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SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (vi)

(This week’s entry for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.)

Again these are small-size (original size) SF paperbacks. Again they are housed in the garage and again are double-parked.

It was difficult to get back far enough to fit these all into the photo.

They start at Stanisław Lem and finish at Connie Willis. There’s a whole shelf of Robert Silverberg in here. Other notables: George R R Martin, Ian McDonald, Larry Niven, Christopher Priest, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bob Shaw, Cordwainer Smith, James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon,) Harry Turtledove and Ian Watson.

Science FIction Books

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (iv)

The remainder of my larger SF paperbacks. These are on the lower shelves of the old music cupboard. Looking at these photos two of the books seem to have wriggled away from alphabetical order. (I’ve fixed that now.)

Stanisław Lem, Ken Macleod, Cixin Liu, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian McDonald:-

Large Paperback Science Fiction

China Miéville, a Tim Powers, Christopher Priest:-

SF Large Paperback Books

Alastair Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad:-

Science Fiction Large Paperbacks

Lavie Tidhar, Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe, Ian Watson, Roger Zelazny, (well half of one is):-

SF Books, Large Paperbacks

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ii)

Large SF paperbacks this week for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.

I keep these in an old music cupboard I inherited from my great-uncle. I’ve got so many of these they have to be double-parked, so you can’t actually see the first and third shelves shown here when the cupboard is opened. Stacking some on their sides gives me an extra 4 cm of space. Click on the photos to enlarge the pictures.

These include a J G Ballard, Iain M Banks, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Ursula Le Guin and Ian McDonald:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (i)

Annoyingly, even these large paperbacks do not all come in one size. The upright ones to the right here are smaller than the previous books. More McDonald, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robertson, Adam Roberts, Hannu Rajaniemi, a lesser Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (ii)

More Ballard, Banks, Beckett and Brown. Lavie Tidhar, Neil Williamson and another step down in size:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iii)

John Crowley, M John Harrison, Dave Hutchinson, Stanisław Lem:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iv)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz

Yale University Press, 2017, 188 p. Translated from the Polish Góry Parnasu, Science Fiction, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Polityczenej, 2012, by Stanley Bill. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Mar-Apr 2017.

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

My knowledge of Polish SF has heretofore begun and ended with the works of Stanisław Lem. I saw this book as a welcome opportunity to rectify that. However, Miłosz made his reputation as a poet and essayist – as cited in his Nobel Prize – and this unfinished work (deliberately unfinished, the translator’s introduction tells us) is, as far as I can tell, his only attempt at an SF novel. Miłosz apparently had doubts about the viability of the novel as a form, though he considered SF’s realist conventions as the most promising vehicle for it even if “Science Fiction has mainly consisted of gloomy prophecies.” In his Introductory Remarks to the novel he says will “never be written” he notes that his depiction of two female characters “who do not appear in the pages printed here” made him shrink from the “horror” of writing a “novel from life.” Since “literature always fares awkwardly when it strives to depict good people and good intentions,” he describes what lies in front of us as artistically dubious and immoral. So much for fiction, then.

The book as a whole seems designed more for the academic than general reader with its Translator’s Introduction plus Note (both complete with references) emphasising Poland’s highly literary tradition of SF writing and Milosz’s view of SF as akin to scripture in its use of the past tense to describe future events. Correspondingly the “novel”’s latter parts are steeped in Catholicism. The style is discursive, its six sections reading more like essays than a conventional narrative. Strewn throughout them are nuggets allowing us to glean the outlines of society plus references to powerful groups of various sorts; the Botanists’ and Astronauts’ Unions, the Arsonists’ Association. There is no dialogue; unless you count the Mass of the Catechumens in the Appendix.

A description of the Mountains of Parnassus, supposedly kept in a state of wilderness, is written almost like a gazetteer. Their visitors exist in “an Earth without fatherhood” and strive to become their own fathers. A general atmosphere of ennui (avoiding “killing time” via the M37 current or erotic games, which prove unsatisfactory palliatives) leads a character called Karel to play Russian Roulette. His survival and altered mental state lends him immunity to the activities of an organisation known as The Higher Brethren of Nirvana which has begun to cull humans to prevent degeneration and extinction, its victims simply disappearing, each “losing its unitary quality in a single moment” with no one knowing the criteria for selection.

There follows an adumbration of the theories of Professor Motohiro Nakao which overturned the practice whereby “long ago the more energetic rulers had made the strange assumption that the minds of the ruled were a threat if they could not be convinced by persuasion or fear.” Data collection of “tracks” of perception can identify any which may be harmful to the rational social order defended by the Astronauts. This leads to Cocooning, interfering with the ability to communicate by slowing or accelerating the speed of a person’s thoughts thus denying access to those of others.

The “Cardinal’s Testament” of Petro Vallerg, all but the last celibate, finds him struggling to understand the thinking behind John XXIII’s aggiornamento in calling the Second Vatican Council, as it caused a rotting structure to collapse by attempting to refurbish it. Vallerg recognises the Church’s failings, where ritual has petrified into form, but “if the Church had not used the stake and the sword of obedient monarchs in the critical thirteenth century, little would have remained of Christianity,” and “no purely human institution similarly depraved could have survived,” but bemoans “the shame that induced us to reject the relative good simply because it was relative” and that the numinous has been reduced to metaphor and figures of speech.

Lino Martinez, member of the elite Astronauts’ Union, whose perk for risking their lives on humanity’s behalf is monthly longevity treatments, is never the absolutely perfect Astronaut and finding desires, passions, betrayals and faults reduced to miniature dimensions and the effects of time dilation disturbing, he deserts, to expose himself to time.

An Appendix: Ephraim’s Liturgy looks back to when inhabitants of Earth were allowed to run wild as educating them would be too difficult; “the petty and insignificant became great and significant”; a guaranteed small income allowed anyone who wished, to be an artist (but structuralism destroyed any hope of immortality thereby, rendered works indistinguishable) and the promise of communication had led to its negation. Ephraim therefore believed speech could be imparted only by ritual.

It’s all undeniably intellectual, almost Stapledonian but lacking the extraordinary timescale and perspective. I doubt it’s representative of Polish SF, of anything but Miłosz himself.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Translator’s Introduction “allows Milosz to takes these” (take.) I found it odd that the author’s full name (and indeed Lem’s first) – except twice, both times in Notes – is rendered with an unPolish unbarred l while that of another mentioned Polish writer, Sławomir Sierakowski, isn’t. Otherwise: “In the name of the Kingdom. I made sacrifices…..” (no full stop necessary?) snobbism (snobbery is more usual,) “sent their long ago” (there,) Bureaus (Bureaux.)

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

Sceptre, 2017, 283 p.

 Spaceman of Bohemia cover

This is a brilliant debut novel but an odd reading experience, like Science Fiction as if written by Milan Kundera. Some of its tonal quality is, perhaps more understandably, also reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris.

The set-up is that a comet has entered the Milky Way “from the Canis Major galaxy” and swept our solar system with a sandstorm of intergalactic dust. Consequently a purple cloud, named Chopra by its New Delhi discoverers, has formed between Venus and Earth. (I wondered here if there is perhaps a nod to M P Shiel’s 1901 novel, The Purple Cloud. Then again there is no reason for Kalfař, Czech born but who emigrated – the blurb says immigrated, there’s an end-point bias for you – to the US when he was sixteen.)

The Spaceman of the title, and our narrator, is Jakub Procházka, a man with a professional fascination with space dust and a professorship in astrophysics. With no other country publicly willing to investigate the Chopra phenomenon, the Czech Republic steps up to the mark, launching him from Petřín Hill on the space shuttle JanHus1. However, the book is not much concerned with the Science-Fictional scaffolding of this premise but more on Jakub’s life before the mission and his mental state while on it.

Not long into his voyage Jakub begins to perceive another living creature in his spaceship, a spider-like being whom he dubs Hanuš, after the maker of Prague’s astronomical clock, and which talks to him and enquires about his life. Kalfař’s writing leaves open the question as to whether this is an actual alien or an hallucination and Hanuš’s philosophy gradually begins to drive Jakub’s actions. Even at the end of the novel Hanuš is still a very real presence to Jakub.

The spaceship chapters are up to the last quarter of the book interspersed with the story of Jakub’s life until he became chosen for the mission. Jakub’s father had been a keen Communist and indeed a state torturer. With the fall of the Soviet Union the family’s fortunes of course changed, not helped by his parents’ death in a car crash, and Jakub’s late childhood, being looked after by his grandparents, was dogged by persecution by his peers. One day a man arrived carrying a rusty metal shoe which he said Jakub’s father once used to torture him. This “Shoe Man” now has the law on his side and causes the Procházkas’ eviction from their ancestral home – a telling reminder that injustice does not only exist under oppressive régimes. The most engaging of these “real life” chapters are those which deal with Jakub’s wife, Lenka, how he met her, their life together, and how, unknowingly to Jakub, they began drifting apart. This is a detailed portrait of a relationship.

In a clever decision by Kalfař the flashbacks are narrated in the present tense while the story of Jakub’s trip in space and its aftermath are in the past tense. This adds to the dreamy, hallucinatory nature of the space-based sections while the Earth bound sections are agreeably gritty. At one point Jakub sees Laika the dog drift past his ship, “her body preserved by the kindness of the vacuum, denying the corrosive effects of oxygen.” (Quite how she escaped the confines of the capsule she had been launched in Kalfař doesn’t explain, but it had me wondering.) This is of course a touch that borders on magic realism, emphasising the strangeness of Jakub’s voyage, but one of the novel’s concerns is the necessity to fight against or to accept the absurdity, the sheer unlikeliness, of the universe. In Jakub’s world even in space persecution cannot be avoided. Hanuš’s species has been pursued across galaxies by creatures called Gorompeds intent on its extinction. It is a neat touch that while Jakub uses the word humanity to describe our kind, Hanuš characterises us as humanry.

The book is also a primer on the history of Prague, the Czechs, and their achievements. To this end we are shown the martyrdom of Jan Hus (though in an apparent aside which is also a neat piece of foreshadowing Kalfař considers the possibility that Hus might have been replaced by a relative lookalike and lived out his days in seclusion,) the tragedy of Vaclav Havel – a man wanting only to write poetry but who instead became public property – who “lost his typewriter,” the plot of the opera Rusalka and the line from it, “All sacrifices are futile” that seems to apply to Jakub’s imminent demise at the hands (tendrils?) of the Chopra cloud, the impossible dilemma faced by Emile Hácha in Hitler’s office as he was offered ignominy or the slaughter of his country.

As the JanHus1 disintegrates in the purple cloud Hanuš disappears and Jakub is rescued by a “phantom” (deniable, incognito) Russian spaceship. He thwarts their authorities’ intention to detain him forever by interfering with the ship’s controls on its landing descent, making it crash, and so limps on into an afterlife in which everyone but the Shoe Man, whom he confronts in a park and whose complicity in his choice for the mission he uncovers, thinks he is dead.

The strangeness of the part of the narrative taking place in space, the distancing Jakub feels even when back on Earth, is echoed by the question he asks himself, “What if our existence is a field of study in probability conducted by the universe?”

My main thought during reading this is that in the flashback sections it bears far more similarity to a mainstream novel from Central/Eastern Europe than to Science Fiction. Kalfař writes in USian but odd word choices, phrases and emphases sometimes make the text seem like a translation – yet all of these add to the overall effect.

To see an examination of the history – and present – of a small country in the guise of a Science Fiction novel is an unusual but welcome phenomenon. But is this a trick Kalfař can pull off again?

One of my books of the year though, without a doubt.

Pedant’s corner:- the Canis Major galaxy (Canis Major is not a galaxy, it’s a constellation,) spit (spat; I know it’s USian usage but it still grates,) “the creature has ahold of me” (a hold,) a missing start quote mark when a chapter began with a piece of dialogue, “over the clothing lines fastened to poles outside their windows” (clothes lines – clothing line is a fashion industry term,) “a deceptively still malt of sand and rock” (malt? Did Kalfař mean meld?) aircrafts (aircraft,) “cut my parents’ retirement” (is this use of retirement in the sense of pension USian? Or is it perhaps a Czech usage?) A missing end quote mark, “to give her a grandchild” (her was Jakub’s grandmother so that would be a great grandchild.) “Millions of eggs circumvent a small planet” (circumscribe,) “I didn’t know what happened to my wife” (what had happened,) by all standards (by any standards is more usual,) scruff (scurf,) a candlewick (it wasn’t a bedspread; so, candle wick.)
Plus points though for the “whom” in “I’m not sure whom to be angry with” and for the use of wee to mean small.

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