Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this article to Read some of his own essays at Frank Views.



Translated from the Polish by

Jadwiga Wegrodzka and Joanna Kokot

Edited by Frank C. Bertrand

[from: KOINOS KOSMOS, No. 2, June 1982, pp. 8-11]

Olgierd Terlecki: “A Mishmash of Barbed Wire.”

From: Zycie Literackie, no. 44, November 2, 1974

Announced under the general title “Stanislaw Lem Recommends: A series of translations of the world’s fantastic literature,” the literary publishers Wydawnictwo Literackie have delighted a multitude of fans; the first volume of the series has just appeared.  It is UBIK by an American writer, Philip K. Dick.  The book has 264 pages 22 of which are devoted to an afterword by Stanislaw Lem, or over 10% of the total when we allow for the title pages and illustrations.   I do not trust contemporary literary works which have to be affixed with forewords or afterwords of such bulk, in this instance, a real treatise.  It means that the work does not explain itself, that the author needs the commentator’s diapers.  In the case of UBIK not only the author cannot explain himself, but little can be done even by a brilliant commentator.

Here are some passages taken from the book’s summary as given in Stanislaw Lem’s treatise: "The telepathic phenomena, after they got it mastered and controlled in capitalist society, underwent commercialization just as any technical innovation does.  So, businessmen hired telepaths in order to steal technological secrets from their competitors.   The latter defend themselves against "the extrasensory industrial espionage" with the help of “inertials", i.e., people whose psyche neutralizes the psi field.  And, by way of specialization, there came into existence firms where one could hire telepaths or "inertials" by the hour   Glen Runciter, a "tough guy," is the owner of such a firm.   Also, medical science has learned how to stop people’s agony in fatal cases, but cannot cure them.   Such people are sustained in a state of half-life in special institutions, "moratories", sort of postponers of death.  These people, if they simply lay unconscious in ice coffins, would not be a great consolation to their relatives.  So, there is a technique for stimulating the mental life of these "freezlings;" the world experienced by them is not part of reality but a fiction created by special means.   Normal people, however, can make contact with the frozen ones because of technical means something like a telephone."

I do not in the least trust such works which the commentator must summarize according to this understanding.  I read UBIK to the very last page, though it was a truly strenuous effort, and I take the liberty to summarize it as follows, according to the understanding of an ordinary reader: It takes place in life in 1992 and in 1932 in half-life, though it is not clear whether it takes place here, or there, or still somewhere and somewhen else.  The only thing certain, but not for sure, is the explosion of some bomb.   The rest is not silence but quite the opposite, a flood of jabbering rattle, a cosmic eruption of scribbling; uncompromisingly, but quite hodge-podgily, the struggle of the phantoms goes on.  Doors and refrigerators quarrel with their users about whether it is five of fifty cents.

All this phantasmagoria is deadly boring.  To make things worse, the author does not even know how to end it.   The final lines of Ferdydurke has already become a proverb: "The end and bang, who’s read it is a fool."   It appears that Dick wanted to situate himself between Gombrowicz and Nathalie Surraute without, however, relinquishing the genre which wins the reader almost automatically.   Very, very crafty, it should be admitted.  But why should crafty tricks of various scribblers take us in?

Stanislaw Lem made a gigantic effort to gloss over Philip K. Dick’s faults.   In his afterword he even put such sentences as the following: "…so, when we want to characterize the genre of UBIK, we are faced with the same difficulty as that manifested by the works of Kafka….," and, "…although the relation is rather distant, I shall mention that by the use of poetic metaphor joining concrete and abstract notions, extraordinary effects were achieved by C.K. Norwid."spacerun:   Does this mean that the fantasist Dick is a great writer, comparable to Norwid and creating equally great metaphors?

To such blunders may obstinacy lead when Stanislaw Lem is determined to force Philip K. Dick onto the readers as a writer of great caliber   He complains about the critics who demand genological purity and calls them "obdurate traditionalists;" he mentions some mysterious "contemporary writing strategy" which reminds one of literature by Mrozek.   He argues that "…Dick’s novels, to some extent, breach the conventions of science fiction, which can be considered a merit, because thanks to it they attain broader allegorical significance."   So again we get end, bang and fool.   Because, as for the allegorical significance, the reader will learn about it only from the commentator.

Even at the cost of exposing myself to Lem’s anathema, I must proclaim myself in favor of at least relative genological purity.  Let Dick imitate whomever and whatever he wishes; he is obviously entitled to that.  But presenting his gibberish as the first volume of such a long awaited series, and presenting it with the laborious though unfortunate support of Stanislaw Lem, one of the world’s most eminent authors of fantastic literature and, moreover, a philosopher of the genre, is a shot far from the target.   If you promise somebody a pork pie you can’t give him a mishmash of barbed wire!



"Stanislaw Lem Recommends."

from: Kultura, no 48, 1975.


In Zycie Literackie of November 2 my fellow citizen of Krakow, Olgierd Terlecki, published his column "A mish-mash of barbed wire."spacerun:   The title relates to the novel UBIK by an American fantasy writer, Philip Dick, published in the series "Stanislaw Lem Recommends" by the literary publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie.  In evaluating the book, Terlecki used such epithets as: gibberish, the flood of jabbering rattle, a cosmic eruption of rampant scribbling, crafty scribbler, and so on.  There is no discussion about tastes.  For instance, I am bored to death by A.P. Gutersloh, but since other competent persons go into ecstasy over him, I do not even think of voicing my distaste for his books in public.  Valuing highly the freedom of speech, I am far from denying Terlecki’s right to publish negative reviews of any books he chooses.  Neither do I intend to convince him that Dick is not just a scribbler.   This letter I direct to the readers who, if they trust the author of "A mish-mash of barbed wire," will tend to think that I chose for the beginning of a new series, "Stanislaw Recommends", a book unworthy of the slightest attention.

Attention is just the point here.  I said in my afterword to UBIK that Dick was an unrecognized author.   But I wrote the Afterword long ago.   I admit that to some extent I contributed to the recognition of P.K. Dick by serious critics by publishing articles about him in Austria, Australia and later in the USA   In March 1975, a quarterly of the Faculty of English Literature at Indiana University, Science-Fiction Studies, on the Editorial Board of which are such luminaries of literary study as Northrop Fry, devoted a special issue to Dick’s work.  The articles about Dick for this issue were written by: Carlo Pagetti from Universita Gabriele Annuzio (Italy) – who deals with SF, Fredric Jameson from San Diego University (California, USA), who specializes in Russian Formalism and used this method to analyze Dick’s works, Peter Fitting, interpreting Dick’s UBIK from the point of view of the critical theory of the French group Tel Quel, Professor Darko Suvin from McGill University (Canada), Brian Aldiss, a British writer and literary critic, and many others.   The translation of my Afterword to the Polish edition of UBIK was also published in this issue.   Dick is no longer slighted; he is being translated in Germany, Italy and France.  In the latter he is considered to be the most distinguished representative of American fantastic literature   Michel Jeury, who won the French prize for the best SF book, admits that he is inspired by Dick’s works.  Soon the first monograph devoted to Dick will appear.   As we all know nobody is a prophet in his own country, but even in America Dick has a few imitators, even if far from successful.

I do not claim that the admiration of the university scholars prove the value of Dick’s novels.  I think, however, that an author treated in such a way deserves some attention   Not being so isolated in my appreciation for Dick as a few years ago, I can calmly recommend his novel UBIK to the readers.



"Rainy Swinging."

from: Zycie Literackie, no. 50, 1975


Some weeks ago, in No. 44 of Zycie Literackie, I took the liberty to express a decidedly negative opinion about a masterpiece entitled UBIK, by Philip K. Dick, published as the first volume of a new series, "Stanislaw Lem Recommends," by the literary publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie, and awaited with great interest by readers.  I admit shamelessly that I called the said masterpiece a mish-mash of barbed wire.

As could be expected, Stanislaw Lem responded.  He supported his choice in the first place by a correct statement that there can be no discussion about taste.  It would be a deadly retort if it were only the question of Stanislaw Lem’s tastes or mine.  Apart from tastes and tricks, however, there are so called criteria.  Stanislaw Lem also said, to support his theory of tastes, that the prose of A.P. Gutersloh bores him, but if "…competent people are ravished by it…" he would never think of public expression of his boredom with books by this author.

I share most keenly Stanislaw Lem’s view about A.P. Gutersloh’s whose prose bores me too.  I feel sorry that until now both of us were shameful opportunists who did not express publicly our common opinion about A.P. Gutersloh’s prose.  It is so nice that Stanislaw Lem is now no longer an opportunist in this matter, because he has uttered his opinion on A.P. Gutersloh’s prose expressis verbis, declaring, however, that he had not thought of declaring it.

Let us return to out mutton, that is to Philip K. Dick   An undoubtedly competent person, Stanislaw Lem, goes into ecstasy over this author and his masterpiece UBIK   In his rejoinder he quotes lofty opinions about Dick, written by some sages and one luminary.  I must, however, repeat with no intention of offending the said sages and one luminary that never in my life had I read anything more boring and, what is worse, more stupid than UBIK.  I utter this opinion publicly, expressis verbis, despite the people perhaps even more competent than I.  And I do not declare at all that I do not utter it.

There are some sub-genres of prose which organically hate so called formal innovation: the Western, the Detective story, the tale of the future.   Extracting them out of convention is always a deadly procedure.  If anyone remarks that I only mention the "light" sub-genres, I would add that no author could manage a sophisticated and decent historical essay by, for example, dragging one sentence through 300 pages or by leaping upon a mountain of facts.   Maybe some day a genius can do so, but none has appeared so far.

Philip K. Dick will certainly not become an innovator of the tale of the future, in spite of the efforts of some smackers, because any innovation deriving from mainstream literature is simply impossible in this sub-genre.   The tale of the future is nothing but a fairy tale for grown ups.  As such, it must be precisely and logically constructed, in a style comprehensible to everybody.  It may be, as all fairy tales, stupid or wise; it may even be very wise   But it cannot stop being a fairy tale, even despite some misty possibility of realization, as in, to some degree, the fairy tales of Jules Verne.  That is why for so many years I have been protesting against calling the tale of the future "science fiction."  This term, word for word, slavishly and nonsensically translated from the English one, is not justified by some piece of science, most often hypothetical, inserted into the fairy tale plots.

Let us come back to the series "Stanislaw Lem Recommends."  The second volume has just appeared.  It is Niesamowite Opowiesci by Stefan Grabinski.   "The shaken scales of dreams, the hazes of reveries roved through the rainy swinging, wandered along the walls, uncertain of any support."  This touching sentence comes from the story "The Domain" on page 164 of Niesamowite Opowiesci.   Never mind the examples of secondary modernist style.  Grabinski is indeed a fantasy writer worthy of bringing to the attention of the reader.   The question is whether he should be in this series, in this edition and for such a mass of readers.   It is a rainy swinging and very much so.

Stanislaw Lem writes in his foreword to Grakinski’s volume, "Very interesting and not duly examined.  Seems to me the parallelism of science fiction and weird fiction."spacerun:   Disregarding the attractiveness of these parallelisms, however, the reader grinds his teeth.  For what has he got in this promising series?  So far, gibbering phantasmagories and stale fantasies   I wonder how quickly those 50,000 copies on imported paper, as the specifications claim, will get sold.

One should expect that if it goes on like this in the series, "Stanislaw Lem Recommends," we will soon see Queen Giselle by Helena Mniszek, a novel no doubt fantastic but in any case readable.  Then, perhaps, it will be The Year 1975 by Boloslaw Zarnowiecki, a thing published 40 years ago.  When we mingle, let us mingle well.  Besides, the scope for considering parallelisms will open out wider.

I must finally mention that Stanislaw Lem published his reply to my column not in Zycie Literackie, god forbid, but in no. 40 of Warsaw’s Kultura.   I think that he has introduced a custom rather of the future, of the times when we will reply not only in another magazine, another town, another part of the world, but on another planet.

The above pieces were brought to me by Frank C. Bertrand who is also the person responsible for the editing. Translated from the Polish by Jadwiga Wegrodzka nd Joanna Kokot. They have – for the best of my knowing – never been published in any other language than Polish before.   Klaus Johansen