Taking the top of your head off

The writing of Stanislaw Lem and why reading science fiction is essential.

Today, I read a short story by Stanislaw Lem (author of Solaris among a lot of other great writing) that was recently published called The Truth. See if this grabs you:

Then I stood up, and looked around for the hill where our observation post had been situated. It took me a long time to make up my mind to go there; I was afraid to. In my mind’s eye, I could still see the dreadful crawling of that solar worm.

Don’t worry, this is not a horror story, but it is scary in a sense.

After reading it, I felt like I had a new perspective on the day.

I looked up Stanislaw Lem and found an apt description of the impact that I too felt:

I remember reading these stories in an English edition that I happened upon in my high-school library and feeling (to borrow a line from Emily Dickinson) as though the top of my head had been taken off.

The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanislaw Lem

In recent years, non-fiction reading has dominated my bookshelf (or Kindle shelf I guess) but I’m always shocked at how much fiction, in particular science fiction, is able to “teach” me. It loosens my certainty about the world and reminds me that this whole thing we’re doing here is pretty crazy when you think about it.

Good books tell the truth, even when they’re about things that never have been and never will be. They’re truthful in a different way.

Stanislaw Lem

Some of my favorite recent (science) fiction books that had this same effect are Little, Big by John Crowley and Exhalation by Ted Chiang.

One of the themes of The Truth is questioning our concept of what is alive and what isn’t, what can be communicated with, and what cannot. This is similar to the short story The Great Silence from Exhalation. The story is told from the perspective of parrots who are confused about why humans try to communicate with alien species but not them:

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe. But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices? We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

Who knows what is possible? All I’m certain of is that the amount we know is much less than what we don’t.

3 Comments

I fully agree with the point that the good books can teach us without aiming to do so 🙂 and I like the science fiction as well. My favourite ones are “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” (by Douglas Adams) and “Foundation” series (by Isaac Azimov).

Oh good call! I have seen the previews for the Foundation show on Apple TV (haven’t watched it though) and was wondering about the book(s). Will add it to my list. 👍🏼

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