The Invincible (1964) could initially be mistaken as Golden Age throat-clearing, with its titular spaceship on a rescue mission to the bare, dull planet of Regis III. The novel’s focus on the agency of the ship and its various automatons over that of its human cargo shows Lem’s hand. This is a tale of inorganic evolution, leaving its protagonist, and audience, ruminating on the vulnerability and insignificance of the human in the vast, uncaring universe. As a plus, the Invincible is well-stocked with specialists, a favorite target of Lem’s. SF writers of Lem’s generation (and the preceding one) would often present their scientists as all-knowing proto-mansplainers who hammer the truth of the situation through the hard heads of the war-hungry generals, venal politicians, and token women present. Lem routinely subverts this tired trope by having his scientists squabble comically, showing their belief in their own self-importance. It’s not till the scientists of the Invincible work together that they’re able to come up with a series of theories, none of which are ever truly proved. When they finally shut up, Lem’s scientists do actual science.
Highcastle (1966) is not science fiction, but a charming remembrance of Lem’s years between the First and Second World Wars that revels in the minutiae of his deep preadolescence. Like all good memoirs, it opens with an admission of failure: “…I built a tomb for that young boy and placed him in it…as if I were writing about someone made up, someone who never lived.” Lem does not seek here to recreate, like Vladmir Nabokov or Stefan Zweig, a vanished world: “…I am concerned only with the child I was.” Later, he remarks, “…I must keep a tight rein on my professionalism as a fantast, that is, the ability to group details into coherent wholes.” He is not only here speaking about the tendency to “world-build,” but also of writing a story that “achieves closure in some way.”
This may have something to do with the losses young Lem suffered. Highcastle returns again and again to his father, a laryngologist, whose library of medical texts he plundered. Lem does not mention (because this was written in Poland in 1966) his Jewish heritage, nor the murder of most of his family by the Nazis. The deaths of many of his childhood associates is mentioned in passing, usually in parenthetical.
The Hospital of the Transfiguration (1955), an early realist novel, picks up, at least chronologically, where Highcastle left off (although it is by no means a continuation of Lem’s life). A young Polish doctor finds an oasis from Nazi power in the form of a mental hospital. If you know anything about the Nazis’ treatment of the mentally ill, you can see what tragedy we’re trundling toward. The doctor, Stefan, is a naïf occasionally “overcome by a desire for one of those elemental discussions that shake the world’s foundations.” He more than finds his match in the infamous poet Sekulowski, who is posing as a patient to avoid Nazi scrutiny. Sekulowski fancies himself a metaphysician and constructor of Platonic dialogues. When cornered about how to respond to the incoming Nazi presence, the poet’s response is, “Play the flute, collect butterflies.” When the extermination machine finally engages, Sekulowski’s response is far less philosophic — revealing his intellectual and moral fraud. Lem’s rage at political cynicism here is palpable, which may have had something to do with the Soviet censors blocking its printing for 27 years. Lem’s later morality plays would operate under the cover of SF.
‘Return’ is the “space adventure” genre loudly puking its bile out.
The title of Return from the Stars (also 1966) already hints to Lem’s ongoing conversation with classic SF narratives, in this case the attempted rehabilitation of an astronaut to life on Earth. The astronaut, Hal Bregg, has only been away a decade his time, but 127 years Earth time, thanks to the time-scrambling nature of deep space travel. Here, as in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), the time confusion is used as a metaphor for a shifting society’s effect on the individual. Haldeman was, more specifically, writing about American soldiers returning from Vietnam. In Return, everyone on Earth has been “betrizated,” a process by which all violent impulses are removed. The world is thus much safer, softer. This is Lem quietly attacking Communism’s promised utopia, as well as America’s consumerist, suburban lifestyle of plenty.
Yet, as Simon Ings observes in his forward, Return is more concerned with male rage. As Bregg learns more about the society he has returned to, the more aggressive and violent his behavior becomes, until, finally, he commits rape. It’s not till about a third of the way through Return that we realize that the stars the narrator adventured among were far harsher than we could have imagined. The privation, solitude, and fatality rate on his voyage are horrifying. If The Invincible followed a traditional Golden Age narrative while quietly destabilizing its ideology, Return is the “space adventure” genre loudly puking its bile out. Thus it’s with the most extreme irony that one of the few sights that soothes Bregg is the stars: “When I lifted my head I saw only a black void. Yet, strangely enough, at that moment its blind presence gave me courage.” The one thing that has not changed is the emptiness Bregg has returned from.
Elizabeth Bear’s forward to Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy (1971) offers a useful summation of Lem’s dark side — like Heinlein, Asimov, Stephenson, the SF writer evinced some problematic politics. His work is “casually misogynist when it bothers to acknowledge the existence of women at all, frequently racist, and replete with deeply misanthropic Swiftian allegories.” Tichy is a famous space explorer who, with typical Lemian perversity, mostly doesn’t explore space. Instead, he meets a series of disgraced mad scientists, all devoted to crackpot inventions they’re sure will change humanity. The result is a series of allegorical tales as concerned with metaphysics as they are with science, marred by cheap gags. Does the phrase “screwball cyberneticist” make you laugh, or does it make you want to abandon the book on the street? Perhaps it is the thinness of these fables that allows Lem’s flaws to shine through all the more brightly.
The true masterpiece in MIT’s series, His Master’s Voice (1967), takes the form of a manuscript found after the death of the infamous mathematician Peter E. Hogarth. As such, the novel prefigures the later collections A Perfect Vacuum (1971) and Imaginary Magnitude (1973), where Lem experimentally compresses narrative and characterization to the point of near non-existence. In ’67, however, Lem is still operating within the accepted parameters of the novel, if just barely.
Voice here is all. Our narrator kicks off with humblebrag self-hatred: “The fundamental traits of my character I consider to be cowardice, malice, and pride.” As a child, he “mentally smashed the stars to pieces, to punish them for their indifference to me.” As a mathematician, he spurned specialization, returning to his field only to show his fellow mathematicians how laughably wrong all their achievements were.
Hence Hogarth is the perfect researcher to be recruited into an American program to decode a message from the stars. Recruited after a year of frustrations, Hogarth refuses to hear the advances his fellows have made, starting with just a sheath of ones and zeroes. The metaphysical gaming out of how to decipher an alien message reads now like an elegantly phrased summation of a Reddit thread.
When Hogarth eventually learns about the early successes of the program, he compares these discoveries to a player piano trying to read “a tape that really belongs in a digital machine.” When it appears that, even misread, the code will soon provide a weapon of terrible power, the scientists transform from scrabbling specialists to makeshift ethicists. As Hogarth acidly remarks, “…the scientist can agree to anything if he is responsible for nothing.”
The Cold War ethical showdown never comes to pass. The alien message is so ahuman that even the technological society’s death drive cannot be fulfilled by it. Hogarth’s early assumption, that the “content part of the letter was designed to provide a certain type of undesirable addressee with a razor, so that it could cut its own throat,” turns out to have been anthropomorphism.
As with the best of Lem’s work, there are no solutions, only conflicting theories. The challenges, however, from political actors to self-aggrandizing specialists to simple human arrogance, are detailed with almost gleeful levels of vitriol. “I was never able to conquer the distance between persons,” Hogarth writes, though he too is allowed a morsel of transcendence, which he discovers, perversely, in his own ignorance.
Again we find that, under the stars, we are ignored.