A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future

By Bruce A. Beatie

Peter Swirski, Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future. Liverpool University Press, 2015 (Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 51). ISBN 978-1-789620-54-2. Paperback, $35.41 / £19.95.

Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future

Memory tells me that I started reading science fiction in the late 1940s in the form of Heinlein stories that had appeared in Boys Life, which I subscribed to as a boy scout. When I started college at Berkeley in 1952, I discovered the Elves, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society. By the time I’d spent four years in the Air Force and finished my graduate studies at Harvard, I had collected a large SF library,  including an almost complete run of Astounding. The point of this narrative is that my deepest knowledge of SF was the so-called Golden Age. Though I’ve continued reading SF and fantasy, and have published over fifty reviews of SF and fantasy books in the last twenty years, the renowned Polish writer Stanisław Lem has remained on the borderline of my reading.

When Vector (the journal of the British Science Fiction Association) solicited reviewers for this book, I offered because I wanted to learn about Lem. For readers who share my previous ignorance, Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in the Ukraine), and died in Krakaw in 2008. According to Swirski’s bibliography, Lem’s first published science fiction story appeared in 1946 (Man from Mars—translated title); his first collection of SF stories appeared in 1957 (translated in 1977 as The Star Dairies). Fiasco, his final SF publication, appeared in 1987, translated with the same title in 1988.

Peter Swirski himself was born in Canada in 1966 but has spent most of his professional life elsewhere; presently a distinguished visiting professor in China, he has also taught in Finland and Hong Kong. His preoccupation with Stanisław Lem began with a 1992 article in Science Fiction Studies; the monograph reviewed here is the latest of Swirski’s six book publications on Lem. His other publications are on aspects of American literature and culture.

Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future begins with a brief introduction titled “Cogito Ergo Lem” (1-5); those five pages are divided into three titled sections. As with the remaining longer sections, the title of the section is followed by the list of subsection titles, which are then repeated within the section itself. After a general first section, the two remaining sections describe the content of the book’s three main chapters. For the rest of the book, Swirski follows the same pattern. Each of the eight chapters lists all of the subtitles of the chapter before the text, and there are many subtitled sections: a total of 112 sections, in a book of 224 pages.

“Part I: Biography” has two chapters: “Life and Times” (8-26), which provides a somewhat unusual biography in sixteen subtitled sections, and “In the Kaleidoscope of Books” (27-56), which discusses a selection of Lem’s works in chronological order. The “Life and Times” comments in its first section that “Lem has stamped his name on twentieth–century letters as analogist extraordinaire, capable of oscillating like a sinusoid between crazany and ultranalytical [sic] in the space of a single paragraph” (9).  After describing Lem’s funeral in 2006, Swirski notes that the author’s name is on Asteroid 3836. “It is an eerily comforting thought,” he comments, “that the writer forever linked throughout his art to the uttermost frontiers of space is linked with a celestial body bound to endure for millions, if not billions of years” (26). The second chapter, “In the Kaleidoscope of Books,” goes chronologically through Lem’s major works. Swirski suggests that Lem’s career can be “carved into the formative fifties (1946-1958), the golden sixties (1959-1970), the experimental seventies (1971-1984), the coda (1982-1987), and the two collector’s decades (1988-2006)” (28-29).  

Between Part I and Part II are eleven photographs and graphics, beginning with a photograph “in the 1950s” of Lem with the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Wisław Szymborska; the fifth photo “on the fateful day of 9/11” shows Lem with the Polish poet Ewa Lipska; the remaining photos and graphics were taken by Swirski. The last three are of the Stanisław Lem Garden of Experiences, a Cracow theme park honoring Lem.

The four “Essays” in Part II are on a variety of Lem’s works, with playful, obscure subtitles that only hint at the Lem works considered: “Game, Set, Lem,” “Betrization Is the Worst Solution … Except for All Others”—“betrization” is a term coined in Lem’s 1961 novel  Return from the Stars,” “Errare Humanum Est,” and “A Beachbook for Intellectuals”—its last two sections is on Lem’s 1976 novel The Chain of Chance, which Swirski compares with Walker Percy’s 1987 last novel Thanatos Syndrome and calls it “Lem at his ‘entertaining’ best” (163). The last two essays in “Part III: Coda” are on Lem’s last work translated into English, Fiasco (1987), and on The Blink of an Eye (2000), Lem’s last novel, which “ends with a stunning, if perhaps appropriate, farewell to the old millennium […] the final five words in the Book: ‘Happy End of the World’”—and those are also Swirski’s final words as well. (The apparatus sections of the book are “Appendix: Stanisław Lem Books” in order of composition with translated titles (187-189), “Works Cited” (190-195), and “Index” (198-203)).

I was ready to make some general comments on Swirski’s book when an email from Mat Costanzo responding to a query about “foundational works that should be read by everyone for their deep insights into life and reality” turned up on a list to which I subscribe. Among other suggestions, Mat said that “Stanisław Lem is essential reading for any sci-fi enthusiasts,” and included a short 2019 article from the New Yorker by Paul Grimstad on “The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanisław Lem.” The same cannot be said for Swirski’s Stanisław Lem. It is a useful book that provides a fair introduction to Lem’s life work, but its style is often quirky, and its division into 112 oddly-titled segments is difficult, and may make for unnecessary confusion.

Bruce A. Beatie lives in Ohio. He is Professor of Comparative and Medieval Literature (emeritus) at Cleveland State University.


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