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The Truth and Other Stories (SF) - Stanislaw Lem ***

To the SF enthusiast, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is often regarded in a similar way a reader of mundane fiction might consider Joyce or Proust. A writer that you may well never have read, but you know that they are amongst the greats because the literati tell you so. I was pretty much in that category - I'd attempted to watch the 1972 Tarkovsky film of what's often regarded as Lem's masterpiece, Solaris, but I'd never ventured into what felt like writing that was bound to be obscure and impenetrable.

As a result, when I noticed that, to mark Lem's 100th anniversary, MIT Press had put out a collection of Lem short stories, I leapt at the chance to explore his writing in a relatively painless way. The collection spans much of Lem's writing career, beginning with a piece from the late 50s and coming up to 1993. Unfortunately, of the 12 stories in the book only two worked well as a piece of fiction, and one of those had problems with the science.

The early stories suffered from something that Kim Stanley Robinson admits in the effusive introduction - Lem seemed not to have paid much attention to existing SF writing and reproduced many themes that by the 50s were fairly well trodden. Unfortunately he didn't bring anything new, other than dragging out what probably only deserved to be a couple of thousand words to four or five times the length with interminable unnecessary text. Sometimes this is in the form of dire dialogue such as 'Mind you, opinions are divided - some people think contact with another world would bring us benefits, and others think it would bring on the "war of the worlds.' Which side are you on?'

Robinson tells us that part of Lem's appeal is his sense of humour, but it's hard to spot that in these stories. Mind you, Robinson's example of a typical Lem quip is 'Measured by the yardstick of Dick's black pessimism, Schopenhauer's philosophy of life seems to be real joie de vivre,' so I suppose it's too much to expect a laugh out loud result.

Broadly the stories seem to fit into three categories. The earlier ones have a fairly straightforward plot, obscured by the shaggy dog story length of the lead ups to the conclusion. A good example would be The Friend from 1959. It's 50 pages long, most of which consists of a stranger describing his requirements for an electronic device in an intensely elliptical and frustrating fashion. In the last handful of pages we get a rather Stephen Kingesque denouement, but the build-up is tedious in the extreme.

We then get into what seems to be an obscurantist phase, where the language is not very helpful. Here's the opening to the 1962 story The Journal: 'And so we are seized by a new desire for investigation, and we meet the preliminary condition: to limit ourselves, without which we can do nothing, for we are everything. Here, plainly, everything and nothing mean one and the same thing, for only he who is everything can do nothing: in perfection, which is a persistent attribute of ours - unless we should wish, as in the present case, to suspend it - there is room for any kind of aspiration, because it is an end point...' and so it goes on. I didn't get very far with this one.

Finally, there are a couple of later pieces that return to some degree of readability. For me, by far the most interesting stories are The Truth and One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Seconds. The first of these features a really interesting concept, but is sadly rather distorted by the fact that Lem clearly has no idea what plasma (something central to the story) is like. He seems to have thought that a plasma is basically a nuclear explosion waiting to happen, something uncontrollable, vastly energetic and potentially devastating. It's probably a good thing he never owned a plasma TV or knew that there's plasma in a candle flame. The second story is entertaining, though it's really fantasy rather than science fiction.

Altogether, then, not a great experience. If you are a Lem fan, I'm sure you will want to add this to your collection, as it contains nine previously untranslated stories - but I'm afraid it hasn't usefully demonstrated to me what all the fuss is about.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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