Lem at Amazon

Stanislaw Lem at Amazon

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Peyman Esmaeili: Are you a postmodern writer? What is the relation between postmodernism and your novels? What is your opinion about postmodern theories (deconstruction)?

Stanisław Lem: I generally tend to disregard dissertations in literary studies that present my writing as "model postmodernism". The very idea is quite amusing, since when I was writing my books no "postmodernism" existed. When I was keen to find out what an intelligent and rational computer might have to say, I had to "turn myself into one". However I have little interest for all these classifications.The works of the Derrida and Lacana schools do not seem particularly clear to me: they resembles ideology presented in a talmudic way combined with splitting hairs.

A German encyclopedia calls you "a philosopher". Are you a philosopher? What is your opinion about the presence of philosophy in your novels?

I consider it worthy to uncover what is hidden even though I am aware of the high risk and the inevitability of simplifications, mistakes and occasional nonsense. The reason for many of my worries, disappointments and bewilderments - that have not ceased yet ‑ is the fact that many people consider philosophizing to be a boring and idle pursuit. Well, one has to be fascinated and make a personal use of it: philosophizing should be a matter of strong passion. Those who do not feel this passion will certainly feel disappointed by some of my works.

What does science fiction mean for you? What is your opinion about future of science fiction? You state that you want to see "more realism in science fiction". What does this idea mean? In Microworlds you state that science fiction belongs to the genre of trivial literature (such as western, detective stories or romantic fiction) - despite claims to the contrary. Why do you think that? A lot of people believe that you are the greatest living science fiction writer. What is your opinion about this notion?

I gave up reading science fiction in general, because I was unable to "digest" it - mostly because of its total lack of cognitive values. Authors do not seem to be interested in them, since all they want is sell their novels. Being a fool I wasted a lot of time writing and explaining - particularly in America - for which I was only sworn at. I once quite justly wrote to an Australian comforter that "I simply had to leave" - after having played the role of a missionary in a brothel for a few years and "trying to convert fallen women". I never had the notion that my existence on Earth had anything to do with the saving of our species. There is some thoughtlessness in the fact that some of my books - even "The Cyberiad" and "Mortal Engines" - are assigned to the genre of science fiction; this also proves an enormous inertia of classification diagnoses. Why is "The Cyberiad" a science fiction book? With some good will one might argue that this is the case with "The Chain of Chance", since the latter is a mixture of science fiction with a detective story, where the perpetrator turns out to be chance. But why "Mortal Engines"? This is far-fetched!Let us understand this phenomenon: when Kellermann wrote his "Tunnel" - about the construction of a tunnel between Europe and America - no one called it science fiction, because the author was lucky to have been born in times when this concept had not existed. The same applies to Ćapek, Swift and Voltaire's philosophical tales. I think that some fragments of my "Cyberiad" and "Mortal Engines" are closer to Voltaire than anything else; this seems to be the next incarnation in the post-Enlightenment era. An American author called them "fairy tales of the cybernetic age". However placing a big "science fiction" label on them is indeed a pitiful procedure. How about "The Perfect Vacuum"? Does this book resemble science fiction? It is made up of mockery of nouveau roman and similar things. With such assumptions one might argue that science fiction is everything that does not concern events taking place in Krakow orManhattan. I think this is a major misunderstanding. I wrote a few poor science fiction novels in my youth. After realizing this fact I started to move toward other regions, however all critics push me back into that "s-f pit". My reaction to science fiction resembles that of my body with respect to pollen (I suffer from hay fever). Why do people read science fiction? I can imagine what they get from reading "The War of the Worlds" or "It is Difficult to be God", but not from other "works". If all an author has to offer is a "fantastic story", I am able tocome up with a dozen of my own. I never read to kill time. Killing time is like killing someone's wife or a child. There is nothing more precious for me than time.

What is the place of language in your works? What is the importance of this factor in creating your science fiction novels? What is specific about the language, which makes your novels?

I am quite sensitive to language, hence I always tried to avoid unintentional humor in serious works. In "Return from the Stars" I introduced the neutrally-sounding term "betrization" (a method to block aggression). However "The Cyberiad" contains numerous examples of games played with the language. The same was the case with the "Inspection at the Scene of the Crime", where I included a number of neologisms along with a dictionary - since I have beensometimes accused of creating too many neologisms.

I am aware of the fact that I make life of translators quite miserable by stuffing my books with new words, especially since the Polish language is particularly suited for this task. However there isn't much I can do about it. This is unavoidable in science fiction just as it is impossible to refrain from using nautical terms while writing abut sailing. Invention of new words is usually caused by narrative requirements. I never did this "by force" and concepts such as Electronights, Palefaces, and Diodus, Triouds and Heptodius arose almost by themselves. I try to limit the use of neologisms to the necessary minimum, since if I were to invent a language of some other epoch, I would use up half of my life for such a project resulting in a book no one could read and understand - unless I included a dictionary and an encyclopedia (of my authorship, obviously). One can either use grotesque or point at barriers between civilizations, which I tried to show in my novel "Eden". In a realistic novel one cannot claim that the main character is capable of fertilizing women over the phone or that fleas are degenerate kangaroos. However if a novel presents "a different world" or "a different globe", an average reader is deprived of the criteria of credibility. The writer can make him believe whatever he chooses. The latter is exploited by ninety nine percent of science fiction writers. Those authors have joined forces and created artificial frames of reference, thereby falsifying the entire cosmos, basic laws of physics and trampled evolutionary biology along the way. This gave birth to a treasure house of nonsense that a typical science-fiction writer makes use of. Whoever breaks this order is subject to readers' disapproval, which is directly proportional to their familiarity with thattreasure house.

What do you think about religion? I think that religion and philosophy have a sophisticated usage in your novels. Do you think that religion and philosophy are the cement that integrates scattered fragments of the world? Most of your works such as "Return from the stars", "Solaris" and "His Master Voice" deal with science and it's relationship to moral problems. What do you think about morality in your works? What do you think about the relationship between science and moral dilemmas?

Values as such cannot be derived from anywhere, hence knowledge cannot be of any help to us. According to modern concepts, which I follow as a member of the "order of empiricists", people's noble deeds, along with all others, have been programmed genetically. Essential values can be derived from the biological cocoon shaped by the evolution; the latter can be proven mathematically. I will state this matter plainly: if there are two species of social beings and egoism is dominant in one of them, while the other shows a more altruistic susceptibility, probability shows that the second species has a much higher chance of collective survival. This norm has been forced into various ethical codes that postulate various kinds of altruistic behavior. Later this code has been unintentionally deprived of its evolutionary roots and turned into religious doctrines. However from the evolutionary point of view this is only the result of selection mechanisms that have been active for hundreds of millions of years. I do not claim that there is only one source of ethics, but undoubtedly one can look for it in a very distant past. One can also search for other justifications, avoiding the ancient, biological and purely Darwinian ones. Those, who - as humanists - study the natural duties and laws of man, unintentionally close their eyes; they are unaware of the fact that the distinctness of man in terms of categories that they establish, is purely fictional, since its roots lie well within the pre-reason times. There is nothing we can do about it. I am obviously aware that humanity is not particularly happy about this issue. Personally, although I am a non-believer, I would prefer it to be otherwise, even though I cannot justify this urge in rational terms. However I do not feel justified to reject a certain factography just because it disagrees with my noble intentions andrespect I have for others and myself. This is quite sad, indeed. In a similar fashion I could feel angered by the fact that the enormous pornographic industry gains huge profits from the fact that we have been pre-programmed sexually. 

How did you create "Solaris"? We can call Solaris an anti-myth of the modern world. Conquering of the universe undoubtedly was one of the human myths of the 20th century. Solaris destroys this myth. Nothing can be captured in "Solaris". Why does Solaris stand at the "opposite end" of this human myth? In Solaris we see signs of mysticism. What is the relationship between this special mysticism in this work and the communist government in Poland of the time of writing this book?

I can say very little about the process of my writing in general. It seems that each of the books covers up the history of its creation. The realization superimposes over the process of crystallization of the work. It is not always the case that a book is coded into my memory as a river of many tributaries with centripetal tendencies. Whenever I found myself in some rut and later rejected that path, everything that was "before" is completely erased. This was heightened by the fact that I tended to destroy all unused manuscripts. If I were to see these texts, I would probably be surprised myself by how theeventual shape of the book differed from what preceded it. This was the case because I used the "trial and error" approach. The last chapter of "Solaris" had been written after a year's break. I had to put away that book because I had no idea what to do with my character. Today I am unable to find this "seam" - the place where the book has been "glued together". Moreover, I am unable to explain why I was unable to finish it for such a long time. All I remember is that the first part had been written in one spurt, flowingly and quite quickly, while the other had been finished some time later. When I start writing I never have a complete outline of the story, which I try to write as fast as possible, in order not to forget it. I simply kept on writing, and "the thing happens on its own". When I led Kelvin to the Solaris station and made him see the frightened, drunken Snaut, I did not know myself what made him so anxious. I had no idea why Snaut was so afraid of a totally innocent stranger. At that time I didn't know - but soon I was to find out, because I kept on writing. It is rather difficult to comment on this book. I think I managed to express what I intended. The wonder of Harey's returns was an example of a certain concept which probably could have been derived from Kant, since this is the Ding an sich - The Other Side we are unable to reach.I can only add that Solaris became a quite juicy food for the reviewers. I read reviews so profound I barely understood them, starting from the obvious Freudian interpretation. One American reviewer made a fatal mistake in that he was unaware of the fact that the idioms of the Polish original are different from the English ones - hence they do not allow for certain conclusions. Reviews of "Solaris" could make up a huge, quite funny volume, since reviewers saw the "message" of the book in various domains. A certain anti-communist Englishman declared that the ocean was simply the USSR, while people at the station represented small, neighboring countries. The phenomenon of projection, of seeing in the novel the critic's own heart and soul, exposes the discretionary character of literary critique.

Is there any specific writer in the science fiction domain whose works you always considered interesting?

An original and interesting mind was Philip Dick, however he also had some difficulty in making a name for himself. Initially he had been more popular in France and later his fame spread to the US. Also, his works were of "uneven quality". I once wrote an essay for some US magazine, which started with the words: "Science fiction is garbage with exceptions and Dick is one of them." I do not see many "titans of the mind" in this discipline. There may be a few outstanding scientists, who sometimes write science fiction, I know one whoworks in the field of cosmology... I have not mentioned his name, hence I may state: he is a physicists of the second rank and a writer of the third. There have also been cases when writers of the first order, such as Wells, have entered the domain of science fiction. I am of a very good opinion about the Strugatsky brothers, although the ending of the "Picnic at the Roadside" does not seem very convincing. This book makes me a bit jealous in the sense that "I should have written it". From thenarration point of view it is extremely fascinating, although the authors have overdone it a bit. This work is so good because it presents an entirely new approach to a classic topic, developed earlier by Wells in his "War of the Worlds" - the theme of invasion of Earth. Clarke is also quite a mind, however he seems more inclined toward the engineering domain rather than the abstract-theoretical one. He also had a few great ideas, one in particular: the satellites revolving in geo-stationary orbits and serving as radio and TV transmitters. He once said he bitterlyregretted he had not patented this idea - he would have made a fortune by now.

Was Andrei Tarkovsky in touch with you as he was producing the film "Solaris"? What is your opinion about the films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh? Do you agree with the changes which the directors made in your stories?

Tarkovsky was crazy about the idea of filming "Solaris"... During those times he was told by a number of high-ranking members of the Soviet Communist Party that one should not film this book, because this work is ideologically flawed:idealistic, subjective and metaphysical. However he would not listen to them because Tarkovsky was entirely made up of this idealistic-metaphysical stuff mixed with a "Russian soul" - hence he was not a good addressee of such warnings. I have serious reservations regarding his film adaptation. Firstly, I would like to see the planet Solaris. Secondly, during one of our arguments I told Tarkovsky that he never made "Solaris" - but "Crime and Punishment" instead. From this film we gather that this horrible Kelvin-guy lead poor Harey to suicide and later had some remorse about it - while the latter was strengthened by her reappearance in strange and incomprehensible circumstances. What was just awful, was the introduction of Kelvin's parents and an aunt. But his mother was the worst, since this was the Russian mat', i.e. Rodina - the Mother Earth. This really angered me a lot. At that point we were like two horses dragging the same cart in different directions. Peoples' lives, that we get to know at the station, are no existentialist anecdotes, but grand questions concerning the place of humans in the Cosmos! My Kelvin decides to stay at the planet without any hope, while Tarkovsky created a vision with some island and a hut. I am quite irritated by this image... I cannot stand the "emotional gravy" in which Tarkovsky submerged my heroes, not to mention the fact that he entirely removed the scientific landscape of the planet and replaced it by a number of eccentricities. I can tell you very little about Soderberghs' remake. I hear that critics perceive it as derived from Tarkovsky. From the financial point of view this movie certainly was a spectacular fiasco.

Is it true that you gave up writing novels? What is the reason for that?

I have up writing novels some twenty years ago. I just don't feel like it. I published more than forty volumes of prose, hence the very administering of these works - particularly in the world domain - exceeds my abilities. Wereally do get lost sometimes in the sheer number of publications in various languages (including Finnish or Basque editions). Not to mention larger contracts, like the one with Cameron. "How do you comment on 20th Century Fox production of your novel?" - the journalists ask. Well, I cannot comment on something I don't know about. I don't even feel like watching the adaptation of my work, hence I lost the motivation to produce something new. I simply lostthe appetite for fiction. My current reluctance to write is also caused by the fact that I don't see the necessity to write yet another book - in contrast to my publishers, who perceive this matter in mercantile terms regardless of what the book would be used for (to prop up a table leg?). I really do care about my readers.

What is your opinion about Internet? Is Internet a new revolution in human life?

Each new technology has its advantages and disadvantages. And each one may be used for or against human beings. I am somewhat afraid of this. There is nothing wrong with the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the witch and her hut made of sweets - as long as it remains in the domain of fantasy. However eating the entire roof of a real eatable hut made of sweets would certainly result inindigestion. Everything that is tempting always lies between the outstretched hand and the fruit. Once picked, the fruit turns out to be rotten and it does not suit us any more. The same is the case with the availability of information. What are the advantages of great possibilities to process information if all networks may be paralyzed by Internet viruses? The technology opens new possibilities for wrongdoing. I am a cruel person, hence I hate people who create the "I LOVE YOU" - types of viruses; I would gladly havethem whipped and had "enemy of mankind of the first degree" written on their foreheads. I am irritated by evil and stupidity. Evil results from stupidity, while stupidity feeds on Evil. Television is full of violence and desensitizes us. Internet makes it easier to hurt our neighbors. I recently read an article about a young man who tried to (almost successfully) gain control of a computer of a large American aircraft carrier. Had I written such a story some thirty years ago, everybody would consider me mad. However nowadays such a paradox is possible. The entire history of humankind is just a little second on the geological clock. We live in a period of an incredible acceleration. We are like a man who jumped off the roof of a fifty-story building and reached the thirtieth floor.Someone looking out of the windows asks: "How are you doing?" and the falling man replies: "Everything is fine, so far". We are unaware of the speed that captured us. The technology moves forward, however the control of its direction is very weak.

You show how writing and even thinking can fail. In Solaris or in Fiasco, writing and thinking reaches nowhere. Does "Solaris" explain mythical disability of human language - the disability of referring a word to its own meaning?

Our entire language and the process of thinking falls into a rather narrow gap. On the one hand there is a risk of the language being too "hard", on the other -of it being too "soft". Too much "softness" results in insanity, such as schizophrenia. The frequency of occurrence of words is disturbed - the same applies to a poet, actually. Yet the former does it in an uncontrollable and uncritical fashion, while the latter is able to control it. On the other hand we have the languages which are "too hard", which lead to convulsions resulting from the logical dryness. An author of over thirty books is aware that the same problem may be approached from different directions, employing various narrativetactics. It is not advisable to use a language too sophisticated leading to hundreds of wonderful, however incoherent sentences. A the same time it is not advisable to use very dry language, castrated to its very logical core. One has to find an optimum, which lies somewhere in-between.

How do you deal with critics? What kind of critique do you prefer for contemporary novels?

My experiences with western critics are bad because of many misunderstandings and misconceptions. This has changed only after good critics started to deal with my works (those in the highest domains of this field). However previously critics read my books as if they tried to find a recipe for donuts in a telephone book - hence they were dissatisfied and rejected my books. I wasaware that polemics and discussion are simply futile. How would that look like? "It is not true, as critic X states, that my book is dedicated to the matter Y. It is dedicated to the matter Z." These were simply grand misunderstandings. Currently one can observe the same situation in reverse. In a number of reviews, which follow each of my books just like a tail follows a comet, one can read trite praise, which means that the given critic is convinced he has to dowith a "good and praiseworthy product", however he is not really sure what the book is really about. There are about a dozen critics in the entire world who are both experts in the filed of critique and modern science. Without knowledge of science one cannot comment on my works. How is such an ignoramus to know whether the presented concept is my idea, an extrapolation, or a final conclusions from the actual, scientifically established facts? Although one writes for the readers, one would like his critic to be a genius,who puts his thermometer into a given text and reads the exact temperature. However, this was not the case. In the West there is nothing more scary than a novel with an intellectual content. The devil is less scared of the holy water than those people of thinking! Publishers are people who generally don't have a faintest idea about literature. Hence they think such contents is unnecessary. They await therevelation and believe in the myth of a bestseller. What is more interesting is the fact that they are unable to tell the difference between potential bestsellers and books which won't sell at all. They resemble cotton merchants who cannot tell cotton from feathers. I cannot state that this is always the case, however it certainly is with a number of publishers. My commercial success was brought about a gradual development. Initially Iwrote bad books, which were quite "readable"; later they became less "readable" but certainly better from the intellectual and artistic point of view. This was the reason why my works have been widely read. Had I started off with books like "Imaginary Magnitude", no million-copies editions would be possible, since I would have been known to a very small circle. First books, such as "The Astronauts" and "Return from the Stars" lead to my promotion. However not all of my early books are bad, since one cannot say this about "Solaris" and "The Star Diaries", which had quite many editions.

How is your relation with East literature? Have you ever heard anything from Persian literature or story writing? What do you think about translations? Is there anything in your stories that could not have been be translated?

Unfortunately I don't know Persian literature, hence I cannot answer this part of the question. Publishers think that if a translator is paid well, this would raise the artistic value of the translation. However what one really requires is aspiritual affinity between the author and the translator. If their favorite books and life bear some similarity, the same applies to their semantic frame of ideas, words, style and idioms. This premise is a necessary, however insufficient condition. What is also require is talent - something which no money can buy. I do have to admit that the outcome of most translations of my works is worse than the original. The most drastic is the English translation of "Solaris",which has been translated from a very poor French translation! A few times I had the chance to encounter congenial translators. My favorite was Irmtraud Zimmerman- Gölheim, a German translator, who unfortunately died at a very young age. She was a rare linguistic phenomenon, because she learned Polish incredibly fast. She translated "Mortal Engines", "The Futurological Congress" and "Solaris" retaining a very close link to the original. In those times I learned that there are a number of recipes for a good translation, since my American translator Michael Kandel, who translated "The Cyberiad", paraphrased a lot, broke transpositions and sometimes sidetracked from the original - while never loosing the spirit of the original work. This task was very difficult. My first Russian translation of "Summa Technologiae" was translated by a ten-person brain trust of Gromova, including the famous astrophysicist Panovkin. Later my best translator in Russia became the mathematician Shirokov, who translated my grotesque-humorous works while finding exceptionally convincing language equivalents. A great translator of scientific texts turned out to be Friedrich Griese - this was the case with "Summa Technologiae" - however there were some disputes with the publisher, because Griese require some special royalty, as he worked alone, as opposed to the Russian team. Unfortunately, most of my other translations were much worse. I don't really have to explain why; it suffices to look at a couple of pages from "The Cyberiad" to understand the difficulties encountered by translators. My situation resembles somewhat that of Faulkner, who was "bestowed" upon the Americans by the French, since he was not very popular in the US even in his most productive period.