Last reviewed: June 2018
Polish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist.
September 12, 1921
Lwów, Second Polish Republic (now Lviv, Ukraine)
March 27, 2006
Stanisław Lem was one of the most important European science-fiction writers of the postwar era. He was born in Poland in 1921, the son of a physician. A brilliant student, Lem followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in medical school. Soon thereafter, German and Soviet troops invaded Poland, and Lem did not complete his medical studies until several years after World War II had ended. Meanwhile, he had begun working at a scientific institute that received technical literature from abroad and disseminated it to Polish universities. This experience, which put him in touch with current developments in a number of scientific fields (including the fledgling field then known as cybernetics), profoundly influenced Lem’s career. Stanisław Lem.
Lem began publishing poems and stories while still a student. His first novel, Człowiek z Marsa (Man from Mars), was a science-fiction tale serialized in the magazine Nowy świat przygód in 1946; it was not published in book form until 1994. His first published book was the science-fiction novel Astronauci (The astronauts, 1951).
In his own country Lem was classified as a member of the “generation of Columbuses.” This term, coined by the writer Roman Bratney in his novel Kolumbowie, rocznik 20 (Columbuses, generation 1920, 1957), identifies those Polish writers who were born soon after Polish independence in 1918 and experienced World War II as children or youths. Astronauci and another early novel, Obłok Magellana (The Magellanic cloud, 1955), published during the heyday of socialist realism, depict a utopian future entirely in line with the Marxist doctrine of historical inevitability. Lem would come to dislike these works, especially the latter, regarding them as naively optimistic.
Beginning in 1956, when the nations of Eastern Europe briefly challenged Soviet domination, Lem’s production of fiction increased greatly. While his early works were great popular successes and were widely translated, only gradually did he gain recognition as a serious writer. In this respect, the year 1961 was especially important for Lem. In that year he published two novels, Powrót z gwiazd (Return from the Stars, 1980) and Solaris (English translation, 1970), that would earn him a much broader readership and increased critical esteem. Return from the Stars is the story of an astronaut returning home from a voyage that for him took ten years to find that more than a century has elapsed on Earth. His difficulty in adjusting to a radically different society is the main concern of the book. Solaris was even more important for Lem’s career; when the novel was translated into English in 1970, its immediate popularity brought Lem to the attention of the West. Solaris is a lyrical space fantasy about humanity’s encounter with a mysterious planet that is so alien to human experience, it defeats all efforts to understand it. The image of the planet's vast, shifting oceans is a haunting one, and the work stresses the limitations of human understanding in a vast universe.
There is a slight touch of irony in the fact that it was the novel Solaris that popularized Lem in the West, for throughout his career he devoted much of his attention to short fiction. Readers fond of the short story will find some of Lem’s work highly reminiscent of that of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer for whom Lem expressed admiration. Lem’s collections Doskonala próżnia (1971; A Perfect Vacuum, 1979) and Prowokacja (Provocation, 1984) consist of reviews of nonexistent books, and Wielkość urojona (1973; Imaginary Magnitude, 1984) is similar, consisting of an introduction to the book itself, three introductions to imaginary works, an advertisement for a nonexistent encyclopedia, and a final set of six pieces: an introduction and a foreword to a set of lectures produced by a reasoning computer, instructions for consulting the computer, two of the lectures themselves, and an afterword.
Two series of more orthodox short stories—the comic adventures of Ijon Tichy and the serious tales of Pirx the pilot—show Lem’s continuing interest in the theme of man-machine interaction. Tichy is frequently a passive observer of machines more or less antagonistic to humans; his serious counterpart, Pirx, is a spaceman who often struggles with such machines. Pirx, a dreamer but a survivor, illustrates the fragility of the human endeavor in space: vulnerable humans inside ships, totally dependent on the machines that enclose and guard them. Yet in these stories, Lem emphasizes the seemingly contradictory idea that humanity’s weakness, its very vulnerability, defines its strength. Pirx is neither a sympathetic bungler nor the beneficiary of outstanding good luck; he is simply human in the best sense—adaptable.
In a third set of stories, Lem explores the question of what being human means, a theme that also concerned the American writer Isaac Asimov throughout his career. In these works, Lem considers robots with human traits. The stories in Bajki robotów (1964; Mortal Engines, 1977) and Cyberiada (1965; The Cyberiad, 1974) are set in the far future and depict robots with self-consciousness and free will. Like Asimov, Lem concludes that it is behavior that defines humanness.
In addition to novels, stories, and fictional hybrids, Lem published a variety of nonfictional works, most of which combine philosophical and technological speculation. For the most part, Lem the essayist is not known in the West, as his nonfiction remains largely untranslated. There are, however, two notable exceptions. Wysoki zamek (1966; Highcastle: A Remembrance, 1995) is Lem’s narrative of pre–World War II Poland, his childhood, and his early influences. Second, many of Lem’s essays on science fiction were published in translation in journals such as Science-Fiction Studies; some of the best of them came from his collection Fantastyka i futurologia (1970), parts of which are collected in the volume Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984) along with a valuable autobiographical piece, “Reflections on My Life.”
Lem’s writings on science fiction tend to be polemical and highly critical of his fellow practitioners; one essay in Microworlds is entitled “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—with Exceptions.” Such views provoked considerable controversy, even prompting the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to revoke Lem’s honorary membership in 1976, three years after granting it. It should be noted that Lem had great respect for science fiction as a vehicle for speculation on fundamental questions; for that very reason, he objected strongly to what he regarded as the trivialization of the genre.
Throughout all of his works, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, Lem displays a characteristic sense of humor, a concern with important issues, an openness to and understanding of technological change, and a willingness to confront the problems that such change will inevitably produce. It was these strengths that made him one of the most important writers of science fiction in the twentieth century.