Friday, January 25, 2008

Science Fiction Studies: Stanislaw Lem

Science Fiction Studies is a journal published three times a year by DePauw University that takes a scholarly look at science fiction, including reviews, interviews and literary analyses. They have posted a lot of interesting material online, so I've decided to start a series of posts on biology-related bits.

Two full issues of Science Fiction Studies (Vol. 13 (3) #40; Vol. 19 (2) #57)have been devoted to Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). Lem's works best-known novel is Solaris, first published in Polish in 1961, which features the futile attempts to communicate with a very alien alien - one that covers the entire surface of a distant planet. His novel His Master's Voice also focuses on the attempt to communicate with an alien in this case a transmission from space intercepted by scientists here on Earth. Fiasco is also about our inability to communicate with aliens. Needless to say, Lem doesn't believe the universe is populated by English-speaking humanoids.

In 1983, Raymond Federman interviewed Lem for Science Fiction Studies. Lem talks about the role of science in his fiction:
Federman. What about the role of science in your work?

Lem. What matters for me is what is called cognition. In other words, that which is the concern of the theory of cognition. And the question of whether or not it should be limited only to exact sciences, that is to say, natural sciences, remains open. I am interested primarily in the line of junction, the border between science and philosophy, and also in the fact that a certain species of "brained animals" on Earth, I mean Man, has made science one of its main preoccupations. I experiment in the sense that sometimes I examine real possibilities of science and philosophy, and sometimes I imagine how other thinking species would practice philosophy of science.

Federman. If I understand you correctly, you do not make any distinction between science and philosophy?

Lem. Right. After all, the same psychic processes underlie scientific thinking and imaginative thinking.
He also thought about the future of biology in his work.
Federman. Do you work on one book at a time, or do you work on several projects at the same time?

Lem. Usually I work on one novel at a time, but at the same time I write shorter things, essays and so on. Not long ago I was writing a forecast for the Polish Academy of Sciences about the progress of biology in the next 60 years. In this essay—this is funny but also very typical of the way I work—I used some material, some fantastic ideas from the novel [Wizja lokalna]
to include in the forecast. These ideas turned out to be very helpful in writing this essay. So you see, I take things out of my fiction to use in my essays, and vice versa.
Lem was interviewed again in 1986, by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay. He spoke about his concept of "literary realism" and the incorporation of science into his works

Lem: Literary realism, for me, is literature's way of dealing with the real problems of a dual (at least) type. The first kind is the sort of problem that already exists or is coming into existence. The second kind is the sort that appears to be lying on the path of humanity's future. Any attempt to differentiate "possible problems" from "fictional," or "probable situations (albeit seeming outrageous today)" from "unlikely," is probably too polarizing to be successful. In this field, it's every man for himself, as long as the particular reasons for claiming the status of expert on dichotomies like the ones cited above are more or less respectable. Thus, anyone can be a selfmade authority on this subject, and so I am one.

I must add, however, that only recently did I begin to believe that I must abide by this conception of literary realism I had formulated umpteen years ago. Nor did I apprehend it consciously at first. That is, I stuck to a sense of implied "realism," one implied through various hypotheses which only later became apparent to me.

This ought perhaps to be qualified by one more observation. The contemporary physicist would be surprised to learn that, in contrast to his or her 19th-century counterpart, he or she is not a "realist" but a "fantasist." After all, the physicist must in some sense continue to be a realist, still working within the empirical tradition shared with 19th-century science; he or she still converts guesses into testable hypotheses, to be crystallized into theories which are subject to falsification. Similarly—mutatis mutandis—my writing over the last 30 years has been subjected to tests imposed by the changing world. I dare claim that the thrust of the main changes (such as genetic engineering or computer science) would become apparent to me, roughly at the time when some very intelligent people simply laughed at my notions as fairy stories. Of course, I was quite a bit off when it came to details, but the strategic movements of civilizations I fathomed rather well. This sort of realism may be termed sound prognosticating. On the other hand, sheer fantasizing is characterized by its self_impossibility (for example, no one will ever manage to travel back into the past to beat up his or her grandfather; that, I think, is certain).

[. . . ] Readers with training in biological sciences may be the ones in the best position to enjoy my books like His Master's Voice, but I would shy away from drawing conclusions from this.

Both interviews are worth reading to get a sense of Lem's point of view. Lem is erudite and philosophical, and not at all coy about his disdain for most science fiction - and much of modern literature.

(I came across Science Fiction Studies via the latest People of Color in SF Carnival at Seeking Avalon)

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