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FICTION : ONE HUMAN MINUTE by Stanislaw Lem, translated by Catherine S. Leach (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95).

July 06, 1986|Samuel R. Delany

Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's last two books were not fiction, science or otherwise, by most definitions. One collected reviews of imaginary reference volumes, the other included introductions and forewords to nonexistent books. It was all quite serious; seldom did the tongue stray near the cheek. "One Human Minute" continues in this vein, with three comparatively technical 30-page articles. The title essay analyzes an almanac that lists what everyone in the world is doing over a given minute: How many are starving, how many are serving sentences as political prisoners, how many are having sex. Possibly a witty piece in Polish, it displays only a ghost of humor in translation.

A more satisfying piece abandons even the parenthetical pretense of a fictive review to deal directly with the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Because our sun represents the most common type of star in the galaxy, more and more scientists have come to believe that civilizations such as ours populate the universe--we just haven't met them. Lem, however, poses intriguing reasons why life may be far rarer than some scientists assume. Those intrigued by the popular-science coverage of alien life will find things here to chew on, but for others this slim book will make a very dry hundred pages.

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