Some Surprising Remarks on Lem

Tue Nov 16, 2010

I’ve been intermittently reading through the London Review, as I’ve mentioned here before, and while it’s the best of its type, there are the occasional head-scratchers. Many of the things the journal printed about literary theory in the early-mid 80s, for example (outside of Kermode’s contributions) tended toward the dotty. But I don’t know if I’ve come across something as spectacularly wrong as these remarks by Tom Shippey about Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco:

Lem has often seemed in the past to be a beady-eyed observer, sitting on the SF periphery, watching everything that happens in centre-field, and quickly and deftly sewing it up into new shapes for much less sophisticated readers. Here, for instance, he latches onto black holes and neutron stars, with the ‘gravitational tides’ idea from Larry Niven; to the idea of being thrown back in time from stellar disturbance (van Vogt’s ‘Far Centaurus’); to ramscoops (Niven again), Australopithecus (Clarke’s 2001), the reasons why intelligent transmissions have not already been detected (probably David Brin), and the Algis Budrys motif of not knowing who is the man behind a reconstruction. What is surprising, though, is that sometimes Lem does not seem to have taken in the science behind these suggestions. The attempts to get round Einstein, for example, are thin even by SF standards.

Lem seems in short to have fallen for the glamour of Big Science, without knowing it from the inside like Benford or Sheffield, the Anglo-American scientific professionals. He hopes it will alter society for the better (the UN in space); he provides warning images of what could happen the other way (a destroyed and divided planet). But he is not fascinated by the minutiae of science itself, of what technology would be necessary for life on a Saturn moon, and of how it would feel to the users.

Where to start? I’m not even sure how stellar time disturbances figure into the plot of Fiasco, and it’s faintly ridiculous to imagine Lem taking anything from Larry Niven (or David Brin). Had Shippey read the essays collected in Microworlds? But for the author of Summa Technologiae not to be fascinated by science (itself) and its social effects? Perhaps this was a sly joke. There weren’t any letters that I saw, so maybe that seals it.