With the possible exception of France's Jules Verne, Polish author Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006) has been the best-known science fiction writer to work in a language other than English. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages, with total sales estimated at some 27 million copies by 2006.
Lem's highly philosophical novels were quite different in style and content from the largely adventure-oriented science fiction popular in the West, most of which he mercilessly disparaged; the Science Fiction Writers' Association in the United States revoked his honorary membership in a celebrated 1976 incident. His writing, often grim but leavened by dry humor, was shaped by influences specific to the time and place in which he lived. Yet Lem's popularity was truly international. At the height of the Cold War he commanded a large readership in both the United States and the Soviet Union, and his single best-known work, the 1961 novel Solaris, was filmed by both countries. His work was generally readable and entertaining, and he told Peter Swirski, in an interview published in A Stanislaw Lem Reader, "I am a staunch adherent to the maxim that literature, much as philosophy, should never bore its readers to death."
Father Escaped Execution
Stanislaw Lem was born in the Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) on September 12, 1921. His family was of Jewish background, although Lem himself was never religiously observant. One theme that marked his writing was that of the arbitrariness of life. Lem himself wrote in his memoir Highcastle that "I really don't know when it was that I first experienced the surprise that I existed, surprise accompanied by a touch of fear that I could just as easily have not existed, or been a stick, or a dandelion, or a goat's leg, or a snail." Perhaps that attitude was rooted in Lem's own experiences and those of his family as they lived through the terrible upheavals of Europe in the twentieth century. Before Lem was born, his father was nearly executed by a firing squad (he was saved by the last-minute intervention of a friend), and Lem himself had brushes with death during World War II.
After things settled down in newly independent Poland, however, the Lem family prospered. Lem's father was an otolaryngologist, and his son was fascinated by the drawings in his medical books. "Each volume [of a German otolaryngology handbook] had no fewer than a thousand glossy pages," Lem wrote in Highcastle. "There I could look at heads cut open in various ways, innumerable ways, the whole machinery drawn and colored with the utmost precision." Lem developed a knack for detailed scientific description and combined it with a rich fantasy life—he was not an especially happy child, and he wrote that "as a young boy I certainly terrorized those around me." He enjoyed reading, and early in life he encountered the writings of science fiction pioneers H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
In 1939 Lem graduated from secondary school in Lvov and enrolled at the Lvov Medical Institute just as Soviet troops overran the city in the early days of World War II. The city soon fell to the German army, placing Lem and his family in grave danger. They pulled strings and obtained forged documents that did not identify them as Jewish, enabling them to remain in the city. His medical education put on hold, Lem worked as an auto mechanic; he soon learned, as he was quoted as saying in the Times of London, "to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn't immediately be discovered." He later worked as a welder in a German-owned scrap yard. Lem was active in Poland's Jewish anti-Nazi resistance, smuggling arms into the Krakow ghetto from which he eventually saw most of his Jewish friends deported to their deaths. In 1944, after the Soviets displaced the Germans from Lvov, he resumed his medical classes.
In 1946, with Lvov having been absorbed into the Soviet Union, he moved to Krakow, Poland, which remained his home for much of the rest of his life. Lem worked slowly toward a medical degree at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, but his family had lost all of its property during the war, and he was essentially penniless. To make ends meet he began to write pulp fiction for magazines and poetry for a Catholic weekly newspaper. Among his friends was Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. Lem finished his studies in 1948 but intentionally flunked his final exams because he realized that he would likely be conscripted as a military doctor if he passed. He was also dismayed by the ideological control over the sciences that the Soviet Union was beginning to exert in Poland.
Worked in Socialist Realist Genre
That decision left writing as Lem's most promising career option. At first he tried to adapt himself to the tenets of Socialist Realism, the officially improved style of the Communist world, with realistic, optimistic plots in which science and industry ultimately work for the good of the people. He repeatedly rewrote his novel Szpital Przemieniena (Hospital of the Transfiguration) in an attempt to please Polish censors. In 1951, almost by accident, Lem turned to science fiction. After a casual discussion with a publishing official about the lack of science fiction in Polish, he received a book contract in the mail, with a blank space for the title. He filled in the blank with "Astronauci" ("Astronauts") and quickly delivered the promised manuscript. With his fortunes on the rise, Lem married Barbara Leszniak, a radiologist, in 1953. In 1968 the two had a son, Tomasz, who later became curator of a website devoted to Lem's works.
In later life Lem spoke negatively about Astronauts and his other early novels like Oblok Magellana (The Magellan Nebula, 1955), but these books gained him a wide readership in Poland. Czas nieutracony (Time Not Lost) dealt with life in Nazi-occupied Poland. Lem found that literary authorities considered science fiction a trivial genre and exercised less oversight when it came to his works in that genre. After the Soviet Union repressed a revolt by Hungarian reformers in 1956, Lem began to write science fiction prolifically. He never explicitly positioned himself as a dissident with respect to Poland's Communist regime, but some of his works had a satirical streak that might have caused him trouble in any genre other than science fiction.
Iskry (Eden, 1959) was one of Lem's first fully characteristic novels, built on the science fiction convention of a spaceship crew discovering a remote and mysterious planet, but emerging in the end as skeptical about the possibility of human communication with cultures whose technology might differ fundamentally from that found on earth. Two years later Lem published Solaris, which remains his best-known work. Solaris, again, was outwardly a science fiction adventure: the inhabitants of a space station encounter a mostly water-covered planet whose ocean seems to have intelligent properties. As the crew tries to communicate with this radically different life form and then attacks it in frustration, a bewildering disaster occurs: the ocean creates physical manifestations of their deepest fears. Solaris was filmed by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and an American version directed by Steven Soderbergh was filmed in 2002, with actor George Clooney in the lead role.
Other Lem novels and stories also featured space explorers as protagonists, although Lem often introduced a note of satire and a psychological edge that left the reader quite distant from triumphant Star Trek territory in the end. His writings featured two recurring characters. The adventures of astronaut Ijon Tichy (who appeared in Dzienniki Gwiazdowe (Star Diaries and Memoirs of a Space Traveler, 1971) commented either directly or indirectly on the militarism and bureaucracy of Earth's own societies. Nathan M. Powers wrote on the Modern Word website that "Tichy lives in a universe teeming with life, where humanity jostles shoulders with creatures bizarre and grotesque, yet somehow always familiar, for this is a world where humanity's flaws and virtues are writ large across the stars. These stories may be read as sharp social satire, depicting the bizarre customs of other places to drive home surprising points about our own; they have been aptly compared to the philosophical fictions of Swift and Voltaire."
Pirx the Pilot, who appeared in a series of Lem's short stories, was an ordinary man living in a world that science had made bizarre. Lem in the Pirx stories, unlike other science fiction authors, accurately described the dullness as well as the psychological challenges that would face an interplanetary traveler, and his writings generally extrapolated from firm groundings in scientific fact. One of the Ijon Tichy novels, Pokoj na ziemi (Peace on Earth, 1987) fused satirical themes with up-to-the minute science: Earth has temporarily rid itself of war by setting machines loose on the Moon to fight battles in which no humans are hurt, but soon the Earth is threatened with invasion from its own now-malevolent lunar machines. Tichy is sent to the moon to investigate, but he is subjected to a procedure in which the right hemisphere of his brain is disconnected from the left, leaving him unable to speak.
Wrote Experimental Works
Many of Lem's writings pushed the imagination of the reader to its limits in the worlds they conjured, and he wrote some works that fell into the experimental category even as they retained a strain of humor. Cyberiada (The Cyberiad, 1965) features traveling robots as its central characters; humans are present only as minor characters who are disliked by the robots for their mushy consistency. Bezsennosc (1971, translated as The Futurological Congress) depicts an Earth transformed by the introduction of mind-altering drugs into the atmosphere; the hero, Tichy, cannot separate reality from a texture of interlocking mass hallucinations.
Some of Lem's books abandoned science fiction altogether; Doskonala proznia (1971, translated as A Perfect Vacuum) consisted of a set of reviews of nonexistent books written at some point in the future. (In several books Lem seemed to anticipate the "information overload" that would become a feature of the Internet age.) He also wrote nonfiction science commentaries such as Summa technologiae (1964), a play, literary essays, and magazine articles. Lem remained prolific for several decades; some two dozen of his books were translated into English (mostly by American writer Michael Kandel directly from Polish, but some from German or French editions of Lem's work), but many others remain available only in Polish or other languages.
Lem moved briefly to Austria after the Polish government cracked down on the Solidarity labor union in the early 1980s, but he soon returned to Krakow. He did not write fiction for some years after the dissolution of Communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989, but remained in good health and continued to lead an active literary life. Although he had never used his pen to attack one-party rule directly, it seemed that the experience of living under totalitarianism had inspired his work at some level. Both before and after the fall of Communism, however, Lem was paraded by the Polish State as a kind of national culture hero, and he was given the Polish State Prize for Literature in 1976. Lem's writings of the 1990s remain mostly untranslated. He died in Krakow on March 27, 2006.
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