Stanislaw Lem’s “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”

In Science Fiction Studies #5 (1975), Stanislaw Lem wrote an article, translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy, describing, analyzing, and challenging the work of Philip K. Dick (up to that point). Titled “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans,” it is a rich essay that has much to say about Dick’s work and the work of the critic.

Lem says that Dick, like other science fiction authors, takes from the “warehouse which has long since become their common property,” or what Damien Broderick later theorized as the SF mega-text (57). One of the themes that Dick relies on is the catastrophe, but unlike most other science fiction authors, the catastrophes in Dick’s fiction occur for unascertainable reasons, i.e., the uncovered causes are deferred to the end. The common denominator in all of Dick’s fiction is a world beset by an unconstrained and monstrous entropy that devours matter and even time. Following his instincts, as Patricia Warrick would later say of Dick that he is understood intuitively, Lem says of Dick that he does not go in for rational explanations, but instead, confounds both the plot and the conventions of the science fiction genre itself. Of this, Lem demonstrates that genres have conventions, but those conventions were formed by previous breaking of convention to make the genre thus. Dick does this to science fiction, changing it to meet his own needs and creativity. Coupled with his genre breaking is the fact that Dick is a bricoleur, though this is not the word Lem uses, but it is very much what he is describing. Lem describes Dick’s work as something offered for sale at a “county fair,” having been made from a variety of concepts and ideas, but making the new creation solidly his own. Dick is not a futurologist, but rather representing the very idea of futureshock in his stories. Dick is not an extrapolator who changes one thing and leaves all the rest unscathed. He shows how civilization goes on, progress forward, but having been changed radically by the events presupposed in his stories. He acknowledges that history cannot be rewound. The fusion of the natural with the artificial, a point also raised by Warrick, Leo Marx, and Sharona Ben-Tov, means that there can be no more talk of a return to nature. In this, Dick does question progress, but not by chucking the concept. Instead, he complicates it, and again, confounds it. For Dick, our technological labyrinth prevents us from returning to nature–again, connections with Warrick, Marx, and Ben-Tov. Lem conjectures on this as something beyond the scope of Dick’s work, but nevertheless should be taken into account. He thinks about how the “irreversibility of history, leads Dick to the pessimistic conclusion that looking far into the future becomes such a fulfillment of dreams of power over matter as converts the ideal of progress into a monstrous caricature” (64). It is this carrying Dick’s ideas further in his criticism that Lem attempts to practice the very thing Dick practiced in his writing. And most importantly, in his short engagement of the novel Ubik, Lem, a good structuralist, avoids the author’s interpretation of the work, and instead considers how the thing ‘ubik’ and its combination of the old and philosophical with the modern and consumer culture resulted in such a powerful metaphor and not a futurological or technical artifact (66).

Two other things that I would like to leave with you from this essay is Lem’s idea about the relationship of the critic to a work–as defender rather than prosecutor–a way that I have tried to work in my own scholarship and reviews: “I think, however, that the critic should not be the prosecutor of a book but its defender, though one not allowed to lie: he may only present the work in the most favorable light” (60).

And I would like to quote at length, Lem’s concluding paragraph, in which he gives a honest, gracious, and thoughtful tribute to Dick’s writing. Lem says:

The writings of Philip Dick have deserved a better fate than that to which they were destined by their birthplace. If they are neither of uniform quality nor fully realized, still it is only by brute force that they can be jammed into that pulp of materials, destitute of intellectual value and original structure, which makes up SF. Its fans are attracted by the worst in Dick–the typical dash of American SF, reaching to the stars, and the headlong pace of action moving from one surprise to the next–but they hold it against him that, instead of unraveling puzzles, he leaves the reader at the end on the battlefield, enveloped in the aura of a mystery as grotesque as it is strange. Yet his bizarre blendings of hallucinogenic and palingenetic techniques have not won him many admirers outside the ghetto walls, since there readers are repelled by the shoddiness of the props he has adopted from the inventory of SF. Indeed, these writings sometimes fumble their attempts; but I remain after all under their spell, as it often happens at the sight of a lone imagination’s efforts to cope with a shattering superabundance of opportunities–efforts in which even a partial defeat can resemble a victory (66-67).

I am also under that spell and happily on the battlefield, a little the worse for wear, but with kit in hand. At least, I thought I was on a battlefield until I realized that I was sitting at a desk in front of a computer wildly typing away on this very blog. I suppose the battlefields, like ontologies, can change unexpectedly and for inexplicable reasons.

Image of Lem at the top of the post is from the Wikimedia Commons, details here.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.

3 thoughts on “Stanislaw Lem’s “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”

  1. I wonder what Lem actually said in these quotes. For example, did he really mean, “county fair”? Do they have counties in Poland? What I’m getting at is the issue of translation. I love Lem’s work but I only know it through the translator’s work. Michael Kandel is my favorite. How does this change our study of sf? Do you believe it is a non-issue? Is there a thesis in any of this?

  2. Hello cryptonomico,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, this is an important issue, and one that had not occurred to me when I was reading this article from the special issue of SFS. I should have considered it, because I worried over Derrida and other French theorists while preparing for my upcoming PhD exams. I wondered how would their work seem to me if I could read it as a fluent French reader and academic. How might my experiences as a French academic and French person color the way I engaged and thought about Derrida differ from reading his work in translation, translated by a multilingual theorist in her own right (Spivak), and approaching it from my monolingual American background? The same kinds of questions apply for a reading of Lem. These are terrific questions that you have raised. We should be mindful of where our theory and critique comes from when it arrives at our doorstep through translation. More work should be done on the issues that you have raised.


  3. Hello!
    I realize this might be really late, but better late, than never!
    Yes, there are “county fairs” in Poland. They’re at the same time the exact same thing and completely different. They still exist, though the modern equivalent is a sad shadow of the ones even a decade before, filled with cheap Chinese toys and crappy novelty items. They used to be folk affairs, usually happening during church festivities, taking place in large towns or cities. Plenty of local foods and artisan works could usually be found there, in fantastic variety. That’s the meaning Lem is conveying I think. Something unique and hand-crafted, fascinating, even if it might be shunned by some lofty critics.

    Surprisingly, some of Lem’s works work very well in translation, while some struggle, mostly because of Lem’s use of language and the particularities of Polish. I think Michael Kandel’s work is brilliant and his translations accurate. I’m still amazed at some things he managed to pull off.
    By the way, there’s a brand new Solaris translation, straight from Polish this time! It’s really damn good! :)

Comments are closed.