In two weeks, on the 12th of September 2021, Stanisław Lem was born 100 years ago. That, coupled with the writer’s continuing popularity, made the Polish parliament declare 2021 officially to be the Year of Stanisław Lem, with festivities in Kraków and some new publications.
No better time for me to review Lem’s final novel, Fiasco. Lem stopped writing novels afterwards, but continued to publish non-fiction, mainly in the form of essays, until he died in 2006.
Fiasco has a curious publication history: the book was commissioned by a German publisher, and first published in a German translation in 1986. It was published in Polish some time later, and translated into English by Michael Kandel in 1987. Kandel translated 9 other Lem titles, including His Master’s Voice and The Cyberiad, and as far as I can tell his work is looked upon quite favorably, contrary to Kilmartin & Cox’s translation of Solaris.
I’ve read Solaris last year, and liked it a lot. Based on an overview of Polish native Ola G’s favorite Lem novels, and generally glowing reviews, I decided to read this one as my next Lem. Normally Ola’s recommendations do work out, but I hate to report I found Fiasco a terrible, terrible read.
At the beginnings of my forays into science fiction, it quickly became clear Solaris was one of the key texts, and so a physical copy of the book has been on my shelves for years. There were two reasons I didn’t take it out sooner. The main thing was me having the wrong idea of what it was about. I’m not sure why, but I thought the story focused on a crew slowly growing mad, and I’d mentally labeled it something like ‘psychological horror in space’, a genre I’m not that interested in. The other reason was Steven Soderbergh’s adaption: I’d seen it in a movie theater when it came out back in 2002, and while I don’t remember any other thing about it, at the time my reaction was lukewarm at best.
It was only after a conversation in the comments to my review of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves that I realized I had the wrong idea about the book. That conversation was with Polish native Ola G, and it turns out she wrote two excellent pointers about Stanisław Lem, here and here – do click on those if you want an accessible yet fairly thorough overview of Lem. On the strength of Solaris and Ola’s posts, I have added Fiasco, The Invincible and The Cyberiad to my TBR.
Before I look a bit closer at the novel itself, a few notes on the translation. The English translation from 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox was based on a French version. Not ideal, and Lem wasn’t satisfied with the result either. Sadly, it is the only available English version in print, even though Bill Johnston completed a direct translation from the original Polish in 2011 – a version Lem’s wife and son thought “captured the spirit of the original.” Johnston’s translation was released as an audio book and a Kindle edition, but a paper edition is stuck in legal limbo. I can’t say the prose was bad, but some sections felt a bit dry & lifeless, and I’m chalking that up to Cox & Kilmartin. Just to be clear: all this is no reason to not read this book – it is a deserved classic – but should you have the option: go for the Johnston version.
As in lots of Stanisław Lem’s stories, an important theme of Solaris is “the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence”. I will not write a whole lot more about it here, as heaps of pages been written about it already. Curiously this theme is largely absent from the two latest movie adaptations, while it is central to the novel. Continue reading