Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Fly in the Ointment

A fly that dies can spoil the perfumer's ointment - Ecclesiastes 9:18
"The truth was that Pirx found it hard to put things in words. It would be an exaggeration to say that there was a chasm between his thoughts and deeds, but there was some sort of problem there, and it made life difficult for him. His instructors did not know that Pirx was a dreamer. No one knew. They were convinced that he never thought about anything. This was not true."
Independent of our assessment of Pirx's character, it goes without saying that few readers would think to classify him as a pilot - let alone a pilot who flies missions into space. By creating such an odd juxtaposition between our expectation of who an astronaut would be and the main character of his story, Lem is not exploring the absurd. 

In point of fact, he seems to be pulling science fiction in the direction of a type of realism it is often loathe to accept.
Science fiction often presents nature as a force to be tamed by rational man. Seldom does rational man appear as part of nature. As we read the first short story in the Invasion from Aldebaran trilogy, we are struck by the fact that - as one of Lem's characters puts it "a calculator is also human: it can break down."

Human space colonization, if it comes, will be no less human - no less imperfect - than any Earth based human endeavor.
One of the story's protagonists, Boerst, stands athwart such thinking. The brilliant mathematical mind, the serious officer, the psychologically well-ordered man, Boerst is everything that the muddle-headed Pirx is not.

What is it, then, that Lem is trying to tell us as Boerst slams into the moon while Pirx avoids this grim fate by muddling through his vessel's emergency? Perhaps it is that there is a cosmic bell curve? Gaussian distribution, if it is a law of nature, holds for the future in the stars just as it does for the present on Earth.

Or could there be more to it than that? Perhaps Pirx is to remind us that the "conquest of nature" is a misnomer. Rather than conquest, mankind is more accurately engages in a struggle for survival against nature. Better yet: a struggle for survival in nature. Boerst's fate is the fate of human pride.

Yet Pirx is not only an Everyman, not only a clumsy brute. He is likewise and above all a dreamer. We wonder at the contents of his dreams. We know - because Lem tells us - that these dreams are the true cause of Pirx's distractions. We would like to know their content (if he survives long enough to make them clear to us).

Test hints at Pirx's dreams, but paints a vivid picture of Lem's nightmares:

"The buzzing died down in his earphones - both flies strolled above him, over the glass surface of the bubble, their shadows caressed his face making him shiver the first time around. He looked up - they had flat extensions on the tips of their black arms, their abdomens gave off a metallic shine under the lamp lights. Disgusting."

Moments of comic pathos intertwine with horror while cadet Pirx - temporarily Pilot Pirx - makes a routine flight that is anything but. Human ingenuity can crumble in an instant in the face of the omnipotence of nature. Like some Greek god, Nature reminds us - through Lem's work - of her power. Nature had nothing but contempt for human intelligence, which is why she sends a fly to conquer us.

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