Stanislaw Lem

Guest Review: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

I started reading this book based on a recommendation from my friend, AQ. The title was an immediate attention grabber! Not many books have such ludicrous titles. If nothing else, this book would get mad props from me for just the sheer ridiculousness of the title. And true to form, the title bespoke a lot about the book itself.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub – Stanislaw Lem

Though I am usually put off by introductions and editor’s notes, the introduction to this book is really a misnomer. The introduction is witty and intelligent in Lem’s imagining of an apocalyptic world bereft of paper, in which it has somehow lost meaning and substance.  Structure exists but devoid of content.

I started reading the book and instantly felt I was pulled into “The Castle” (Kafka) meets “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (Chesterton) in a “1984” (Orwell) kind of setting. As with all these books, the effect is surreal and defies any kind of formulaic plot. You are just thrown in media res into a world in which you cannot adhere to the regular norms and conventions of what is sensical and what is absurd.

It is a world not only involving intrigue, conspiracies, agents, double agents but going all the way up to sextuple agents; and that is something one does not get to say/write often. It is a mind-spinning tale written with such vivid details that some of the scenes, such as the one with the professors, are the embodiment of the absurd with the all the underlying senses of meaning and depth.

Even after I had finished the book, it kept resonating with me. The key question I found myself speculating and contemplating was the reason for the protagonist not leaving. It struck me because of what it implied about human nature in its quest for structure and meaning.

Here’s a world in which there is structure, an obscene amount of it actually, yet, with a myriad of schemes and plots in the absence of any real content. The protagonist chooses to cling to structure and the machinations of the absurd, and even propagate it, rather than attempt to use his logical skills in arriving at the conclusion that there simply is no meaning to what is happening inside the building, a reality in which he is has found himself entrenched.

It is as if logical reasoning cannot abide by a lack of meaning. Though logic is essentially a set of rules that contributes to inferences and meaning, it operates independently from actual reality / substance for you can always posit the existence of hairy pink dragons and derive logical conclusions.  However, as gifted as our protagonist may be in questioning and following the rules of logic, yet, he is caught in the loop of trying to derive meaning from the meaningless instead of venturing outside the building to change the paradigm.

He opts for the illusion of meaning instead of seeing if there is actual meaning that can be derived from the “outside.” The possibility of there being no meaning or no content is what drives the protagonist to persist in the bureaucratic intrigue, in the paranoid absurdity of structure.

The protagonist is persistent, but what kind of fortitude, grit, or strength does it take for a person to choose a course in which the realization that no readily available meaning is an actual possibility. How many would actually let go of the illusion to achieve certainty whichever way it turned out.

This book is truly brilliant and I am sure that each reader will take from it something different. Just be ready for a book that defies formulaic plots, for it is nowhere near ordinary. 4 stars

Teneen, the author of this review, has written a previous review (here) for this blog. She is a busy reader, but not a frequent reviewer.


The Investigation

The InvestigationThe Investigation by Stanislaw Lem was first published (in Polish) in 1959. It was translated in this edition in 1976 by Adele Milch.  This is the second novel by Lem that I have read.  I do not think that this novel fits the standard idea of science fiction found in the new and shiny bookstores.  Honestly, I am okay with this. However, it does fit the idea of “science fiction” in a classic literal sense. This novel is fiction and the entire thing is about science – or, rather, scientific inquiry.

This is one of the most creepy and eerie books I’ve read.  I was reading this book late at night (after midnight) and I had to put it down and read a few pages of something else.  It doesn’t really have much gore or violence at all, but the thing is still eerie to the maximum! I do not find many truly “disturbing” books, most are shock-factor gore or comical horror. This is a science fiction novel that will make your skin crawl.  Now, I do want to include a small disclaimer:  you have to be an intelligent reader in order to experience the thrill.  If you do not have patience for a little bit of philosophy/psychology/statistics, well, you probably will experience something other than creepy-eerie.

A Scotland Yard lieutenant is charged to investigate the mysterious disappearance of corpses from London morgues. The only “explanation” is a statistical theory that correlates the body-snatching with local cancer rates. The detective from the very beginning suspects the statistician being the perpetrator. Reality, however, proves less mundane and certainly less comprehensible than he had hoped. In The Investigation the classic procedural police mystery is turned into a metaphysical puzzle, in which Kafkaesque themes are present. Philosophical questions are presented under the simple surface of the plot:  what is the role of scientific inquiry? What does the existence of competing explanations mean for that goal?

This novel will leave you with unanswered questions – if you do not like books that do not sew up perfect resolutions on every conflict/problem, then you probably will not like this novel.  To be fair, unlike a lot of novels that leave things unresolved just because the author thinks that is a fun literary technique, that’s not what Lem does in this novel.  The whole point of this novel is the concept of scientific inquiry, the boundaries of rational detective work, and the possibility of answers that are beyond the intellect.

Late in the novel, toward the end of chapter 6, the statistician named Sciss tells detective Gregory about a problem that resulted in Sciss losing the command of Operations.  The theory that Sciss shares is interesting  – and as frightening as the bodies moving from the morgues. I quote a part here, since it does not really have any gigantic bearing on the whole plot…………………………or does it?

“The nuclear race was just beginning.  Once the race starts it can’t stop. It has to go on. If one side invents a big gun, the other side retaliates with a bigger one.  The sequence concludes when there is a confrontation; that is, war.  In this situation, however, confrontation would mean the end of the world; therefore the race must be kept going. Once they begin to escalate their efforts, both sides are trapped in an arms race. There must be more and more improvements in weaponry, but after a certain point weapons reach their limit.  What can be improved next?  Brains.  The brains that issue the commands.  It isn’t possible to make the human brain perfect, so the only alternative is a transition to mechanization.  The next stage will be a fully automated headquarters equipped with electronic strategy machines.” –  pg 159, chapter 6

Definitely at least a four-star rating for this book. I guess an argument could be made to give it all five stars.  What I do know is that after having read this Lem book, I’ve read two by the author and really enjoyed both.  Lem is an excellent writer, a master of novels and ideas and originality.  Certainly, I want to read all the Lem stuff I can get my paws on.

4 stars

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem; Harvest

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub was published in English in 1973 (it was originally published in Polish).  The title is a reference to a work by Edgar Allen Poe.

Most places and people categorize this book as science fiction, which I think is incorrect. It does take place in the future, but nothing really futuristic is relevant to the story.  The year 3149 is really just a fact that provides an overarching frame for the book, but there really is not anything one could point at and call “science fiction.”  At least not how it is commonly defined and referred to.

The book has, really, two parts.  I think most assessments would say that the novel is one whole, but with an introduction.  I want to insist that the introduction is a separate part – in fact, it’s really a misnomer to call it an introduction.  In any case, the introduction provides a framework and leads the reader to understand that the rest of the book is actually the “memoirs found in a bathtub.”

Ultimately, this book is what happens when you cross Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s Castle, and Ismail Kadare’s The Pyramid.  Smash! Then out pops Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

The Introduction is exceedingly well-written and depicts a dystopian future in which the reader is reminded of both A Canticle for Leibowitz and Alasdair MacIntyre’s first part of After VirtueA Canticle for Leibowitz begins 6 centuries after 20th century civilization has been destroyed by a global nuclear war.  As a result of the war, there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons.”   Illiteracy became almost universal and books were destroyed en masse.  MacIntyre also discusses the idea of a world wherein all sciences have been dismantled quickly and completely. MacIntyre asks what the sciences would look like if they were reassembled from the remnants of scientific knowledge that survived the catastrophe. He claims that the new sciences, though superficially similar to the old, would in fact be devoid of real scientific content, because key suppositions and attitudes would be absent.  MacIntyre obviously turns this toward an ethical review of the situation, particularly focusing on virtue ethics.

Lem, writing in a tone/style that is similar to Kadare and Kafka, is able to present the future as a place wherein such a ruination of knowledge has occurred – especially in terms of the papyralysis, which is a destruction of all knowledge recorded on paper.  Even today in 2012, the complete loss of the information contained within notebooks, books, newspapers, magazines, etc. would be catastrophic.  Lem wrote this novel in the 1970s – long before  iPads and cloud drives.  The reader really feels the horror and magnitude of such a loss.  Unlike Miller and MacIntyre, Lem focuses on a memoirs that are found in a bathtub.  Not just any bathtub, but a bathtub that was found in the fourth level of the Third Pentagon.  The Third Pentagon is looked upon much like we, in current day, look upon the pyramids of Egypt.  There is an unbridgeable gap between our culture and that of Ancient Egypt such that the pyramids (no matter how much we know) remain mysterious, intimidating, and awesome.  The Third Pentagon is buried deep in a mountain – the result of political bureaucracy gone to paranoid lengths.  What was the original Pentagon, anyway – some sort of temple?

The first half of the story is interesting and very Kafka-like.  We meet the main character in media res without ever learning his name. We then follow his descent into madness via the Building.  The Building, as the character refers to it, is supposedly the Third Pentagon.  The majority of this section describes the suspicions, labyrinth, and corruption that is found in the Building.  Everyone is a spy, a traitor, and on a mission.  No one knows what the missions are, or if they do they also constantly misdirect and mislead others.  Who is following orders? Who is a spy? And many may even be double or even triple-agents!

The writing is good and eerie.  It’s not a read for everyone, if you dislike Kafka or Kadare, you will dislike this.  Nevertheless, it is a very cerebral read and fits nicely with 1984 and the Castle.  I am giving the book only three stars, though, because I feel too much is derivative of Kafka, Miller, etc.  Also, I really disliked the entirety of Chapter 11.  The ending of the book was consistent, but Chapter 11 really took the wind out of the sails.  In the end, it is a satisfying read – very cerebral and a decent satire of bureaucracy.

There are some neat sub-ideas here, as well. For example on page 75, in Chapter 5, the main character finds a book that describes original sin as the division of the world into information and misinformation – which is a pretty neat twist on the “deceitfulness” of the devil in Exodus.  Overall, I find it difficult to classify this book as science fiction.  While the setting is briefly the year 3149, but is all about memoirs that occurred in the past, this really is not a science fiction novel. Dystopian, satirical, and cerebral, but not science fiction.  I feel, in reality, this should get something like 3.7 stars, but that’s not how this works around here!

3 stars