Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Perfect VacuumA Perfect Vacuum by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"[...] And the only subterfuge the evasive Lem might still avail himself of would be a counterattack: in the assertion that it was not I, the critic, but he himself, the author, who wrote the present review and added it to - and made it part of -'A Perfect Vacuum.'"

Whenever I begin a re-read of a Stanislaw Lem's book I am afraid of disappointment. Lem was by far the most favorite author of my youth, some 35 to 55 years ago, and I have been worrying that in re-reading his works my enthusiasm may diminish for the Polish philosopher and futurologist who is best known for his incomparable science fiction books, such as Solaris. I am happy to report there have been no disappointments so far and A Perfect Vacuum (originally published in 1971) is one of the best books I have recently read, maybe even better than Lem's His Master's Voice which I rated with almost five stars.

A full review would take too much space so let me just offer a few remarks about this impressive work. A Perfect Vacuum is set up as an exercise in metafiction where Lem offers a collection of reviews of non-existent books. In the author's stroke of genius, the collection even includes a review of the book that contains the review - how's that for advanced self-referentiality? On a similar note, in the review of (fictitious) Gigamesh Lem provides delicious satire on literary criticism that indulges in looking for non-existent references: after all, it is true that any reference to anything can be found anywhere if one looks hard enough.

Lem creates the author of Gruppenführer Louis XVI who writes about artificial reality of 17th century French royal court created in Argentina by SS officers who escaped Germany. Any older Polish reader will immediately recognize this as satire on the so-called communist government in Poland that created an artificial reality for the citizens. A contemporary reader, on the other hand, may easily make a connection to the current situation when it seems that about half of all people are unable to distinguish the artificial reality of TV shows from the actual reality. Another fictitious book under review, Rien du tout, ou la conséquence, pushes the meta-literature to the extreme positions: narration is eliminated to the extent that only pure language remains. The piece also contains a hilarious passage about an author who wrote Don Quixote from the scratch and obtained exactly the same text as the one produced by Cervantes.

Now about my three favorite pieces. The review of De Impossibilitate Vitae, a fictitious work halfway between mathematics and total lunacy, is a playful take on probability theory (the subject that I teach, by the way). Lem presents the author's clear and convincing explanation that his existence is a result of chains of events so improbable that it is not at all possible for him to exist. Neither is it for any other person (De Selby's observations presented in The Third Policeman come to mind).

Non Serviam, perhaps the deepest piece in the set, reviews a book about personetics - science and technology that enabled people to create personoids, sentient beings that exist as executing programs, computer models implemented in software. Nevertheless they are completely real to themselves; they build their culture, philosophy and even religion that seeks to embrace the Creator of their Universe. Lem, as the reviewer, emphasizes the monumental moral and ethical dilemmas of those sentient creatures' creators. Alas he takes an easy way out and only glides over the crucial issue of the origin of self-awareness.

Finally, in New Cosmogony Lem quotes the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of a physicist and philosopher who is one of the pioneers of a new model of cosmology - Universe as a Game - where the oldest civilizations are the players who apply minimax strategies to construct the "laws of nature." It is also here that Lem, through the fictitious physicist's words, states the audacious yet utterly brilliant thesis that the expanding Universe serves the purpose of keeping the distance between new civilizations and the existing ones, which would cleanly account for the so-called Silentium Universi. Physics of the Universe as a by-product of sociology - it is not possible not to admire the author's (and the author's author's) cheek!

Despite Lem's usual hang-ups about sex, the piece Sexplosion exudes sheer hilarity with its memorable mentions of unchastity belts, sodomobiles, cybordellics, gomorcades (my own translations as I read the book in its original Polish version), and many, many other vehicles of pleasure. Perycalipsis is also a hoot with its spiritual masturbation, that is getting off on promises rather than releases. Phenomenal stuff!

Great book: funny yet deep and thought-provoking. In fact, now I love it more than 45 years ago. Despite my stinginess with top ratings here's the second one in just one week! Maybe I am getting soft in the head faster than I think.

Fours and three quarter stars.

View all my reviews

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