Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out Amongst the Stars: A Review of Stanislaw Lem's The Star Diaries

Title: The Star Diaries
Author: Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel)
Edition: Hardcover (Seabury Press, 1976)
Pages: 275
How I Came by This Book: I was looking for sci-fi authors I'd never read and Lem's name came up. I acquired this from the library I work at.

About the Author: Stanisław Lem (12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006) was a Polish science fiction, philosophical and satirical writer. His books have been translated into 41 languages and have sold over 27 million copies. He is perhaps best known as the author of Solaris, which has twice been made into a feature film. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon claimed that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.

His works explore philosophical themes; speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations and humankind's place in the universe. They are sometimes presented as fiction, but others are in the form of essays or philosophical books. Translations of his works are difficult and multiple translated versions of his works exist.

Lem became truly productive after 1956, when the de-Stalinization period led to the "Polish October", when Poland experienced an increase in freedom of speech. Between 1956 and 1968, Lem authored 17 books. His works were widely translated abroad (although mostly in the Eastern Bloc countries). In 1957 he published his first non-fiction, philosophical book, Dialogi (Dialogues). Dialogi and Summa Technologiae (1964) are his two most famous philosophical texts. The Summa is notable for being a unique analysis of prospective social, cybernetic, and biological advances. In this work, Lem discusses philosophical implications of technologies that were completely in the realm of science fiction then, but are gaining importance today - like, for instance, virtual reality and nanotechnology. Over the next few decades, he published many books, both science fiction and philosophical/futurological, although from the 1980s onwards he tended to concentrate on philosophical texts and essays.

He gained international fame for The Cyberiad, a series of humorous short stories from a mechanical universe ruled by robots, first published in English in 1974. His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), His Master's Voice (Głos pana, 1968), and the late Fiasco (Fiasko, 1987), expressing most strongly his major theme of the futility of mankind's attempts to comprehend the truly alien. Solaris was made into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972[7]; in 2002, Steven Soderbergh directed a Hollywood remake starring George Clooney. (from GoodReads)

Synopsis: Ijon Tichy is an amiable, innocent cosmic traveler with a magnetic attraction for mishaps of the most unusual kinds; his absurd adventures and misfortunes make pointed and occasionally not-so-gentle mockery of various twentieth-century beliefs and institutions.

Called into question as Tichy is best by mind-boggling time warps and "civilizations" that are curious, to say the least, are: science and the rational mind, human progress, the "rightness" of the  universe, theology and Christianity, the sanctity of life, motherhood--and a host of other things that we tend to take for granted, and even pride ourselves on.

In compensation for this intellectual rock-throwing, the reader will be entertained by Lem's masterful creations, including the sadomasochistic robots of Cercia (who talk like Chaucer), the squamp hunt wherein squamp (huge beasts with impervious armor) are literally invaded and conquered within, accounts of Tichy's unwitting cannibalism, and his personal quarrel with Plato.

The reader may find, however--and this is characteristic of Lem's deft satire--that the laughter is often at his own expense.

Review: I love satire and I love sci-fi, so a satirical sci-fi book was right up my proverbial alley. While I wouldn't really classify this as actual sci-fi, there are fantastical adventures in space, so I guess it fits the bill somewhat. It is first and foremost a satirical/philosophical kind of book. The tales of inter-galactic traveler Ijon Tichy turn a critical eye toward everything from Communism to history to the human race in general. And they do it with a wicked sense of humor. 

The novel is actually a series of short stories labelled as different voyages. The seventh voyage is about a time when Tichy went through a series of gravitational vortices and ended up with multiple versions of himself all quarreling with each other. The fourteenth voyage follows him as he visits another planet in order to hunt squamp. The twenty-first voyage is a philosophical treatise on the nature of life and forced evolution. As the translator's note states, the voyages are put in numerical order for this book (as Lem intended them to be read), but they weren't written in that order. Therefore, the stories vary in terms of structure, quality, length, etc., although they still carry the same darkly humorous tone and the same mockery of humanity and our history. As Kandel states in that note, however, "the reader, looking chronologically, will find a definite shift from playful anecdote to pointed satire to outright philosophy (p. 274)." As I didn't read them chronologically, I wasn't able to get a real sense of how he grew as an author in that way, but you can definitely see the differences in the stories throughout the book. 

Ijon Tichy is the only constant figure in these stories and is a pretty likeable fellow. He's a bit pompous and can be a little cantankerous, but he's funny and interesting and his observations about life, the universe, and everything are prescient. I think that in some ways he could be considered an unreliable narrator (especially after reading the twenty-eighth voyage, which I didn't really like), but I don't know if that was Lem's original intent or if that idea developed over the course of writing these stories. I think that if the stories were to be read in chronological order it would be easier to see Ijon's character development just like it would be easier to see Lem's development as a writer. Instead, the order of the tales leaves Ijon in a continuous limbo: here he's a bit of an oafish ass, there he's a more mature and more thoughtful person, etc. 

Some of the stories drag (I'm looking at you twenty-first voyage!), but others are a lot of fun to read. My personal favorites are the seventh, eighth, eleventh, and, especially, the twentieth. The fact that all of the stories have a unique feel, voice, and overall message make it an interesting book all around, but I prefer the more humorous/satirical stories to the philosophical ones. If you only read one of these stories, I would suggest the twentieth. It's about how Ijon is forced to go to the future to work with an agency trying to correct history and ends up making it worse (with a bit of a twist and a lot of punny plays on the names of historical figures). It's hilarious and thought-provoking. 

I think the main thing that The Star Diaries accomplishes is to make the reader think. You think about science and unbridled progress; you think about religion and whether or not its a good thing or a bad thing; you think about individualism and how horrible it would be to lose it; you think about humanity and how we would look to outsiders who live peaceful, constructive lives. 

I'm giving The Star Diaries 4 out of 5 Gabriels. It's a good book with some slow parts that kind of detract from the enjoyment of it. As much as I like reading books that make you think, I'd rather not get sleepy while I do it. Also, I REALLY hated the twenty-eighth voyage. I'd read the book again, but I'd skip certain stories the next time I did. 



  1. I have always wanted to read Solaris, the movie was devastatingly beautiful. I have the book around the house somewhere, if I like it, I might give this one a go. I love the ideas of his writing. It's interesting to know all that about him, too! Thanks! Good article!

  2. Thanks! I'd like to pick up a copy of Solaris one day. I might even try to read it sometime next year.

  3. Solaris is totally unlike any of Lem's other work, but perhaps it is the best! I'm currently reviewing The Star Diaries on my <a href=">blog</a> and had the same critiques you need: great twelfth voyage, terrible twenty-first voyage. I'm not sure about the twenty-eight voyage either, but do you think his birth aboard the ship sounded inbred?