So I kind of hated George Alec Effinger’s Those Gentle Voices, even though I liked one of the things it was doing. I really expected more because I loved his Marid Audran series. My main problem with it was that the first two chunks of the book set it up as a serious book of space exploration and possible first contact with alien life, then once the astronaut scientists arrived at the planet they were looking for they behaved like six-year-olds without proper supervision.
If it had been set up like a Stanislaw Lem story (especially something like the Trurl and Klapaucius stories in The Cyberiad) the completely stupid lack of planning for a first contact mission wouldn’t have bothered me nearly so much. The “scientists” set themselves up as god-kings on this planet on which culture evolves ridiculously quickly and they have insane amounts of material resources apparently. If it was being told more like a fairy tale, fine, but set up as science fiction it was constantly breaking my sense of disbelief.
What I did like is the structural thing where the book started with PART TWO, then things proceeded normally, until you reached the final section which was PART ONE and totally explained some of the oddities that started the book off. (Also, this was the first book I remember reading where there was a librarian character who is just antagonized by a protagonist for no reason and with no resolution, so that might have affected my judgment.)
It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.
At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.
Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is the kind of science fiction I love.
A scientist is sent to a space station orbiting a planet that has a truly alien ocean. The ocean may be alive. It may be intelligent. No one knows even though they’ve been studying it for a hundred years. He arrives on the station and the other scientists are acting strangely and then he’s approached by a visitor. I’ll leave off any more plot summary for fear of spoiling the book.
Things I loved about this book are how the weirdness of what’s happening in the station and what the planet is like are for the most part inexplicable. Just like in Blindsight this is a first contact tale with something alien that we can’t actually understand, not something that’s just like us in a funny mask.
The relationship between the narrator and his wife and the other scientists are all very tense. There’s a lot of stuff about responsibility and guilt and what we carry around in our heads.
There are good scenes in the library where we learn about the planet’s history. All the paper books and the tape-recorders are the only things that really give it away that this book wasn’t written today. What would a new translation of the book do with that now? If you were translating the book from Polish today would you also translate those technologies? You wouldn’t need to, but I’m not sure how much it would hurt the book. (This is not me advocating for technological revisionism in classic works of science fiction; just an idle musing.)
Solaris has had two famous movie adaptations. One by Tarkovskiy and one remake by Steven Soderbergh (starring George Clooney). I think I’ve only seen the remake and it had a very different feel from the book, which was less ominous and more curious. That’s my impression at least.
Oh man Cordwainer Smith is a pretty awesome writer, even if that isn’t his real name. Which it isn’t. Space Lords is a book of short stories set in a far distant future where they’ve decided to bring back languages and nations and all that because perfect efficiency was kind of boring, but it’s also a book of old stories. He retells Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and the tale of Joan of Arc and the life of Rimbaud and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dante’s Inferno. In a couple of hundred pages. He’s got this very Stanislaw Lem-like mythicalness to his storytelling, making these things feel timeless. So good. In the last story there’s a planet where people grow extra organs so they can be harvested. It’s so outlandish the way it’s done it has nothing on something like Never Let Me Go, but it’s also so passionate. There’s no reserve there, just a story told well. I like it and its pulpiness because science fiction is a genre of ideas, right? And this was full of them.
I love Stanislaw Lem stories. The Cyberiad is filled with stories about these two rival constructors Trurl and Klapaucius and the amazing things they invent and the troubles they get into. The stories read like fairy tales because of the surfeit of kings of planets who demand things and then won’t pay and then everybody gets into a huge huff and things sort of work themselves out. My favourite story was about the Pirate with a PhD, who wanted all of the constructors’ knowledge and they were horrified because “We’re so smart and full of knowledge that’ll take forever!” Almost everything is solved by building a clever robot, or a dumb robot in a clever way. Great stuff.