Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Stanislaw Lem: Socio-Political Sci-Fi

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Stanislaw Lem: Socio-Political Sci-Fi

Article excerpt

The existing criteria of value have been falsified

and distorted. The force brought to bear

against consciousness must, sooner or later,

develop into physical force. To take note of

this and to give warning is the role of literature.

Stanislaw Baranczak, passage cut from the

Catholic journal Wiez, in the Department of

Censorship's internal journal, Bulletin on

Themes of Materials Censored (Second Quarter,


In the former Eastern bloc science fiction could sometimes be seen as a form of dissidence, an oblique way of considering important social and political themes, of side-stepping the censor in the never-ending battle to get unpoliced ideas out of the writer's head and into the heads of a reading public. This is directly related to the way the Party attempted to manipulate society and the cultural and political media via the office of the censor. Post-war writers of East-Central Europe have been fascinated by the way their societies have created and maintained themselves as closed information systems controlling ideas. However, in so far as this theme reveals ways in which Eastern bloc societies worked, writers were rarely allowed to discuss it openly.

Stanislaw Lem repeatedly presents human society as a complex mechanism for transmitting information and for furthering a common sense of identity through particular kinds of language, ideas, plots, and characters. His writings are the product of the specific political and social tensions that developed after the 'thaw' of 1956 and the collapse of Party efforts to promote socrealizm.

Virtually all Lem's novels may be read as parables about what happens to society and people when channels of communication are blocked, about the difficulty of making a revolutionary society or fundamentally changing human nature by social and political engineering on the slender basis of the knowledge of humanity at our disposal. As such, his novels are profoundly humanistic, a coded criticism of the kind of society that developed under Stalin and a plea for a socialism of gradual change and a human face. Before looking at Lem's work in detail it is best to set his novel Solaris (1961) in that specific literary-political context.

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera has described East-Central Europe as a laboratory where history made a strange experiment with humanity. (1) The defeat of Germany in 1918 brought forth a magnificent flowering of art and thought from among the 'smaller nations'. It was here that some of the most adventurous and far-reaching developments in modern fiction took place. Writers revealed what had been unleashed on the world in both personal and national terms by probing the collapse of the old empires and the rise of the new. They also anticipated many of the developments of the postwar world. East-Central European literature has a rich tradition of utopian and absurdist writing developed in reaction to censorship, the bureaucratic procedures and administration of the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and Russian empires. Much East-Central European literature is marked by strong anti-authoritarian elements, grotesque appreciation of human contradictions, very perceptive reactions to power structures, and a keen appreciation of the social, personal and familial structures that underlie government.

East-Central Europe until the start of the Second World War was the haunt of artists and writers who, freed from a narrow concern for 'national survival', recorded the process of transition from agricultural folk cultures to modern industrial nation-states, and they recorded it in all its personal ambiguities. This was where Bartok, Kodaly, and Janacek transformed folk music into experimental work, where Freud explored dreams and the unconscious, where Broch, Roth, Kafka, Schulz, Witkiewicz, Karinthy, Nesvadba, Hasek, and the brothers Capek explored not only the 'outer limits' but the inner limits of humanity and human identity. …

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