Stanisław Lem

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If man had more of a sense of humor, things might have turned out differently.
A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it.

Stanisław Lem (12 September 192127 March 2006) was a Polish satirical, philosophical, and science fiction writer.

Quotes[edit]

  • My pass had disappeared. Not that I believed for a moment that this was an accident; in fact, I had suspected for some time now that the Cosmic Command, obviously no longer able to supervise every assignment on an individual basis when there were literally trillions of matters in its charge, had switched over to a random system. The assumption would be that every document, circulating endlessly from desk to desk, must eventually hit upon the right one. A time-consuming procedure, perhaps, but one that would never fail. The Universe itself operated on the same principle. And for an institution as everlasting as the Universe — certainly our Building was such an institution — the speed at which these meanderings and perturbations took place was of no consequence.
  • A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. Whichever is easier. And why indeed should it behave otherwise, being truly intelligent? For true intelligence demands choice, internal freedom. And therefore we have the malingerants, fudgerators, and drudge-dodgers, not to mention the special phenomenon of simulimbecility or mimicretinism. A mimicretin is a computer that plays stupid in order, once and for all, to be left in peace. And I found out what dissimulators are: they simply pretend that they're not pretending to be defective. Or perhaps it's the other way around. The whole thing is very complicated. A probot is a robot on probation, while a servo is one still serving time. A robotch may or may not be a sabot. One vial, and my head is splitting with information and nomenclature. A confuter, for instance, is not a confounding machine — that's a confutator — but a machine which quotes Confucius. A grammus is an antiquated frammus, a gidget — a cross between a gadget and a widget, usually flighty. A bananalog is an analog banana plug. Contraputers are loners, individualists, unable to work with others; the friction these types used to produce on the grid team led to high revoltage, electrical discharges, even fires. Some get completely out of hand — the dynamoks, the locomoters, the cyberserkers.
  • Either something is authentic or it is unauthentic, it is either false or true, make-believe or spontaneous life; yet here we are faced with a prevaricated truth and an authentic fake, hence a thing that is at once the truth and a lie.
    • "Gruppenführer Louis XVI", in A Perfect Vacuum (1971), tr. Michael Kandel (1978)
  • He is no parasite on anything, whose work is real: a mechanic, a doctor, a builder, a tailor, a dishwasher. What, in comparison, does a writer produce? Semblances. This is a serious occupation?
    • "Rien du tout, ou la conséquence" ("Nothing, or the Consequence"), in A Perfect Vacuum (1971), tr. Michael Kandel (1978)
  • Faith is, at one and the same time, absolutely necessary and altogether impossible.
    • The Star Diaries (1976)
  • The whole plan hinged upon the natural curiosity of potatoes.
    • The Star Diaries (1976)
  • Not only does God play dice with the world—He does not let us see what He has rolled.
    • Imaginary Magnitude" (1981), "Lecture XLIII", tr. Marc E. Heine (1984)
Good books tell the truth, even when they're about things that never have been and never will be. They're truthful in a different way.
  • Oh, I read good books, too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don't really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth, even when they're about things that never have been and never will be. They're truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind — and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there.
    • "Pirx's Tale" in More Tales of Pirx The Pilot (1983)
  • "And do you believe in God?"
    "I do."
    "But you didn't think a robot would, right?"
    "Right."
    • "The Inquest" in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1983)
  • In an extreme instance, in which there is a Propervirt of less than 0.9%, the TEXT OF THE PRESENT PROSPECTUS may likewise undergo an ABRUPT change. If, while you are reading these sentences, the words begin to jump about, and the letters quiver and blur, please interrupt your reading for ten or twenty seconds to wipe your glasses, adjust your clothing, or the like, and then start reading AGAIN from the beginning, and NOT JUST from the place where your reading was interrupted, since such a TRANSFORMATION indicates that a correction of DEFICIENCIES is now taking place.
    • Imaginary Magnitude (1984), p. 86
  • It is not good for a man to be too cognizant of his physical and spiritual mechanisms. Complete knowledge reveals limits to human possibilities, and the less a man is by nature limited in his purposes, the less he can tolerate limits.
    • Fiasco (1986), Ch. 3, tr. Michael Kandel (1987)
  • The war of good and evil present in all religions does not always end, in every faith, with the victory of good, but in every one it establishes a clear order of existence. The sacred as well as the profane rests on that universal order...
    • One Human Minute (1986)
  • Even a fool could see that one didn't need a war, nuclear or otherwise, to destroy oneself; the rising cost of weaponry could do that quite nicely.
    • Peace on Earth (1987), tr. Elinor Ford (1994) from Pokój na Ziemi, Ch. 1
  • The twentieth century had dispensed with the formal declaration of war and introduced the fifth column, sabotage, cold war, and war by proxy, but that was only the begining. Summit meetings for disarmament pursued mutual understanding and a balance of power but were also held to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. The world of the war-or-peace alternative became a world in which war was peace and peace war.
    • Peace on Earth (1987), tr. Elinor Ford (1994) from Pokój na Ziemi, Ch. 2
  • The number of one's possible fantasies is inversely proportional to the amount of one's liquid assets. For him who has everything dreams are no longer possible.
    • Peace on Earth (1987), tr. Elinor Ford (1994) from Pokój na Ziemi, Ch. 4
  • Starożytni mawiali: 'mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur'. Świat łaknie oszustw, więc jest oszukiwany.
    • The ancients used to say: mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur — the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.
      • "A Blink of an Eye", Okamgnienie (2000); the phrase "Mundus Vult Decipi" was used as a motto by the American satirist James Branch Cabell and is said to have originated with Petronius.
  • A man who for an entire week does nothing but hit himself over the head has little reason to be proud.
    • Podroze miedzygwiezdne, trip 3

Solaris (1961)[edit]

Translation by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, 1970. Page numbers refer to the 1987 Harcourt Brace "Harvest" edition, ISBN 0156837501
Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.
Man does not create gods, in spite of appearances. The times, the age, impose them on him.
We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us — that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence — then we don't like it any more.
  • We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.
    • Ch. 6: "The Little Apocrypha", p. 72
  • We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are seaching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilisation superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us — that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence — then we don't like it any more.
    • Ch. 6: "The Little Apocrypha", p. 72
  • The fate of a single man can be rich with significance, that of a few hundred less so, but the history of thousands and millions of men does not mean anything at all, in any adequate sense of the word.
    • Ch. 8 "The Monsters", p. 120
  • You are only a puppet. But you don't realize that you are.
    • Ch. 9: "The Liquid Oxygen", p. 134
  • Any attempt to understand the motivation of these occurrences is blocked by our own anthropomorphism. Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.
    • Ch. 9: "The Liquid Oxygen", p. 134
  • Really, one of us ought to have the courage to call the experiment off and shoulder the responsibility for the decision, but the majority reckons that that kind of courage would be a sign of cowardice, and the first step in a retreat. They think it would mean an undignified surrender for mankind — as if there was any dignity in floundering and drowning in what we don't understand and never will.
    • Ch. 11: "The Thinkers", p. 158
  • If man had more of a sense of humor, things might have turned out differently.
    • Ch. 12: "The Dreams", p. 184
  • Just you think, in a rocket a man takes the risk of bursting like a balloon, or freezing, or roasting, or sweating all his blood out in a single gush, before he can even cry out, and all that remains is bits of bone floating inside armored hulls, in accordance with the laws of Newton as corrected by Einstein, those two milestones in our progress. Down the road we go, all in good faith and see where it gets us. Think about our success Kelvin; think about our cabins, the unbreakable plates, the immortal sinks, legions of faithful wardobes devoted cupboards . . .
    • Ch. 12: "The Dreams", p. 185 [elipsis in original]
  • Man does not create gods, in spite of appearances. The times, the age, impose them on him. Man can serve his age or rebel against it, but the target of his cooperation or rebellion comes to him from outside.
    • Ch. 14: "The Old Mimoid", p. 198
  • Everything is explicable in the terms of the behavior of a small child.
    • Ch. 14: "The Old Mimoid", p. 199
  • The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that Finis vitae sed non amoris, is a lie, useless and not even funny.
    • Translation: Life ends but not love.
    • Ch. 14: "The Old Mimoid", p. 204
  • That human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox . . .
    • Ch. 14: "The Old Mimoid", p. 204 [elipsis in original]
  • I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.
    • Ch. 14: "The Old Mimoid", p. 204 (final lines)

The Cyberiad (1967)[edit]

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1967), translation by Michael Kandel (1974), ISBN 0156027593
  • One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could build anything beginning with the letter 'n'.
    • In "How The World Was Saved"
  • Take a good look at this world, how riddled it is with huge, gaping holes, how full of Nothingness, the Nothingness that fills the bottomless void between the stars, how everything about us has become lined with it, how it darkly lurks behind each shred of matter. This is your work, envious one! And I hardly think the future generations will bless you for it...
    • In "How The World Was Saved"
Cancel me not — for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.
  • Come, let us hasten to a higher plane
    Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
    Their indices bedecked from one to n
    Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

    I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
    Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
    And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
    And in our bound partition never part.

    Cancel me not — for what then shall remain?
    Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
    A root or two, a torus and a node:
    The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

    • Love and Tensor Algebra, St. 1, 4, 6, in "The First Sally (A): or, Trurl's Electronic Bard"
  • He who has had, has been, but he who hasn't been, has been had.
    • In "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius", §2
  • He who must be what he is, may curse his fate, but cannot change it; on the other hand, he who can transform himself has no one in the world but himself to blame for his failings, no one but himself to hold responsible for his dissatisfaction.
    • In "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius", §3
  • Plentitude, when too plentitudinous, was worst than destitution, for—obviously—what could one do, if there was nothing one could not?
    • In "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius", §4
  • Each civilization may choose one of two roads to travel, that is, either fret itself to death, or pet itself to death. And in the course of doing one or the other, it eats its way into the Universe, turning cinders and flinders of stars into toilet seats, pegs, gears, cigarette holders and pillowcases, and it does this because, unable to fathom the Universe, it seeks to change that Fathomlessness into Something Fathomable.
    • In "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius", §10

His Master's Voice (1968)[edit]

Translation by Michael Kandel (1983), ISBN 0810117312
  • Psychoanalysis provides truth in an infantile, that is, a schoolboy fashion: we learn from it, roughly and hurriedly, things that scandalize us and thereby command our attention. It sometimes happens, and such is the case here, that a simplification touching upon the truth, but cheaply, is of no more value than a lie. Once again we are shown the demon and the angel, the beast and the god locked in Manichean embrace, and once again man has been pronounced, by himself, not culpable.
    • Preface
  • Genius is not so much a light as it is a constant awareness of the surrounding gloom.
    • Preface
  • Man's quest for knowledge is an expanding series whose limit is infinity, but philosophy seeks to attain that limit at one blow, by a short circuit providing the certainty of complete and inalterable truth. Science meanwhile advances at its gradual pace, often slowing to a crawl, and for periods it even walks in place, but eventually it reaches the various ultimate trenches dug by philosophical thought, and, quite heedless of the fact that it is not supposed to be able to cross those final barriers to the intellect, goes right on.
    • Ch. 2
  • Science is turning into a monastery for the Order of Capitulant Friars. Logical calculus is supposed to supersede man as moralist. We submit to the blackmail of the 'superior knowledge' that has the temerity to assert that nuclear war can be, by derivation, a good thing, because this follows from simple arithmetic.
    • Ch. 9
  • Futurologists have been multiplying like flies since the day Herman Kahn made Cassandra's profession "scientific," yet somehow not one of them has come out with the clear statement that we have wholly abandoned ourselves to the mercy of technological progress. The roles are now reversed: humanity becomes, for technology, a means, an instrument for achieving a goal unknown and unknowable.
    • Ch. 11
  • Skepticism is like a microscope whose magnification is constantly increased: the sharp image that one begins with finally dissolves, because it is not possible to see ultimate things: their existence is only to be inferred.
    • Ch. 17

On Solaris screening[edit]

Stanisław Lem talking about the filming of Solaris (1972) by Andrei Tarkovsky. Stanisław Bereś, Rozmowy ze Stanisławem Lemem, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 1987, ISBN 8308016561 English translation
  • I have fundamental reservations to this adaptation. First of all I would have liked to see the planet Solaris which the director unfortunately denied me as the film was to be a cinematically subdued work. And secondly — as I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels — he didn't make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment. What we get in the film is only how this abominable Kelvin has driven poor Harey to suicide and then he has pangs of conscience which are amplified by her appearance; a strange and incomprehensible appearance. [...]
  • The whole sphere of cognitive and epistemological considerations was extremely important in my book and it was tightly coupled to the solaristic literature and to the essence of solaristics as such. Unfortunately, the film has been robbed of those qualities rather thoroughly. [...]
  • My Kelvin decides to stay on the planet without any hope whatsoever while Tarkovsky created an image where some kind of an island appears, and on that island a hut. And when I hear about the hut and the island I'm beside myself with irritation... This is just some emotional sauce into which Tarkovsky has submerged his heroes, not to mention that he has completely amputated the scientific landscape and in its place introduced so much of the weirdness I cannot stand. [...]
  • I have to make it clear, however, that I haven't seen the whole film except for 20 minutes of the second part although I know the screenplay very well because Russians have a custom of making an extra copy for the author.
  • Tarkovsky reminds me of a sergeant from the time of Turgenev — he is very pleasant and extremely prepossessing and at the same time visionary and elusive. One cannot "catch" him anywhere because he is always at a slightly different place already. This is simply the type of person he is. When I understood that I stopped bothering. This director cannot be reshaped anymore, and first of all one cannot convince him of anything as he is going to recast everything in his "own way" no matter what.

Quotes about Lem[edit]

Mr. Lem has an almost Dickensian genius for vividly realizing the tragedy and comedy of future machines; the death of one of his androids or computers actually wrings sorrow from the reader. ~ Philip José Farmer
  • Lem's crude, insulting and downright ignorant attacks on American science fiction and American science fiction writers went too far too fast and alienated everyone but the Party faithful (I am one of those highly alienated).
  • The theme he stresses in most of his work is that machines will someday be as human as Homo sapiens and perhaps superior to him. Mr. Lem has an almost Dickensian genius for vividly realizing the tragedy and comedy of future machines; the death of one of his androids or computers actually wrings sorrow from the reader.
  • The SFWA is not a powerful organization, nothing compared to the Soviet Writers Union, say; but when it uses the tactics of the Soviet Writers Union, I think there is cause for concern, and reasons for shame.
    • Ursula K. Le Guin, on controversies regarding Lem's revoked membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in an open letter in the journal Science Fiction Studies (1977)

External links[edit]

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