the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Stanislaw Lem’ Category

I finished Lem’s Solaris shortly after drafting my last blog post.  I hadn’t realized how close I was to the end of the book!


I’d been warned (thanks wikipedia) that the books ends rather abruptly.  And it does!  the end is going along nicely,  and then it just BAM, ends.  I was like “where’s the rest of the story?”  but no, all the rest of the pages in the book were blank.


Lemme give you some context, plot-wise.   Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, has traveled out to the Station on the ocean planet Solaris, to continue his studies.  There are only a few other scientists on the station,   and when Kris arrives, he learns the man he hoped to meet and study with, Gibarian, has committed suicide.

All sorts off other weird things happen, that I won’t spoil, because they are the meat of the story.  And if I mention them, I will color your experience, and I don’t want to do that.


Cool things about the station:    there is a library! and it is full of paper books!  When Kris needs to kill time, or just needs a quiet place to think,  he goes to the library!   The station also has video calling, you can basically Skype/Facetime other people in other locations in the Station. pretty neat!


Scientists have been studying Solaris for decades.  We’ve convinced ourselves that the planet-covering ocean is sentient, and maybe intelligent, and that when the ocean solidifies itself and sometimes imitates us, that it is trying to communicate with us.  The strange happenings on the station, is that also the Ocean trying to communicate with us?

The whole concept of the novel is that there are things humanity will never understand,  that we need to be at peace with the fact that we will never be able to communicate with Solaris, that we may never be able to communicate with an alien intelligence, ever. We can’t seem to figure out the best way to make contact with Solaris, and Solaris sure as hell has no freakin’ idea how to communicate with us in a way that makes any sense.  We can observe each other, we can attempt to communicate, but we will never succeed.  Failure is in itself, the knowledge that the thing you are trying isn’t working, and to try something else.

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Also, Welcome to the year 2020!

I hope everyone had a joyful holiday season and a wonderful New Years.  I hope 2020 is a wonderful year for all of us.

Anyway, my first Vintage blog post is about Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris!  and I’m posting about the book before I’ve finished it!   I’ve found that is a fun thing to do – do a blog post when I’m about halfway through a book,  and then post again when I’ve finished it, to laugh at my guesses and assumptions.


I was reluctant to read Solaris. I think I might have tried to read this when I was in my 20s, and didn’t like it?  I remember being bored to tears when I saw the George Clooney movie. Well, the stars must be aligned, because I am enjoying Solaris so much that not only have I underlined parts of the book that speak to me, but the book is already littered with hand written notes that I’ve stuck inside the pages.   Lem wrote a lot of satires, and I can’t tell if this is a satire or not.  The wikipedia page is horribly short.


Some out of context bits that I underlined:


“We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. . .  .  We are only seeking Man.  We have no need of other worlds, we need mirrors.”


“It has been described as a symphony in geometry, but we lack the ears to hear it”.


Included in my scribbled  notes are:


If you Visitor can’t bear to be far away from you, what happens to your Visitor when you die?   And where is Snow’s Visitor?  What happens when you leave the station?  If you have bad thoughts about the person, does your Visitor become violent? Could your Visitor kill you?


regarding the observations of the ocean’s creativity – it’s like it is drawing something, writing something, sculpting something, then thinking to itself “well, that’s crap”, and crumpling up the piece of paper and throwing it away, and then trying again a few days later. Is this a slow-mo version of when you get an amazing thought in your head, and when you try to verbalize it, suddenly the thought is gone?



What is Solaris about?  the plain and oversimplified answer is that Solaris is about scientific failure. It is about that sometimes humans just have to understand that we will never understand something, and that the something we are trying to understand, it will never understand us.  If you don’t mind spoilers, there is an excellent write up about it at, if you’re interested, and here is a neat article about how the novel has an ecological protagonist.


I’ll post more thoughts when I’ve finished the book and had some time to think about it.


In the meantime,  Have you ever read Solaris?  Have you ever read anything by Stanislaw Lem?  What are your thoughts on stories where people simple can not understand, comprehend, or communicate with whatever we are trying to communicate with? How should a character define if they have “succeeded” or not?


of equal importance, did you ever see one of the movie versions of Solaris? What did you think?   This doesn’t seem like the kind of story that would translate well to TV or movies.



Stay tuned for more thoughts on Solaris!

Open Road Media is publishing the complete short fiction of Clifford Simak’s short fiction, so far there are twelve volumes. From what I can tell, the first three volumes are available in print, and right now the rest are only e-book.  The short fiction isn’t in chronological order, for example, this first volume, titled I Am Crying All Inside and other stories showcases fiction from as early as 1939’s “Madness from Mars” to “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” that was written in 1973, but hasn’t been actually published until 2015.


I bopped around the table of contents in this collection, and read whatever caught my fancy. Some stories really grabbed my attention, and others were great fun, but forgettable.


I quite enjoyed “Small Deer”, in which a mathematical genius and an engineer create a time machine, and the engineer goes back to the days of the Dinosaurs. He discovers something horrifying about the history of life on Earth. What he learns is so outlandish, who would possibly believe him?  Can a horror story be gentle? This one is.  I always get a kick out of time travel stories, especially when weird Kage Baker or Ijon Tichy stuff starts happening.


“I Am Crying All Inside”, is well worth a read, and deserving of being the title track. What will happen, generations from now, when we’ve all left Earth for somewhere better? What will happen to the people and robots who get left behind? What kind of society will they build? Told from an obsolete robot’s point of view, this poignant story feels a little like the movie Wall-E, only much, much sadder.


“Ogres” was a super fun, and super smart story about what a vegetable society might be like. We’ve landed on a planet and are trying to figure out what we can exploit, sort of “Little Fuzzy” style. The intelligent species on this planet are all plants. No bones, no vertebrae, no central nervous system, no wheel, no invention of fire. Lots of telepathy and strange music. Maybe we can export the musical trees!  Nothing is what it seems, and the human explorers eventually figure out something fishy is going on. But what threats could we possibly make that would scare a planet full of trees and vegetables? Hmmm…   I loved the evolutionary ideas in this story, and I got a laugh out loud chuckle out of the end.


Usually fun, smart, and gentle, Simak stories always feel timeless. Give him a try if you haven’t.

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Vintage SF badgeThe Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006) was known for his works in science fiction, satire, and philosophy.  His writing style is detailed, subtle and literary, making translations a challenge.  I got into a great discussion on twitter with Joachim Boaz about the Lem translations. Apparently much of his work was translated to French and then translated to English, doubling the chances of wit and puns being lost in translation. By sheer luck, the copy of The Cyberiad that I read was translated directly from the original Polish by the amazing Michael Kandel. I’ve got to wonder if crappy translation is directly responsible for my mixed luck with Lem titles I’ve read in the past. Note to self:  seek out the Kandel translations!


The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem

published in 1965, first English translation available 1974

where I got it: borrowed from a friend










Subtitled “fables for the cybernetic age”, many of the short stories in The Cyberiad have a bedtime story fairy tale feel to them.  Featuring quests and adventures and demanding royals  and hermits and pirates and even the phrase “once upon a time”, alongside literary devices such as alliteration, punny phrases and nested tales, I quickly became desperate for a nerdy 8 year old to whom I could read these out loud to.

The series of stories follows the robotic constructors Trurl and Klapaucius.  The two friends build amazing machines either for their own amusement or to help (for vast sums of money, of course) people on other planets.  As with many parable style fairy tales, the machines and prophecies never quite work as intended, and on more than one occasion Trurl and Klapaucius are forced to destroy their creations and/or escape their insatiable clients. Most of the Sallys (as in To Sally Forth) are 10 pages or less, making the whole of The Cyberiad easy to digest in small portions, if you’re able to put it down, that is (which I wasn’t, and devoured this dense little package of amazing in just a few days).

Since Trurl and Klapaucius (and nearly every other character we meet) are robots, and can’t die or experience physical pain, there is a surprising amount of violence – people getting kicked and repeatedly beaten up or thrown off or into things. Since no one ever gets hurt, it’s humorous, not unlike an old style Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Beyond the hysterical and madcap adventures and Klapaucius egging Trurl on every step of the way, the writing is absolutely brilliant, with a level of literary humor and intelligent wordplay that is absolutely off the charts. Imagine if Charlie Stross and Terry Pratchett rewrote a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, and then ratchet the whole thing up a bit more.

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I know, I know, classics month isn’t until January, but I’d started reading this book (and couldn’t put it down) before I made that announcement the other day.

The Investigation, by Stanislaw Lem

published in 1974

where I got it: purchased used

why I read it: had read his Fiasco many years ago and was looking to read more of his books.










I think I’m finally old enough to appreciate Stanslaw Lem. I read his Fiasco when I was in college, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t get it (huh, maybe I should have taken that Literature class).   Maybe it’s a Eastern European thing (Lem is Polish), but his books simply don’t read like American or British books.  Metaphysical double meanings, characters who are 100% in the dark about what’s going on, and little if any closure at the end.  He’s not an easy guy to read. So of course, when I saw his The Investigation at the used bookstore, I grabbed it in a heartbeat.

The Investigation isn’t science fiction by any means, but depending on how you interpret it, it could be.  Let me explain.  The police are investigating rural cases of body snatching. The night before a burial, to the horror of the family, the body is moved in the coffin, dragged across the room, or disappears completely from the mortuary.  The obvious answer is someone is trying to steal the bodies and is only sometimes successful.  the post-modern answer is the dead people are turning into golems or limited zombies of some sort.  See how it could be SF?

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.