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HomeNewsAuthor portrait - metaphysician who loves technology - Wiener Zeitung Online

Author portrait – metaphysician who loves technology – Wiener Zeitung Online

Quite fair is that not: Stanislaw Lem, probably the best-known Polish writer, is usually not associated with one of his books outside of Poland, but with a film. And one that he deeply hated: “Solaris”, the film adaptation of his novel of the same name, by Andrei Tarkowski.

After all: The Strugatzki brothers, with Lem the holy triumvirate of at least Eastern European science fiction, fared no better either. Tarkowski’s film “Stalker”, which has advanced to become a classic, is based on the famous Strugatzki story “Picnic by the wayside” – but most “Stalker” fans do not know this, especially not those who know the story from the video games named after the film .

So “Solaris”. A book with a rather weird plot, even for Lem’s standards: On the planet Solaris there is an ocean that apparently has consciousness and intelligence. The ocean can also make copies of people who have already died. Once created, these copies are indestructible and cause unspeakable psychological agony in those with whom they come into contact.

"Solaris"- Issues in various languages ​​... - © HTO, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Solaris” issues in various languages ​​…

– © HTO, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is what the astronaut Kelvin experiences, along with other people on Earth who are exploring the ocean on Solaris. Shortly after his arrival on Solaris, his former fiancée Harey appears, and he feels complicit in her suicide. Kelvin soon realizes that the copy isn’t the real Harey. First of all, like everyone who is haunted by copies on Solaris, he tries to destroy the copy that reminds him of a bad past: unsuccessful, the copies are indestructible. No matter what you do to them, they regenerate in no time.

After a few weeks, Kelvin comes to terms with the situation, later love germinates between him and the copy of his fiancé. They are even considering returning to earth together. But then – and this is the first turning point of the novel – the copy, which obviously has its own consciousness and its own feelings, begins to suspect that it is not the real Harey. Because she can’t stand that, she tries to kill herself, unsuccessfully of course.

The second turning point in the story is an experiment in which Kelvin’s brain waves are directed into the ocean. Soon thereafter, the other researchers on Solaris succeed in permanently destroying the copies, including the Harey copy, which asks for it itself. There are many indications that the “annihilation” of the copies succeeded because the ocean had in some way taken note of Kelvin’s brain waves and processed them.

At this point, at the latest, the point has been reached at which the widest possible room for speculation is open: Revenant story? A parable about trying to understand and communicate with the foreign? A Freudian Déjà-vu, just told backwards and poorly disguised as SF? A reference to the Kantian thing in itselfwhich is symbolized by the physical-incorporeal Havey? A parable on the demonic power of dreams? A moralizing look into the agony of self-reproach?

Aversion to movies

At least the latter can be excluded. Because it was precisely this interpretation that brought Lem so excessively against the Tarkowski film. “What he shot wasn’t at all, Solaris ??, that was guilt and atonement?”, Lem was still upset years later. At the set According to reports from both gentlemen, it was also not exactly amical. Lem has repeatedly insulted Tarkowski as a “complete idiot” in the presence of all the actors and at considerable volume.

For the sake of completeness, however, it should be mentioned at this point: “Solaris” filmed by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in the early 2000s –Remake liked Lem even less. “I thought Tarkowski’s film was the very last one, I was wrong,” he commented sullenly.

Lem was opposed to artistic interpretations of his novel "Solaris" skeptical.  Doubtful whether he would have liked the opera version at the Bregenz Festival in 2012.  - © ullstein picture - Karin Nussbaumer

Lem was skeptical of the artistic interpretations of his novel “Solaris”. Doubtful whether he would have liked the opera version at the Bregenz Festival in 2012. – © ullstein picture – Karin Nussbaumer

For decades, Lem kept silent about how he himself understood the novel, pointing out that the book contained everything it needed, nothing more could be said about it. One can easily dismiss this as a Lem-typical stubbornness. If it weren’t for this diary entry, for example. Returning from Moscow from a triumphant reading tour, Lem notes, surprised even by the enthusiasm of the Russian readers: “Obviously I satisfied some hunger for metaphysics there with the book.”

Smuggled criticism

And a good forty years later, this time the occasion is the premiere of the SoderberghRemakes, he notes that in “Solaris” he attempted to describe the encounter with “some other being or a presence, some being that is neither human nor humanoid.”

Sounds metaphysical indeed. And perhaps suggests a reading that only superficially contradicts the real person Lem, the technicalNerdwho literally could not ignore any new publication on physics, space travel, and later on artificial intelligence or genetic engineering.

The technology-loving metaphysician Lem could also do something else, namely very politically. In communist Poland, where criticism of the regime could only get through if the censors didn’t notice it (or at least could pretend not to notice it), this was no easy feat. At least for those who did not feel like being a dissident. Lem, more of a connoisseur than an ascetic, had none.

But what the grotesque was to the other great Krakauer and Lem’s close friend, Sawomir Mro? Ek – a vessel in which some sharp points against the authoritarian regime could be smuggled into the official literary scene – were the future worlds and for Lem Galaxies he designed. Such a future world is characterized by “The Futurological Congress”. Ijon Tichy, the main character, takes part in the 8th Futurological Congress, which deals with the dramatic overpopulation of the earth. Measured against the year of publication 1971, the action takes place in the not too distant future, at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century.

The congress takes place in a luxurious Hilton hotel, but the city in which the hotel is located is shaken by unrest. To overwhelm the insurgents, the police use hallucinogenic gases and live ammunition. Tichy fled with a few colleagues, including Professor Trottelreiner, who was also named in the Polish original, into the sewer network under the hotel. But the effect of the hallucinogenic gases reaches him there too. He thinks he’s badly hurt. As a result, he comes to a hospital, is declared mentally ill and hibernized. It should not be thawed until medicine is able to help it.

Tichy does not wake up until 2098, which he does not know at first, but in an ideal world in which everyone is perfectly happy, because every wish can be satisfied with the help of chemical substances, which then evoke corresponding visions. Professor Trottelreiner, who also got into this world, gives Tichy an antidote that neutralizes the effects of the chemicals.

Whereupon paradise turns out to be hell: 69 billion people now live on earth – and a good 26 billion “illegals”. There is hardly anything to eat, the only livelihood is the collective intoxication. At the end of the novel, Tichy wakes up again in the sewers near the Hilton Hotel. It seems that everything he experienced was a result of the hallucinogenic gases that the military emitted while fighting the insurgents.

Stanislaw Lem at a book signing in Krakow, 2005. - © Mariusz Kubik,, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stanislaw Lem at a book signing in Krakow, 2005.

– © Mariusz Kubik,, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like almost every more important Lem text, “Der futurologische Kongress” has also been read in a wide variety of ways: It was interpreted as a story about a dream in a dream in a dream, as an early version of “Matrix” and “Inception”, but also as a philosophical treatise on what is better: facing a cruel reality because there is no right life in a wrong one; or on the contrary, to declare appearance to be reality, because it could just as well be.

In communist Poland in the 1970s, the key point of the novel was the conversation in which Symington, a representative of the organization responsible for the application of the lucky chemicals, said to Tichy: “We anesthetize civilization, otherwise it would endure itself Not. That is why she must not be woken up. And you, sir, will return to her because of this. You are not in danger: This is not only painless, but also beneficial. We have a much more difficult time of it, because for the sake of your well-being, we have to we keep sobriety. “

Increasing skepticism

The cipher is actually obvious: Like the communist system, Symingtons organization gives that Procrustics Inc., pretends to bring well-being to people, but in reality it establishes totalitarian control. And well-being turns out to be a chimera on top of that.

The skepticism towards collective promises of happiness, including those promised by technology, increases the older Lem gets. Convinced for a long time that technology can be the key to a better future, he confessed in 2000, when he was 79 and had six years left to live: “The confrontation of my ideas about the future with reality is a little reminiscent of a car accident. It did not come about what I dreamed of. “

This fact may have contributed to the fact that Lem, who also lived in Vienna for a few years – from 1982 to 1988 – hardly ever wrote fictional texts from the 1990s onwards and switched to science journalism and increasingly to increasingly harsh criticism of technology. It is also worth reading.

Sonia Gupta
Soniya Gupta, who joined the Technical University in October 2015, continues his education life at Technical University. As the passion for aviation increases day by day, it has a great interest in technology and gaming.


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