Stanislaw Lem and Mankind’s Place in the Universe

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) photo: Wojciech Zemek

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)
photo: Wojciech Zemek

On September 12, 1921, Polish writer of science fiction, philosophy and satire Stanislaw Lem was born. He is considered to be one of the most widely read science fiction writer in the world with his books translated into 41 languages and have sold over 27 million copies. His best known novel Solaris, about the ultimate inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species, published in 1961, was made into a feature film three times.

“for moral reasons … the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created … intentionally” (Stanislaw Lem)

Stanislaw Lem – Early Years

Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (today Ukraine) as son of Sabina Woller and Samuel Lem, a wealthy laryngologist and former physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army with a Jewish background. Lem had a sheltered childhood. Though raised a Roman Catholic, he later became an atheist “for moral reasons”. After the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, he was not allowed to study at the Polytechnic as he wished because of his “bourgeois origin” and only due to his father’s connections was accepted to study medicine at Lwów University in 1940. During World War II and the Nazi occupation (1941–1944), Lem survived with false papers, earning a living as a car mechanic and welder, and becoming active in the resistance. However, most of his family died in the Holocaust.

“I am a staunch adherent to the maxim that literature, much as philosophy, should never bore its readers to death.” (Stanislaw Lem)

 A Penniless Medical Student

In 1944, after the Soviets displaced the Germans from Lwów, he resumed his medical classes and two years later, when the city was absorbed into the Soviet Union, he moved to Krakow, Poland, which remained his home for much of the rest of his life. Working toward a medical degree at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow was difficult, because his family had lost all of its property during the war. Thus, Lem was essentially penniless. This was the reason that he began to write pulp fiction for magazines and poetry for a Catholic weekly newspaper. During this time among his friends was also a young priest Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. Although Lem finished his studies in 1948, he decided to flunk intentionally his final exams because he realized that he would likely be conscripted as a military doctor if he passed.

“A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it.” (Stanislaw Lem)

 The Decision for Science Fiction

The unexpected success of his first book The Astronauts and concurrent censorship problems with the printing of the earlier Hospital of the Transfiguration meant that the writer decided once and for all to devote himself to the genre of science fiction. On the one hand, this allowed him to write about the role of technology in the lives of human beings. On the other, it made evading censorship much easier. Lem became truly productive after 1956, when the de-Stalinization period in the Soviet Union led to the “Polish October”, when Poland experienced an increase in freedom of speech. In 1957 he published his first non-fiction, philosophical book, Dialogi (Dialogues). Lem discusses philosophical implications of technologies that were completely in the realm of science fiction then, but are gaining importance today, as e.g., virtual reality and nanotechnology.

International Success

Lem gained first international fame in 1974 for The Cyberiad, a series of humorous short stories from a mechanical universe inhabited by robots (who had occasional contacts with biological “slimies” and human “palefaces”). His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), His Master’s Voice (1968), and the late Fiasco (1987), expressing most strongly his major theme of the futility of humanity’s attempts to comprehend the truly alien. Solaris was made into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and again in 2002, Steven Soderbergh directed a Hollywood remake starring George Clooney. When Martial Law was declared in Poland in 1982, Lem moved to West-Berlin, where he stayed until 1988. He went back to Krakow again, where he stayed until his death in 2006.

Stanislaw Lem’s Literary Work

Through his utopian works, Lem gained the reputation of being one of the greatest writers in the history of science fiction literature. His short stories, novels and essays are characterized in particular by an exuberant wealth of ideas and imaginative new linguistic creations, whereby criticism of the feasibility and understanding of technical developments in the context of philosophical discourses is always a central component of his works. Lem named Dostoevsky,[7Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka [6] and the brothers Arkadi and Boris Strugazki as his favourite writers. In the 1970s, he created a series of publications of SF classics translated into Polish, including Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick.[5] He corresponded with the latter during this time – Dick’s mental illness led him to write a complaint to the FBI against Lem (whom he considered a secret organization L.E.M.). Lem was also temporarily removed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America honorary membership awarded in 1976 at Dick’s instigation. Lem’s (self-)ironic attitude to the science fiction genre is clearly illustrated in the introductory sentence of the short story “Tales of Pirx the Pilot“, in which the first-person narrator says: “Utopian books? Yes, I like them, but only bad ones.”

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