Take the narrator of “Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy” — just reissued with newly translated material, alongside a number of other Lem works. Ijon doesn’t need warp drive or clever Geordi-like “Star Trek” techies to transport him across space and time. With the snap of a few typewriter keys, the omnipotent Lem can dispatch him to the Nereid Nebula to meet the Phools, a race of hominiformicans who suffered economic collapse after the wealthy few bankrupted the working class, the Drudgelings. To correct the resulting chaos, the Phools submitted to a robot ruler who resolved all differences by transforming everyone into identical silver discs. (Problem solved!)
That same Ijon Tichy journeys back in time to initiate the original Big Bang (and get it right this time).
In Lem’s hands, the infinite reaches don’t seem infinite at all. Rather they resemble an endlessly repeatable vista of the same ol’ same ol’, filled with rubbernecking space tourists, billboard advertisements for “Lunar gin” and “Satellite champagne,” and orbiting swarms of discarded “tin cans, eggshells, and old newspapers.”
As one might expect from any halfway decent universe, it’s not all hilarity, and the more serious side is best represented by “The Invincible” — now available in the United States for the first time in a proper Polish-to-English translation. This darkly philosophical investigation into the fate of a vanished spaceship develops with moody logic as human characters journey to a distant planet and find out what it means to be not human. They stumble on a hive-organized, mechanical species with formidable destructive abilities.
Lem’s fiction is filled with haunting, prescient landscapes. In these reissued and newly issued translations — some by the pitch-perfect Lem-o-phile, Michael Kandel — each sentence is as hard, gleaming and unpredictable as the next marvelous invention or plot twist. It’s hard to keep up with Lem’s hyper-drive of an imagination but always fun to try.
In “Return From the Stars,” an astronaut lands — after more than a century away — on an Earth that doesn’t seem like home anymore, and every conversation draws him into a confusing situation with creatures that look like him but don’t think like him at all. As the astronaut, Hal Bregg, concludes late in this reverse-Bildungsroman (the more the protagonist learns, the less he understands): “The crux of the matter was that man wanted to conquer the universe without having attended to his own problems on Earth.” Yes, Hal. Tell us about it.
Lem has not always been well published in the United States. Even his best-known novel, “Solaris,” was long available only in an imperfect Polish-to-French-to-English translation (though Bill Johnston’s excellent Polish-to-English translation is currently available as an e-book). Partly, this was a result of American publishers showing little interest in translating fiction. But it doesn’t help that Lem is a difficult act to categorize. While he is often marketed as a science fiction writer (his funniest, most misanthropic stories are darkly reminiscent of the great Robert Sheckley or the equally great C.M. Kornbluth), he is bound to disappoint many traditional science-fiction readers. Lem’s closest literary equivalent is probably Italo Calvino.
“The great humorists,” Lem once wrote, “were people who had been driven to despair and anger by the conduct of mankind. In this respect, I am one of those people.”
Enjoying the genius of Lem requires readerly dexterity and a willingness to go wherever the author takes you. Another new-to-the-U.S. book, “Highcastle: A Remembrance,” a memoir of growing up in Lvov (now Lviv and part of Ukraine), explores many of the same ideas that Lem’s space travelers explore on distant planets. It is as if Lem’s most personal memories are perfectly continuous with the wild universes he imagines. In “Highcastle,” Lem tries to preserve on paper all the things he loved that were destroyed by the 1941 Nazi invasion: the candy shops, his father’s surgical devices and the family gramophone.
“It is so much easier for me to talk about the objects of my early childhood than about the people. But then, only the objects — if you can say this — were honest with me, were completely open, hiding nothing.” Watching barbarians destroy his life as he was growing up probably inspired Lem to write his first, most realistic novel, “Hospital of the Transfiguration.” This book recounts the adventures of a young doctor who witnesses the staff of a mental hospital abuse patients according to their twisted scientific rationales, even as government officials abuse the staff. (The book was censored, and Lem, possibly wisely, began transmuting his political critiques into interstellar fables.)
Lem’s love for remembered things resembles that found in the work of another writer exiled from his childhood home, Vladimir Nabokov. But unlike Nabokov, Lem doesn’t exert excessive control over his characters, nor is he as cruel to them. Instead he grants them a wide universe to run around in. And these first six volumes only begin to make Lem properly available in English. The best books are yet to come — such as my personal favorite, the brilliant “Arabian Nights”-like collection of robot fairy tales, “The Cyberiad,” and Lem’s unusual philosophical mystery, “The Investigation.” But taken together, these marvelous, absorbing and often hilarious books make our weary universe seem pale and undistinguished by comparison.
Scott Bradfield is the author, most recently, of “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”