Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lem and Le Guin — ‘Two mutually correlated opposites’

I’ve been following, and to some extent participating in, a discussion over at Jake Seliger’s blog, The Story’s Story, on the subject of science fiction. Why so much of it is so bad, at least by the standards of the literary establishment — insert winking censure of ‘snobbery’ here — as compared to its popularity, and which science fiction (again, by those admittedly subjective standards) is actually good. I’m not going to engage in that debate here (though you’ll want to read this post as well its lengthier follow-up).

I have a different agenda today. I want to contrast two of the authors most of us agree are among the very best science fiction has to offer: Stanisław Lem and Ursula K. Le Guin.

If you haven’t read Lem or Le Guin, good starting points might be Solaris and The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin, as some of you may know, also writes fantasy, and the Earthsea Cycle is a must-read for fans of that genre. But today I’m thinking of science fiction specifically. If you move on to other books, as I’m sure you will, you might enjoy The Chain of Chance, in which Lem reinvents the crime thriller genre as a rumination on the Malthusian consequences of statistical causality — could anybody else have done that but Lem? I don’t think so! For Le Guin, readers should move on to the rest of Hainish Cycle, three of which won Hugo awards.

Now, thinking of these two excellent writers, I can’t help but regard them as both very different, but highly complementary. The Chinese concept of yin / yang springs to mind, where Lem and Le Guin strike me as 兩儀 /liangyí/, that is, ‘two mutually correlated opposites’ — hence the title of this post. Where Le Guin is warm, emotional, and somehow always ‘human’, Lem is cold, cerebral, and distinctly alien. Le Guin is sunny, Lem is overcast. Le Guin is lush, fertile, and fur-soft; Lem is barren, sterile, and gem-hard. Yet, for balance, you need both.

As a perfect example of this harmonizing contrast, set Lem’s novel, Solaris (1961), alongside Le Guin’s short story, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (1971). Without spoiling either, let me just say that each one brings human beings into contact with an enormous, collective alien species, planetary in size, and asks them — and us — to meditate on one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind: the Self versus the Other. Both stories have their share of brilliant moments, and to each can be applied the series of contrasting characterizations I gave above. Solaris is cold, cerebral, and frightening, while “Vaster than Empires” is warm, emotional, and ultimately welcoming. The protagonists, Kelvin and Osden respectively, have both suffered psychological traumas, but each relates to the Other differently. At the close of her story, Le Guin writes that Osden “had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self.” One cannot imagine Lem ever writing a passage like that. Where Le Guin finds the humanity in her extraterrestrial beings, Lem’s are and remain profoundly alien.

There is one additional point of contact between Le Guin and Lem that I find interesting. In 1973, Lem was inducted into the SFWA as an honorary member, even though actually ineligible according to the organization’s bylaws. Later, once he became technically eligible, the honorary membership was rescinded. Some American members, and apparently Lem himself, regarded this as a wrap on the knuckles for public criticisms Lem had made against much of American science fiction. (Criticisms which, I might add, are in the main perfectly true.) Because of the controversy, Lem declined to remain a member of the SFWA. Le Guin was one of Lem’s most vocal advocates in this imbroglio. Balance, Grasshopper. :)

And by the way, another honorary member (though technically ineligible at the time of his induction) was J.R.R. Tolkien. Might Tolkien and C.S. Lewis also be regarded as ‘two mutually correlated opposites’? They differ less than Lem and Le Guin, but the phrase — which I can’t help thinking Lem would have especially appreciated — still seems à propos.


  1. I love Chain of Chance. What an incredible book.

    But Lem isn't always so hard and stern, have you tried The Cyberiad? It's one of my alltime top 5 and it's funny/silly/brilliant.

  2. No, you’re right, and your observation highlights the dangers of generalization. Thanks for taking the time to leave that comment. I should be more careful. :)

    The Cyberiad does have a lot of humor and absurdity. That’s also true of Memoirs of a Space Traveler; however, in both cases, we’re looking at short stories and not a sustained novel. Perhaps that’s an important point. A novel of Lem’s, Peace On Earth, with the same character from Memoirs (Ijon Tichy) becomes immediately more serious and full of social satire. But in any case, you are right to point to Lem’s sense of humor, though I would argue that even that is often cerebral and remote.

    And it’s not solely a qusetion of the length of the story. It’s definitely possible to write science fiction novels full of humor. Just ask Douglas Adams. Err, well, you can’t actually ask him any longer, but you get my drift. :)

  3. Jason, this is a very thought provoking post. I LOVED Solaris, but have read very little LeGuin. I'll add your suggestions to my "to read" list.

  4. Thanks for the comment, BobE. Jennifer speaks highly of you from “Throwing Things”, so you’re most welcome here. I daresay most of my posts have little to interest the usual crowd at your blog, but then again, maybe I’m selling you guys short. Still, I know that many of my posts can be really arcane. You’re either into Latin enclitics or toponymic etymology, or you aren’t, hahae. :)

    Do give Le Guin another try. I love her work. She’s one of the best writers still working today.

  5. I think you'd be surprised about the appeal to thingthrowers. Where do I start loving this? How can I stop? I will be back often, and not just to troll for suggestions about creative epithets to use in Age of Conan.

    My favorites from Lem are His Master's Voice and A Perfect Vacuum, which are "hard" if not "stern", I think. Anyway, I find them playful in their own way.


  6. Hi Phil.

    I think you'd be surprised about the appeal to thingthrowers.

    I guess so! My wife, Jennifer J., says I ought to be paying more attention to ‘Things’ around the time of the Spelling Bee — a perfect opportunity for synergy between our blogs. We all love words, don’t we? Especially numnah!

    I will be back often, and not just to troll for suggestions about creative epithets to use in Age of Conan.

    That’s just a side benefit, right? ;)

    My favorites from Lem are His Master's Voice and A Perfect Vacuum, which are "hard" if not "stern", I think. Anyway, I find them playful in their own way.

    I haven’t read either of these, but after a quick look at Wikipedia, I’ll definitely be putting them on my to-read list. A Perfect Vacuum, especially, sounds really clever. Thanks for stopping by and mentioning both of those.