New Materialist Considerations about The Man from Mars by Stanislaw Lem
Although Stanislaw Lem’s works comprise a variety of genres (Lethem), it is his abundant contribution to the genre of science fiction that he is arguably most recognized and appreciated for. This paper discusses the writer’s very first SF endeavour, the novel The Man from Mars, which was forgotten for half a century after it had been first published in 1946 in the magazine Nowy Świat Przygód ( “The New World of Adventures”), and has not been translated into English in extenso to date. Lem’s juvenilia is a ‘first contact’ story (Lethem) which raises the question of the inmost desires of two species of intelligent beings, namely, humans and Martians, in which multidimensional extraction plays a major role. Importantly, the book touches upon issues which are central for new materialist research, such as blurring the borders between human and non-human, inherent vitality of matter and agency of objects, to name but a few; and therefore selected concepts of the new materialist theories shall constitute the main framework of my considerations.
The novel is written in a rather light tone, as if the author was playing with words and ideas, not quite aware of the grim and complex undertones lurking in the ostensibly simple story. It reveals the author’s disbelief in the possibility of humans effectively communicating with aliens, which is a repeated theme of Lem’s narratives. “Mutual hostility between humans and Martians appears to be inevitable and forejudged” one critic observes, adding that the novel is actually not about an attempt at communication, but about a fight with aliens, a sort of a trial humanity and its values are subjected to (Jarzebski 478). That makes the Polish writer’s narratives similar to H. G. Wells’s stories which often revolve around the motif of a confrontation between two dissimilar civilisations and therefore it is not without reason that critics point to Wells’s War of the Worlds as the source of Lem’s inspiration for the book.
In the novel, a spaceship from Mars with peculiar substances and species, but most importantly, with a strange machine on board is found. The machine, which is in the shape of a metal cone with several coiled tubes attached to it, turns out to be intelligent and endowed with not only agency, which according to Katherine Hayles is the condition of subjectivity (Hayles 22), but personality as well. A group of scientists carry out a number of experiments, dissecting it and attempting to communicate with it, with the purpose of extracting from it whatever information can possibly be obtained:
So that’s the way it is: that guest from Mars can bring humanity many benefits . . . and even more misfortunes. So a few people gathered and contributed the necessary money, resources and knowledge with the following purpose: to get to know the essence of this stranger . . . messenger from another planet, communicate with him, find out if he knows a lot about us, what technical or mental superiorities he has over us, to use them for the benefit of the public, or, if necessary, to destroy him. (Lem 70)
The Martian is referred to interchangeably as ‘machine,’ ‘creature,’ ‘man,’ or ‘Areanthrop,’ which testifies to the scientists’ original ambiguity regarding its ontological status. There are numerous material, structural, and cognitive dissimilarities between the alien and humans, and yet those differences do not prevent them from recognizing certain qualities that both species share and are intimately and inalienably connected with. First of them is the disposition of perceiving the other as a resource, rather than as their equal and a potential partner of a fair exchange. At the heart of both species’ attitude towards their surroundings appears to be the propensity to extract whatever might be of value and whatever increases their power or influence. The actual purpose for obtaining power over the other species remains unspecified in the novel, but Lem’s narrative suggests that it would serve further extraction rather than creating a mutually beneficial relationship.
Martian and Earthmen’s affinity is also established by their organisms’ originating from the same substance. Despite their physical differences, both species are the forms of life generated by ‘plasma,’ which developed differently on the two planets:
…organized plasma on Mars went a different way than the one on Earth: here by means of evolution it had to develop for itself the locomotor system, the digestive system, the system to interact with the environment, that is, the sensory organs and the nervous system, and on Mars it was different, much simpler. A thinking, but rather infirm, plasma was formed that accelerated evolution by making for itself a machine to move, see, hear, and to protect itself from destruction. (Lem 58)
Karen Barad’s coinage ‘intra-action’ (Barad 248) aptly conveys the nature of that ontological connection, as it emphasizes its inalienability and the reality of both entities’ participating in the same material substratum: “The neologism ‘intraaction’ signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (Barad 2007, 33). Not only are entities intimately unified by the fabric of their material existence, but their very existence is actively formed by intraactions with other entities and their meaning emerges from the intraactive ‘mattering’ of matter: “The world is intraactivity in its differential mattering” (Barad, 2003, 817). At the beginning of the novel the scientists perceive humans as fundamentally different from the stranger and argue against using comparisons and attempting to “humanize this creature too much” (Lem 27); they are willing to understand the creature in its specificity, independently from the human context. As the plot develops, however, their initial attitude changes dramatically and they seem appalled by the fact that the behaviour of Areanthrop resembles human behaviour in many ways.
The two species are intraconnected with each other not only ontologically, but also epistemologically and ethically. Although the human language is unintelligible for the machine, it is revealed that the cognitive processes taking place in their brains are comparable, and the scientists manage to work their brain currents on the Areanthrop’s brain directly, without the intermediate ways (Lem 70). As they become subject to the same procedure by the alien, they too are made privy to the creature’s mind, his memories of Mars included. Interestingly, what each of the humans can see in the machine’s mind is different – some images are more disturbing than others, as if tailor made for each individual on account of their knowledge, experience and intelligence. One of them, the professor can see beautiful creatures living on Mars who flee in terror the moment “the Lord of Mars, the Areanthrop appears” (93). Then another scientist asks: “So they too…? . . . They too have taken over the surface of the planet and are exterminating other animals?” (93). Apparently, Martians are as unable to see intra-material connections between themselves and other species as humans are and display drives which are similarly destructive to their own planet and its inhabitants. The actions of Martians the professor observes in his vision are ‘unintelligible’ to him and ‘without purpose’ (94), but when he describes them, they strike one as being strangely analogous to human actions – taking over the planet and destroying those elements of the natural environment which come in the way. Nature is disturbingly absent from the plot, which takes place essentially on the premises of a laboratory, and peculiarly present at the same time, manifesting itself in the very corporeality of the protagonists as well as in the figments of their imagination. The most disturbing of the professor’s visions involves some unfathomable barbarity which fills him with terror an which “demolished his understanding of everything” (96). When inquired by others about the nature of the atrocities he witnessed, whether, perhaps, Martians “drink blood, maybe slaughter or eat one another? (…) we know that from the earthly relationships and what else can possibly appall us?” (96), the professor does not get to reply. The reader is left to their own ideas of what these terrifying images might have been.
Notably, the novel was written during or right after the World War II and remnants of the horror of war—fear of unexpected threat that may come any moment or of a destructive weapon of unknown origin that one cannot protect oneself from – can be vividly sensed in it. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that in The Man from Mars Lem presents humanity favourably, as if in an attempt to confront the trauma and disillusionment with the human ‘nature’ that the war produced. He depicts ethical issues the scientists take into consideration while conducting their experiments, the care they have for one another, as well as for the Areanthrop, whereas the alien comes across as callous, cunning and determined to obtain his evil goals. In the face of the creature’s malice and serious threat it poses to the Earth the scientists are left with no choice but to destroy it together with the whole laboratory. Such a ‘black and white’ ethical assessment of differences gave way to a much more nuanced and ambiguous depiction of inter-species relationships in Lem’s later works, in which: “Lem goes to great lengths to avoid the facile extremes of describing Contact as a meeting of antagonists bent on pillaging of each other’s troves of scientific secrets . . . or, conversely, a handshake across space between cosmic comrades who inhabit different but amicably disposed utopias” (Swirski, 170). Nevertheless, like in his later works, in The Man from Mars Lem’s approach to the subject and his tone is far from moralizing (Glinter), as the author’s perception of relationships between humans and aliens are complex and his message ambiguous.
One of the central themes of the novel is subversion of the dualism animate vs. inanimate in the way it presents selected material objects. The alien as such, although a machine is treated as an animate creature due to its sentience and intelligence. But there are also other objects which occupy a sort of liminal space between the animate and the inanimate, e.g.:
It was something hard and cold, but it twitched at once, began to squirm in my hands, and became warm, so that I let go of it involuntarily. It fell on the table and froze in its old form. – A seemingly metallic substance endowed with excitableness – the doctor declaimed with half-closed eyes – It destroys all our notions of living matter and the difference between the animate and the inanimate… (Lem 31)
In such a depiction of material objects resonates new materialist perception of them which focuses on matter’s inherent agency. Jane Bennett’s vital materialism highlights this particularly aptly: “By ’vitality’ I mean the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett viii). Other concepts regarding the animate vs. inanimate relationships that the novel anticipates are the ones of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad or Timothy Morton; Lem’s work also vaticinates the approach of object-oriented ontology as well as that of cyberpunk fiction (Lethem). Undermining of the human vs. non-human dualism and that subversion includes two processes: humanizing of an object and objectification of a human being. The first one is exemplified by the Areanthrop itself—it is the product of plasma, which becomes capable of using a mechanical ‘body’ to exhibit behaviour so similar to the one of a human being that ultimately is treated as such by other characters. The second process is illustrated by the character of one of the scientists, Mr Fink, who is transmuted by the alien into an involuntary ‘machine’, a zombie of sorts, acting mechanically and following instructions given to him by the Areanthrop. The latter motif alludes to the trauma of treating the human body as a resource that characterises war, and the World War II in particular: soldiers’ bodies serving as a weapon, human body parts (hair, skin) extracted in Nazi concentration camps, where brutal experiments on humans were carried out. But what resonates in the novel as well is the lack of human exceptionality, Lem appears to be suggesting that the human body is just one of many forms matter (or in this case, plasma) takes, and there is nothing inherently unique about it. The human body can be manipulated with and extracted just like other bodies on the planet Earth. One’s intelligence does not make them special either, since it is not limited to our planet only; the Areanthrop is an intelligent life form as well, and much more advanced technologically to that. What is more, the author’s perception of intelligence strikes the reader as being far from entirely favourable, as it is intelligence which enables one to come up with most refined methods of subjugation, as Swirski insightfully observes: “Most likely a civilisation sophisticated enough to develop means of interstellar communication will also have developed other technologies, including military” (170).
We are unable to effectively communicate with aliens or to really understand the intricacies of their motives, just as the scientists can understand the technology the Areanthrop uses to some extent only. It goes without saying, however, that we are intimately intraconnected with them by means of participating in the same material substratum—matter—which is multidimensional, agentive, creative and in a way uncanny as well. Human and non-human creatures from other planets can differ biologically, culturally, historically and technologically, which might make it impossible for them to feel connected, and yet the way in which they behave, certain tendencies and propensities which appear to sort of spring from the very ‘structure’ of their constitution reveal their existential likeness. Oddly, and sadly, the propensity to extract and utilize whatever can possibly be reached is presented as a cross-species quality, a survival strategy which needs to be limited, otherwise it turns destructive to the object of extraction and, paradoxically, to the subject of extraction as well. Although seemingly uncomplicated and naïve, The Man from Mars proves to be touchingly insightful about the intricacies of human cognitive processes and impulses, of one’s intuition as well as of their rational thinking, creating a surprisingly holistic picture of a human being, and making the Areanthrop, the alien, look not as alien, as one would assume.
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