The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish SF author, one of the most famous and successful writers outside the English language world, selling over 45 million copies in 40+ languages over five decades from the 1950s, but mainly in Eastern European communist bloc countries such as Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union. However, despite his success he had a rocky relationship with the United States SF community, having a fairly low opinion of American SF fiction writers other than Philip K Dick’s works, and having his honorary membership with the SFWA taken away when he became eligible to become a regular member, which may have been intended as a slight and which he took as one. He refused to join.
Lem even translated PDK’s UBIK into Polish in 1972, but as PDK was already pretty eccentric as he neared his own personal 1974 religious experience, he wrote to the FBI saying that Stanislaw Lem was a name used as a cover for the Communist Party to influence Western public opinion (just a wee paranoid, I’d say). Basically he felt he got stiffed for payment for the translation and blamed Lem for this. So there was a lot of misunderstanding with Lem and the Western SF world. However, as time has passed there have been many more English translations of his works, including a number of retranslations and audiobook versions, which has brought his work to the attention of newer readers again.
His most famous book is Solaris written in 1961 in Polish, which was not translated into English until 1970 (from the French edition, rather than the original Polish), but has seen three film versions. It finally received a direct Polish-to-English translation from Bill Johnston and an audiobook version in 2011. Similarly, The Invincible was first published in Polish in 1964, then translated to German in 1967, but only received an English translation of the German version in 1973. Finally it received a proper Polish-to-English translation by Bill Johnston in 2015, so we have him to thank for bringing Lem’s works more skillfully and faithfully to English language readers. The audiobook has just become available from Tantor Audio, narrated by Peter Berkrot and based on the Bill Johnston translation, so it was a perfect opportunity to rediscover a classic Lem story.
Turning to The Invincible itself, it is a classic take of alien contact and rumination on the nature of human and non-human (in this case non-organic) intelligence, and the possible futility of trying to communicate with a truly alien intelligence at all. Rather than the simplistic and anthropomorphic aliens popularized by American SF pulps and films and TV shows like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, Lem’s thoughts on alien consciousness or machine intelligence was way ahead of its time. He was a pioneer when he wrote about encountering a sentient ocean in Solaris in 1961, and an artificial machine-based micro-bot swarm intelligence in The Invincible in 1964, almost a half century ago. One wonders how much more influence he might have had on the Western SF scene if his works had been translated more quickly and accurately than they were.
In any case, The Invincible is the story of an heavily-armed exploration ship that sets out to discover what happened to The Condor, a similar ship that landed on the uninhabited and desolate planet Regis III before losing contact without warning. The first half of the book focuses on the crew’s efforts to discover what happened to The Condor and its crew, and they soon discover a mysterious artificial city, which seems to have been abandoned long ago. They then discover The Condor, still intact and largely undamaged, hundreds of kilometers from the city. Then they have their first encounter with an ominous and metallic cloud that emits a strong electromagnetic field and interferes with their communications. Things quickly spiral downward as they realize they are dealing with an artificial machine intelligence that does not possess higher consciousness, but is perfectly capable of destroying human technology and mental functions, and even the mighty anti-matter weaponry of the Invincible.
There are various arguments among the crew, particularly the captain and the first navigator, Rohan, who is the main character in the story, about how to confront this implacable alien swarm intelligence, one that hardly seems aware of the pitiful human presence on the planet. However, unlike Kris Kelvin in Solaris, we really don’t get to know the human characters in The Invincible, as they seem largely lost in the face of an impossible situation. Ostensibly they are there to discover the crew of The Condor, but their whole mission comes into question, and by extension the whole justification for human exploration of strange and hostile worlds is also put under the microscope. Do humans really have a moral imperative to explore and conquer, and when they encounter an inorganic swarm intelligence that is perfectly adapted to its environment, but also perfectly uninterested in organic life, what possible gain can be had by trying to “communicate?”
Like many SF novels of the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas in Lem’s books take precedence over excessive characterization and plotting, which accounts for their welcome brevity (under 200 pages vs. the doorstoppers produced by Peter F. Hamilton or Alastair Reynolds), but Lem is very much a modern philosopher, ruthlessly stripping away the pretensions of the Western idea that humanity has a Manifest Destiny to explore and conquer the universe. The themes he prefers to explore are what intelligence and consciousness are, and what their role is in a large and uncaring universe. It is often a chilling vision, and may well have been influenced by his long exposure to the Soviet Union’s dominance over the communist bloc countries, including his homeland of Poland. Rather than the naive optimism of American SF, he painted an often bleak canvas of the limitations of human ambition. Given that perspective, it is quite fascinating how popular his works became. I’ve only touched the surface of his books, and look forward to reading some with a more satirical slant, such as the stories of Ijon Tichy: Space Pilot (The Star Diaries, The Futurological Congress), along with his fable-like short stories exploring artificial intelligence (The Cyberiad, Mortal Engines). There is a depth on intellectual rigor and refusal to provide escapism in his books that appeals to me, and I hope he will find more readers thanks to the new translations and audiobook versions.