Stanislaw Lem, "Chance and Order", The New Yorker 59 (30 January 1984) 88-98.

Chance and Order

As I write this autobiographical essay, I am aware of two opposed principles that guide my pen. One of those two extremes is chance; the other is the order that gives shape to life. Can all the factors that were responsible for my coming into the world and enabled me, although threatened by death many times, to survive unscathed in order finally to become a writer—moreover, one who ceaselessly strives to reconcile contradictory elements of realism and fantasy—be regarded only as the result of long chains of chance? Or was there some specific predetermination involved, not in the form of some supernatural moira, not quite crystallized into fate when I was in my cradle but in a budding form laid down in me—that is to say, in my genetic inheritance was there a kind of predestiny, befitting an agnostic and empiricist?

That chance played a role in my life is undeniable. In the First World War, when the fortress of Przemysl fell, in 1915, my father, Samuel Lem, a physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was taken prisoner by the Russians, and was able to return to Lemberg (now Lvov), his native city, only after nearly five years, in the wake of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. I know from the stories he told us that on at least one occasion he was to be shot by the Reds on the spot for being an officer (and therefore a class enemy). He owed his life to the fact that when he was being led to his execution in a small Ukrainian city he was noticed and recognized from the sidewalk by a Jewish barber from Lemberg who used to shave the military commander in that city and for this reason had free access to him. The barber interceded for my father (who was then not yet my father), and he was allowed to go free, and was able to return to Lemberg and to his fiancee. (This story, made more complex for aesthetic reasons, is to be found in one of the fictitious reviews—of “De Impossibilitate Vitae”, by Cezar Kouska—in my book “A Perfect Vacuum”.) In this instance, chance was fate incarnate, for if the barber had happened to pass through that street a minute later my father would have been irrevocably doomed. I heard the tale from him when I was a little boy, at a time when I was unable to think in abstract terms (I may have been ten), and was thus unable to consider the respective merits of the categories of chance and fate.

My father went on to become a respected and rather wealthy physician (a laryngologist) in Lvov. I was born there in 1921. In the rather poor country that Poland was before the Second World War, I lacked nothing. I had a French governess and no end of toys, and for me the world I grew into was something final and stable. But, if that was the case, why did I as a child delight in solitude, and make up the rather curious game that I have described in another book—“The High Castle” a book about my early childhood. My game was to transport myself into fictitious worlds, but I did not invent or imagine them in a direct way. Rather, I fabricated masses of important documents when I was in high school in Lvov: certificates; passports; diplomas that conferred upon me riches, high social standing, and secret power, or “full power of authority”, without any limit whatsoever; and permits and coded proofs and cryptograms testifying to the highest rank—all in some other place, in a country not to be found on any map. Did I feel insecure in some way? Threatened? Did this game perhaps spring from some unconscious feeling of danger? I know nothing of any such cause.

I was a good student. Some years after the war, I learned from an older man who had held some position or other in the prewar Polish educational system that when the I.Q.s of all high-school students were tested—it must have been around 1936 or 1937—mine was over 180, and I was said to have been, in the words of that man, the most intelligent child in southern Poland. (I myself suspected nothing of this sort at the time of the test, for the results were not made, known to us.) But this high I.Q. certainly was of no help in surviving the Occupation of the Genéralgouvemement (to which administrative unit Poland had been reduced by the Germans). During that period, I learned in a very personal, practical way that I was no “Aryan”. I knew that my ancestors were Jews, but I knew nothing of the Mosaic faith and, regrettably, nothing at all of Jewish culture. So it was, strictly speaking, only the Nazi legislation that brought home to me the realization that I had Jewish blood in my veins. We succeeded in evading imprisonment in the ghetto, however. With false papers, my parents and I survived that ordeal.

But, to return to my childhood in prewar Poland, my first reading matter was of a rather curious nature. It was my father's anatomy books and medical texts, in which I browsed when I was still hardly able to read, and I understood them all the less since my father's professional books were in German or in French. Only the fiction in his library was in Polish. Pictures of skeletons, of neatly dissected human skulls, of human brains precisely sketched in many colors, of intestines in preserved condition and embellished with magic-sounding Latin names provided my earliest contacts with the world of books. Hunting through my father's library was, of course, strictly forbidden to me, and it attracted me precisely because it was forbidden and mysterious. I must not forget to mention the actual human bone that was kept behind the glass doors of my father's bookcase. It was a skull bone—os temporale—that had been removed during a trepanation; perhaps it was a relic from the time when my father was studying medicine. I held this bone, without any particular feelings, several times in my hands. (I had to steal my father's key to be able to do this.) I knew what it was, but I wasn't frightened by it. I only wondered about it in a certain way. Its surroundings—the rows of big tomes of medical textbooks—appeared quite natural to me, for a child, lacking any real yardstick, is unable to differentiate between the banal or commonplace and the unusual. That bone—or, rather, its fictional counterpart—is to be found in another novel of mine, “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub”. In this book, the bone became a whole skull cleanly dissected from a corpse, that was kept by a doctor in a ward—one of the many stations in the hero's odyssey through a labyrinthine building. A complete skull like this was owned by my uncle, my mother's brother, who was also a physician. He was murdered two days after the Wehrmacht marched into Lvov. At that time, several non-Jewish Poles were also killed—mostly university professors—and Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski, one of the best known Polish writers. They were taken from their apartments during the night and shot.

Now, then, what objective, extrinsic connection—i.e., not one imagined by me and consisting solely of associations—could there be between a little boy's fascination with the parts of a human skeleton and the era of the Holocaust? Was this apparently significant and fitting omen a matter of chains of chance, purely of coincidence? In my opinion, it was. I do not believe in manifest destiny or predetermination. In lieu of a preestablished harmony, I can well imagine (upon the basis of the experiences of my life) a preestablished disharmony, ending in chaos and madness. In any case, my childhood was certainly peaceful and Arcadian—especially when compared with what happened in the following years.

I grew into a bookworm, and read everything that fell into my hands: the great national poems, novels, popular science books. (I still remember that a book of the kind that my father gave me as a gift sold for seventy zlotys—the price was written inside—and that was a fortune in those days; for seventy zlotys you could buy a whole suit. My father spoiled me.) I also—I can still remember it—looked with keen interest at the male and female genitalia reproduced in my father's anatomy books. The female pubis struck me especially as something spiderlike, not quite nauseating but certainly something that could hardly have a connection with erotic feelings. I believe that I was later, during my adolescence, sexually quite normal. But since my subsequent studies in medicine included gynecology, and since I was, for a month, an obstetrician in a hospital, I associate the pornography of today not with sexual longing and with copulative lust but with the anatomical pictures in the tomes of my father, and with my own gynecological examinations. The thought that a male may be highly excited by the mere sight of female genitalia strikes me as very peculiar. I happen to know perfectly well that this is a case of libido—of the instincts built into our senses and programmed by evolution—but the desire for sex without love strikes me as something comparable to an irresistible urge to eat salt and pepper by the spoonful because dishes without salt and pepper lack full flavor. I feel no repulsion but no attraction, either, as long as there is no specific erotic bond of the kind that is called “love”.

As an eight-year-old boy, I fell in love with a girl. I never uttered as much as a word to the girl, but I observed her often in a public garden near our house. The girl had no inkling of my feelings, and most probably never even noticed me. It was a burning, long-lasting love affair dissected, as it were, from all actual circumstances—even from the sphere of any kind of wishful thinking. I was not interested in becoming her friend. My emotions were restricted to worshiping her from afar; aside from that, there was absolutely nothing. May the psychoanalysts make what they will of these feelings of a small boy. I do not comment further on them, because I am of the opinion that such an episode can be interpreted in any way one chooses.

AT the beginning, I mentioned the opposites of chance and order, of coincidence and predestination. Only as I wrote the book “The High Castle” did the thought cross my mind that my fate—my profession as a writer—was already budding in me when I looked at skeletons, galaxies in astrophysical tomes, pictures of reconstructions of the monstrous extinct saurians of the Mesozoic, and many colored human brains in anatomical handbooks. Perhaps these external circumstances—these impulses and sensuous impressions—helped to shape my sensibility. But that is only speculation.

I not only imagined fantastic kingdoms and domains but also made inventions and mentally created prehistoric animals unheard of in paleontology. For instance, I dreamed up an aircraft shaped like a giant concave mirror, with a boiler situated in the focus. The circumference of the mirror was studded with turbines and rotors to provide lift, as in a helicopter, and the energy for all that was to be derived from solar radiation. This unwieldy monstrosity was supposed to fly very high, far above the clouds, and, of course, only during daytime. And I invented what had already existed for a long time without my knowing it; the differential gear. I also drew many funny things in my thick copybooks, including a bicycle on which one rode moving up and down, as on a horse. Recently, I saw something like this imaginary bicycle somewhere—it may may been in the English periodical New Scientist, but I am not quite sure.

I think it is significant that I never bothered to show my design to other people; indeed, I kept them all secret, both from my parents and from my fellow pupils, but I have no idea why I acted in this way. Perhaps it was because of a childish affection for the mysterious. The same was the case with my “passports”—certificates and permits that, for instance, allowed one to enter subterranean treasure troves. I suppose also that I was afraid to be laughed at, for, although I know that these things were only a game, I played it with great seriousness. I divulged something of this childhood world in the book that I have already mentioned, “The High Castle”, but it contains only a small part of my memories. Why only a small part? I can answer such a question at least partly. First, in “The High Castle” I wanted to transport myself back into the child that I had been, and to comment on childhood as little as possible from the position of the adult. Second, during its gestation period the book generated a specific normative aesthetic similar to a self-organizing process, and there were certain memories that would appear as dissonance in this canon. It was not the case that I intended to hide certain things because of, say, a feeling of guilt or of shame but, rather, that there were memories that would not fit into the pattern that I presented as my childhood. I wanted something impossible to attain—to extract the essence of my childhood, in its pure form, from my whole life: to peel away, as it were, the overlying strata of war, of mass murder and extermination, of the nights in the shelters during air raids, of an existence under a false identity, of hide-and-seek, of all the dangers, as if they had never existed. For, indeed, nothing of this had existed when I was a child, or, even a sixteen-year-old highschool boy. I gave an indication of these exclusions in the novel itself. I do not remember exactly where, but I signaled that I had to or wanted to keep certain matters out by dropping a parenthetical remark that every human being is able to write several strikingly different autobiographies, according to the viewpoint chosen and the principle of selection.

The meaning of the categories of order and chance for human life was impressed upon me during the war years in a purely practical, instinctual manner; I resembled more a hunted animal than a thinking human being. I was able to learn from hard experience that the difference between life and death depended upon minuscule, seemingly unimportant things and the smallest of decisions: whether one chose this or that street for going to work; whether one visited a friend at one o'clock or twenty minutes later; whether one found a door open or closed. I cannot claim that in following my instinct for self-preservation I always employed a minimax strategy of extreme cautiousness. To the contrary, I exposed myself to danger several times—occasionally when I thought it necessary but in some cases through mere thoughtlessness, or even stupidity. So that today, when I think of such idiotically reckless patterns of behavior, I still feel wonder, mingled with bewilderment, about why I acted as I did. To steal ammunition from the so-called Beutepark der Luftwaffe (the depot where the German Air Force stored its loot) in Lvov and to turn it over to somebody totally unknown to me—somebody of whom I knew only that he was a member of the Resistance—I considered to be my duty. (I was in a position to do so since, as an employee of a German company, I had access to this depot.) But when I was instructed to transport something—a gun, in this case—from one place to another just before curfew, and was told, strictly, not to use the tram (I was supposed to walk), it happened that I nevertheless disobeyed the order and climbed onto the footboard of a tram; and that a “Black One”—a Ukrainian policeman who was a member of the auxiliary police of the German occupational forces—jumped onto the footboard behind me and put his arm around me to reach for the door handle. It could have meant an ill end for me if the policeman had felt the gun. My act was insubordination, thoughtlessness, and folly all in one, but I did it anyway. Was it a challenge to fate, or only foolhardiness? Up to this day, I am not sure. (I am better able to understand why I visited the ghetto several times—risky though this was—when it was open to visitors. I had friends there. As far as I know, all, or nearly all, of them were transported to the gas chambers of Belzec in the fall of 1942.)

At this point, the question arises whether what I have reported so far is relevant at all, in the sense of having any direct, causal relationship to my profession as a writer, or to the kind of writing I have done—excluding, of course, autobiographical works like “The High Castle”. I believe that such a causal relationship exists—that it isn't mere chance that I attribute in my work such a prominent role to chance as the shaper of human destiny. I have lived in radically different social systems. Not only have I experienced the huge differences in poor but independent, capitalist (if one must call it that) prewar Poland, the Pax Sovietica in the years 1939-41, the German Occupation, the return of the Red Army, and the postwar years in a quite different Poland, but at the same time I have also come to understand the fragility that all systems have in common, and I have learned how human beings behave under extreme conditions—how their behavior when they are under enormous pressure is almost impossible to predict.

I remember well my feelings when I read “Mr. Sammler's Planet”, by Saul Bellow. Now, I thought that book very good—so good that I have read it several times. Indeed. But most of the things that Mr. Bellow attributed to his hero, Mr. Sammler, in recounting his experiences in a Poland occupied by the Germans, didn't sound quite right to me. The skilled novelist must have done careful research before starting on the novel, and he made only one small mistake—giving a Polish maid a name that isn't Polish. This error could have been corrected by a stroke of the pen. What didn't seem right was the “aura”—the indescribable “something” that can be expressed in language perhaps only if one has experienced in person the specific situation that is to be described. The problem in the novel is not the unlikeliness of specific events. The most unlikely and incredible things did happen then. It is, rather, the total impression that evokes in me the feeling that Bellow learned of such events from hearsay, and was in the situation of a researcher who receives the individual parts of a specimen packaged in separate crates and then tries to put them together. It is as if oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor and the fragrance of flowers were to be mixed in such a way, as to evoke and bring to life the specific mood of a certain part of a forest at a certain morning hour. I do not know whether something like this would be totally impossible, but it would surely be difficult as hell. There is something wrong in Mr. Sammler's Planet; some tiny inaccuracy got mixed into the compound. Those days have pulverized and exploded all narrative conventions that had previously been used in literature. The unfathomable futility of human life under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by literary techniques in which individuals or small groups of persons form the core of the narrative. It is, perhaps, as if somebody tried by providing the most exact description of the molecules of which the body of Marilyn Monroe was composed to convey a full impression of her. That would be impossible. I do not know, of course, whether this sort of narrative inadequacy was the reason that I started writing science fiction, but I suppose—and this is a somewhat daring statement—that I began writing science fiction because it deals with human beings as a species (or, rather, with all possible species of intelligent beings, one of which happens to be the human species). At least, it should deal with the whole species, and not just with specific individuals, be they saints or monsters.

It is likely that, after my beginner's attempts—that is to say, after my first science-fiction novels—I revolted for the same reason of narrative limitations against the paradigms of the genre as they developed and became fossilized in the United States. As long as I didn't know current science fiction—and I didn't know it for a long time, because up to 1956 or 1957 it was almost impossible to get foreign hooks in Poland—I believed that it had to be a further development or the starting position taken by H. G. Wells in “The War of the Worlds”. It was he who climbed into a general's position, from which it was possible to survey the whole human species in an extreme situation. He anticipated a future filled with disasters, and I must admit that he was correct. During the war, when I read his novel several times, I was able to confirm his understanding of human psychology.

Today, I am of the opinion that my earliest science-fiction novels are devoid of any value (regardless of the fact that they had large editions everywhere and made me world-famous). I wrote these novels—for instance, “The Astronauts”, which was published in 1951, and was about an expedition to the planet Venus from a simplistically Utopian Earth—for reasons that I can still understand today, although in their plots and in the kind of world they depicted they were contrary to all my experience of life at the time. In these books, the evil world of reality was supposed to have suffered a sea change into a good one. In the postwar years there seemed to be only this choice—between hope and despair, between a historically untenable optimism and a well justified skepticism that was easily apt to turn into nihilism. Of course, I wanted to embrace optimism and hope!

However, my very first novel was a realistic one, which I wrote perhaps in order to rid myself of the weight of my war memories—to expel them like pus. But perhaps I wrote this book also in order not to forget; the one motive could well go together with the other. The novel is called “The Hospital of Transfiguration”, and it is about the fight of the staff of a hospital for the insane to save the inmates from being killed by the German occupiers. One German reviewer ventured the opinion that it was a kind of sequel to Thomas Mann's “The Magic Mountain”. What was in Mann only a portent—only the distant hint of a then nearly invisible lightning, since the horrors to come were still hidden behind the horizon of the times—proves to be in my novel the final circle of Hell, the logical outcome of the predicted “decline of the West” in the mass exterminations. The village, the hospital for the mentally ill, the professional staff: none of the places and characters ever existed; they are all my invention. But mentally ill persons—and many others—were indeed murdered by the thousands in Occupied Poland. I wrote “The Hospital of Transfiguration” in 1948, my last year as a student. It could not appear until 1955, however, since it didn't conform to the then already reigning standards of Socialist Realism. In the meantime, I was, as I can say without exaggeration, very busy.

IN 1946, we—my father, my mother, and I—moved from Lvov to Krakow, having lost all our possessions in the course of the war. My father, who was seventy-one years old, was forced, because of these reverses, to work in a hospital; there was no possibility that he could set up his own practice. We all lived in a single room in Krakow, and my father didn't have the means to buy his own equipment. Purely by chance, I learned how I could financially help our family: I wrote several long stories for a weekly dime-novel series that featured a complete story in each issue. Considered as thrillers, they weren't so bad. Aside from that, I wrote poems; they appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny, the Krakovian Catholic weekly. And two novellas—not science fiction proper but on the margin of fantasy—plus some odds and ends in various publications. But I did not take my writing very seriously.

In 1947, at the age of twenty-six, I became a junior research assistant for an organization called Konwersatorium Naukoznawcze (the Circle for the Science of Science), founded by Dr. Mieczyslaw Chojnowski. To him I presented my most dearly held works: a theory of brain functions invented by me, and a philosophical treatise. He called both nonsense but took me under his tutelage. Thus, I was forced to read logic textbooks, scientific methodology, psychology, psychometrics (the theory of psychological testing), the history of natural science, and many other things. Although it was apparent that I couldn't read English, I had to do the best I could with English language books. These books proved so interesting that I had to crack them, dictionary in hand, as Champollion cracked his hieroglyphs. Since I had learned French at home and Latin and German in school, and had picked up some Russian, I somehow managed to get along. But to this day I can understand only written English. I can neither speak the language nor understand it when it is spoken. For the monthly Zycie Nauki (The Life of Science), I compiled surveys of scientific periodicals from the standpoint of the science of science. By doing so, I became involved in the wretched Lysenko affair, for in my survey I synopsized the controversy between him and the Soviet geneticists in what an official report from the Ministry in charge of Polish universities called “a tendentious manner”. I held Lysenko's doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characteristics to be ridiculous, and I was proved right after several years, but my taking this position had rather painful consequences for our monthly. Something similar happened a little later, when I perceived in Norbert Wiener's and Claude E. Shannon's cybernetics a new era not just for technological progress but also for the whole of civilization. At that time, cybernetics was considered in our country to be a fallacious pseudoscience.

In those years, I was particularly well informed about the latest developments in the various sciences, for the Krakovian circle functioned as a kind of clearing house for scientific literature from the United States (and, to some extent, from Canada) coming in to all the Polish universities. From the book parcels received I could borrow all the works that stirred my interest, including Wiener's “The Human Use of Human Beings”. At night, I read everything voraciously, so that I could pass on the books as soon as possible to the people who were supposed to get them. On the basis of this reading, I wrote those of my novels that I can still acknowledge without shame— “Eden” (1959), “Solaris” (1961), “The Invincible” (1963), etc. They incorporate cognitive problems in fictions that do not oversimplify the world, as did my earliest, naive science fiction novels.

My father died in 1954 and toward the end of the fifties I was able to acquire for us—myself and my wife—a small house on the southern outskirts of Krakow, which we still have. (Close to this house, a larger house, in a larger garden, is in the process of being built for us as I write these words.) In the late sixties, I first made contact with my future literary agent and kindred spirit, Franz Rottensteiner, from Vienna. Both of us were then writing many critical, often polemical essays for Anglo-American science-fiction fanzines (i.e., the amateur magazines published by the aficionados of science fiction), mostly for Bruce Gillespie's Australian SF Commentary; that resulted in a certain popularity for both of us, even if it was of a negative sort, in the science-fiction ghetto. Today, I am of the opinion that we wasted our efforts. In the beginning, it was totally incomprehensible to me why so many authors were erecting, viribus unitis, a common prison for science fiction. I believed that, according to the law of large numbers alone, there had to be among so many a considerable group at the top, as far as both writing abilities and scientific qualifications were concerned. (For me, the scientific ignorance of most American science-fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.) I was in error, but it took me a very long time to recognize it.

As a reader of science fiction, I expected something like what is called, in the evolutionary processes of nature, speciation—a new animal species generating a diverging, fanlike radiation of other new species. In my ignorance, I thought that the time of Verne, Wells, and Stapledon was the beginning, but not the beginning of the decline, of the sovereign individuality of the author. Each of these men created something not only radically new for their time but also quite different from what the others created. They all had enormous room for maneuvering in the field of speculation, because the field had only recently been opened up and was still empty, of both writers and books. Each of them entered the no man's land from a different direction and made some particular province of this terra incognita his own. Their successors, on the other hand, had to compromise more and more with the crowd. They were forced to become like ants in an anthill, or industrious bees, each of which is indeed building a different cell in the honeycomb but whose cells are all similar. Such is the law of mass production. Thus, the distance between individual works of science fiction has not grown greater, as I erroneously expected, but has shrunk. The very thought that a Wells or a Stapledon could have written, alternately, visionary fantasies and typical mysteries strikes me as absurd. For the next generation of writers, however, this was something quite normal. Wells and Stapledon are comparable to the people who invented chess and draughts. They discovered new rules for games and their successors have applied these rules with only smaller or larger variations. The sources of innovation have gradually become depleted; the thematic clusters have become fossilized. Hybrids have arisen (science fantasy), and the patterns and schemata of the literary form have been applied in a mechanical and ready-made way.

To create something radically new, it was necessary to advance into another field of possibilities. I believe that in the first period of my career I wrote purely secondary things. In the second period (“Solaris”, “The Invincible”), I reached the borders of a field that was already nearly completely mapped. In the third period—when I wrote, for example, reviews of nonexistent books and forewords to works that, as I put it, ironically, in an interview, would be published “sometime in the future but that do not exist yet”—I left the fields already exploited and broke new ground. This idea is best explained by a specific example. A few years ago, I wrote a small book entitled “Provocation”. It is a review of a fictitious two-volume tome ascribed to a nonexistent German historian and anthropologist, whom I call Aspernicus. The first volume is titled “Die Endlösung als Erlösung” (“The Final Solution, Considered as Redemption”), the second “Fremdkörper Tod” (“Foreign Body Death”). The whole thing is a unique historicophilosophical hypothesis about the as yet unrecognized roots of the Holocaust, and the role that death, especially mass death, has played in the cultures of all times up to the present day. The literary quality of my fictitious criticism (which is rather long, or it wouldn't have filled even a small book) is beside the point here. What counts is the fact that there were professional historians who took my fancy for the review of a real book, as is attested to by attempts on the part of some of them to get hold of the book. To my mind, “Provocation”, too, is a kind of science fiction; I am trying not to limit the meaning of the name of this category of writing but, rather, to expand it.

NOTHING I've ever written was planned in an abstract form right from the start, to be embodied later in literary form. Nor can I claim that it was my intention to find other fields for development—that I set out with the intention of seeking them out for my imagination. But I can say something about the conception of an idea, the gravid state, the pains of giving birth though I do not know the genetic makeup of the embryo or know how it is transformed into a phenotype—the finished work. Here, in the realm of the “embryogenesis” of my writing, considerable differences have developed in the course of some thirty-six years.

My earliest novels (which I acknowledge as my own only with some discomfort) I did not plan and construct according to a complete design. I wrote the novels in the “Solaris” group in a similar manner, which I myself cannot explain. The terminology of birth that I have used above may sound inappropriate, but it is somewhat apt. I am still able to point to passages in “Solaris” and “Return from the Stars” where I found myself, during the writing process, in the position of a reader. When Kelvin, the narrator of “Solaris”, arrives at the station hovering over the planet Solaris and finds it empty of human beings, and when he starts his search for the crew, and encounters the scientist Snow, who goes into a state of panic when he sees Kelvin, I had no idea why nobody had expected his arrival or why Snow behaved in this peculiar manner; indeed, I had no idea at all that some “living ocean” would cover the whole planet. All this was divulged to me in the same manner that it becomes clear to the reader in the course of reading the book—with the sole difference that it was I who created the novel. And in “Return from the Stars” I faced a wall when the returning astronaut frightens one of the first women he meets, and then the word “betrization” is used: that's the treatment that human beings have undergone in the future world to rid them of their aggressive impulses. I didn't know at first exactly what the word should mean, but I knew that there must be some unbridgeable difference between the civilization that the man left when he flew to the stars and the one that he found upon his return. The metaphor that takes its terms from the lexicon of embryology is thus not nonsense for a woman who is with child knows that she carries an embryo, but she has no idea how the embryo is transformed from an ovum into a child. Considering myself to be a rationalist, I dislike such confessions, and I should prefer to be able to say that I knew everything I was doing—or, at least, a good deal of it—beforehand, and that I planned and designed it, but amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas.

Nevertheless, something can be said about my creative method. First, there is no positive correlation between the spontaneity of my writing and the quality of the resulting work. I gave birth to “Solaris” and “Return from the Stars” in a similar manner, but I think that “Solaris” is a good book and “Return from the Stars” a poor one, because in the latter the underlying problems of social evil and its elimination are treated in a manner that is too primitive, too unlikely, and perhaps even false. (Even if the evil done to others with full intent could be suppressed pharmacologically—the book's main premise—no chemical or other influence upon the brain could cause the unintended evil effects of all social dependencies, conflicts, and contradictions to disappear from the world, in the same manner that an insecticide can eliminate vermin.) Second, creative spontaneity is not a guarantee that there will be sure development of whole narrative—i.e., a plot that can be finished without applying force. I have had to put more stories aside unfinished or drop them into the waste basket than I have been able to submit to publishers. Third, this process of writing, which is characterized by the signs of a creation by trial and error, has always been arrested by blocks and blind alleys that forced me to retreat; sometimes there has even been a “burning out” of the raw materials—the manifold resources necessary for further growth—stored somewhere in my skull. I was not able to finish “Solaris” for a full year, and could do it then only because I learned suddenly—from myself—how the last chapter had to be. (And then I could only wonder why I hadn't recognized it from the beginning.) And, fourth, even what I wrote spontaneously never received its final shape in the first thrust of work. I have never written a larger work (it is different with short stories) in a “linear” way right to the end in one sweep; rather, in the pauses between writing sessions—it is for purely physiological reasons impossible to sit at the typewriter all the time—I had new ideas that enriched what was already finished or was to be written soon; changed it; and complicated it with some new turn of complexity of plot.

Practical experience—the result of wrestling with my writing over the years—has taught me never to force what I am working on if it has not ripened at least partly but, rather, to let it rest for sometime (which may amount to periods of months, or even years) and let the thing mill around in my head. (A gravid woman knows that an early birth bodes nothing good.) This situation has put me on the horns of a dilemma, however, for, like nearly all writers, I often try to invent excuses for not writing. As is well known, laziness is one of the main barriers hindering everyone in his work. If I waited until I carried something in its definite form around in my head, I would never create anything.

My method of creating (which I should like to call, rather, my behavior as a writer) has changed during the years, if only very slowly. I have learned to avoid the pure spontaneity of beginnings which motivated me to write something even when I had not the slightest idea what would come of the thing—its plot, its problems, its characters, etc.—because the instances in which I was unable to finish what I had begun were on the increase. Perhaps the imaginative space that was given me became gradually emptied, like a territory rich in oil, from which the black gold at first fountains in the air everywhere in geysers, no matter where one begins to drill; after some time, one has to use ever more complicated tricks and apply pressure to drive the remaining reserves up to the surface. The center of gravity of my work, then, gradually shifted in the direction of the gaining of a basic idea, a conception, an imaginative notion. I ceased to sit down at my typewriter whenever I had a quite small but ready beginning; instead, I started to produce an increasing number of notes, fictitious encyclopedias, and small additional ideas, and this has finally led to the things I am doing now. I try to get to know the “world” to be created by me by writing the literature specific to it, but not whole shelves of reference works of the sociology and the cosmology, of some thirtieth century, not the fictitious minutes of scientific expeditions or other types of literature that express a Zeitgeist, the spirit of a time and a world, alien to us. After all, this would be an endeavor impossible to accomplish during the short life of a human being. Nor do I now do what began in the first place rather as a joke—write criticism in the form of the reviews of nonexistent books or forewords to them (“A Perfect Vacuum”, “Imaginary Magnitude”), I do not publish these things any longer but use them to create my own knowledge of another world, a knowledge entirely subservient to my literary program—in other words, to sketch a rough outline that will be filled in later. I surround, myself, so to speak, with the literature of a future, another world, a civilization with a library that is its product its picture, its mirror image. I write only brief synopses or, again, critical reviews of sociological treatises, scientific papers, and technical reference works, and I describe technologies that have taken the place of literature after its final death, just as television has made obsolete the cinématographe of Lumière, and three-dimensional television will make obsolete the TV sets of today. There are also historicophilosophical papers, “encyclopedias of alien civilizations” and their military strategies—all of them, of course, in a kind of shorthand, or I would need the longevity of a Methuselah to create them. It may well be that I will publish something out of this “library for a given purpose” independently of the work for which it served as a frame and a source of information.1

And where do I get all these facts, which I adorn with such enchanting titles as “The Trend of Dehumanization in Weapon Systems of the 21st Century” or “Comparative Culturology of Humanoid Civilizations”? In a certain sense, from my head; in another, not. I have invented several picturesque similes to illustrate for myself and others what my working method is like:

(1) A cow produces milk—that is certain—and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to be able to produce milk, I have to read large amounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds—i.e., literature not invented by me—and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass.

(2) Just as the ape in Wolfgang Köhler's psychological experiments wasn't able to reach a banana hanging very high, and made a scaffold from junk—boxes lying around, etc.—in order to be able to climb up to the banana, I have to build up, in subsequent moves and attempts an informational “scaffold” that I must climb up to reach my goal.

(3) The last simile is somewhat drastic and may appear to be very primitive, but it nevertheless contains, some grain of the truth. A water closet has a reservoir that must be filled, and when the lever or button is pushed all the water flushes down in one stream. Thereafter, the reservoir is empty for a time, and until it has been filled again no impatient pushing of the button or the lever will cause the small Niagara to flush forth again. As far as my work is concerned, this image is appropriate, in that if I did not keep enriching my fictitious library there would come a state of depletion, and after that I would not be able to get anything more out of my mind—my information storehouse. I wrote “A Perfect Vacuum”—it contains fifteen fictitious book reviews—nearly without a pause, and after that my reservoir was empty. Indeed, the comparison can be dragged in a little further. Just as if you push the button of a toilet too soon there will flush down only inadequate Niagaras, I can squeeze a little more from my head after the writing of a book like “A Perfect Vacuum”. But I will not be satisfied with the stuff gained this way, and I cast these remnants aside.

My working methods are additionally complicated and enriched by my having from time to time written quasi-scientific works that were not intended as scaffoldlike supports for fiction but meant seriously as independent books on the theory of literature (but they are along empirical lines that are alien to specialists in the humanities). And I have produced “Science Fiction and Futurology” (1970), which is an acerbic criticism and theory of science fiction; and skeptical futurology, like “Summa Technologiae” (1964), which doesn't amass many speculations about the wonderful or terrible things of the near future but, rather, attempts to pursue a few radical ideas to their utmost limits; and the “Dialogues” (1957), about the horizons and chances of cybernetics implicit in the system; and essays on various topics, such as “Biology and Values” (1968) and “Applied Cybernetics: An Example from the Field of Sociology”2 (1971)—a discussion of the pathology of socialism. Later, it turned out that several of the ideas that occurred to me during the writing of these works and that I used as hypotheses and examples—i.e., much of what I encountered on my chosen intellectual way during the process of writing—could also be put to good use in fiction. At first, this happened in a totally unconscious manner. I noticed it only when it was pointed out to me; that is, my critics discovered the similarities and were of the opinion that I oscillated with full consciousness between serious discussion and fantastic literature, when I myself was not aware of such a seesawing. Once my attention was drawn to this phenomenon, I sometimes browsed in my own books with an eye toward this possibility of exploitation or cross-fertilization.

In looking back, I see clearly that in my middle period as a writer I wrote fiction without any regard for the existence of some continuity between the imagined worlds and our world. In the worlds of “Solaris”, “Eden”, and “Return from the Stars”, there are no immediately obvious transitional stages that could connect these states of civilization with the obnoxious state of things on earth today. My later work, on the other hand, shows marked signs of a turning toward our world; that is, my later fictions are attempts to establish such connections. I sometimes call this my inclination toward realism in science fiction. Most likely, such attempts, which to some extent have the unmistakable character of a retreat (as a renunciation of both utopia and dystopia, extremes that are either repugnant to me or leave me cold just as is the case for a physician when he faces someone incurably ill), spring from the awareness that I must soon die and from the resulting desire to satisfy, at least with hypotheses, my insatiable inquisitiveness about the far future of mankind and the cosmos. But that is only a guess; I wouldn't be able to prove it.

IN response to a request to write his autobiography, Einstein emphasized not the historical circumstances of his life but, rather, his most beloved offspring—his theories—because they were the children of his mind. I am no Einstein, but in this respect I nevertheless resemble him, for I am of the opinion that the most important parts of my biography are my intellectual struggles. The rest, not mentioned so far, is of a purely anecdotal character,

In 1953, I married a young student of medicine. We have a son of fifteen, who likes my novels, well enough but modern music—pop, rock and roll, the Beatles—his motorcycle, and the engines of automobiles perhaps even more. For many years now, I have not owned my books and my work; rather, I have become owned by them. I usually get up a short time before five in the morning and sit down to write: I am writing these words at six o'clock. I am unable now to work more than five or six hours day without a pause. When I was younger, I could write as long as my stamina held out; the power of my intellect gave way only after my physical prowess had been exhausted. I write increasingly slowly—my self-criticism, the demands I put upon myself, have continued to grow—but I am still rather prolific. (I know this from the speed with which I have to throw away used up typewriter ribbons.) Less and less of what comes into my mind I consider to be good enough to test as suitable subject matter by my method of trial and error. I still know as little about how and where my ideas are born as most writers do. I am also not of the opinion that I am one of the best exegetes of my own books—i.e., of the problems characteristic of them. I have written many books of which I haven't said a word here, among them “The Cyberiad”, the “Fables for Robots” (in “Mortal Engines”), and “The Star Diaries”, which on the generic map of literature are to be found in the provinces of the humorous—of satire, irony, and wit—with a touch of Swift and of dry, mischievous Voltairean misanthropy. As is well known, the great humorists were people who had been driven to despair and anger by the conduct of mankind. In this respect, I am one of those people.

I am probably both dissatisfied with everything that I have written and proud of it: I must be touched by arrogance, but I do not feel anything of it. I can notice it only in my behavior—in the way that I used to destroy all my manuscripts, in spite of many attempts and requests to get me to deposit these voluminous papers in a university or some other repository to preserve them for posterity. I have I made up a striking explanation for this behavior. The pyramids were one of the wonders of the world only while there was no explanation of how they were erected. Very long, inclined planes, on which bands of workers hauled up the stone blocks, possibly on wooden cylinders, were leveled once the work was finished, and thus today the pyramids rise up in a lonely way among the shallow sand dunes of the desert. I try to level my inclined plane, my scaffolds and other means of construction, and to let stand only that of which I need not be ashamed.

I am not sure whether what I have confessed here is the pure truth, but I have tried to adhere to truth as well as I could.—STANISLAW LEM

(Translated, from the German, by Franz Rottensteiner. Corrections by Dr. Gabriel Bittar (retired, Switzerland), 2018.12.18.

1 Michel Butor once expressed the opinion that a team of science-fiction writers should cooperate in the construction of a fictitious world, because such an undertaking is beyond the powers of any single individual. (This was supposed to explain the poor quality, the one dimensionality of the existing science fiction.) I did not take those words of Butor's seriously when I read them. And yet I have, although many years later and by myself, tried to realize the basic essence of this idea as described above. And in Borges, too—in his “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—you can read of a secret society that creates a fictitious world in all its particulars, with the intent of turning our world into the imagined one.

2 I shall add the autobiographical element in my discursive writings to this enumeration. In brief, I'm a disenchanted reformer of the world. My first novels concerned naive Utopias, because in them I was expressing a desire for a world as peaceful as that described in them, and they are bad, in the sense in which a vain and erroneous expectation is stupid. My monograph on science fiction and futurology is an expression of my disappointment with a fiction and a nonfiction that pretend to be scientific, when neither of them turns the attention of the reader in the direction in which the world is in fact moving. My “Philosophy of Chance” is a failed attempt to arrive at a theory of the literary work based on empiricism, it is successful inasmuch as I taught myself with the help of this book what factors cause the rise and the decline in the fortunes of literary works. My “Summa Technologiae”, on the other hand, is proof of the fact that I am not yet a despairing reformer of the world. For I do not believe that mankind is for all times a hopeless and incurable case.