20 June 2016

Review: Lemistry edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

Trade paperback, 292 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1959-2011)

Acquired June 2012
Read April 2016
Lemistry: A Celebration of the Work of Stanisław Lem
edited by Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska

When I picked this book up, I thought it was a collection of essays about Stanisław Lem with a couple Lem stories thrown in. It turns out to mostly be works of fiction assembled in tribute to Lem. This genre of anthology is always a bit tricky, I think-- I remember not being a very big fan of Foundation's Friends, for example, which was written in tribute to Isaac Asimov, and the fiction in the Ursula K. Le Guin tribute 80! was its weakest part. The problem here is that Lem is in my Top Five science fiction authors and that the contributors here, well, aren't. So when they attempt direct pastiche of Lem, they come up short, and when they try to do something more oblique, you wonder what it has to do with Lem at all.

The book begins, however, with three stories by Lem-- for all of them, this is their first appearance in English. The best of them is definitely "The Lilo," about a man who starts to wonder if he's been placed in virtual reality without his consent or knowledge, and wants his psychiatrist to help him out of this dilemma, but the psychiatrist can't... or won't. Like a lot of Lem stories, this takes a strange premise to its logical conclusion with perfection.

The pastiche of the other authors is at its most direct with Ian Watson's "The Tale of Trurl and the Great TanGent," a tale of Trurl and Klapaucius of The Cyberiad fame. It's okay. It feels more random and arbitrary than the actual Cyberiad tales that I remember, like Watson doesn't quite grasp what makes those stories work so well. I was surprised that this was the only story to reuse Lem characters directly: there are no tales of (say) Pirx the Pilot or Ijon Tichy here, no return to (thankfully, I suppose) Solaris.

Some just seem to be about robots with little else that makes them obviously Lemmian, like Toby Litt's "The Melancholy." Annie Clarkson's "Toby" is about a man who married a robot woman contemplating adopting a robot boy: I'm not sure what it has to do with Lem, though I did find the central conceit pretty interesting. It just kind of fizzles out at the end, though, after an interesting start. "Terracotta Robot" by Adam Marek is just kind of baffling, about a guy, his son, a newly married woman, and her husband all on a sightseeing tour of an ancient robot factory. The guy keeps hitting on the newly married woman even though it's her honeymoon. It's more like a piece of literary fiction that has a robot in it for no explicable reason. Take the robot out and put it in a different book, and I probably would have liked it a lot; as it is, I was baffled.

Others, and these ones felt more Lemmian, play with concepts of reality. "The 5-Sigma Certainty" by Trevor Hoyle is about a journalist who interviews Philip K. Dick, who tells him that Lem isn't a real person but a Communist committee. (This is a thing that Dick actually believed.) The journalist decides to go to Poland to investigate for himself. I liked the story at first, but in the end, it didn't seem to have much to say; there's a punchline of sorts, but it doesn't justify the buildup. The best along these lines is "Stanlemian" by Wojciech Orliński, about people who gamble in a virtual reality simulation of pre-9/11 New York City. The title is mean to be in opposition to "phildickian": whereas phildickian describes situations where reality is difficult to determine, stanlemian is used to describe situations where the problem has been solved. The premise of the story is that everything goes when it comes to getting money out of the simulation back into the real world, and so the protagonist is a guy hired on behalf of a gambler to extract the money from the simulation without running afoul of the gambler's crooked girlfriend. Great ideas that develop some stuff Lem played with, especially in Summa Technologiae, but in directions I don't think Lem would or could have gone, which is surely what you want out of this kind of volume, but it rarely achieves.

Some of the stories ape the way Lem would play with genre: "'Every Little Helps' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, reviewed by Stanisław Lem," for example, is Boyce writing as though he's Lem reviewing a nonexistent story by Boyce. I like the idea, but the execution is not very compelling: you're basically just reading a synopsis of a story that seems somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough.

It's one of these, though, that's the best story in the whole book: "The Apocrypha of Lem by Dan Tukagawa, J. B. Krupsky, and Aaron Orvits, reviewed by Jacek Dukaj" reviews a book about the novels written by three different computer simulations of Lem. One was programmed with the conditions of Lem's life, one was programmed with Lem's DNA and brain scans, and one is but one of millions of people simulated in a construct of twentieth-century Europe as a whole. Dukaj is playful and inventive in the best Lem tradition; this is like the best parts of Imaginary Magnitude, but playing with Lem himself. For example, he points out that one might want one's Lem simulation to write more Lem books (naturally), but Lem decided he had said all he wanted to: "the more faithful their postLem was to the original, the less likely it was that he would write anything new." The different postLems end up suing each other for copyright over their works, and the review attacks the idea the biological Lem is the best instantiation of Lem, anyway: "Where does the certainty that Stanisław Lem, born 12th September 1921 and deceased 27th March 2006 in Krakow, is such an ideal model of Lemness, come from? Simply because he was reflected in a biological form and not in a digital one? But that is pure racism!" All the works of all the postLems together will give you the data you need to isolate who Lem really was, and why should it happen to be the one that was a physical human being? It's a very fun little thought experiment.

And then there are the ones that have no obvious reason to be here, like Brian Aldiss's "Less Than Kin, More Than Kind," which feels like he just sent the editors a story he hadn't been able to get published anywhere else.

The book ends with a few nonfiction pieces. The best was "Stanisław Lem - Who's He?" by Andy Sawyer. I didn't expect to like this, since I thought I knew already, but Sawyer provides a nice overview of Lem's fiction and its major themes, and I especially liked his consideration of Lem's place within the genre of science fiction itself, given Lem's disdain for the genre.

The book has its highlights, but it really does illustrate the peril of its own project: Lem is too good at what he does for most others to be able to touch him. The few good stories show it can be done, but most of what's here reveals what an immense achievement it was to write and think like Stanisław Lem.

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