Polish author Stanisław Lem is arguably the most celebrated writer of science fiction among the most stringent and hard-core guardians of the genre. His widely read 1961 novel Solaris revolves around the scientific exploration of the eponymous, completely water-covered planet and culminates with the researchers’ realization that Solaris is conscious, examining them, and somehow manifesting physical representations of their darkest repressed memories.
What most people don’t know about Solaris is that its initial English release (i.e., the one that’s on most English speakers’ bookshelves) was translated from the French version, which was translated from the original Polish text. Anyone who knows anything about literary translation understands that this is a great way to mangle a writer’s carefully considered phrasing and, at worst, the meaning of the text itself.
Last year, to mark the book’s 50th anniversary, a direct Polish-to-English translation of Solaris by renowned translator Bill Johnston was commissioned by the Lem estate, allowing English-speaking readers to finally experience the book as its author intended.
Bill was kind enough to provide us with “A Puzzle,” a short story by Lem that has remained unpublished in English until now. Its subject matter concerns a cyborg doctor of magnetics, robotic theology, “Jelly Brains,” and a lot of other esoteric and interesting topics.
Translated by Bill Johnston
Illustrations by Sophia Foster-Dimino
Father Zinctus, Doctor of Magnetics, was sitting in his cell and, squeaking since he had deliberately omitted to apply oil to himself for purposes of self-mortification, was poring over a commentary by Chlorofantus Omnicki, paying especial attention to his widely known Book Six, “Concerning the Creation of Robots.” He had just reached the end of the verse concerning the programming of the universe and was scrutinizing the pages of brightly colored illuminations that revealed how the Lord, having acquired an especial fondness for iron among the metals, breathed life into it, when Father Chlorinian tiptoed into the cell and stood discreetly by the window, trying not to disturb the eminent theologian in his cogitations.
“What is it, Chlorinian, my dear fellow?” Father Zinctus asked after a short moment, raising crystal-clear eyes from his tome.
“My lord and father,” said the other, “I’m bringing you a book recently prohibited by the Holy Office—a work engendered by the whisperings of Satan and written by the dreadful Lapidor of Marmageddon, known as the Halogenite. It contains descriptions of the sordid experiments he conducted in an attempt to refute the true faith.”
He placed before Father Zinctus a slim volume already stamped in the requisite way by the Holy Office.
The old man wiped his brow. A little rust sprinkled down from it onto the pages of the book, which he took briskly in his hands with the words:
“Not dreadful, not dreadful, my good Chlorinian, merely unfortunate for having strayed!”
As he spoke, he turned the pages. Scanning the titles of the various chapters—“Concerning the Creatures of Softness and Pallor”; “On Dairy Produce That Can Think”; “Concerning the Genesis of Reason from the Unreasoning Machine”—he gave a faint and entirely benevolent smile, then said casually:
“Listen, Chlorinian—you and the Holy Office, for which I have the greatest respect, you both take the wrong approach to things. I mean, what is this, really? Sheer gobbledygook dreamed up at the drop of a hubcap; balderdash; false legends brought back to life for the umpteenth time—all based on these squishy or squashy or fleshy beings, as the other Apocrypha call them, or the Jellymen, who allegedly created us at one time out of wire and screws…”