A Feature Review of
The Invincible: A Novel
(Translated by Bill Johnston)
Reviewed by John Wilson
They say—the experts, I mean—that “know your audience” is the writer’s first commandment. Well then, the potential audience for this piece consists of three groups. First, people who are unacquainted with the work of the Polish science-fiction writer and polymath Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). They may have seen his name mentioned; they may even have seen one or both of the film versions of his 1961 novel Solaris, the first by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1971, the second by Steven Soderbergh in 2002; but they haven’t read any of his books. The second potential audience-segment consists of people who have read at least a couple of Lem’s books, maybe several more, and who know a little about him (his scathing attacks on SF, for instance, especially American SF, though he owed his fame and his vast international readership largely to devotees of that genre). The third segment, by far the smallest but not microscopic, consists of Lem completists. They’ve read everything, and they’ve re-read their favorites more than once or twice. They are likely to have multiple editions of selected titles; it’s wise to have extra copies to loan, because even good friends don’t always return books they’ve borrowed. And of course the completists probably have a small shelf of books about Lem as well.
We can be sure that readers in this third group have already acquired the six Lem titles published in paperback earlier this year by MIT Press: four novels, a book of stories, and a memoir, the selection spanning his career. These books have a complicated history. Five of the six are reprints of previously published translations, which had presumably gone out of print. They were reissued a couple of years ago by a Polish publisher, a project directed by Lem’s son, Tomasz, but they did not achieve wide notice. Now they have the imprimatur and the distribution network of a leading university press, moreover a press with a strong emphasis on science and technology. Four of the six feature new introductions commissioned by MIT; happily, the press retained the excellent cover art by Przemek Debowski.
One of the six books, The Invincible, was newly translated by Bill Johnston for the set as issued under Tomasz Lem’s direction; Johnston is among the foremost contemporary translators of Polish literature. Published in Poland in 1964, The Invincible first appeared in English in 1973, but that version, by Wendayne Ackerman, was translated from a 1967 German translation and not directly from the Polish original. Similarly, the edition of Solaris that is still current in the US is a translation of a French translation! Bill Johnston has done a fresh translation of Solaris as well, but for the time being it is available in the US only via Audible.
“But,” you may be saying with exasperation, especially if you are in the first segment of potential readers of this piece, “why are you telling us this? We are not bibliographers! We are not Lem fanatics!” I’m telling you because it is all part of the story of the “transmission” of Lem’s work, a story loaded with ironic twists and turns. This latest episode—the reissue of six titles by MIT Press—is much to be celebrated, and not only by completists. We may hope that MIT and the Lem estate will work out an agreement to reissue more volumes.
So. Let us suppose that you haven’t read much Lem. Which of the six books should you take up to see if he’s your cup of tea? I nominate The Invincible, which happens to be one of my five favorites among Lem’s many books. Here’s how it starts (and by the way, don’t read the interesting foreword by N. Katherine Hayles until after you’ve finished the novel):
The Invincible, a class II cruiser, the largest vessel of the fleet stationed at the base in the Lyra constellation, was moving in photon sequence across a quadrant at the very edge of that cluster of stars. The eighty-three men of the crew were sleeping in the tunnel-shaped hibernation chamber on the main deck. Since the journey was relatively short, rather than full hibernation they had been put into a deepened sleep in which body temperature did not drop below fifty degrees. Only automatons were working on the bridge. In the crosshairs of their field of vision was the disk of a sun that was not much hotter than a regular red dwarf.
Right away, this will convince some readers to look elsewhere for their next book, while others will feel the delightful frisson I experienced when I started reading this novel for the first time, in the late 1970s. If you’re among those who feel an allergic reaction coming on, no blame. But if you continue, keep an eye out for a simple but subtle stylistic device Lem employs in this first chapter. Note just above, for instance, the sentence beginning “In the crosshairs of their field of vision…” For a split-second, the word “their” might seem odd; then you realize it refers to the automatons introduced in the previous sentence. On page 2,
a faint tapping sound inside the walls, making them sound as if they were filled with entire herds of small animals tapping their claws against the metal, indicated that the moving automatic check-and-repair devices had already set off on their journey of many miles, inspecting every weld of the girders, testing the air-tightness of the hull and the integrity of the metal joints. The whole ship filled with murmurs and movement as it woke up; only its crew was still asleep.
Here and in the pages following, Lem unobtrusively blurs familiar contrasts between the human and the artificial, between agency and “mechanical action.” (“The jet nozzles, which had gone cherry red from the heat [of the landing on the planet Regis III], began to contract, emitting a characteristic series of noises like hoarse grunts.”) This pattern of imagery prepares us for what will follow as the story unfolds.
The Invincible has been dispatched to Regis III in the first place because a year earlier, a sister ship, the Condor, had reported a successful landing on the planet but then communicated only once with the base, forty hours after landing, in an unintelligible message “that appeared to be sent in Morse code but made no sense whatsoever; then some strange sounds [like] ‘the mewling of cats being tugged by the tail.’ ” That was the last transmission. Setting out to find the Condor and determine the fate of her crew, the men from the Invincible encounter an enigmatic form of “artificial life.”
I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the story for your first reading, so I’ll stop there. I can say, however, that this novel exemplifies one of the qualities of Lem’s work that I most admire. Lem was an atheist, alas, of the proud sort rather than the tragic, but—unlike many of the so-called New Atheists—he was never smug. He was brilliant (in his case freakishly so), exceptionally learned (especially in science and technology, but also in philosophy, literature, and more), endlessly curious, yet again and again in his work he emphasizes the limits of human knowledge, the sheer excess of reality, the role of chance. You could almost say that irony was his religion.
Based on his own accounts of his life—in Highcastle, one of the six MIT reissues, a memoir of childhood and youth, and the fascinating “Reflections on My Life,” included in the 1984 essay-collection Microworld—it seems that Lem was an ironist virtually from birth. But circumstances in his life may have deepened that predisposition. Lem was Jewish, the son of assimilated Polish Jews in Lvov (then in Poland, but part of Ukraine in the Soviet Union after World War II). Indeed, Lem rarely spoke about this, and many of his readers haven’t even thought of him as Jewish, but he has said that—except for his parents, who escaped, and himself—his entire extended family was murdered by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, mostly perishing in the Belzec concentration camp. Lem himself barely escaped the same fate.
In 2016, a university press in Poland published a book by Agnieszka Gajewska, the title of which in English would be “The Holocaust and the Stars.” Gajewska found that Lem’s parents, though assimilated, were still connected with the Jewish community, and that Lem himself had taken Jewish religious instruction apart from his regular schoolwork. She makes the case (not able to read Polish, I am relying on accounts of her book) that themes connected to the Holocaust run through Lem’s work, hidden in plain sight.
I would love to read Gajewska’s book myself; I’m sure most Lem completists would. Perhaps an American university press is already planning to publish her book in translation. But if not, maybe MIT Press will step up—also commissioning translations of recent memoirs by his son, Tomasz, and his wife, Barbara. They would be splendid additions to MIT’s Lem shelf, and might even help to bring a new generation of readers to his work—an irony that Lem himself would surely savor.
John Wilson is Contributing Editor for The Englewood Review of Books. He was previously editor of Books and Culture magazine.