Stanislaw Lem 1921-2006

From the Wire:

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Stanislaw Lem, a science fiction writer whose novel "Solaris" was made into a movie starring George Clooney, died Monday in his native Poland, his secretary said. He was 84.

Lem died in a Krakow hospital from heart failure "connected to his old age," Wojciech Zemek told The Associated Press. He gave no other details.

Lem was one of the most popular science fiction authors of recent decades to write in a language other than English, and his works were translated from Polish into more than 40 other languages. His books have sold 27 million copies.

"A great artist has died, a man with the hallmarks of a genius," renowned Polish film director Andrzej Wajda told the country’s PAP news agency.

His best-known work, "Solaris," was adapted into films by director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. That version starred George Clooney and Natascha McElhone.

Set on a spaceship above a fictional planet, a psychologist meets the likeness of a long-dead lover as he and the crew grapple with suppressed memories of lost loves.

Lem’s first important novel, "Hospital of the Transfiguration," was censored by communist authorities for eight years before its release in 1956 amid a thaw following the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Other works include "The Invincible," "The Cyberiad," "His Master’s Voice," "The Star Diaries," "The Futurological Congress" and "Tales of Prix the Pilot."

"He was an amazingly talented man, and Polish literature never had anyone like him before," said Tomasz Fialkowski, co-author of a book of interviews with Lem and the deputy editor of the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny.

While Lem was widely known as a writer of science fiction, his works were never simple tales of spaceships and light sabers.

Instead, he wrote about new scientific discoveries and the evolution of man and technology, Fialkowski said. Lem also foresaw many new technologies, including virtual reality, Fialkowski said.

While his novels often took place in space in the undetermined future, Lem "connected it all with his interest in what is going on in the here and now, with politics," Fialkowski said.

Lem was born into a Polish Jewish family on Sept. 21, 1921, in Lviv, then a Polish city but now part of Ukraine.

His father was a doctor and he initially appeared set to follow in that path, taking up medical studies in Lviv before World War II.

After surviving the Nazi occupation, in part thanks to forged documents that concealed his Jewish background, Lem continued his medical studies in Krakow. Soon afterward, however, he took up writing science fiction.

Lem addressed his multiple talents with a touch of modesty and humor.

"If I was a child prodigy, it could only have been in the eyes of doting aunts," Lem once said. "In my fourth year, I learned to write, but had nothing of great importance to communicate by that means."

Lem is survived by his wife and a son, Zemek said. Funeral arrangements were not disclosed.

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Not everybody’s doing it, but everybody should

Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex should reveal characters one by one. This is some advice on writing sex scenes that I culled from Ron Seybold’s blog the Write Stuff. Read on to learn how to get your characters off … to a great start that is….

Sex is an essential element in any character, although it sometimes doesn’t earn a place in the events of a story. Knowing how a character has sex, with whom, or why they don’t, gives insight that can be useful in other aspects of the story.

At this year’s AWP conference in Austin, a panelist on the Sexing the Story roundtable suggested that knowing why people have sex the way they do offers a peek into their most intimate nature. Writing about sex can be intimidating, or liberating. But it’s perfect early-draft material, the subject matter that often gets cut in a rewrite.

Steve Almond sat on the Sexing the Story panel and offered this 12-step program on how write better sex scenes.

1. Never compare a woman’s nipples to pits, cherries, or erasers. No bullshit comparisons
2. Never use the words penis or vagina
3. No euphemisms
4. Sometimes sex is funny — don’t be afraid to describe these comic aspects
5. Real people do not speak in porn film cliches
6. Stop having sex. It really improves the intensity of your writing about it.
7. It takes a long time to make a woman come.
8. Steer clear of announcing orgasms at all. People do a lot of tossing about during an orgasm; it’s your job to describe the tossing
9. Arouse yourself, to arouse the reader
10. People think about sex; what do your characters think about it?
11. If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t.
12. Always include emotion. We already have a name for sex without emotion: pornography.

The panelists also all agreed that The Psalm of Psalms in the Bible is among the best examples of elegant prose about passions.

I would sort of disagree with number 2. "Penis" or "vagina" in the right character’s mouth, or just this side of his or her tongue can be the right choice. I really dislike when a writer forbids other writers words.

As for number 6: I’m experiencing that right now and it really needs to stop. (I would add that not getting any also makes you think about it more and I sometimes find myself writing sex scenes maybe more than I should. I do the same thing when writing about food when I’m hungry. My characters will go to a restaurant and have huge meals.)

Anyhow, enjoy….

addendum and correction to American Taliban

In my recent post "American Taliban" I identified the clergy officiating the funeral of Pfc. Amy Duerksen, as being female. The cleric was male.

Just on an ironic side note: The church Pfc. Duerksen attended, while nowhere close to being a hate-filled fringe group as the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church that protested her funeral, is a fundie church, a nondenominational church with a charismatic pastor and a vaguely Pentecostal theology. According to an Episcopalian drinking buddy of mine, they send members to other churches sort of like little spies. Like most fundies, they believe the Bible inerrant and that they and only they have the truth and nothing but the truth. Other churches who do not believe as they may know a little about their truth, but they aren’t quite on track.

Another side note: One of the hazards of my present job is on occasion having pastors try to convert me from my heathen ways (devout heathen left wing humanist that I am) and on Wednesday a pastor from Pfc. Duerksen’s church tried to do so. (I was interviewing him on an unrelated matter.) As I deflected his questioning, I mentioned that I learned more about what Christianity meant from an Episcopalian priest than from any other person I’ve ever met while covering religion. He raised a reserved eyebrow. (Of all the varied forms of Christianity there are, those that are Catholic or the Protestant churches that still are vaguely catholic in practice, still hold much suspicion in the minds of non-catholic Protestants; anti-Catholicism is still common among Protestants, though they try to hide it and get all sunshiny about Christian unity and start spouting they are united in their differences.) Anyhoo, my reference to taking Anglo-Catholic confirmation classes (they didn’t stick) made this fundie pastor suspicious. I’m pretty sure he thought I hadn’t heard a complete version of the truth. No wonder I was still a heathen. (The hate group that protested Pfc. Duerksen’s funeral is virulently anti-Catholic.)

I’m pretty sure that if I’d confessed that reading the Bible itself makes it even harder to believe, he’d probably explain that I’m reading the Bible wrong. That I’m missing his esoteric key to truth.

Thank god I’m still a heathen today.    

A footnote about Khaled Hosseini

Was surfing Khaled Hosseini’s site and discovered he is a doctor, an internist in practice since 1996. The Kite Runner was his first novel. How interesting that we have a novelist coming from another profession, as a lot of novelists used to, rather than writer/teacher novelists. Does medical practice affect his work? If so, how? The novel is in the realist tradition.

The Kite Runner

I finished The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini last night. The eighth selection in my 100 novels reading quest is marvelous.

It takes a lot for me to get teary. The end of Hosseini’s novel did it with its genuine emotion.

Opening in December 2001 (you know the backstory on that don’t you?) the novel is sort of a coming of age book, narrated by Amir, a mid thirties Afghani living in San Francisco. He reflects on his childhood in Afghanistan in the mid 1970s. Amir grows up in a wealthy middle class neighborhood in Kabul and lives with his widowed father Baba and their servants Ali and Hassan. As Amir and Hassan grow up they become close friends, unusual because of their separation of class and race (Amir is Pashtun, a member of the ruling class, Hassan Hazara). The boys encounter racism and brutality and grow to love each other as friends. The central event of the novel occurs just before the Soviet invasion. Each winter Afghani boys participate in kite-fighting tournaments. Amir enters a tournament with the hope not only to win (the kite’s strings are lubricated with tar and glass substance that allows for cutting when in flight) but also to gain respect from Baba. Hassan is his kite runner, the boy in charge of retrieving kites that have fallen in battle. Amir wins the contest. Hassan gives chase through the streets and alleys of Kabul. Amir follows and when he discovers his friend, Hassan is being threatened by the sociopathic Assef (a bully who admires Hitler). Assef wants the kite. Instead of brutally beating Hassan with his brass knuckles, Assef brutally rapes Hassan, since Hassan will not give up the kite. Amir witnessesthe rape, but zips the incident in his conscience without interfering.

Rape and redemption is a theme also of the first novel on my 100 novel list,  Atonement by Ian McEwan. Jane Smiley in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is critical of what she believes is McEwan’s failure to fully explore the supposed rape of a central character and its consequences. Amir, like Briony in Atonement, becomes a novelist. However, unlike the rape Briony believes she witnesses, Hassan’s rape is real. Amir further betrays Hassan by planting a watch in his things and dropping hints that Hassan has stolen the watch. Which Hassan does not deny. This "theft" causes Ali dishonor and he and Hassan leave Amir and Baba. When the Soviets invade, Baba and Amir are able to escape to America.

Only later does Amir become able to atone for his silence. Hosseini deftly explores the consequences of Amir’s betrayals of Hassan: Hassan survives the Soviet invasion only to lose his life to the Taliban. Hassan’s son Sohrab, though, survives, is sent to an orphanage where he ends up taken by the Taliban and the now Talibani leader Assef as a sexual plaything. Amir returns to Afghanistan at the request of one of his father’s friends, exiled in Pakistan. It is through this friend that Amir realizes he must atone for his sins by retrieving Sohrab. The expedition into Taliban-controlled Kabul just before 9-11 is one of the strongest pieces of the novel.

American Taliban

By the title, you might think that I was going to write about Johnny Walker Lindh, the American Taliban taken POW during the early months of clearing those bastards out of Afghanistan. I have no sympathy for Lindh, nor do I feel his rights are being violated in any way. He is a terrorist and I’m more convinced, as I read Khaled Hosseini’s marvelous novel The Kite Runner that the Taliban got what it deserved, as I feel any fundamentalist of any religion needs to seriously be considered dangerous, any fundamentalist group is dangerous, as our evangelical president is dangerous.

Today, in Temple, Texas, a young woman, a soldier killed in Iraq is being buried. Whatever your opinions of the Iraq war, led by our fundamentalist influenced president, no human being or their families should have to suffer the idiocy of fundamentalists, this time Christian. A far right fundie Christian group is protesting this soldier’s death, blaming it not on the bullet or bomb that killed her, but blaming all the deaths of military personnel in Iraq and elsewhere on America’s lax attitudes toward homosexuality. Apparently God is killing our soldiers (not Kalashnikovs and car bombs by murderous Al Quaeda thugs) and God brought about the slaughter of 9-11, and the slaughter of Katrina (I haven’t heard what said diety’s purpose was for Rita and Wilma and the other hurricanes that hit this past year) all because cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other. Oh, and probably because a woman is preaching the service. God really hates women clergy, probably more than homosexuals.

Anyhow, these people, their lack of thought processes, aren’t any better than the Taliban as depicted in Hosseini’s novel. There is a brutal scene Hosseini depicts when a Talibani minister of virtue and vice beats a woman down in the street for raising her voice.

Yes, control and power. That’s what fundamentalism is all about.

I always wonder what makes one person following that being called God to be moved to compassion and love, while another is moved toward violence and hate, and yet they follow the teachings of the same teacher, whether it be Jesus or Muhammed or any other teacher.