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Let this confessionary review stand as a warning to young influential readers and as a testament to the undeniability of this novels strange powers which I've no doubt will work its fascinations on seekers of great and experimental literary works for centuries to come. How such an immense secret of a work as profound as Witkiewicz's INSATIABILITY has held its breath for so long can only give multiple births to conspiracy theories. When this novel breaks its silence it will be as if a ravenous serial-killer were loosed in your hometown.
I cannot recommend a greater novel in all literary history, of which I am an dedicated adventurous servitor; yet I do so warily, all too well aware of the repurcussions that may be heaped upon me for abandoning moral principles in spreading out the darkness so many have actually thought was the light.
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A word of causion, though. Altough Lem is depicted as a "Science Fiction" author, _HMV_ is not your regular "Arthur C. Clark"-like book. Dont expect racing starships or multi-handed aliens; it's a book about mankind, and it's failures, and is even more novel then Asimov's _I, Robot_, or Lem's own _Solaris_.
This book is not light reading. Many parts require a mental effort like, say, that needed to play chess. This can be irritating, even infuriating. For readers are up to the task, however, the book rewards the effort many times over.
Yet, while scanning the Amazon web pages for signals of intelligent life from distant galaxies, I came across this book that fully lives up to be called, let me rephrase define, science-fiction. A couple of years before the movie made it's way to a wider audience I read Sagan's Contact. While the decoding of the many levels of the "message" in this book went a long way in pleasing the Nerd in me, the story itself was flat as a pancake.
Lem's HMV proceeds Contact by many years and reflects a sophistication from a civilization that is light-years ahead of the one that produced Sagan. Written in the sixties, during the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain, HMV is a work that can be read on at least two levels. Firstly, it is a critique against Cold War politics, military and political decision making, and the conduct of science/scientist. In this respect the work could be regarded as an accurate Swiftian satire. Secondly and most importantly, however, HMV is a psychological and philosophical essay on the limitations of the human mind facing the truly unknown. This second layer is in my opinion the part that makes this book so unique.
Earlier this year I wrestled my way through Foucault's "Order of Things" a post-modern classic of contemporary structuralist philosophy. Lem may not claim to be a philosopher, but by the middle of just the preface of HMV, he has encapsulated all of Foucault's arguments in one focused concise essay in clear language. Throughout the rest of the book Lem exposes the reader to many schools of philosophy, discussion of the possibilities and limitations of science and the extent to which the human mind is limited to the level of projecting itself in the analysis of an unknown subject. An argument could be made that Lem does little more than using the subtext of HMV to give a synopsis of 20+ centuries of philosophy. Yet, both the construction of this novel and the beautiful way in which Lem concludes Hogarth's account of man finding reason without answers in the post-Nietzschian world is truly impressive.
The X-files always claims that the truth is out there. While it took me over thirty years, I have finally been able to recover the part that Lem's HMV contributed to it.
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Fiasco is simply astonishing: a meditation on the nature of intelligence, culture, technology. Lem often parodies science fiction while writing serious literature, but with this novel he and translator Michael Kandel outdid all previous efforts.
While The Futurological Congress remains my favorite Lem book (personal taste), Fiasco is the best Lem book in English, followed closely by the 'lectures' of GOLEM the computer in Lem's Imaginary Magnitude.
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Lately, I've been asking friends to loan me books that changed their lives or that have found particularly noteworthy. I asked this in an attempt to broaden my reading background and also to learn more about my friends. I've always considered myself a science/speculative fiction fan but had never heard of Stanislaw Lem until this book was loaned to me. After this wonderful first experience, I will certainly be tracking down a few more copies of some of his other titles.
This book embodies everything that good science fiction should be - using the future to teach us more about our present. "The Futurological Congress" is a heavily layered book that relies on the reader to engage the storyline and draw parallels to the present day. The text (in translation) is spare enough to be clear and move the plot along rapidly, while also being satirical and comical at the same time.
I don't want to go into the plot in too much depth since folks before me have already done an admirable job in that regard, but suffice it to say that reality becomes almost immediately problematized and you will not be able to figure out what is fact or fiction within the world of the book (not that it matters). Ijon Tichy, the main character, goes to attend a conference called the "Futurological Congress", where all sorts of folks discuss the future directions of humanity. During the conference, a popular revolution places the scientists in danger. Drugged by the hotel water supply, hallucinating hotel guests hide out in the sewer. It gets more insane from there...
If you like Philip K. Dick's more mindbending works like "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" or "Ubik," you will love this one by Lem. At a scant 150 pages, you'll truck right on through it and then wonder whether you actually read it.
The reason why I believe that some of the best sci-fi since WW2 came from Eastern Europe (Lem from Poland and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky from Russia) is that the mind set of communism was conducive toward what is referred to as "aesopic writing" (The term comes from Solzhenitsyn.) If you protested anything, you were regarded as a traitor to the state; but if you wrote fables as the Greek writer Aesop did which were not set in a particular unnamed repressive regime at a particular time, you might be able to get away with it scot free.
Lem had a field day by speculating on a congress who members are drugged into thinking they are drugged into acting as if they were drugged ... it goes on and on. The more or less classical beginning descends into multiple levels of questioning every level into reality, until even the most utterly solipsistic stance is questioned. By that time, you are either confused or, if you're like me, laughing your head off. As they say in another context, unreal!
Lem has written three of my favorite books in the world: this one, THE STAR DIARIES (also featuring Ijon Tichy--I believe in the original Polish these two were part of the same volume), and SOLARIS. The latter is equally superb, but oddly enough, completely without humor. It is almost difficult to comprehend that these works all came from the same writer.
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The book requires somewhat serious mathematical thinking.
A great strength of the book is the diverse mathematical concepts that it presents: homology groups, group theory, Turing machines, undecidability, Monte Carlo method. In a compact book, you learn a little about some important ideas in advanced mathematics.
Important!! This book is not written to popularize its subject matter, so it is different and definitely less entertaining than most popular science books.
Easy and lively reading, written for everyone.