Communicating productively with an alien intelligence, whether by traveling through space to another civilization or attempting to understand their messages received here on Earth, is so consistent a commonplace of cosmic science fiction that we might easily regard it as a defining feature of the genre. This essay argues, by contrast, that Stanisław Lem's fiction about space travel aims consistently to demonstrate the impossibility of such communication. Setting aside the obstacles that might prevent contact between alien intelligences, whether by positing a technological solution or ignoring those difficulties altogether, Lem confronts the epistemological challenge of how beings with no shared points of reference in language, experience, or even spatial-temporal awareness could ever share information meaningfully. Lem's purpose, the essay concludes, is to show not how such communication is possible, but rather how its impossibility compels the human imagination to fill the void, a quintessentially human act.

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