Lem’s obituary is not as unhappy one to write as many, because he more than accomplished his life’s work. Having identified the issues he wished to examine, he synthesized them wish vigor and brilliance, and to quote someone or other, if he did not exhaust them, they exhausted him. He had a long, productive, successful career, and he never wrote the same book twice. Under the guise of fiction (and sometimes not), he became the speculative master of two issues: evolution and technology. I cannot think of another writer who dealt with the essence and possibilities of these subjects better than Lem.
From both, Lem acquired a resigned pessimism. The limits and flaws expressed in humanity (and via humanity, in technology) were not ones of some nebulous human essence, but the product of a process–evolution–for which individuals and society were meaningless side effects. Lem’s recurrent, thrilling ploy was to play technology off of evolutionary fatalism, and to show the sparks when technological ambition runs up against the epistemological limits that bound a species. It made for concentrated stories with novel ideas, and a rigorous approach to potential technologies and societal trends. His Summa Technologiae (1964) still puts most so-called “futurism” to shame.
Politically, he could fall prey to an cold anti-humanism. His enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin (“He’s what the people want,” he declared), his sexism, and his indifference towards issues of race and class except in the most general anthopological sense all bespoke an unwillingness to be engaged in normative ethical debates. This is not unusual for science-fiction. Just as war historians celebrate the tactics of generals while ignoring those who got it in the neck, the sweep of (imagined) future history has led many science-fiction authors to embrace a cruel stability or ignore the collateral damage of establishing galactic empires–or both. These conservative instincts, pace Ellis Sharp’s belief that science fiction is mostly progressive, have in fact driven the main currents of science-fiction even at its best, from Wells to Cordwainer Smith to Mark Geston. The opposing sf trend that includes such people as Delany, Joanna Russ, and the also sadly departed Octavia Butler is so drastically different in its focus from the dominant trend that it might as well be another genre. But this is a topic for another time.
But Lem, more than many of his peers, could show compassion about human suffering, as he did, albeit ironically, in “Altruizine” and His Master’s Voice. “Altruizine” especially stands out as a sad allegory about a race of super-beings’ last attempt to bring about universal happiness, the previous 64,000 having failed. It is not the stuff to inspire polities, but it is a very human satire for any of us who have gotten frustrated at people’s constant inability to act in their own best interests.
I wrote a callow appreciation of Lem many years ago, but I still agree with a lot of it; you can see it below the fold. I would change my assessment of Lem’s ultimate message and his philosophical attitudes (see above!), but the explication of his work still seems reasonable to me. And I still think that Lem deserves a place next to Dante, Borges, and Stapledon in the pantheon of pure imagination.