Cruel Wonders: The Prescient Centenary of Stanislaw Lem

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Written by Ela Bittencourt

Tarkovsky's "Solaris" comes into orbit against Stanislaw Lem's original story, as our present-day billionaire world races into space.

The series Stanislaw Lem Centennial is playing on MUBI in the US starting September 12, 2021: including His Master's Voice, The Congress, Maska, and more.

You may have heard, the new global space race is on. Hardly a week goes by without an update about its latest stage. Jeff Bezos has gone into space as a tourist. We’re looking for life on Mars. China and Russia have banded together to explore the Moon. But if the world would just hit a pause button, and listen to the late Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006), whose centenary is being celebrated this month, we’d halt the interstellar dibs, and divert our limited resources to save the Earth first. Such advice might seem odd coming from one of the world’s great science-fiction writers. After all, Lem’s imaginary planet, Solaris, was a blueprint for humanity’s galactic (Lem would add, Gargantuan) appetites. But with Solaris, Lem actually issued a warning: We’re not fit to shoulder the grave responsibility of outer space exploration. Not in the 1960s, not now, maybe never. 

Born in Lwów, in 1921, Lem had plenty of reasons to turn into a skeptic. The Lems survived the Nazi occupation of Poland with false papers hiding their Jewish roots. After the war, Lem was among many talented, intellectually ambitious young men who embraced communism. Lem wrote short stories in a socialist-realist vein before growing disillusioned with the regime and its social and cultural dogmas. Polish writers like Lem had a powerful motive to try their hand at allegorical satire and science fiction. Realist prose got you censored fast; allegory left some wiggle room. The ‘60s were prime fodder for cosmic tales. Gagarin went into space. Armstrong walked on the Moon. Nuclear physics proliferated and the nuclear arms race was on. Humans had every reason to look to the cosmos as a thrilling, idealized haven, where we could start from scratch.

Lem didn’t see space conquest in such rosy terms, however. He didn’t believe we would get far into the cosmos, considering its vastness. And even if we did, we’d come away disappointed. We are earthbound creatures and we should stay that way. More importantly, Lem worried that we had not expanded enough energy to gain sufficient self-knowledge and solve our earthy problems. What made us think we were ready for the big time? 

In 1964, Lem published his philosophical worries in Summa Technologiae, a compendium of essays on technology, evolution and cybernetics. Reading it today, it’s astonishing that a book conceived behind the Iron Curtain, with limited access to most international science publications and before the Internet (!), can be so far reaching and still so pertinent. For example, among the negative outcomes of rapidly developing technologies Lem foresees widespread automation that creates massive unemployment and economic and social inequality—certainly one of the most urgent issues that we face today. In Lem’s view, the quicker we advance the less control we end up having. 

His view of humanity in Summa is sweeping, as if glimpsed from a capsule light years away. From such a great distance, our achievements indeed look puny. We’ve nearly eradicated Polio (but wait, it’s back) but not hunger. We live longer, but pollute far more (and by now, have brought our planet to a cataclysmic brink). In his book, Lem frets over humans’ incurable hubris. It’s flattering to believe that we sit atop Darwin’s ladder, as nature’s greatest gift, but Lem has serious doubts. Evolution has been terribly wrong many times before. How do we know we’re not just another aberration? A strand bound to soon die out? (granted, in evolutionary terms, this might take millennia). 

One can see why Lem’s ideas continue to resonate. We’re not exactly living in the most glorious of times for science. Quack theories abound, taking lives, as we battle the COVID pandemic. Climate reckoning is already upon us. And space exploration, led by technocrats like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, is looking more and more like a mere extension of the dogged techno-military rat-race for worldwide domination.

I should say that Lem wasn’t a one-note prophet of doom. He could also crackle with a somewhat wicked wit. In an interview I dug up on YouTube, Lem, his bold skull grazed with a few wisps of hair, looks every bit a wizened Yoda. His small eyes dart behind his massive square glasses. “We’re like that guy falling from the 50th floor,” he says, “You ask him midway how it’s going, and he answers, ‘So far, so good!’” 

So okay, a pretty gallows humor. But Lem wasn’t a misanthrope, I don’t think. While reading Summa, I got a keen sense that he saw the human race as stuck in a tragic predicament. We’re naturally curious, biologically wired that way. And this curiosity propels us to ask about where we came from. And what better way to find out than to search the whole galaxy over for forms that may prove or disprove the theory that we’re all alone? That we’re special, unique? In this sense, all space travel, including our relentless obsession with UFO’s, is driven by the questions: Who are we? What are we doing here? How did we even get here?
If you pick up Lem’s Solaris (1961), you’ll see that these questions fuel the novel—and, rather naturally, echo in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it from 1972. In Lem’s book, a psychologist, Dr. Kelvin (Kris Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s film, played by Donatas Banionis), is sent to the planet, Solaris, where a failed cosmic mission has cost many lives. When he gets there, Kelvin learns that the station’s primary scientist, Dr. Gibarian, has just committed suicide after a sudden onset of clinical depression. Solaris is surrounded by a vast, constantly morphing ocean that might read human brave waves, which makes it potentially dangerous. Kelvin is soon visited by Harey (Hari Kelvin in the film, played by Natalya Bondarchuk), a clone-like reincarnation of his deceased wife who has no memory of what’s happened to her (she committed suicide after she and Kelvin had a fight and separated). In a heartbreaking time loop, Harey is besieged by horrific ontological anxiety—an inkling that there is something she must know about her origins—that only Kelvin can reveal. So while Kelvin serves as a useful stand-in for Lem, particularly in the first-person sections written as Kelvin’s stream of consciousness, it is really Harey who brilliantly embodies humanity’s gnawing ontological self-doubt.

Born only a decade after Lem, in 1932, Tarkovsky was the ideal filmmaker to adapt Solaris, not the least because both he and Lem lived through the 20th century horrors of war and Stalinism. Tarkovsky’s visionary cinematic language also makes it possible to experience Lem’s outer space, or the cosmic station, in riveting textural detail. Tarkovsky intuited the book’s metaphysical layers too. His use of mirrors to build out the bedroom in which Kelvin/Kris experiences his dizzying hallucinations, perhaps spells of his ailing ego, is just one physical manifestation of Lem’s existentialist drama. 

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