“ Author: Stanislaw Lem / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy „
Several days ago I met with my book group to discuss our latest read, A Perfect Vacuum which was published by Polish author Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) in 1971 and translated into English by Michael Kandel.
Id never heard of Lem when this book was picked but have since discovered that he is the most sold Science Fiction writer for works originally written in a non-English language. His best known work is that of Solaris which helped make Lem the most successful Polish author ever and today his work has been translated into 42 languages.
Now, I dont read Science Fiction. I simply dont generally like it and I couldnt even finish The Lord of the Rings. But one of the rules of our group is to read things we usually wouldnt and anyway I didnt have a lot of choice Additionally, book group member, Ann, who selected this and who has read a number of Lems other works, insisted that his work could be categorized more as satire than science fiction, so I started the book with an open mind.
The premise of A Perfect Vacuum is certainly different although amazingly Lem wasnt the first to do it. The book is an anthology of around 15 reviews on books that have not actually been written. Lem makes up titles and authors for these so called books and then gives a summary and opinion of them, often in such excruciating detail that I was left wondering whether the book might have been better if Lem had actually written the stories in the first place.
In the first story, Lem has cleverly written a review which is actually about A Perfect Vacuum and which fooled a number of the members of our group who cant have been paying attention to the title. In this review Lem isnt particularly complimentary about his work and he states that the book is useless and means nothing. Certainly an odd way to begin a book and it was a this point, just pages in, that I started to feel a sense of dread about the 200 pages that lay ahead.
Ultimately the reviews are clever and original and Lem clearly had an extraordinary and imaginative mind. But sadly I struggled with the majority of the reviews and I failed to finish many. I found the language Lem uses difficult to read, dense and on the whole much too serious. Yet when we discussed this book as a group we wondered if perhaps in many instances Lem is trying to be funny but that we simply wasnt well enough informed to get the joke. Lem refers to many real books throughout A Perfect Vacuum, including Robinson Crusoe and Ulysses and I think that readers who had read these books would have been better placed to understand these reviews.
Perhaps because of my knowledge of the book, one of the reviews I enjoyed most was The Social Life of Robinson Crusoe. Now, obviously Crusoe was stranded on a desert island alone for years and therefore you might think that his social life was somewhat lacking. Not in the review of this book. Lem describes how in the imaginary book Cruse develops something akin to schizophrenia and makes up characters to keep him company. He starts with a butler to wait on him, something he could never imagine having in real life and adds a selection of maids and foot men as time passes.
The other reviews I enjoyed were The Idiot, Sexplosion, Being Inc and U-Write-It. All of these have in common the fact that they are the shortest by far, limited on average to 5-6 pages length. Some of the other reviews would reach 20 or 30 pages long which was unnecessary and these failed to hold my attention and interest and I didnt finish a single one of these.
Its very rare for me to give up on a book but I know I wouldnt have read as much of A Perfect Vacuum as I did if it were not for the book group. I personally wont be going out of my way to read any more Lem despite the cries of protest emitted from fellow book group member Ann that this book doesnt reflect his usual talent and style. Perhaps not, but as sci-fi isnt my thing anyway and as this book was 80% dreadful, Im just not keen.
Ultimately, the premise for this book was clever and Lems ideas are certainly original and unusual. But the way he presents theses ideas are disastrous. The book is dense with unnecessarily complex language that is hard to read, at points impossible. In summary, this book is only for die hard Lem fans and I cant find it in my heart to recommend it. A Perfect Vacuum is a difficult book and ultimately I struggled to read what I managed. Give it a miss, there are far better books out there.
If you wish to ignore my advice, Lems A Perfect Vacuum is available from Amazon for around £7.50 new and from £4.50 second hand.