I suppose I have followed the conventional route through Stanislaw Lem’s version of scientifiction. Starting with Solaris and moving to the Cyberiad, and from there to His Master’s Voice, The Futurological Congress, and others, it wasn’t until later I read his ‘lesser known’ works, among them 1973’s The Invincible. This is interesting as, in terms of genre The Invincible is one of Lem’s most conventional. Holding to a different standard than spaceships blasting aliens for fun and games, The Invincible nevertheless utilizes a palette of familiar science fiction colors in creating its vision of humanity’s relationship to the external world.
Dispatched to locate its lost sister ship, the Invincible lands on the desert planet Regis III without a hitch. The Condor not appearing on any orbital scans, the crew take to ground expeditions, their robots and tools in tow, attempting to locate the lost ship. Quickly discovering it in what appears the ruins of a long abandoned city, investigation of the streets and buildings is immediately forgotten when the first human skeleton peeps through the sand. Consternation developing apace, the men of the Invincible learn that the whole crew of the Condor died in what appears the onset of psychosis. Bodies are found in the oddest positions and strange scribblings are gleaned from notebooks and soft surfaces. But that is not the strangest of all. A cloud appearing overhead with what look like metallic flies hovering within, the crew barely get back within shield range of the Invincible before a black rain starts falling.
Like Solaris, The Invincible is imbued with Otherness. Land formations, the weather, the sense of alien life hovering just beyond the next hill, the inexplicable fate of the Condor—nothing lends itself to ready articulation. Despite the robot analyzers, specialized technical gauges, and the best minds of the space program, Regis III hold its cards tight. Lem slipping in and out of scenes to relay crew perspective and morale, some key scenes endeavor to break the enigmatic facade—to wrench the cards from Regis III’s hands. Ever more drastic methods employed in response to the knowledge revealed, or what is seemed to be revealed, Lem hones in on humanity and its reactions to strange situations.
Seeing the title and reading the plot intro it would be easy to assume The Invincible is about a swaggering giant who never doubts its infallibility and proceeds to learn precisely where its faults lie. This sentiment is not the exact point of the novel I read, but neither is it an airball. Certainly an over-simplified view, Lem digs much deeper than hubris to look at the core aspects of humanity—the characteristics most of us possess—in strange environments. Tension steadily escalating between the crew of the Invincible and what they discover on Regis III, the climax of action appropriately occurs much before the end such that the results may be surveyed. The image of the Sisyphian robot and eye-less corpse speaking louder than words, Lem attempts to quantify the sum: “How foolhardy… this ‘heroic persistence of man.’” To fully understand this quote one must either emphasize the ‘heroic’, or simply read the book, as it goes beyond conceit.
But this does not mean Lem remains on point throughout. Structure wise, the narrative rarely if ever strays from course. Rather, the quality of not being on point is represented by the ambiguity inherent to the elements used to present the agenda—a signal vs. signifier confusion, as it were. Sometimes muddling matters as much as elucidating them, the mix of technology and presence of intelligence amongst the crew acts as an unintentional counter-weight to what they encounter on Regis III, and in turn somewhat distracts from the goal.
In the end, The Invincible is a science fiction novel that uses some of the classic tropes of the genre to dig at xenophobia and humanity’s instincts in its relationship with Otherness. Mighty spaceships, distant planets, and strange alien encounters gloss the surface while beneath Lem looks to examine the fusebox and wiring which leads mankind to interact the way it does with what it does not know or understand. Not Lem’s greatest work in terms of focus, it nevertheless goes beyond conventional genre to touch upon some interesting and thought-provoking ideas.
A side note for MPorcius, the version of The Invincible I read was Ace Science Fiction Special 4. Lauding such well-known authors as Zelazny, Le Guin, Moorcock, Simak, Silverberg, Dick, and Brunner on the back cover, it also mentions a few writers whose names no longer appear in bright colors for whatever reason, Goulart (?), Lafferty, Davidson (Avram?), Reynolds (Mack?), Panshin, and Bradley. But of most interest, at least to me, is the cigarette advert stuck in the middle of the book. Printed on heavier stock and in full color, the odd side teases me with“Come for the filter…” while the even side, complete with close up of fresh cigarettes, challenges “…you’ll stay for the taste.” Read in that order, a proper English sentence is not formed. This language deficiency is backed up by a note at the bottom right which reads: “A lot of good taste that comes easy through the Micronite filter.” Thankfully Wendayne Ackerman’s translation (from the German translation, interestingly) of Lem’snovel is in higher quality English.