Stanislaw Lem on Philip K. Dick
August 21, 2011 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Stanislaw Lem on Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans. (Science Fiction Studies # 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975; Translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy)
posted by gen (20 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
For those who do not know Stanisław Lem.
posted by gen at 8:56 PM on August 21, 2011

seems like Lem kind of missed what it is enduring about PkD... once you get past the mindfuckery, PkD has a real eye for American culture, a culture built out of commodities: pets, collecting as a hobby, advertising, etc. and then his language is a mirror: a mixture of hokum, slogans, sci-fi futurism, hard-boiled noir, but all broken, a bad pastiche.

anyway... I think this is the perennial problem with PkD, that critics tend to get distracted by "genre" arguments and don't look at him as a observer of the human condition i.e. as a novelist. I think maybe because they don't really get how the industrial revolution changed what it means to be human or, more concretely, what 'culture' is.
posted by at 9:37 PM on August 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

Philip K. Dick on Stanislaw Lem.

I never quite figured out the thing between Lem and Dick. I thought I heard something about a big tiff at the SFWA, Lem denounced Dick as too lowbrow.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:37 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

This essay, and a couple of others in Microworlds are why I gave PKD's books a another try, and chose to take them as seriously as I could. At first I was doubtful, but I've since become very glad for it. I'm also glad that this essay, in it's first few paragraphs introduced me to a notion of "positive criticism" that I've tried to make more use of in appreciating and understanding art.

Lem later acknowledged that, when he wrote this, he hadn't actually read much American SF, first hand, mostly reviews and criticism. I also enjoy the irony, that while Lem appreciated Dick, Dick apparently felt otherwise.
posted by wobh at 9:47 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm conflicted.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 10:04 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

seems like Lem kind of missed what it is enduring about PkD

really? I think he pretty much got it.
posted by kenko at 10:16 PM on August 21, 2011

I teach Dick and Kafka to high school students. I don't know why I persist in teaching The Trial. (Now twice in fifteen years. It worked out a little better last year, after spending way too much time of my summer vacation reading the critics.)

Calling the texts hermetic or hermeneutic is a dead end for youngsters.

Dick is easier. But as an old guy, I have to explain what it was like for Americans in the mid-twentieth century, and that gets more complicated than you would imagine. In short, the traditional criteria for evaluating good literature are not of much help in getting at the brilliance (a little roller-coasterish in Dick's case) of these two authors, whose works explain so much about who we twentieth century relics were.

They are both funny. (OK, black humor, pretty much.) But even that is not readily apparent to most students.

Why has Kafka proved to be so prescient in especially the most existential aspects of our lives today? Who are we today? The waters have been muddied. Did Kafka and Dick try to explain how we try to explain who we are in today's unbelievably complex socio/politico/psycho/political flooding rivers? Yeah, they tried. Drawing conclusions is as hard as it is for all of the arts, especially in today's increasing self-referential world

I hadn't read Lem on Dick before. Fascinating.
posted by kozad at 10:18 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

This from the ABSTRACT (found at the end of the piece):

Philip Dick does not lead his critics an easy life, since he does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as give the impression of one lost in their labyrinth.

I'm guilty of taking Mr. Dick perhaps too seriously for a while maybe fifteen-twenty years ago, culminating in the reading of the biography (Divine Invasions) which led me finally to the conclusion that his stuff was so powerful because so much of it was essentially raw reportage from the war zone of his troubled psyche, sometimes with barely any fictionalizing at all -- particularly with his later stuff (VALIS etc).

Weirdly, I liken his best stuff a lot to Elmore Leonard's crime writing in the sense that both are so inside the world they're writing about, they never really give you an establishing shot. You're just down there, in the mix, immersed.
posted by philip-random at 11:10 PM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I went to high school and didn't learn Dick.
posted by chavenet at 1:26 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went for a job interview as a teacher and told the panel that high school kids need exposure to Dick "early and often". He's one of the best authors for getting young minds interested in literature: "Fill them up with Dick, and they'll love learning forever," I said. "Even those children who resist learning should have Dick forced upon them. I'd spent a whole year showing kids Dick, and teaching them to love Dick."

I could tell the interviewers were getting a little "weirded out" though - one suggested that Dick might not be the best material for this school. I said, "OK, but if I can't give the kids Dick, at least let me get them interested in Ballsack".
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:32 AM on August 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

I never quite figured out the thing between Lem and Dick. I thought I heard something about a big tiff at the SFWA, Lem denounced Dick as too lowbrow.

It wasn't really about Phil Dick: he broadly trashed pulp SF and obliquely singled out Poul Anderson and Heinlein ("Looking Down on Science Fiction: A Novelist's Choice for the World's Worst Writing"), which pissed off a bunch of members of the SFWA. They, in turn, expelled him from his honorary membership in the SFWA on a technicality in a battle that really dragged on ("How It Happened: A Chronology of the 'Lem Affair'"). Then it turns out that most of the most bitter accusations were invented by the translator of the essay.

And of course, Lem wasn't the only one PKD was interested in denouncing. He also had some weird ideas about Thomas M. Disch.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 6:35 AM on August 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

really? I think he pretty much got it.

well, in my opinion, pkd's dimestore metaphysics is't very serious, and couldn't be read literally if you want to take his books seriously. so, if you don't read pkd on the nature of reality, is there anything worthwhile about him? i mean, "is the world real or not" is the theme taken up in the hollywood movies and seems to be what Lem is generating words about...

but, often literally, pkd writes about identity, that is one sense of humanity, as being composed of cultural detritus, commodities of dubious value cobbled together and i think this is more realistic than official "realistic" fiction i.e. the serious novel.

also, more people should read "Confssions of a Crap Artist," I would teach that before the scifi stuff.
posted by at 6:38 AM on August 22, 2011

It was only a tangential chapter in a recent collection of Warren Ellis's thoughts that he seems to irregularly publish, but I found his insight on the Lem/Dick situation interesting. Lem was from a distinctly different Eastern European culture and lacked the history of science fiction that western writers created as a base. His version of science fiction was not the stuff of Heinlein or Anderson and he felt that Dick was somehow one of the few analogues for his brand of writing.

Of course, Dick, being the paranoid conspiratorially-minded fellow he was, imagined an international conspiracy involving Lem and tried to sell out his fellow writers as communist agents.
posted by mikeh at 7:03 AM on August 22, 2011

Why hasn't PKD's news clown become a meme? Among all the things I've read of his, a mean-spirited news anchor/clown ruling the solar system(sic) seemed the most prescient.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:08 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I twice started and gave up on one of Dick's early realist novels - Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. It was really boring and I finally abandoned it at a BART station. I was glad I tried to read it though because it was a good reminder that to make something great, you have to start by making a bunch of stuff that isn't great. People aren't born with the perfect novel just waiting to come out of them.

Thanks for this interesting link. I like Lem and adored A Perfect Vacuum which I'm pretty sure I first saw recommended here.
posted by serazin at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2011

Much of Dick's work best read the way it was written -- on benzedrine.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:34 PM on August 22, 2011

Stanislaw Lem isn't fit to lick Phil Dick's boots.
posted by Twang at 8:26 PM on August 22, 2011

People aren't born with the perfect novel just waiting to come out of them.

Definitely not true in PKD's case. His first sale was Roog. Ever read it? It's damn near perfect. It's in the PKD anthologies, they're sorted by publication date IIRC and his earliest stories are amazing. I remember reading an essay by PKD, he said Roog was his most widely published work, and appeared in a high school English textbook.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:33 PM on August 22, 2011

Hmm, I'll check it out!
posted by serazin at 9:06 PM on August 22, 2011

This was sooooooooo good. Thanks!
posted by Eideteker at 6:38 AM on September 8, 2011

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