When Swirski met Lem: Scholar Peter Swirski talks to TFN about one of the world’s greatest sci-fi writers, the late Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem at work in his house in Kraków, September, 1971 Jakub Grelowski/PAP

Born 97 years ago today, Stanisław Lem’s books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over 45 million copies. Hailed by critics as being equal to authors such as H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, he is also considered to be the most widely read science fiction writer in the world.  

The First News (TFN): Professor, to start, let me ask you a personal question: how did your interest in Stanisław Lem begin? What was your first ‘meeting’ with his books like?

Peter Swirski (PS): Advertisers and marketers, who certainly know a lot about human psychology, especially when it comes to its addictive tendencies, advise start pushing your product early—as early as the market will bear it. Why? Because the habits formed when you’re young often carry into adulthood.

It was certainly true in my case. I read my first Lem book—the Pirx collection—when I was still in single digits and immediately formed a strong bond with a book that could speak so compellingly to a young reader, innocent of the ways of the world but keen on finding out how the world turned (including how it turned around the sun) and why. Once I was hooked, it was hard to stop. I remember reading and re-reading The Invincible at the age of ten, spellbound by the drama, the scientific novelty, the suspense. There was also Eden, The Cyberiad, more Pirx, The Astronauts, The Magellan Nebula, all of which were my faithful companions during the first ten years of my life. Interestingly, I couldn’t care less about the author or his place on the literary map of Poland, Europe, or the world. I simply read his books because, although I didn’t know much about literature, I knew what I liked.

I discovered Lem for the second time, as it were, as an undergraduate student in Montreal. One day I sauntered into my favourite second-hand bookshop and noticed a familiar name. Turns out, someone had unloaded a whole bunch of used Lems onto the bookshop, which duly displayed them right at the entrance on the “cheap thrills” shelf. The price, I remember, was a buck a book. I didn’t think much of Lem then—he was my childhood companion whereas now I was a young intellectual. But on an impulse I reached for His Master’s Voice, which I’d never read before, despite running into it dozens of times. It was like a flash of lightning. An hour later I tore myself away from the book muttering “This is f…ing good”, and rushing to the cashier to buy every single Lem book I found on that shelf.

That was thirty years ago. Since then I’ve published seven books on Lem, dozens of articles in venues as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement to the MIT Technology Review, and given scores of talks and lectures on Lem on most continents of the world. In 1992 I met Lem in Cracow for two long days of nonstop talking, arguing, and crossing intellectual wits—to the extent anyone could cross wits with this born raconteur and polymath. In the aftermath, I’ve become friends with my childhood idol, keeping in touch over almost two decade first via letters, then email. We’ve even become collaborators, insofar as Lem submitted an essay on robots to one of my essay collections (The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, 2006).

In the end, if you believe the Los Angeles Times and other venues, I’ve become the world’s leading critic on Lem, and all this because of a chance encounter with a book of sci-fi adventures at the tender young age when every book was magic and everything you read about seemed possible…

Professor Peter Swirski in Kraków, Poland, February 2009.Alice Isabel / CC BY-SA 3.0

TFN: Stanisław Lem became an important figure also in your professional life, as a literary critic. Could you tell us what was so interesting – and so important – in Lem’s works, that it was worth devoting years of very serious scientific studies?

PS: It’s very interesting to be asked about my “scientific” studies of Lem as opposed to the more traditional literary analyses and appreciations. When I showed up on Lem’s doorstep in 1992—a grad student keen on picking his brain about all kinds of matters literary and scientific—I was terrified. Lem had a stern reputation for cutting criticism directed at folks who couldn’t make the grade intellectually. Would that be my fate?

To this day I don’t quite know what the by then world famous writer and increasingly sought-after philosopher saw in a bumbling youth from Canada. I was acutely aware of sounding like an imbecile insofar as I found myself trying to conduct the interview in Polish (which I read and understand well enough but hardly speak). Our correspondence, you see, was always bilingual—I wrote in English to which Lem responded in Polish—hence I counted on the interviews being in English too, at least my part. In the end, I had to defer to his wish to do everything in Polish. I still remember squirming under Lem’s gaze when trying impromptu to translate technical/scientific concepts from English, only to be interrupted the moment Lem grasped what I was driving at—yeah, he knew what I had in mind and here’s what he had to say on the subject.

I left Kraków thinking he’d never speak to me again. To my surprise, Lem has kept in touch for the next two decades, answering follow-up questions, sharing insights into his books and topical issues ranging from politics and economics to literature and science, and not least providing a ringing endorsement of my critical work. You can find it on the back of my recent book Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future, 2015): “Peter Swirski, a brilliant literary critic and a superb translator, deserves wide recognition as a scholar of American and Polish literatures.

Why this rare and generous praise? The best explanation I have is that in our talks and in my critical work in general, I’ve always tried to meet Lem on his own ground which is as much literary as it is scientific, philosophical, and analytical (including information theory, systems theory, and not least game theory). Easier said than done, of course. Yet it is no accident that during our talks, which were subsequently published as part of my first Lem book (A Stanislaw Lem Reader, 1997), Lem had this to say (in the very last paragraph): “I prefer to answer interdisciplinary inquiries from the borderline of philosophy of science and literature rather than get bogged down in questions concerning my own (science-fictional works. The former approach is certainly more fruitful...

This, by the way, is a slightly sanitized version of what he thought of literary critics in general and his literary critics in particular. The original version contained a deliciously unprintable expletive that left no doubt about Lem’s opinion of humanists who don’t do their scientific homework. As a follow-up, any interested reader can turn to the introduction to my Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future, in which I explain why both Lem and I favour cognitive approaches to his fiction, and quote Lem railing against one prominent Polish critic who, as he makes clear, has no idea what he’s talking about when he’s trying to talk about science.

The writer sitting in his favourite  armchair. Kraków, 1974Irena Jarosińska/PAP

TFN: It is said that Lem is one of the most frequently translated Polish writers. Is it true? Is his work available to English speakers?

PS: Since I don’t have the relevant stats at hand, it’s hard for me to confirm that Lem is indeed one of the most translated Polish writers. Certainly, were this shown to be the case, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least insofar as in many ways Lem is without doubt one of the most readable writers, period. Be that as it may, there are several reasons why he’s less popular than he could be.

In the introduction to my edited book of translations of Lem’s letters (Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters, 2014), I made a remark that, as an editor, I had to leave certain things out of the book. The result, I wrote, is that readers who sit down with the book will get to know my Lem—the Lem I thought worthy of translating. The inference is easy to make: there are many Lems out there, perhaps as many as there are readers, no least because his books are so rich, so variegated, so one-of-a-kind.

Indeed, this is one of the things that in some ways defines Lem as a writer—and perhaps stumps some of his readers. Take some of his well-known titles (which happen to be my favourites): The Investigation, The Cyberiad, The Invincible, His Master’s Voice, A Perfect Vacuum, A Chain of Chance. What do they have in common? Virtually nothing, except the author. My point is, they are so different thematically, stylistically, and conceptually, that anyone who reads any one of them is bound to be disappointed if he reaches for the next one in the expectation of more of the same. In fact, one of the reasons I love him and respect him as an artist is his unwillingness to settle on a formula and repeat past successes. Lem tried to reinvent himself in almost every book, breathing new life into the often ossified canons of genre writing, whether it was science fiction, crime fiction, fairy tale, philosophical conte, or any other.

As for availability in English, one of the consistent impediments is the Lem estate, which not only authorizes execrable duds like the re-translation of Solaris but also continues to close the door on the publication of Provocation. Five years ago, on their specific request, I devoted two years of my life to translate Provocation into English. Not only did I do this pro bono, but even secured a publisher for the critical edition, and rounded up a group of scholar who were to contribute short essays contextualizing this short metafiction (at 15,000 words, it is too short to be published on its own) for English readers. At the last moment, after the book had already been typeset, the Lem estate put a halt to the publication. Lem must be turning in his grave…

TFN: Stanisław Lem is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most important Polish science-fiction writer. But is he also of any importance to foreigners? Like, to English-speaking readers? Is he as equally important as, for example, Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick?

Any answer to this question, whether in the affirmative or not, is bound to incense those who think otherwise. Rather than getting embroiled in this pointless debate, let me point out that we don’t have—in literary studies, cultural studies, or social studies—anything approaching an objective gauge of importance. Even the scientific disciplines, which purport to measure importance by means of citations, are out to lunch insofar as citations reflect not importance (let alone originality of thought) but merely recognition within an established paradigm. By definition a truly original thinker will garner NO citations, failing through the cracks of accepted modes of thought.

Although Bradbury’s star seems to have dimmed somewhat since his death, the opposite is true of Dick. Whether this reflects their importance, let alone their literary importance, is another story. The entire enterprise of treating writers like race horses in order to argue whether one is ahead of the other strikes me as ridiculous. More to the point, it does Lem grave injustice insofar as the only races in which he’s said to be edging ahead or falling behind other horses are science-fiction derbys. This diminishes the conceptual and literary originality of Lem’s art. In other words, although a literary-critical race between Lem and Eco or Lem and Updike would be equally pointless, it would at least be the kind of race a horse of his quality should be entered in.

Stanisław Lem receiving the honoris causa doctorate, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, October 1998.Jerzy Ruciński Nagórny/PAP

TFN: Science-fiction literature is still very often perceived as second-class, or lowbrow literature. Was Stanisław Lem a pulp fiction writer?

PS: Science fiction is perceived as second class literature because science fiction as a whole is second class literature. This is why everybody who writes literature that just happens to be science fiction, from Bradbury to Atwood to Lem himself, loves the genre as much as the devil loves holy water. So much for the first part of the question.

The second part, however, is extremely interesting. Can lowbrow literature, which partakes of popular genres, more or less conventional twists on true and tried formulas, and instantly recognizable tropes, be art? Here, the answer is a resounding Yes! Interested readers can reach for my books on “nobrow” literature and culture—From Lowbrow to Nobrow, Ars Americana, Ars Politica, American Crime Fiction, When Highbrow Meets Lowbrow, and The Art of Artertainment—to find out why.

Here I can only say that there is no logical (or aesthetic) contradiction in being an artist and a lowbrow writer. Hence the answer to the question whether Lem is a lowbrow writer is Yes. In some of his books, Lem deliberately adopts pulp fiction formulas and genre tropes in order to attract readers and give them a chance to pass an entertaining evening with a good story. This is, however, NOT the whole story. Lem is also—and frequently at the same time—a highbrow writer and an aesthetically ambitious artist who targets the highbrow as much as the lowbrow end of the literary spectrum.

TFN: Lem is not only a writer but also a philosopher. A thinker. Could you give a brief explanation of his philosophical views?

This is the easiest questions of all, since the answer is No. Here’s how Lem himself put it to me in 1994: “my answers may not add up to a cogent whole, since I do not have at my command a perfectly homogenized and distilled 'system of thought'. In many of the problems discussed here my opinions may therefore fail to intersect, or perhaps even seem mutually contradictory.” This is not to deny that Lem is quoted and listed in encyclopedias of philosophy, nor that his general affiliation would be likely with the empiricists, nor that he thought of continental philosophy as much as most of us think of the presents that our pets leave under our beds.

Lem himself would probably have least objections to being called a philosopher of science and a philosopher of the future, so long as we remember that you can be a thinker without being a philosopher and vice versa.

TFN: Stanisław Lem was born 97 years ago. In three years, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. It’s long time. Is his work still modern, or is it already outdated? Can we still learn something new from his books?

When I invited a group of literary critics from around the world to contribute to my edited collection Lemography (2014), the biggest challenge was to convince them to be critical of Lem. Indeed, a couple of them, a German and a Japanese, found the challenge too high and threw in the towel.

Here is another real-life incident. Back in 2012 I was approached by a Polish documentary filmmaker keen on interviewing me for his project about the Master. A brief exchange with this well meaning but hopelessly misguided director made it clear that our first exchange would be also the last. In his eyes Lem was as infallible as the Delphi oracle or the Pope. Suffice it to say, the interview never happened. Any argument to the effect that Lem could be ignorant, misinformed, or plain wrong in what he had to say about science and society was unwelcome to him.

Fact is that Lem’s grasp of science could on occasion be as shoddy as Dick’s. He could be as ignorant of basic physics as an elementary school dropout. His errors of inference can be as egregious as those of the people who thank that if all doctors are tall, and if I am tall, I must be a doctor. All this is, of course, highly pertinent to Lem’s legendary status as a futurologist and a prophet (as opposed to philosopher) of the future. Interested readers can look up the leading article in the November 2018 issue of the Polish publication Czas Kultury in which I put Lem the futurologist on the slab and dissect him with all the gusto he himself displayed when he eviscerated science-fiction writers for displaying zero grasp of science and technology.

In short, we can learn a lot from Lem, starting with adopting a less hagiographical attitude to a brilliant writer and thinker who himself was guilty of more than one goof and howler in his books.