Friday, August 3, 2012

Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanislaw Lem, edited by Ra Page and Magda Raczynska

I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this, but took the plunge anyway because it at least promised to be interesting, and the completist in me was hoping for an awesome short story collection. 

I guess I should probably say a few words about Stanislaw Lem.  His best known works are probably Solaris and The Cyberiad, which put him in the SF category in the United States, something he disapproved of.  He didn’t think much of American SF, considering it gimmicky as opposed to the serious literary work that he believed himself to be writing.  The only American SF author he had much use for was allegedly Philip K. Dick, even going so far as to write an essay calling him the only visionary among a bunch of charlatans.  In a bit of irony, or something anyway, Dick actually didn’t believe that Lem existed.  Dick accused various Communist governments of creating a committee to write SF work under the Lem name, although why they would want to do that, or for what purpose they would single out Dick himself for praise, was never satisfactorily explained.

I first became acquainted with Lem through Douglas Hofstader, who used some selections from Lem’s short stories to illustrate points in his own works, and subsequently I’ve read most of what has been translated into English.  This leaves quite a bit of stuff out, though, since not all of his works have been translated from Polish.

Lem excelled in shorter works; one of my favorite collections of his is A Perfect Vacuum, which is a set of short critiques he wrote of non-existent fictional works, each one making some sort of barbed point about literary culture or some other area he felt needed attention.  I understand that he actually wrote several sets of these, but none of the others have been translated from Polish.  I guess in any foreign language work you’ve also got to give some love to the translators, who have generally seemed to do a good job, but I think probably can’t get all of the wordplay perfectly across.

Originally I gathered that this would be a collection of previously unreleased works by Lem himself, but that proved to not be the case.  There are three stories here by Lem which have never previously been presented in English, and these kick off the collection – and run the gamut of his literary forms, as there is a mind-bending one, a serious one, and then the comedic "Invaders from Aldeberan" wherein a bunch of Iron Curtain peasants foil an alien invasion with a combination of stupidity and grain alcohol.

The remainder is a set of works by various British and Polish authors.  The majority are short stories which are inspired by and/or influenced by Lem’s other works.  One even features Lem’s famous constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, and although I’d probably recognize it as not belonging in The Cyberiad it was pretty good and I admire the brass balls it takes to write a story featuring those two.  Some of the other stories were also pretty good, including one that was very Inception-esque, involving a mercenary who is trying to enter a virtual world, get some money out of it, and confirm he's back in the real world once he does.  I wasn’t really that familiar with any of the authors contained here, and may run down a few of the especially interesting ones.

The book concludes with a couple of non-fiction essays that were probably the weakest part of the collection, but which at least theoretically had something to do with Lem, so I guess the editors thought they should throw that in too.

So, if you’re looking for Lem stories, this is probably not the place to find ‘em, but it’s a pretty interesting idea and some of the stories are funny, twisted, and/or touching in their own rights.  It’s worth a look if nothing else.

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