BOOK REVIEW: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem

Memoirs Found in a BathtubMemoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you enjoyed Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, which is to say you like gallows humor that scoffs at the folly of thinking of “bureaucratic logic” as anything other than an oxymoron, then Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub will be right up your alley. The premise is that future archeologists are trying to decipher what happened to humanity from a dearth of remaining documentation. One of the best and most extensive of these records is the memoirs of a bureaucrat telling of his experience in a subterranean complex that reads a lot like a spoof on the Pentagon. The 31st century timeline in which a future generation tries to understand the intervening dark ages is only discussed in the prologue, the remainder is the first person account of this bureaucrat of ill-chosen profession.

The narrator tells us about his final assignment, one that was so secret that his superiors couldn’t even tell him what it was. When he finally does get some written guidance, it’s stolen. Throughout the story, the author is shifting through various departments of this complex trying to figure out what is going on and with little initial success. At first he’s trying to figure out what his mission is, but later he’s just trying to figure out what’s real and meaningful–and if those concepts retain any usefulness. Along the way, odd and spectacular events occur that leave him thinking he’s being framed. He doesn’t know if he’s in a test, in the middle of a conspiracy, or amid a collection of lunatics.

There are sections that read quite like a Monty Python sketch, and the absurdist humor is sometimes like that of Douglas Adams–though more sparing and dark. There’s a scene featuring an officer who tries to talk the narrator into confessing, and I could only picture said officer in my mind as Eric Idle. Among the absurdist elements is the explanation of office operations. We are told that command was unable to deal with accurately and swiftly circulating memos because of the volume, and so they took to a random system in which paperwork was indiscriminately circulated until it happened upon the correct desk. There’s an officer who begins to chew and swallow envelopes to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands. One of the best examples of absurdist humor is a conversation with a cryptologist who suggests that everything is a code and, ignoring messages that seem to be of military value and that are not coded, takes to using a machine to “decipher” random literature into nonsensical messages.

Nothing is as it seems in this book, and the humor derives from the narrator being the only individual who insists on the world making sense. If you’ve ever been in a position where you had to interact regularly with a bureaucracy, you’ll understand the value of laughing at such humor to avoid weeping. Much of the humor comes from the desire to keep things secret while trying to know everything there is. The narrator keeps finding not-so-subtle fly-shaped spy devices on his coffee saucer. There are blatant lies about behavior that takes place right before the narrator’s eyes. When he’s institutionalized, it turns out that the other inmates are not at all who they seem to be either.

If Stanislaw Lem is not an author familiar to you (he’s a Polish writer who died in 2006), this is a good work to cut your teeth on. It’s not one of his most well-known pieces, but it’s humorous and easier to follow than Solaris. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein are also likely to enjoy this book. I recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Solaris is the  best known work of the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s the story of the planet Solaris’s super-intelligent ocean and the humans that are observing it from an orbiting space station. Scientists discover that the ocean is intelligent because the planet orbits two stars, and the ocean must redistribute itself as ballast to keep Solaris from flying off out of its star systems.

Having had no luck in learning about this ocean, the scientists begin more invasive operations–bombarding the ocean with electromagnetic radiation. The ocean then begins to project human beings into the space station, using blueprints in the minds of the scientists. Each of the scientists begins to see, and eventually interact with, someone from his past. Each “guest” is physically indistinguishable from the person in the respective scientist’s past, but the simulacra are “off.”  These simulacra stir up bad memories.

The most extensive interaction we see between a crew member and one of these manifestations is that of the protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, and his ex-wife. Dr. Kelvin is a psychologist and is the most recent crew edition. (The novel actually starts with him as a new arrival, we learn of the earlier incidents as he does.) His “visitor” is the spitting image of his wife, a woman who committed suicide after the couple broke up.

The novel plays with an intriguing question. What if a person you loved and lost came back from the dead, but you would only be able to experience them as they existed in your mind? In some sense, they’d be more real to you than the actual person. But you’d know they were just a fabrication, and you could never learn anything new about them. At first Kelvin rejects, even banishes, his wife’s doppelgänger, but when she inexplicably returns he finds it hard to maintain his distance.

I enjoyed this book. The translation seemed skilled to me (though I don’t read Polish, and hence didn’t read the original.) I’d recommend it.

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There have been three film adaptations of this novel. I haven’t seen any of the movies, but this is the trailer for the most recent one. The trailer emphasizes the love relationship more and the sentient ocean less than the novel (though the interaction of the protagonist with his imagined wife is central to the work.)