Monday, March 27, 2006

The Spearhead of Cognition, an Essay on Stanislaw Lem

From an essay on Stanislaw Lem, who recently died, called "The Spearhead of Cognition," by Bruce Sterling:
You're a kid from some podunk burg in Alabama.
From childhood you've been gnawed by vague
numinous sensations and a moody sense of your own
potential, but you've never pinned it down.
Then one joyful day you discover the work of a
couple of writers. They're pretty well-known (for
foreigners), so their books are available even in your
little town. Their names are "Tolstoy" and
"Dostoevsky." Reading them, you realize: This is it!
It's the sign you've been waiting for! This is your
destiny-- to become a *Russian Novelist*!
Fired with inspiration, you study the pair of
'em up and down, till you figure you've got a solid
grasp of what they're up to. You hear they're pretty
well-known back in Russia, but to your confident eye
they don't seem like so much. (Luckily, thanks to some
stunt of genetics, you happen to be a genius.) For
you, following their outline seems simple enough--in a
more sophisticated vein, of course, and for a modern
audience. So you write a few such books, you publish
'em, and people adore them. The folks in 'Bama are fit
to bust with pride, and say you've got Tolstoy beat
all hollow.
Then, after years of steadily growing success,
strange mail arrives. It's from Russia! They've been
reading your stuff in translation, and you've been
chosen to join the Soviet Writers' Union! Swell! you
think. Of course, living in backwoods Alabama, it's
been a little tough finding editions of contemporary
Russian novelists. But heck, Tolstoy did his writing
years ago! By now those Russians must be writing like
nobody's business!
Then a shipment of modern Russian novels
arrives, a scattering of various stuff that has
managed to elude the redtape. You open 'em up and--
ohmiGod! It's . . . it's COMMUNISM! All this stupid
stereotyped garbage! About Red heroes ten feet tall,
and sturdy peasants cheering about their tractors, and
mothers giving sons to the Fatherland, and fathers
giving sons to the Motherland . . . Swallowing bile,
you pore through a few more at random--oh God, it's
Then the _Literary Gazette_ calls from Moscow,
and asks if you'd like to make a few comments about
the work of your new comrades. "Why sure!" you drawl
helpfully. "It's clear as beer-piss that y'all have
gotten onto the wrong track entirely! This isn't
literature--this is just a lot of repetitive agitprop
crap, dictated by your stupid oppressive publishers!
If Tolstoy was alive today, he'd kick your numb
Marxist butts! All this lame bullshit about commie
heroes storming Berlin and workers breaking production
records--those are stupid power-fantasies that
wouldn't fool a ten-year-old! You wanna know the true
modern potential of Russian novels? Read some of my
stuff, if you can do it without your lips moving! Then
call me back."
And sure enough, they do call you back. But
gosh--some of the hardliners in the Writers' Union
have gone and drummed you out of the regiment. Called
you all kinds of names . . . said you're stuck-up, a
tool of capitalism, a no-talent running-dog egghead.
After that, you go right on writing, even criticism,
sometimes. Of course, after that you start to get
This really happened.
Except that it wasn't Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It
was H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. It wasn't Russian
novels, it was science fiction, and the Writers' Union
was really the SFWA. And Alabama was Poland.
And you were Stanislaw Lem.
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