Polish author Stanislaw Lem is an expert when it comes to writing stories about human space explorers stumbling upon alien worlds and cultures. The inherent human urge to anthropomorphize an alien civilization and the absolutely unbridgeable gap between human and extraterrestrial intelligence (in terms of technical, biological, cultural, etc) is a recurrent theme in Mr. Lem’s works. Eden (published in Polish in 1959 and translated to English in 1989) was the first of the author’s novels to explore the subject of first contact, a theme scrutinized more in his following works, Solaris (1961), The Invincible (1964), and Fiasco (1986). These travelogue plus cautionary tales (set in bizarre alien worlds) largely works due to Lem’s deeply perceptive nature to envision human condition from an outsider’s perspective. Of course, like many of East European and Soviet Union sci-fi writers of the time, Lem’s highly imaginative premise imparted profound social criticism on Stalinist regime and the Iron Curtain.
Eden starts off like a typical SF expedition story with six members of a spaceship, crash-landing on an Earth-like planet, of course named ‘Eden’. All the six men are identified only by their titles: the Captain, the Engineer, the Doctor, the Cyberneticist, the Chemist, and the Physicist (occasionally the Engineer is called by his real name Henry; the meaning of providing name only to Engineer remains inscrutable). Lem’s expertise doesn’t exist in creating character-driven stories, but in place of it he includes strong ideas and theories. Similarly, the six men of Eden are prescribed a certain personality: the Captain being a stern leader, the Doctor exhibiting empathy, the Cyberneticist preoccupied by his defective robots, etc. They remain as ciphers throughout to carry the author’s grave insights about the first-contact. Nevertheless, the profound strangeness swirling in the 'Edenite' atmosphere keeps the characters and readers on the edge.
The spaceship is badly damaged and it would take few weeks to repair it. Previously, only a probe has been sent to the planet. So the crew decides to use the accident to explore the planet which has a breathable earth-like atmosphere, and if possible seek help from the local intelligent alien species. The ship has crash-landed in a knoll that’s situated at the center of a desertscape. In the subsequent days and weeks, the six men go on an expedition in four directions and stumble upon eerie, incomprehensible things. The foremost odd thing they come across is the planet’s vegetation: giant calyxes; spider-like veins; blossoms that takes flight like butterflies. Then they happen upon a broken-down bio-mechanical factory, which manufactures complex, unfathomable products. Odder still are the planet’s intelligent species, called by the six as ‘Doublers’ (since it consist of two symbiotic life-forms). Mass graves, weird skeletons inside glass jars, pits with deformed alien corpses, disk-shaped flying things, taped footage of every-day alien life, Lem’s concoction of the ‘doubler’ society retains an unsettling, harrowing tone.
|An illustration of alien called as 'Doubler' [Pic courtesy: Deviant art -- https://www.deviantart.com/spaceexplorer/art/Eden-tribute-to-Stanislaw-Lem-367363511]|
Eden is definitely not one of Lem’s masterpieces. It lacks the deeply philosophical tone of Solaris or Fiasco and far removed from the playfully satiric tone, found in Ijon Tichy stories (a fictional space voyager encounters bizarre civilizations and creatures in cosmos). It isn’t also hard science-fiction like The Invincible. Nevertheless, Eden contains a lot of strangely terrifying scenarios to warrant a read. Moreover, this isn’t an escapist fantasy or space opera with human kind joining hands with alien race to establish brotherhood across cosmos. Lem doesn’t indulge with gratuitous violence, although he keeps alive the fear of unknown. While some of the chapters dealing with the ship’s repair are slow-moving and tedious, there are quite a few spine-chilling situations scattered throughout the expedition. One intriguing confrontation between humans and the alien ‘doublers’ happens at the planet’s metropolis of sorts. The characters’ discovery of the alien structures that leads to feelings of terror and confusion was similar in tone to the ‘discovery’ in Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.
The last few chapters are equally brilliant and disturbing. The chapters where the men eventually establish a communication of sorts with the astronomer 'doubler' is absolutely riveting and demonstrates why Lem is a gifted sci-fi master. The story of anonymity, oppression, censorship, biological experimentation, and internment pieced through the clumsy mode of communication established with the Doubler stays grimly fascinating (possesses certain parallels from modern human history). Lem also contemplates the ethical issues of imposing values and interpretations on situations humans can’t understand (“…these are beings with a physiology, psychology, and history different from ours. You can’t transplant a model of our civilization here…”, the Captain remarks). Furthermore, the author makes a valid argument against the naivety of humankind with dreams of interfering upon the culture & politics of intelligent alien civilization (an allusion to Fermi Paradox and the concept of otherness). Altogether, Eden isn’t a great SF novel, but definitely worth reading to experience Stanislaw Lem’s mesmerizing excursion through strangely captivating milieus and life-forms.