Pros: Loads of great ideas, and poetic mindscapes.
Cons: Unvariagated writing. Slow. repetitive.
Lems Eden, written in 1958, but only translated to English in 1989, is the first of Lems mature works. In this piece, as in other works by Lem, an exploration of an alien species and its world is hampered by failure to communicate, or even understand what is found there.
The story begins with the crash landing of a craft on a planet of which little is known. The occupants of the craft are referred to only by their professions the doctor, the captain, the cyberneticist etc.. etc. After their crash landing, and eventually managing to extricate themselves from their space craft, they proceed to explore the planet. First on foot, and later with the aid of a jeep, and even eventually a tank, they discover that there is an advanced civilization on the planet. Unfortunately is it precisely because of this level of advancement that nothing can be fathomed of it at all.
Their travels reveal fantastic structures ..huge animal/plants which resemble trees but move like animals, giant towers filled with glass eggs, each containing a bizarre skeleton gigantic factories which seem to produce objects which resemble living tissue, only then to reabsorb and recycle them again. Try as they might, even after making direct contact with the symbiotes who seem to run everything, they cannot understand the whys and wherefores of Eden. Why is the planet littered with seemingly useless factories and images of death? What purpose is served by such things? These and other questions await revelation in the pages of Eden
Eden is a queer book, by any measure. In my reading of this piece I enjoyed flights to the furthest heights on the wings of poetic descriptive fancy, and plunged to the depths of ennui, pummeled by thirty straight pages (I kid you not) of tedious description of alien artifacts numbers 500 thru 520. In Eden, Lem spits new concepts and amazing alien vistas at the reader in such quick fire succession that a sense of suffocation is somewhat inevitable.
This is made all the worse by any attempt to read it at speed. Refusing to be scanned, each page contains so much densely packed information regarding the structure of both planet and society that one cannot skim by. Each piece must be read, for it soon becomes clear that this is not one of those books where revelation comes in fits and drabs, where the reader gradually comes to an understanding of the hierarchy of logic. There is no logic. And woe betide the reader attempting to impose his own. This apathetic folly befell me, as, again and again, in sympathetic chorus with the characters in the book, I attempted to bring order to the events and scenes on Eden.
Onward strides the reader, always led forwards by the quality of the descriptive writing, the sheer magnitude of novelty in the work .and at the same time ever dragged down, and beaded in a cold sweat that one will have to remember this also for later explanation or integration. I quickly reached overload.
Was I meant to? Is this the meaning of the work? Is this piece Lems brickbat, his ego-buster for human self-congratulatory ingenuity?
Ha! Cries Lem, Neither shall you understand, nor be able to desist in your reading, my captive reader!
Phew, sorry, seem to have really gone off on one there but you get the idea.
The characters in Eden are basically two-dimensional constructs, through which Lem is able to archetype the attitudes of many fields of human endeavor towards an unknown finding. The doctor, who sees in the inhabitants of Eden as people who require his help, a sick society. The engineer, who sees a factory which produces nothing useful as surely being a thing malfunctioned. The captain, or leader, who strives ever for communication and understanding of the new culture, when he might easily have fixed his ship and pushed off home. That the characters are not deeply explored is of no harm to this book. They serve their purpose. In all honesty, there is already so much business in this book that colorful characters would have made things seems overcrowded. Mankind is ignorant and arrogant, out of his depth in attempting even to place a human structure on an alien world.
This recurring theme for Lem, which he explores most successfully in Solaris, seems not to work quite as well in Eden. Unlike Solaris, Eden lacks subtlety in the transmission of this message. The book lacks variety. Descriptives go on too long. Lem illicits bewilderment in the reader. Unfortunately, bewilderment is not a chosen component of my hours of leisure, unless it is mixed with enlightenment. In many ways, Eden gave me the same lack of stimulation I would feel in attempting to read a dictionary from cover to cover.
Not that it doesnt have its points of excellence .it does. For example, there are portions of the descriptive writing which were beautiful to read. The perpetual machine , and the scene in which it is explored, are magnificent writing. It is exciting, stimulating and novel. The means which Lem comes up with for the communication of the aliens, and indeed the interdisciplinary battles of the crews inhabitants are all wonderful. If you decide to read this book, you will be glad you take these scenes away from it. But you are going to have to pay the price for it.
The ending is a disappointment too .I was sad to see that the last fifteen or twenty pages are a sudden attempt to reveal the overall structure of the planet and its society. In my opinion, Lem should not have done this. It is too late in the book. Any reader who is still reading at this point in the novel is no longer looking for an explanation anyway, and the one which is posited is somewhat facile, and worse still, sketchy. Communication with the aliens is eventually explained away not by any ingenuity or good fortune, by with the introduction of a just-too-handy computer translator.
How sad they didnt rig it up 150 pages ago, eh?
So there you go. Geesh. Another happy/sad review. When am I going to get to read something I love this year?
Some of my other science fiction book reviews:
Prelude to Space
Stand on Zanzibar
The Demolished Man
The Stars my Destination
The Gods Themselves
A Canticle for Leibowitz
The Hammer of God
The Left Hand of Darkness
Flowers for Algernon
Lord of Light
Rendevous with Rama
The Tombs of Atuan
I am Legend
The Einstein Intersection
Peace on Earth
The Farthest Shore
A Call to Arms
To your Scattered Bodies Go
The Lion of Comarre / Against the Fall of Night
To Say Nothing of the Dog
The Doomsday Book
Batman - The Dark Knight Returns
A Case of Conscience
The Sands of Mars
The Land of Laughs
His Masters Voice
Citizen of the Galaxy
King David's Spaceship
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The Fabulous Riverboat
Songs of Distant Earth
The Fountains of Paradise
The Long Tomorrow
More Than Human
The Forever War
All the Myriad Ways
I Sing the Body Electric
Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress