Stanislaw Lem on the hopeless science fiction ghetto

Do they [science fiction writers] have any objective reasons for surrendering to frustration and feelings of oppression in the science-fiction ghetto? Crime novels are another, an open-and-shut, case. Naturally, a crime novel reports on murders, detectives, corpses, and trials; Westerns, on stalwart cowboys and insidious Indians. However, if we may believe its claims, a science-fiction book belongs at the top of world literature! For it reports on mankind’s destiny, on the meaning of life in the cosmos, on the rise and fall of thousand-year-old civilizations: it brings forth a deluge of answers for the key questions of every reasoning being.

There is only one snag: in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it fulfills its task with stupidity. It always promises too much, and it almost never keeps its word.

For this reason, science fiction is such a remarkable phenomenon. It comes from a whorehouse but it wants to break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored. From the time it was born, science fiction has been raised by narrow-minded slaveholders. Thomas Mann was allowed to work on one novel for fourteen years; John Brunner complains that there was a time when he had to write eight novels a year in order to stay alive comfortably. From shame, science fiction tries to keep some sides of this situation a well-guarded secret. (Often we hear from science-fiction authors how much freedom they enjoy in their work.)

SOURCE: Lem, Stanislaw. “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions” (1972, 1973), translated from the German by Werner Koopman, in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (New York: Harvest / HBJ, 1986), p. 59 (essay is pp. 45-105).

Note: Interesting that a series of essays mostly in Polish first published by Stanislaw Lem between 1970-1977 thoroughly analyzes the worst tendencies in science fiction, which are even more applicable now that the genre—or what is included in the genre in the popular mind—is so much more widespread now, while imagination is channeled into even more severely technocratic ends.

I saved the longest essay in Microworlds for last. It also turns out to be the funniest: I am in stitches on every page. He directs his straight-razor sarcasm not so much at American authors but at editors and publishers who keep the quality down by systematically degrading their authors, whom Lem repeatedly likens to street-corner hookers. (12-13 December 2015)

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Stanislaw Lem on Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 16)

Stanislaw Lem’s bitic literature in ‘The Illogic of Kassel’
by Enrique Vila-Matas

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources:
A Selective Work in Progress

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Uploaded 25 December 2020

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