A Perfect Vacuum

A Perfect Vacuum

A Perfect Vacuum (Polish: Doskonała próżnia) is a 1971 book by Polish author Stanisław Lem. It is an anthology of reviews of nonexistent books. It was translated into English by Michael Kandel. A Perfect Vacuum can be seen as a compilation of Lem works: some of the reviews remind the reader of drafts of his science-fiction novels, some read like philosophical pieces across scientific topics, from cosmology to the pervasiveness of computers, finally others satirise and parody everything from the nouveau roman to pornography, Ulysses, authorless writing, and Dostoevsky.

Reviewing nonexistent books is not a theme unique to Lem (consider Jorge Luis Borges' Investigations of the Writings of Herbert Quain), but the idea of an entire anthology of such pieces is rather novel. Lem attempted to create different fictional reviewers and authors for each of the books. In his own words: "I tried to imitate various styles – that of a book review, a lecture, a presentation, a speech (of a Nobel Prize laureate) and so on". Some of the reviews are lighthearted, concentrating mostly on the story; others, however, read more like serious, academic reviews. Some of the reviews are parodies, or the books being reviewed are parodies or complete impossibilities, others are quite serious and can be seen almost as drafts for novels that Lem never got around to write. It can also be said that in this book Lem criticizes the postmodernist "games for games' sake" ethos, turning it against itself.



The book contains reviews of 16 imaginary books and one real book: itself.

  • A Perfect Vacuum: review of the book itself, by the author himself.
  • Les Robinsonades
  • Gigamesh: fictional 'Gigamesh' is to the Gilgamesh legend what James Joyce's Ulysses is to Odyssey. Lem spends his review doing the same sort of dissection of this fictional novel, word by word, phoneme by phoneme, that critics have been doing to Joyce for years.
  • The Sexplosion: a novel concerned with the extinction of the sex drive.
  • Gruppenführer Louis XVI is a story about how an ex-Nazi in Argentina recreates the pre-Revolutionary French Court in the jungle.
  • Rien du tout, ou la consequence: review of a book written entirely in negations ("The train did not arrive. He did not come.").
  • Pericalypsis: - Lem's critique of reviewers and modern art.
  • Idiota
  • U-Write-It: a publication described as a literary erector set. It gives the reader blank pages and strips containing fragments of some great novel and orders the reader to re-arrange them at will.
  • Odysseus of Ithaca
  • Toi
  • Being Inc.: review of a book that portrays the world as the result of elaborate computer planning of individual lives, a huge choreography of humanity;
  • Die Kultur Als Fehler, or 'Civilization as a mistake': One of Lem's philosophical pieces, he argues that humanity has tried to give meaning to its frailties and weaknesses by claiming they are part of a larger plan of things. Now that technological progress has allowed us to evade many of these hardships, some people oppose that – consciously or not, because it would mean that all the previous suffering has been unnecessary and technology is our saviour.
  • De Impossibilitate Vitae and De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi: two books reviewed in one review, both dealing with alternative history. The former consists almost entirely of tracking all the things that must have happened for the supposed author to have been born: his father must have married his mother, which in turn depended on them meeting during the War, which in turn depended on multitude of other events. Here Lem argues for the butterfly effect: changing one thing has an almost infinite number of unimaginable consequences.
  • Non Serviam: perhaps closest to stereotypical science fiction, this review describes an attempt to model and breed intelligent beings inside a computer, and discusses the scientist's responsibility for his creation.
  • The New Cosmogony: review of a fictional oration by a Nobel Prize laureate, who presents a new model of the universe based on his analysis to the Fermi Paradox: the universe is a game.

Similar theme in Lem's works

In 1973 Lem wrote a similar book: Imaginary Magnitude (Polish: Wielkość Urojona), a collection of introductions to nonexistent books, as written by artificial intelligences. One of those Lem eventually developed into a book by itself: Golem XIV is a lengthy essay on the nature of intelligence, delivered by the eponymous US military computer. He also wrote One Human Minute, a book containing three reviews, the one with the same title being a review of a book of statistical tables, a compilation that includes everything that happens to human life on the planet within any given 60 second period.

From reviews of A Perfect Vacuum

External links


  • Stanisław Lem, A Perfect Vacuum, Northwestern University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8101-1733-9


  • Peter Swirski, ed (2006). The art and science of Stanislaw Lem. McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 0773530460. 

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