Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stanislaw Lem crosses event horizon

How far from you can you get and still be you? What does it take to make an identity? How would we interact with identities that are so far from us that the term "consciousness" is applied equivocally?--through joy, narrative, guilt?

Lem attacked all these problems with a playful, childlike gusto, proposing thought experiments in short stories, solving them through protagonists with surprising amounts and types of character, and anticipating some of the greatest recent writers--everyone from Paul Auster to Gene Wolfe stole gratefully from his horde of genre-bending fiction.

Since Lem had a scientific background, he often fit the round peg of our human nature into the square hole of our creations, pointing out the joy we take in the technical puzzles we've created. If you've seen the movie Brazil, which is timeless because it chooses such a concrete past time to represent the future, you'll know how Lem can make you anticipate how time will change us despite his talk of transistors and oscilloscopes.

If you've only been exposed to Lem through the recent movie Solaris, either read the original book, or go back to Tarkovsky's movie version. (In fact, watch any of Tarkovsky's movies: he is the Lem of cinema.) How would you feel if you knew you'd been resurrected by someone's guilt and existed only as a ghost to haunt him? In these and other ways Lem mixed his Catholic roots and his science fiction aspirations. His silliness and willingness to speculate wildly remind me of the Catholic philosopher Stanley Jaki's biological ruminations: they are both "Faust in reverse." My favorite Lem: Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Lem died yesterday.

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