Classic Review: The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem

The Invincible is a truly revolutionary work. It makes bold predictions that have become the norm in later science fiction (and partially in science), serves as one of the best examples of classic idea-driven sci-fi works, and yet it still maintains its humanity. It layers meanings on top of each other, and it slowly grows on the reader. Even though you may feel detached at the beginning, you’ll very slowly and gradually begin to care about the characters. This book may not be as well known as other Lem’s works, due to the relatively recent translation, but it should definitely not be ignored.

The Invincible, a formidable military spaceship, lands on the planet Regis III. Her crew’s main task is to find out what happened to her sister ship, Condor, which landed here and ceased all communication. Regis is a desert planet that is completely devoid of life on its surface but does contain an ecosystem in its oceans. This baffles the scientists on board, who were sent to study the planet for its potential exploitation in the future. There does not seem to be any reason why life would be completely gone above the water line.

The crew soon finds the Condor and the remains of its crew. It appears that everybody succumbed to some sort of madness, which let them die of hunger or exposure, even though food and shelter were available. The ship also appears to be heavily damaged, even though nobody could explain how that damage may have occurred.

As the crew of the Invincible explores the planet, they come across unexplainable phenomena, in particular a rain of molten metal and a strange storm cloud that seems to block electromagnetic communication. This cloud in particular seems threatening, and as it approaches the ship, the crew tries to blast it apart. In response, the cloud counterattacks, destroying smaller craft. An expedition also has a run-in with the cloud, with only one survivor. The crew finds out that the cloud is comprised of very tiny machines, and they hypothesize that these machines are capable of wiping people’s memories, essentially infantilizing them. This seems to have happened to the crew of the Condor.

The Invincible launches its ultimate weapon to destroy the cloud, and after a prolonged battle the cloud prevails. As a last resort to locate a few missing crewmen from the doomed expedition, the navigator of the ship volunteers to look for them on foot, without any technology that would give him away to the nanobots. He succeeds in locating some of the bodies and, after a close call with the cloud, manages to return back to the ship to report.

On the surface, this is a hard, idea-based science fiction novel that is focused on worldbuilding. The characters start very flat, without any appreciable back story or relationship with each other. The navigator, Rohan, serves as a surrogate through whose eyes we explore the world. Lem does a good job in limiting the narrative to what Rohan sees and hears, and that’s just enough to follow the line of inquiry for what happened to the Condor, without jumping ahead to conclusions. However, over time the seemingly cold, rational mystery story transforms into a tale of survival, wonder and some interesting questions, such as when to take one’s losses and walk away from the fight.

As far as I can tell, this story may present the first concept of nanobots and nanobot clouds. It does so in a spectacularly modern fashion, with a very vivid description of a nanobot cloud and its formation. Lem himself thinks that this is a new way of thinking about life, when he presents a lengthy conversation about evolution. The traditionalists claim that more complex and versatile beings always win the evolutionary race, while the cloud proves to them that simple, single-minded machines in large quantities can overpower even someone who was considered invincible before (not sorry for the pun; Lem came with it first). This old versus new question isn’t the only one, though.

The captain of the ship is unwilling to leave, and instead keeps throwing more and more resources against the cloud, to secure a planet that is nothing but rock, sand and water. They resolved the mystery of the Condor, they have their own dead and wounded, and yet the captain keeps risking the ship and crew for nothing. When Rohan gets to question this path, the captain corners him and forces him to make his own decision to stay and explore further. This presents the idea of hubris for its own sake. There is nothing to gain on the planet, but a mighty ship named Invincible shouldn’t retreat from lowly mechanical insects, regardless how many of them there are. Even after Rohan returns and makes his report, clearing the way to lift off and abandon the planet, the final decision is left ambiguous.

Just as the story evolves, so does the world and characters. At the beginning, we get rational conversations about the original task and the ongoing investigation into the fate of the Condor. Without the reader noticing, however, Lem masterfully switches to an adventure story about Rohan and his two treks through the desert. Even the intermezzo in between the trips, with its fight scenes, is a far cry from the boardroom drama of the first half of the narrative. The author’s description of the planet becomes very vivid and atmospheric. Rohan, about whom we know precious little, suddenly begins to matter, and the fear for his wellbeing becomes real. Despite Lem’s philosophical conundrums and his groundbreaking technological predictions, it is this seamless switch from exposition and flat characters to a deeply human story that impresses me the most about the book. As I was reading, I was telling myself that in my review I’d be complaining about uninteresting characters, and even with hindsight I can’t pinpoint the moment when I started caring about Rohan or viewing the captain as a complex character.

It is too bad that this book was properly translated into English only in 2006, 42 years after its publication (an earlier translation went from Polish to German to English, and by all accounts was inferior to the direct translation). Still, the current translation provides for an engrossing reading that feels surprisingly modern. This is a genuine classic that deserves far more attention than it’s been receiving.

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One Response to Classic Review: The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem

  1. John Barton says:

    Well done. Subjectively, it may not always be easy to put Lem’s appeal into words; he was obviously a genius and nearly unique in his approach to science fiction. ‘Nearly unique,’ because the works of Russian writers Boris and Arkadii Strugatsky also hail from the same troubling frontier of speculative fiction where mysteries grudgingly yield to human scrutiny (if they yield at all) and where the human application of science and technology is confounded.

    Lem’s writings can take on similar attributes, seductive, strange and irresistible, leading readers step by step into places where the human urge to explore comes up against a universe which suffers from no obligation to reward exploration and scientific curiosity with some sort of victory. The recognition of the deadly and inexplicable aspects of the universe can be traced back to Odysseus struggling towards the song of the sirens as his ship and crew pass through the dangerous Strait of Messina with the terror of Scylla to one side and the annihilation of Charybdis on the other. And goes farther back still, of course, to the forgotten times before history when our earliest ancestors were torn between the desire to learn, to know and to understand and the imperative to survive.

    John Barton

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