Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Invincible” by Stanisław Lem- The Universe is not for us

Vintage Sci-Fi is always fun to discuss!  There’s even an official “Vintage Sci-Fi Month” (January). As I recall, the rule they have for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too.

The Invincible by Stanisław Lem

Stanisław Lem’s works are always thematically fascinating, and Invincible is no different. The Invincible sets down upon a desert planet, Regis III, in search of her sister ship, the Condor. That ship has gone silent, and the question of what could have even possibly managed to silence such a powerful machine hangs at the center of the novel.

Lem relies very little upon characterization. The people in the story are there almost as ghostly apparitions of emotion and sensation. They are there to give us that human grounding we need in the midst of a radically inhuman, though strangely familiar, landscape. Lem’s novel isn’t read for the sake of falling in love with the characters, but rather as a kind of warning and clarion call to humanity. What are we humans in the face of the universe, really?

As the humans spread out across the desert like ants, driving their machines, sending out probes, using various sensors, we encounter not just the Condor, but its horrific fate. People have been mind-wiped into a kind of infantile state, apparently without any kind of battle. As the novel goes on, we discover that this is due to crowds of nanobots called “flies” that have apparently evolved their own ecological niche on the planet, namely, its entire above-ground surface. They fiercely protect themselves and manage to use magnetic attacks to brainwipe living creatures.

The questions of how they got there (aliens, millions of years ago, apparently) and what it might mean are only briefly touched upon. Instead, Lem remains almost hyper-focused on bringing us into conversation with our humanity and the place of that humanity in a universe that may have such hostilities as we can’t even imagine. A cold, mindless hostility exists in the “flies” that is all the more horrifying for its very fact of being mindless. It isn’t calculated whatsoever. Instead, humans are just another enemy to be purged. Despite the late realization that the Invincible can likely take off and eradicate these flies (and one character’s objections to the plan), the message of the awfulness of the universe rings loud and clear.

Ultimately, we are left with the great, pseudo-heroic journey of the first navigator, Rohan, into the desert in a seemingly futile search for some lost members of the crew. On the journey he comes closest to the world of Regis III, walking upon its surface rather than driving, breathing its native air, and resisting attacks of the flies through scientific devices and his own decision to be as non-threatening as possible. But Rohan also realizes the ultimate message of the book, that the whole universe is not anthropocentric. We are incidental creatures on the world of Regis III, caught up in a battle that we’re not ready to fight. And how many Regis III’s might exist out there in the universe?

One could go on about the many predictions and ideas Lem has in this novel which are found in others. It’s one of the earliest (to my knowledge) explorations of nanomachines, and particularly their evolution (for which Lem coins the term “necroevolution”). Its foresight about how we might change existing technologies is often startling. While these are all impressive, the point of the novel isn’t found in Lem’s uncanny ability to predict, but rather in his constant drumbeat of futility for humanity in the cosmos. It’s a visceral hopelessness that calls to mind time and again perhaps the central line of the novel, uttered by Rohan, “not everything everywhere is for us.” Ware we tread, humans.

The Invincible is a powerful novel that relies as much upon its foreboding atmosphere as it does upon the storytelling itself. Readers are left to put together the messages for humanity scattered throughout the novel like diamonds on the sand. It’s an incredible work from a master.

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