Stanislaw Lem

On James Joyce, science fiction, & modernist narrative structures

Art—and specifically literature—had in its province structures inherited from a venerable past governed by the untouchable norms of religious doctrines and myths. Literature has all but completely exhausted these models, and it has not been enriched by new ones, for the sources of such structures have dried up. It is irrelevant whether they dried up when their creative power was naturally exhausted or whether the invasion of technogenic pragmatism had dammed them before they could reach maximum potential. Even if such latent, historically untested meaning-structures might still be “inventable” in theory, they would be of no use for either humanity or art. A structure of significations that had never shone with the light of sacred solemnity, and had never been treated with the respect, fear, and love with which humans react to the presumed presence of the transcendental secret, would have no value for art.

The collapse of every kind of taboo created a freedom so vast that literature quickly began to feel acutely uncomfortable. From there on, its only forum of appeal is culture, in a necessarily nonsacred sense. Literature can still operate with the model structures generated by this secular culture. But the sense that all the actual, synchronically functioning structures of the cultural field are unsatisfactory has led to hybridizing techniques, with combinations of extremely divergent structures and their superimposition over one another. For example: the deterministic structure of myth alloyed with the indeterminate structure of reality, as in Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Joyce’s Ulysses, or Frisch’s Homo Faber. The principle of such works is allusion. The writer must arrange his ostensibly realistic material, drawn from the fund of common experiences, in such a way that its resemblances to the structure of some venerable myth (Faust, Odysseus, Oedipus) is evident to the reader. The reference to myth not only serves to give a lofty sanctification to things that would ordinarily be meaningless, however. Myth can also be parodized, treated iconoclastically, or even forcibly demolished. In Lolita, Nabokov discredits the myths of the innocence and angelic purity of adolescent girls, for in the novel it is the young girl who seduces the would-be ravisher, not he who defiles her. Elsewhere, as in Nabokov’s more recent novel (Ada, or Ardor), the author exploits the cultural arsenal of prohibitions against incest in a “ludic” mode, by extending them to other relations parodistically superimposed over one another: between blood relations of a certain family, between the signs of the code invented by the incestuous lovers, between the “aristocracy” and the “plebeians.” Even empirical truth contradicts the postulates of the incest taboo, because, as it turns out, due to the sterility of incestuous relationship, “nothing would have come of it anyway.”

Science fiction can thus learn from science as well as from other forms of literature, such as experimental prose. But it cannot learn through the kind of passive imitation characteristic of the English new wave of science fiction. Experimental literature, as we noted, introduces into the creative process different forms of “noise” (the chance generator), and the criteria for selecting structures created in this way are purely aesthetic. Science fiction should add to these another and separate set of criteria for cognitive adequacy. (Some equivalent to “noise”—the significant dispersion of opinions, or the contradiction arising simultaneously from the same sources—arises whenever a particular science confronts a new and unfamiliar phenomenon, and enters the phase of rapid conceptual reorganization. At the same time, this “noise” is never pure nonsense; science has not simply slipped into chaos.) Authors of science fiction must therefore draw upon the paradigmatics of transformations.

Clearheaded “internal” critics of science fiction have long been displeased with the genre for its flight from the real problems of civilization. But criticism must deal not only with the text’s relations to the external world. It must evaluate not only the structure of the things described, but also the structure of the description itself. The former generally determines the choice of themes, whereas the latter determines the sum total of the rules governing the treatment of the material—and these rules are not automatically defined by the chosen theme.

Science fiction remains mired in a stage of theoretical self-reflection similar to the aggressive, extreme reductionism of neo-positivism (“every science, from biology to psychology, must be reduced to the language of physics!”). When asked whether such a reduction is practicable or not, the enthusiastic neo-positivists answer yes, their opponents no, and that usually puts an end to the argument. The neo-positivists, amazingly, have not recognized the simple fact that the reductionist program is based on a fallacy. They wish to posit a logical dichotomy by way of exclusion of the middle, whereas the historical nature of scientific understanding does not allow such a conceptualization. Biology and psychology certainly cannot be deduced from modern physics. At the same time, we cannot be sure that the physics of the future (which cannot, in principle, be reduced to the physics of the present, just as Einstein’s model of the universe cannot be reduced to Newton’s, nor the indeterminacy of quantum physics to Laplacian determinism) might not create transitional branches that will intersect with corresponding branches of the biology or psychology of the future (general systems theory). For that matter, we might attain the synthesis in yet another way, as the cyberneticists envision it: the synthesis would come about, not on the level of particular sciences, but on the next higher level of abstraction, with the discovery of the constants common to all the branch sciences.

Science fiction is reminiscent of neo-positivism’s aggressive reductionism in that it acts as if the repertoire of the detective story and the adventure novel were sufficient for structuring any phenomenon in the universe, regardless of its time, place, and degree of complexity, and all the situations in which human civilization may find itself. Thus SF designates its problems (contact with “aliens,” the spirit in the machine, the instrumentalization of values, etc.), but it does not embody them in narrative structures.

SOURCE: Lem, Stanislaw. “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction,” translated from the Hungarian by Etelka de Laczay and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (New York: Harvest / HBJ, 1986), pp. 161-199. Extracts: pp. 182-183, 198-199.

Note: Lem begins with the logical deficiencies of three science-fiction scenarios, and, after pondering the nature of cultural evolution in general (173-178) proceeds to a detailed analysis of traditional and non-traditional narrative structures (179-192). Lem returns to the problem exemplified in science fiction (192-195), and draws his conclusions about the formal inadequacies of science fiction as it fails to attain a more sophisticated perspective and reverts to “rigid, simplistic structures derived from fairy tales and detective novels” (195-199).

Stanislaw Lem on the hopeless science fiction ghetto

Stanislaw Lem on Alien Invasions

“Verstrand’s Extelopedia in 44 Magnetomes” [2 excerpts]
by Stanislaw Lem

Stanislaw Lem on Borges & genre

Stanislaw Lem on Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 16)

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

James Joyce: Special Topics: Bibliography, Links, Quotes

James Joyce & Technology, Vitalism, Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Cyberculture & Combinatorics:
A Bibliographic Pathway

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

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

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 29 December 2020

Site ©1999-2020 Ralph Dumain