Saturday, April 08, 2006

Type Cast 12

When the great Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem passed away in late March, at the well-earned age of 84, I was reminded, for the umpteenth time since turning 40, that my youth is gone.

Lem was my favourite author when I was in university. I wrote papers about his work, studied the (very small) handful of literary essays written about him at the time – science fiction, like popular culture in general, was not well regarded in academic circles back then – and scoured used books stores for pulp anthologies that included his short stories. Lem, who was aptly named after Saint Stanislaw, the Polish patron saint of youth, was, and remains, the perfect author for those first university years, the early 20’s, that buoyant time when one is finally away from home and experimenting with new realities and new ways of seeing the world(s).

Obituaries of Lem have predictably focused on the film adaptations of his work, and not without some good cause. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solyaris, a Russian adaptation of Lem’s novel Solaris, is considered a masterpiece. Personally, I feel the film lacks Lem’s devilish sense of humour - but perhaps Russian humour, like German pop music, is an acquired taste. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh attempted to turn Solaris, a baffling and philosophical novel even in its most lucid passages, into a spooky clockwork thriller starring an appropriately confused looking George Clooney. The results were mixed, to be polite.

But to only remember Lem for his success at the movies is to do a great injustice to a writer who was easily as important to world literature as more name-brand speculative writers, such as the Nobel laureates Jose Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marques, or Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. Like Jules Verne a century before him, Lem predicted a future world that was only a generation away from his own. Unlike Verne, however, Lem did not fixate on the mechanics, on fabulous machines and impossible gadgets – Lem’s predictions dealt with the deeper question of how the human psyche would be changed by the abrupt expansion of knowledge. Yes, people do fly around in zippy space ships in Lem’s fiction, but it’s what happens inside the ships, and inside the minds of the passengers, that matters.

Lem’s Tales of Prix The Pilot, a collection of interlocking short stories, invites the reader to journey through vast, empty oceans of space with a practical-minded but prone to depression astronaut named Prix - a kind of Everyman of space travel. Wandering from galaxy to galaxy with no apparent mission, Prix is a Kafkaesque character, a lonely, lost soul forced to navigate a series of looping time warps, dream like fugues, and universes that inexplicably reverse and turn inward.

Prix’s misadventures, charmingly (and deceptively) recounted in spare, story book language, are now read as a kind of primer for the wild, reality-bending theories of quantum physics that followed decades later – especially chaos theory, which attempts to explain random behavior within determined systems and, the current darling of physics studies, string theory, which proposes that reality is multiple and is made up of highly flexible (and thus unpredictable) strings of energy. In other words, Prix is lost because being lost is, paradoxically, a key part of the natural order.

Lem’s masterpiece Solaris has even more immediate implications for contemporary readers. In the novel, a band of space travelers encounter a huge, nebulous entity that could be a planet or a spectacular creature. The passengers soon learn that the ever-churning planet has the ability to instantly alter their reality, to literally make their dreams and nightmares come true. Of course, their competing desires and attempts to sort the real from the manufactured drive the entire crew mad.

Lem’s dream spinning planet/monster is a perfect metaphor for our desire-driven virtual age. Like the sentient blob that hovers below the ship’s crew, the internet sits beside us every day. It too is an unimaginably large ball of information that can, in a click, satisfy every need. People live entire lives in this separate reality, in everything from chat rooms that allow them to create alternate selves to elaborate game worlds populated by millions of fellow gamers. One can now create a whole other life in these virtual spaces, a detailed and emotionally satisfying life limited only by the creator’s imagination.

The inherent warning in Solaris – the tried but true reminder to be careful what you wish for – has never been more important, especially as youth (at least in the priviledged western world) are increasingly opting out of this familiar reality in favour of more pliable, and more exciting virtual realities.

Hopefully, the brief flurry of interest that always follows an artist’s death will grow into a renewed respect for, and study of, Lem’s work. Half a century after he discovered it, we are finally living in Lem’s world – and we’ll need all the help we can get.