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Despite the fact that the title Memoirs of a Space Traveller bears only coincidental resemblance to Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman-- Lem's title in the original Polish is something else entirely-- I couldn't help but compare the two books the entire time I was reading this, and the comparison is instructive, because it points out the difference between one kind of didactic fiction and another. The Mitchison has both female and male characters, who are rounded and interesting; it has alien planets that are genuinely alien and incomprehensible, and a universe full of wonders, and a great deal of ethical and moral debate over how to treat those wonders, based on a set of established rules centered around altruism and caring. The Lem has male characters, who are generally mad scientists, encountering alien planets which are reflections of human behavior in a universe full of the same kinds of problems people get here, and a great deal of moral and ethical debate over how to treat those problems, based on a total lack of established rules (or sometimes too many rules) due to an essential self-centeredness and lack of foresight. But then, Mitchison is writing a utopia and Lem is writing a satire. A utopia, I think, wants to have the other in the world, and a satire must be full of mirrors.

The odd thing is that both books are gently funny, sweetly enjoyable travelogues with a somewhat wry cast of mind and a tendency to kick you in the teeth when you aren't looking.

Still, it's a complete coincidence, and a book one can more readily compare to the Lem would be Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. This is very like a science fiction version of that. Lem's space-travelling protagonist (who travels, mostly, when he gets bored) creates the universe (the one he's living in), encounters a scientist who has managed to engineer an immortal soul, endures a revolt by sentient humanoid washing machines, and encounters an impressive rogue's gallery of scientists, each crazier than the last. The short stories that make up his adventures are brief and to the point, but never feel clipped, and interconnect thematically and via recurring characters in satisfying ways. This is not the sort of Lem you read for aliens and the incomprehensible but the kind you read for the insoluble questions about jurisprudence for robots (if a man goes off to the Crab Nebula and turns himself into a hundred million robot clones who form an independently mobile planetary body, is he legally alive or dead, has he founded a government which should or should not be recognized, does he constitute the legal parent of each of the robots or are they all actually him, and who owns the robots anyway? the answer, of course, is indecipherable chaos).

I enjoyed this, though I don't think it's the sort of book that necessarily stays with you long-term, not like Lem's One Human Minute, which I read in high school and can still in some segments recall sentence-for-sentence, or like the eternally haunting Solaris. It's a master's work if not a masterwork, and the translators deserve a mention for the English prose, which is both lucid and melodic. If you don't know Lem, or if you really want something a lot like that particular vein of Calvino, this might be a good place to start.


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March 2017

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