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A Perfect Vacuum – Stanisław Lem (1971, Tr. 1978)

The writing of a novel is a form of the loss of creative liberty…. In turn, the reviewing of books is a servitude still less noble. Of the writer one can at least say that he has enslaved himself – by the theme selected.


The writing of a novel is a form of the loss of creative liberty…. In turn, the reviewing of books is a servitude still less noble. Of the writer one can at least say that he has enslaved himself – by the theme selected. The critic is in a worse position: as the convict is chained to his wheelbarrow, so the reviewer is chained to the work reviewed. The writer loses his freedom in his own book, the critic in another’s.

Stanisław Lem

As it has been ultimately established by this brief excerpt who exactly I am, there is nothing left for me to do but fling my collection of balls and chains onto the bruised, hunched back of mine and commit yet another deliberate act of self-enslavement. My 18th Sisyphean illusion… My maturation as a hardened captive… I feel ecstatically enthralled to finally be able to transform myself into a genuine thrall by subduing to this very bondage, this utterly flabbergasting pillory whose adjective-defying profundity and supreme dominance has become a milestone in showing the possibility of freedom more boundless and carefree than conditions found inside a literal perfect vacuum. The possibility of freedom which sets all prisoners of letters loose through immobilization outside of time. How? Come along…

You know me. Not even the tiniest fraction of a second will I spent giving you an insight into Stanisław Lem’s life. However, it may be that for the first time I will experience flaying-like pangs of conscience about such a deliberate omission. For during his lifetime spanning 84 years (have I just contradicted myself?), Lem has blessed us – minions of the alphabet – with more than 20 books in total (excluding his heavily philosophical Sci-Fi novels), whose plethora of themes, threads and topics e.g. frontiers of futurology, in-depth Sci-Fi analysis as a literary genre, theory of literature per se, evolution of technology, etc., are still sweeping off one’s feet each and every daredevil who decides to give Lem’s prose a shot (and ‘slaying’ it isn’t a piece of cake, mark my words). To alleviate the unknown tormenting sensation of renouncing my own possibility to introduce him via more down-to-earth, substantial exposure, I am going to resort to the following hypothetical situation. If some sort of a doomsday event were to wipe out not only all cellular life on Earth, but also the very existence of the Earth itself as a planet, and, by some miraculous coincidence, of all the books written throughout the ‘reign’ of humanity, ten were to survive the apocalypse and afterwards gave evidence to a random, otherworldly flyer-by of how remarkably worthwhile and truly stellar us Earthlings once were – doubtless A Perfect Vacuum should be among the lucky 10.

Why such an indelible distinction? Does it really deserve to be put on a pedestal of immortalization? Contrary to what A Perfect Vacuum is and how it ‘beyonds’ within the reader (I had to coin this puzzling verb out of preposition which highlights distance between two objects in order to prepare you for a relentless separation Lem’s tour de force distillates among all day-to-day relations and, by the way, to show you how easily it dissipates between magnificence of pure wit and raw intellectual conceptualization so as to ground and nestle itself inside its own sphere of post-discernibles), I will try and stick to the bare minimum of not hopping into the pool of mush and avoid beating about the bush. Yet, we cut our coat according to our cloth, even if we have the fanciest shears in the world at our disposal, straight from Edward Scissorhands’ spare parts shack (this tailored dictum applies especially to those prisoners of literature who have been locked up inside their own Châeau d’Ifs without the possibility of parole or even the tiniest bit of hope left at the bottom of their souls [Knock it off! How much longer could one possibly count these elusive allusions anyway…]).

Stanisław Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum is a compilation of reviews of nonexistent books. Combining an astounding amount of literary self-awareness – grand yet light and therefore having so extensive a span it could hover gracefully for hours fueled by a single fugacious glimpse – with general polymathic knowledge and exhibiting Lem’s unassuming capriciousness of a sophisticated taunter, this volume of 16 texts is a testimony to what exemplary directions literature has grown its branches into, how gorgeously could postmodernism smile at it’s own kaleidoscopic reflection and what does it take to really rivet someone to a book. From downright not-so-blatant jeers (Gigamesh, Rien du tout, ou la conséquence – splendidly crafted puns on haughty, ultra-highbrow modernistic referentiality to everything and everyone à la Joyce and unconveyable extravaganza of over(ly/-)linguistic Nouveau Roman, respectively) and something which looks like hung up gloves (Sexplosion – a flaccid and frigid result of tampering with far too much consumerism and the basic instinct of dropping our drawers to do you-know-what, Gruppenführer Louis XVI – sociological implications of staying too long in an environment consisting solely of simulacra), through pieces based on ideas wonderfully turned inside out (Pericalipsis) as well as genuinely brilliant (Odysseus of Ithaca) to materials for some exuberant Sci-Fi novels (Being Inc.). Everything then ascends to the area of sui generis, the pinnacle of literary beast mode which harbors the Holy Quaternity of impetuous speculation, refined philosophy, absolute delight and exceptional profundity (Die Kultur als Fehler, De Impossibilitate Vitae and The Impossibilitate Prognoscendi, Non Serviam, The New Cosmogony – not so respectively this time). And now your personal peon o’ letters will pen a sentence or two about them.

Or perhaps I will not. Instead, I am going to tell you that it is of the utmost importance that you should be kidnapped by Lem (with Michael Kandel – his masterly translator – as an accomplice) at some point in your life. What for? For one thing, to experience what the well-known phrase “time out of joint” really means. For another, to see what happens when you are being “teleported” outside of it. Just as we remain immovable riding anywhere but along the tracks of the fastest moving hand of the neverland-like clock in Kensington Gardens (albeit we stick to the rules of staying within the tic-tock routine), here we disappear into more other-ish “outer rims” of timeless separateness, where a heavy-handed yet light-winged imagination makes friends with the purest forms of impossible congruity, only to leave you speechlessly light-headed and prone to long-winded lightheartedness. From the very first review – curiously, of A Perfect Vacuum itself – Polish author executes a remarkably time-consuming (taken very literally here) set of literary gambits and you cannot help but fall for them all. You simply cannot resist their sheer ontological insubordination! The novel is just so different (to fully highlight its state of being different, you would have to use another, as of yet nonexistent substitute of a verb “to be”) and addictive that all you are able to do is cry for more, gasping, bedazzled, astounded, dumbfounded, even slightly dilapidated. Thank Lem there is more. It’s called Imaginary Magnitude and this time it’s a compilation of introductions to nonexistent books. But where does it lead to? Does it ‘beyond’ with reader, too? You would have to see for yourself. My almost mature back hurts like hell from heaving these burdensome balls and chains…

Anyway, if you plan to burrow yourself in a cushy nook of your room or lie prone on some forgotten meadow (not everywhere February means snow!) in the not too distant future in order to read, let Lem burrow and lie beside you. Allow his unmistakable charm to leave a permanent imprint on your letter-seeking eyes. It does not disfigure and most certainly won’t blind you. Quite the contrary, it will polish your lenses and enable you to feast upon images your new hawk-eyed sight would spot, among them only the most powerful genies (or should I write ‘djinnies’?) at your command. Thanks to their magical powers, one day you might get a chance to see or even create something which would outshine the universe-famous “Let there be light” or “In the beginning was the Word”. Hubris? I would say relentless curiosity. “Icarus…” some might languidly retort. Before you snap back at this truly void word and patronizing ellipsis, imagine Sam B. is sitting next to your right whispering calmly in your ear his mercilessly hackneyed “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. Besides, there’s nothing more refreshing and liberating than plummeting form the unimaginable heights of perfect vacuums and taking a skinny-dip in the cold waves of another blank piece of paper… Who claims otherwise, well… he/she is just a mere acolyte of imperfect fullness without the slightest chance to immobilize him/herself neither inside nor outside of time. Shame on them! Lucky for us!

Amonne Purity


Review overview


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