Stanislaw Lem, The Star Diaries

Imagine, please, that I'm starting this post with the same "English profs are SF weenies" disclaimer that opened my last post on Stanislaw Lem, regarding his brilliant novel Return from the Stars. It'll save us both some time, and we'll want some time if we're going to think about a book of the complexity of The Star Diaries.

The book's title "diaries" are in fact a series of reports by Ijon Tichy, an astronaut of pan-galactic renown, about some of his voyages. Because Lem wrote the separate reports across some four decades, and out of order at that, they embody a number of different attitudes toward their linked subjects of imagination, science, and politics. Ranging from romantic to bitterly sarcastic, the separate diary entries confront and genially abandon crisis after crisis, paradox after paradox, never getting too excited about the purely literary conundrums usually so important to devoted readers.

I'm still processing this book, in part because I made the mistake of reading what Fredric Jameson had to say about Stanislaw Lem, in his messy sprawl of a book Archaeologies of the Future. To make a long and predictably inaccessible story short, Jameson thinks Lem should be celebrated for how completely he's prepared to accept the stupidity of anthropocentrism. The human physical form -- bipedal, oxygen-breathing, sexually dimorphic, and so on -- must only ever be one option among many, and while most SF writers deal with this at some point in their work, Jameson seems to think that Lem completely accepts the notion of human oddity, the notion that humans shouldn't be understood as in any way archetypical of other sentient, let alone space-faring, civilizations.

Do people read single voyages from the book? Not sure, but the brilliant 20th voyage would I think come across as only a gag if it was stripped from its context. If you don't know about Tichy's existence (sometimes accidentally) across multiple lifetimes and in multiple centuries, you're going to lose a great deal of the value in Tichy's explanation of how evolution came to operate on Earth, and how humans became the species that they are: namely, through a vastly complicated series of failed interventions intended to give humans a tiny bit of respectability, intergalactically, unavailable to them because of their bodily form and history.

Is it any surprise, truly, that Marshall McLuhan was a secret agent from the future whose mission was to confuse genuinely speculative futurologists?

All The Covers!!!
It's impossible to summarize this book fairly, because each separate voyage (except from the squibs) could be in itself a whole system of novels. Every so often, Lem will drop in an almost offhand remark about some technical detail, for example, that'll imply all manner of complexity about the entire imaginative mission of SF. For example, Tichy sees the technological apocalypse to be never more than a fantasy:
The apocalyptic visions that futurologists sometimes unfold before us, of a world choked with lethal fumes, filled with smoke, hopelessly trapped by the energy barrier, the thermal barrier, etc., they're complete nonsense: in the post-industrial phase of development one sees the rise of biotic engineering, which liquidates those kind of problems. (p.198)
At this point in the book, Tichy is merely commenting on why he isn't surprised, in landing on a planet new to him, by a field whose crop appears to consist entirely of night-tables and footstools. Once you can make truly synthetic seeds, then there's no distinguishing between growing GMO corn and growing a shortwave radio. Absurd, far more even than the best details of Douglas Adams' deservedly beloved Hitchhiker's series, but also logical, no? Green design is passing strange, to be sure.

For me, the great joy in the book is in Tichy's blending of earthiness with space, as in this passage from early in twentieth voyage where he's trying to relax upon his return to Earth:
Of course an ocean of memories continued to assail me, like a swollen tide when a storm has passed. While cracking an egg I looked at the blue flame of the burner--nothing special about it, yet how very like the Nova of Perseus. And those curtains there -- as white as the sheet of asbestos I'd used to cover the atomic pile that time when I .... No, enough!--I told myself. Decide instead how you want your eggs--scrambled or fried? (p.147)
If you can imagine a combination of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, the good-heartedly practical grifter and the accursedly idealistic trainwreck, you're starting to figure out Ijon Tichy, but you've got to spend some time with him. As I said last time, you can't understand SF properly without reading some Stanislaw Lem, and it might be that the figure of Ijon Tichy is the secret handshake that'll let you make any sense of Lem. Sheer genius, and SO much fun.


Agata said…
I just recently started reading Stanisław Lem and that is a crime in itself as I'm polish. He was a genius and I love his way with words, the puns and wordplay. I highly recomend Futurological congress - It's not only funny but also thought-provoking.

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