It was on a Monday, April second — I was cruising in the vicinity of Betelgeuse — when a meteor no larger than a lima bean pierced the hull, shattered the drive regulator and part of the rudder, as a result of which the rocket lost all maneuverability.
So begins “The Seventh Voyage of Ijon Tichy,” the opening story of The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem. “The Star Diaries” must be one of the most perfect works of science fiction in any language. So perfect, in fact, that I had great difficulty determining just how much of “The Seventh Voyage” to quote in the introduction to this article. I went with one sentence simply because, when I considered quoting two, I found I must quote three, and so on until, instead of a review, I had simply reproduced the entire story.
I once knew a Polish lady who had completed a master’s degree in Russian literature at a university in Warsaw before emigrating to Canada and starting a business operating a food truck. We first started talking when she noticed me reading the Constance Garnett translation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. She admonished me. There were so many good novels written in English, she said, that it was a shame to waste my time reading books in translation. But even she made an allowance for Stanislaw Lem. So I want to preface all this by saying that, unfortunately, I cannot read Polish and thus, in every case here, I am talking about the 1976 translation by Michael Kandel.
Lem is probably best known for his novel Solaris, a psychedelic first contact story which has been rendered in film no fewer than three times, most recently by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in the starring role. Solaris is a very serious novel, and quite good, but it is not Lem at his best. The Star Diaries, which I would call his pinnacle, are satirical and comedic, reminiscent almost of Vonnegut. That comparison seems only more apt when you consider the brilliantly amateurish illustrations in Lem’s own hand.
In form, The Star Diaries are a collection of short stories. The conceit is that they are the incomplete diaries of one Ijon Tichy, a cantankerous space explorer of some note. The book opens with two separate introductions, both of which apologize for the incompleteness and incoherence of the subsequent stories, on grounds of both historical and futurological mishap. It is a wondrous manuscript and, taken as a whole, it is so much more than a fix-up. Each of these stories is a gem.
The first story, which provided the lead-in to this article, is perhaps the most perfect time travel story that science fiction had ever managed. “I ought to know whether it’s possible or not,” proclaims Ijon Tichy, “considering that I’m already in Friday and consequently have lived through your Wednesday as well as his Thursday …”
Later stories include a profound examination of the imposter syndrome (“The Eleventh Voyage”), one of the most effective indictments of man’s barbarism (“The Eighth Voyage”), and a complete and hilarious takedown of excessive intellectualism (“The Twenty-Fifth Voyage”). Not a one of them falls flat.
What really gives these stories their context though, is that every one of them was written between 1957 and 1971, during which time the country we now know as Poland was instead the Polish People’s Republic, a satellite state of the Soviet Union. “Censorship banned publication of certain parts of this book in the Soviet Union and in other East European countries,” said Lem himself, “but I never considered this fact to be important.” I hope he’ll forgive me if I do consider that important.
In truth, many of the humorous stories in The Star Diaries read as concealed criticisms of totalitarianism and communism. I am not nearly well-informed enough to draw the necessary parallels between that time and this, but with Russian imperialism so heavy in the news lately, I have taken the opportunity to reread The Star Diaries, and so should you. In the Polish, if you can, but, if not, I have it on good authority that reading it in translation is acceptable.
D.F. McCourt is the Editor of AE.