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Science fiction is called an "idea-driven" genre, but the ideas driving it are often the sterile reductionisms of popular science or (in film) the pious sentimentalities of Steven Spielberg. Stanislaw Lem is different. In the best of his novels and short stories—the Swiftian Star Diaries (1971); the "Fables for Robots" collected in Mortal Engines (1981); the late works, in which a lengthening shadow of pessimism covers his earlier setpieces and characters—the Polish writer plays ideas as though they were musical instruments, again and again inventing impossibilities that amuse and astound us both by their plausibility—their quality of sounding like real science—and by their tall-tale ridiculousness. Like Borges, he is a magician, and comedian, of the theoretical. To read the best parts of the Star Diaries is to experience one of art's greater pleasures—that of being in the hand of a genius who can seemingly do anything.
Thus the boring part of most sci-fi stories—the pseudo-science—is the best part of Lem's. No one really enjoys reading about the mechanics of "onboard anti-grav machines," but readers of Lem's most popular novel, Solaris (1961), often cite the chapter-length history of "Solaristics" as a highlight of Lem's oeuvre. None of the contents of that chapter appear in Steven Soderbergh's recent film version of Solaris, a fact that highlights the difficulties awaiting any filmmaker who would seek to adapt a writer as cerebral as Lem. That Soderbergh, like the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky before him, manages to parlay all this Lemmish theorizing into a reasonably compelling film testifies both to his skills and to the basic power of the story Lem developed.
That story, in a nutshell, runs like this: at the edge of known space sits the mysterious planet Solaris, which may be a giant brain, or may be something even more incomprehensible to us. What we do know is that the astronauts sent to investigate it aren't returning our phone calls. In response to an ...