Stanislaw Lem’s Disconcerting Universe

the invincible by stanislaw lem

Stanislaw Lem writes moody, psychological science fiction that both thrills and appeals to the intellect. Lem is mostly known for Solaris, the novel that inspired three movie adaptations, including the most recent George Clooney version, a film that, unfortunately, failed to capture the book’s best themes.

Lem combines exposition, stunning visual descriptions, philosophical ideas, and truly different alien life to achieve a sense of enchantment and wonder. And he’s a master of creating a story’s mood. Many of these great elements not only appear in Solaris but also in the lesser known The Invincible, a book about the deathly cost of following procedure when faced with a situation new to human understanding and out of human control.

The Invincible is a starship searching for its missing sister ship on a barren desert planet called Regis III. What happened to their sister ship? And will the Invincible’s crew succumb to the same fate that befell their predecessor? The mystery is established early and continues to become more bizarre as the tale reveals successive clues.

Exposition Builds Credibility and Authority

There are many aspects to Lem’s work that I always appreciate. The Invincible boasts the best hallmarks of his storytelling ability, including his realistic depiction of thought, specifically the thoughts of characters as they work out problems and debate the evolution of Regis III.

One of the first things the crew does is make an expedition to the ocean, where they find an abundance of sea life. The question of why the ocean life never moved onto land—or what prevented the ocean life from evolving into land life—is the first posed by the scientists among the crew. Inadvertently, this is also the first clue to the mystery of what happened to their sister ship.

Lem’s exposition raises the merit of his work. His explanations, summaries, and postulations engage the intellect at a level rare for most genre fiction. This technique creates depth and authority, engaging the reader with ideas while depicting both the benefits of science and its uncertainties.

Alien Life Conceptually Sets the Bar

Lem imagines truly different and almost incomprehensible alien life, or  in the case of this book, non-living creatures. He does so in such a manner that it’s difficult to imagine anything like that on Earth, which makes his extraterrestrials stand out more than any others. They are truly strange and difficult to fathom, leaving the reader with a disconcerting feeling and the sense that Lem’s universe is more bizarre than typically imagined in popular science fiction.

Below is a description of the cloud entity that the Invincible‘s crew tries to understand and defend against.

The clouds now covered both sides of the ravine; an organizing current seemed to pass through their black swirls, for they thickened at the edges, forming into almost vertical columns, while their inner parts bellied out toward one another and drew closer and closer. It was exactly as if some titanic sculptor were shaping them with extraordinarily rapid movements of his hands. A few brief flashes of lightning rent the air at the point where the two clouds were nearest each other; they appeared to be racing toward one another, yet each remained on its side, merely setting central masses aflap in an ever fiercer rhythm.

The cloud splits, ruptures, and connects fluidly over the sands of Regis III’s desert. Made up of millions of tiny flying insect-like parts, it is thought by the crew that when the parts merge in the cloud form, the whole becomes sentient. That is but one hypothesis offered.

And so the novel explores ideas of non-living (non-biological), but intelligent, creatures–something that perhaps evolved from intelligent robots. The term “necroevolution” is coined in this book to describe that very concept. It is with this originality that the reader feels truly exposed to the universe’s strangeness by means of Lem’s imaginative power.

The Disconcerting Universe

This “strangeness” is one of Lem’s best achievements as it provides the reader with a disconcerting sense. It’s the same disconcertion one might feel from reading about quantum mechanics (e.g. electrons that pop in and out of existence and quantum entanglement). But for Lem, this sense is partly created by how he uses tone and specificity to achieve mood in his stories and scenes.

Lem reminds us that what we find in the universe we may not immediately comprehend. And this uncertainty is ripe with potential for both psychological and external tension.

Often, like with The Invincible, Lem leaves his readers in the rapture of wonder, agape at the ideas we’ve been presented with. And both enchanted and disturbed, our curiosity piqued, we naturally hunger for more.

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M. J. Kelley

M. J. is an award-winning short fiction writer and author of a forthcoming nonfiction book. He loves science fiction, humor, & literary fiction and is the director of Write Draft Critique: the Virtual Writer Workshop.

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