might have had the effect of increasing the likelihood that life would develop on the planet eons ago. They are forced to consider whether alien beings sent the signal for this very reason. In the end, there are no certain answers.

There is much speculation about the nature of whatever alien beings might have sent the signal. They must have been technologically superior, but no one can be sure whether they were virtuous or evil. Indeed, as the signal must have been sent long ago, no one can be sure whether they still exist.

The theories the scientists come up with all seem to make some progress toward deciphering the signal; however, as we are informed in the very first few pages of Hogarth’s memoirs, for all their effort, the scientists are left with few new, real discoveries. By the time the project is ended, they are no more sure than they were in the beginning about whether the signal was a message from intelligent beings that humanity failed to decipher, or a poorly understood natural phenomenon.

Ultimately, the many theories about the signal and the beings who might have sent it say more about the scientists — and humanity — than about the signal, and the beings who might have sent it. The comparison between the signal and a Rorschach test is made more than once.

Interpretations

The book can be viewed on many levels: as part of the social science fiction genre criticizing Cold War military and political decision-making as corrupting the ethical conduct of scientists; as a psychological and philosophical essay on the limitations of the human mind facing the unknown; or as a satire of “men of science” and their thinking. The critique of the idea of “pure science” is also a critique of the positivist approach: Lem argues that no scientist can be detached from the pressures of the outside world. The book is deeply philosophical, and there is relatively little action; most of the book consists of philosophical essays, monologues, and dialogues.

Lem’s similar books exploring the issues of first contact are Fiasco and, perhaps most famously, Solaris, although His Master’s Voice is certainly one of Lem’s more philosophical books.

Fiasco

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Fiasco is a science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, first published in a German translation in 1986, then published in Poland the following year. The book is a further elaboration of Lem’s skepticism: in Lem’s opinion, the difficulty in communication with alien civilizations is cultural, rather than spatial, distance. The failure to communicate with an alien civilization is the main theme of the book. It was translated into English in 1988, and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

The novel was written on order from publisher S. Fischer Verlag around the time Lem was emigrating from Poland due to the introduction of martial law. Lem stated that this was the only occasion he wrote something upon a publisher’s request, accepting an advance for a nonexistent novel.

Plot summary

The book begins with a story of a base on Saturn’s moon Titan, where a young spaceship pilot, Parvis, sets out in a strider (a mecha-like machine) to find several missing people, among them Pirx, the spaceman appearing in Lem’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot. He ventures to the dangerous geyser region, where the others were lost, but unfortunately he suffers an accident. Seeing no way to get out of the machine and return to safety, he triggers a built-in cryogenic device.

The main story concerns an expedition sent to a distant star in order to make contact with a civilization that may have been detected there. It is set more than a century after the prologue, when a starship is built in Titan’s orbit. This future society is described as globally unified and peaceful with a high regard for success. During starship preparations, the geyser region is cleared, and the frozen bodies are discovered. They are exhumed and taken aboard, to be awakened, if possible, during the voyage. However, only one of the frozen bodies can be revived with a high likelihood of success (or more precisely, pieced together from the organs of several of the frozen bodies). The identity of the man is unclear — it has been narrowed down to two men (whose last names both begin with the letter “P”). It is never revealed whether he is in fact Pirx or Parvis (and he seems to have amnesia about it himself). In his new life, he adopts the name Tempe.

The explorer spaceship Eurydika first travels to a black hole near the Beta Harpiae to perform maneuvers to minimize the effects of time dilation. Before closing on the event horizon, the Eurydika launches the Hermes, a smaller explorer ship, which continues on to Beta Harpiae.

Closing in on a planet called “Quinta” which exhibits signs of harboring intelligent life, the crew of the Hermes attempts to establish contact with the denizens of the planet, who, contrary to the expectations of the mission’s crewmen, are strangely unwilling to communicate. The crew reaches the conclusion that there is a Cold War-like state on the planet’s surface, halting the locals’ industrial development. They try to force the aliens to engage contact by means of an event impossible to hide by the aliens’ governments — that is, by staging the implosion of their moon. Surprisingly, just before impact, several of the deployed rockets are destroyed by missiles of the Quintans, undermining the symmetry of the implosion which causes fragments of the moon to be thrown clear, some impacting the planet’s surface.

However, even this cataclysm does not drive the locals to open up to their alien visitors, so the crewmen deploy a device working as a giant lens or laser, capable of displaying images (but also concentrating beams to the point of being a powerful weapon) and, following a suggestion by Tempe, show the Quintans a “fairy tale” by projecting a cartoon onto Quinta’s clouds. At last, the Quintans contact the Hermes, and make arrangements for a meeting. The humans do not trust the Quintans, so to gauge the Quintans’ intentions they send a smaller replica of the Hermes — which is destroyed shortly before landing. The humans retaliate by firing their laser on the ice ring around the planet, shattering it and sending chunks falling on the planet.

Finally, the Quintans are forced to receive an “ambassador,” who is again Tempe; the Quintans are warned that the projecting device will be used to destroy the planet if the man should fail to report back his continued safety. After landing, Tempe discovers that there is no trace of anyone at the landing site. After investigating a peculiar structure nearby, he scouts around and finds a strange-looking mound, which he opens with a small shovel. But, to his horror, he notices that in his distracted state he has allowed the allotted time to run out without signaling his crewmates above. As the planet is engulfed by fiery destruction at the hands of those who were sent to establish contact with its denizens, Tempe finally realizes what the Quintans are — the mounds — but he has no time to share his discovery with the others.

Interpretations

The book is the fourth in Lem’s series of pessimistic first contact scenarios, after Eden, Solaris, and The Invincible. It deals with the Fermi paradox, and the concept of otherness. Lem describes an alien species that is much more “alien” than those imagined by most other science fiction authors. He is also critical of human nature, describing how the crew’s desire to force contact by any means makes the failure of the mission inevitable.

According to critic Paul Delany:

“Fiasco will come to be regarded as one of the great science fiction novels… It is a remarkable achievement, even for Lem; for us, it is a most moving experience.”

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