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Stanislaw Lem and his Aliens cover

Stanislaw Lem and his Aliens: A Tribute and a Challenge edited by Elana Gomel

(Guardbridge Books, 2022)

Reviewed by John Dodd

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, most tributes usually contain accessible facts and details on the person to whom they’re paying tribute and work well towards getting other people to want to study that person more.

Not this book…

This book was written by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts, it presumes at all times that you have at least read Lem and understood his work, in order for you to engage with the ideas and theorem that are presented within. This isn’t a tribute to Lem in the traditional sense, the writers of this book were enthused on a high level by what they’ve read and they want to share their thoughts and stimulate conversation.

Being honest, I have not studied Lem in the detail needed to argue or present against the thoughts given here, and I certainly haven’t followed the science through to the level required to engage with something that begins with:

The purpose of this paper is to consider Stanislaw Lem’s postulate of stochastic-fluctuating nature of reality with the help of the conceptual apparatus developed by modern physics.

Many fractions and formulae follow…

And not in an accessible form such as presented in books like The Martian. While I have no doubt as to the veracity of the details given, I have nothing to compare them against, and as a result, took the decision to move over them without studying their import in greater detail. Thus, the rest of this review will not concentrate on the scientific reviews, but more the three stories that make up the rest of the book, each of which can be engaged with by anyone who enjoys reading.

Air Cows by Neil A. Hogan: A story that begins with the possibility of travel across great distances in the blink of any eye, to encounter a world at once familiar and yet utterly alien. Those travelling the distance encounter a new species and when they return, the nature of what they have found becomes clear, and what was thought to be a trip merely in distance takes in the whole of the human experience across time, space, and how we change as a species. Not a fast-moving story, but an interesting one with a good premise that isn’t squandered.

El Peligroso by Robert Walton: If you could climb the mountains of Mars, would you do it any differently from how you climb the mountains of Earth? This whole story is in the climbing of a mountain named for something comparable on Earth, the terminology of climbing is correct throughout and the love of climbing for the sake of it shines through in the prose. This was enjoyable on a number of levels, not least of which the clarity that whatever humanity does and wherever we go, we’ll still be doing dangerous things that no sensible species would try.

The Prison House of Language by Elana Gomel: What if language wasn’t just a collection of words made up by different primitives? What if, instead, all language had at its heart, a commonality? This has been something I’ve believed in for a long time, so I read this with great interest. What I found in here was an idea that I have not seen presented before, that all language came from one place, and it wasn’t anything that we’ve ever seen before. This was a superb concept, well presented and I enjoyed the story greatly.

While I enjoyed the stories, I feel that I missed perhaps the central thrust of the book, as I cannot speak to the science and study of Lem as presented, and there were no points where the general thrust of what was being discussed was offered. That said, the three stories at the back of the book are more than worth the asking price, even if you are not a devotee of Lem or his aliens.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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