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Finding Donut Recipes in Telephone Books

Amid the talk recently of Nobel Prizes, here’s an idea: give the prize to a sci fi writer! I’m no fan of sci fi, but Lem and Bradbury would be excellent candidates of world class stature. Lem in particular would be a particularly cerebral choice. I’ve only read Futurological Congress, but I remember my teacher John Barth recommending Lem to death in the same breath as Italo Calvino.

Lem transcends genres, but sometimes the sheer adventure aspect to sci fi can be appealing. Right now I’m in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, no literary masterpiece, but an excellent evocation of a space colony and the social problems inherent in such an endeavor. Ever since Martian Chronicles, I have had a weakness for Martian tales.

Some Lem tidbits I learned while surfing a Lem site produced by his relatives:

  • Lem was born in Lvov, Ukraine, one of my favorite cities in the whole world.
  • Although the movie Solaris and its remake were enormously successful, there still is not a decent translation of the book. Lem has condemned an early translation, and the publisher that owns the copyright refuses to commission another translation or even sell rights to the book.
  • Phillip K. Dick once wrote a warning letter to the FBI about Lem and claiming that he was in fact a committee of writers, not a single person. (To be fair, Dick was suffering from schizophrenia at the time)
  • Some good books to start out with include Fiasco, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Perfect Vacuum, Cyberiad. The Perfect Vacuum is special because it contains book reviews of imaginary books.
  • Lem is jaded about writing fiction. Paradoxically it is because of the technological progress that occurred in his own lifetime. He writes:

    In 1989 I stopped writing fiction. This was caused by many factors; although I preserved many ideas for new projects, I came to the conclusion that it would not be worthwhile to make use of them in the face of the new situation of the world. The very coming true of some of my concepts (i.e. the transfer from the phantasmagoric category into reality) paradoxically turned out to be an obstacle in further indulging in SF. This was a typical sorcerer’s apprentice situation – the demons were already let loose.

    Now I am better and better aware of the fact that I do not know anything. I am not even able to familiarize myself with all the new scientific theories. Sometimes I get the impression that universities grow at a faster rate than the universe itself while professors multiply even faster; every two years each of them has to publish a new book (obviously describing a new theory). Mad ideas are not uncommon in the sciences, but who will read all these books? Who shall separate the nonsense from what is valuable? Who shall put it all together in a right perspective? There may be some geniuses out there – I am no longer capable of doing it. I no longer believe that I – even if I tried to scream at the top of my voice – might change anything. This exponential growth will not stop. It will keep on developing it its own direction – whether we like it or not, just like a whirlwind, a tornado no man can stop. So what – if my books were translated into forty languages and the total print-run reached 27 million copies? They will al vanish, since streams of new books are flooding everything, washing down was had been written earlier. Today a book in a bookstore does not even have the time to gather some dust. It is true that we live longer now – but the life of everything around us became much shorter. This is sad, but no one can stop this process. The world around us is dying so quickly that one cannot really get used to anything.

  • On Critics:

    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 was aware 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 do with 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.

  • On American reading tastes:

    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 the revelation 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.

  • Another Lem Reader’s Guide by Matt McIrvin
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