Authors: Stanisław Lem

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Polish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist.

September 12, 1921

Lwów, Second Polish Republic (now Lviv, Ukraine)

March 27, 2006

Kraków, Poland


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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Człowiek z Marsa, 1946 (serial), 1994 (book) Astronauci, 1951 Czas nieutracony, 1955 (contains the novels Szpital przemienienia [Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1988], Wśród umarłych, and Powrót) Obłok Magellana, 1955 Eden, 1959 (English translation, 1989) Śledztwo, 1959 (The Investigation, 1974) Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, 1961 (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, 1973) Powrót z gwiazd, 1961 (Return from the Stars, 1980) Solaris, 1961 (English translation, 1970) Niezwyciężony, 1964 (in Niezwyciężony i inne opowiadania; The Invincible, 1973) Głos pana, 1968 (His Master’s Voice, 1983) Kongres futurologiczny, 1971 (novella; in Bezsenność; The Futurological Congress, 1974) Katar, 1976 (The Chain of Chance, 1978) Wizja lokalna, 1982 Fiasko, 1986 (Fiasco, 1987) Pokój na Ziemi, 1987 (Peace on Earth, 1994) Sknocony kryminał, 2009 (unfinished) Short Fiction: Sezam i inne opowiadania, 1954 Dzienniki gwiazdowe, 1957, 1971 (The Star Diaries, 1976, and Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy, 1982) Inwazja z Aldebarana, 1959 Księga robotów, 1961 Noc księżycowa, 1963 Bajki robotów, 1964 (partial translation, Mortal Engines, 1977) Niezwyciężony i inne opowiadania, 1964 Cyberiada, 1965 (The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age, 1974) Polowanie, 1965 Ratujmy kosmos i inne opowiadania, 1966 Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie, 1968 (Tales of Pirx the Pilot, 1979, and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, 1982) Bezsenność, 1971 (includes Kongres futurologiczny) Doskonala próżnia, 1971 (A Perfect Vacuum, 1979) Wielkość urojona, 1973 (Imaginary Magnitude, 1984) Maska, 1976 Suplement, 1976 Powtórka, 1979 The Cosmic Carnival of Stanisław Lem: An Anthology of Entertaining Stories by the Modern Master of Science Fiction, 1981 (Michael Kandel, editor) Golem XIV, 1981 Prowokacja, 1984 Biblioteka XXI wieku, 1986 One Human Minute, 1986 (Catherine S. Leach, translator) Ciemność i pleśń, 1988 Pożytek ze smoka, 1993 Zagadka, opowiadania, 1996 Apokryfy, 1998 Fantastyczny Lem: Opowiadania, 2001 (Jerzy Jarzębski, editor) Lata czterdzieste: Dyktanda, 2005 Drama: Jacht “Paradise”, pb. 1951 (with Roman Hussarski) Przekładaniec, pb. 2000 (radio, film, and television scripts and scenarios) Poetry: Wiersze młodzieńcze, 1975 (in Wysoki zamek; Wiersze młodzieńcze) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Dyktanda czyli, w jaki sposób wujek Staszek, wówczas Michasia, dziś Michała, uczył pisać bez błędów, 2001 Nonfiction: Dialogi, 1957 Wejście na orbitę, 1962 Summa technologiae, 1964 Wysoki zamek, 1966 (Highcastle: A Remembrance, 1995) Filozofia przypadku: Literatura w świetle empirii, 1968 Fantastyka i futurologia, 1970 (2 volumes; partial translation, Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1984) Rozprawy i szkice, 1975 Lube czasy, 1995 (Tomasz Fiałkowski, editor) Sex Wars, 1996 Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju, 1996 Dziury w całym, 1997 (Tomasz Fiałkowski, editor) Bomba megabitowa, 1999 Okamgnienie, 2000 Świat na krawędzi: Ze Stanisławem Lemem rozmawia Tomasz Fiałkowski, 2000 (interviews) Listy albo opór materii, 2002 (Jerzy Jarzębski, editor) Dylematy, 2003 Mój pogląd na literaturę: Rozprawy i szkice, 2003 Krótkie zwarcia, 2004 Rasa drapieżców: Teksty ostatnie, 2006 (Tomasz Fiałkowski, editor) Listy, 1956–1978, 2011 (with Sławomir Mrożek) Sława i fortuna: Listy do Michaela Kandla, 1972–1987, 2013 (Maciej Urbanowski, editor) Planeta LEMa: Felietony ponadczasowe, 2016 (Wojciech Zemek, editor) Miscellaneous: A Stanisław Lem Reader, 1997 (Peter Swirski, editor) Bibliography Baranczak, Stanislaw. “Spin, Memory.” Review of Highcastle: A Remembrance, by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel. The New Republic, 20 May 1996, pp. 39–41. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. Uses Lem’s memoir as an excuse to explore the diversity of Lem’s canon, the subtlety and humor of his political satire, and the underlying implications of his decision to focus on his lost youth in Lviv. Barnouw, Dagmar. “Science Fiction as a Model for Probabilistic Worlds: Stanislaw Lem’s Fantastic Empiricism.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1979, pp. 153–63. Literary Reference Center, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. Examines Lem’s concept of science fiction as a cognitive aesthetic model whereby he focuses on contemporary social and psychological behavior. Davis, J. Madison. Stanislaw Lem. Starmont House, 1990. Does not discuss all of Lem’s works in detail, but does provide thorough discussions of his major novels and many of his short stories, showing the development of Lem’s thought as reflected in his fiction. Includes a chronology, a biographical sketch, and extensive annotated primary and secondary bibliographies. Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2000. Discusses Lem’s novel Solaris, along with works by Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Joanna Russ. Macdonald, Gina. “Lem, Stanislaw.” Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, edited by Curtis C. Smith, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1986, pp. 847–49. A brief biographical sketch and overview discussion of Lem’s work. Malmgren, Carl D. “Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 1993, pp. 15–33. Literary Reference Center, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. Argues that Lem uses alien encounters to probe the limits of human understanding and knowledge; claims that for Lem communication with aliens is problematic, conducted through a veil of incomprehensible signs, for communication with aliens is beyond words. Mullen, R. D., and Darko Suvin, editors. Science-Fiction Studies: Selected Articles on Science Fiction, 1973–1975. Gregg Press, 1976. Contains essays on Lem by one of his best translators, Michael V. Kandel, and by Jerzy Jarzebski. Kandel’s short “review” is a witty introduction to some of Lem’s themes. Jarzebski’s “Stanislaw Lem, Rationalist and Visionary” is an overview of Lem’s career that provides a good introduction to his major themes and techniques, as well as to phases of his development during his career. Santoro, Gene. “Not Exactly Paradise.” Review of Eden, by Stanislaw Lem. The Nation, 2 Apr. 1990, pp. 462–63. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. Describes Eden as an ironic, Robinson Crusoe–like encounter that provides Lem room to comment on the nature of consciousness and the human condition—the way experiences limit the human ability to perceive the new and alien. The novel could be read as a Stalinist dystopia, Santoro says, or, as “Lem’s fantasy worlds come more and more to resemble our own,” a Reaganist one, with public access to information curtailed, government spokespeople misspeaking, media complicity and a wearily passive populace. Weissert, Thomas P., et al. “On Stanislaw Lem.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, pp. 161–218. A special section of four articles on Lem, discussing multiple facets of his major novels and short-story collections. Includes essays on Lem’s story “The Mask” and his novel Solaris. Slusser, George E., et al., editors. Bridges to Science Fiction. Southern Illinois UP, 1980. Contains essays on Lem by Gregory Benford and Stephen Potts. Benford deals mainly with Solaris, discussing Lem’s use of the unknowable alien being. Potts discusses Lem’s major theme of the limits of human knowledge and human ability to understand the unknown, comparing him to other authors such as Franz Kafka. Solotaroff, Theodore. “A Master of Science Fiction—and More.” The New York Times, 29 Aug. 1976, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017. An appreciative review of a few of Lem’s books, including The Cyberiad. A helpful introduction to Lem’s themes and works. Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. McGill–Queen’s UP, 2000. A comparative study of Lem’s and Edgar Allen Poe’s uses of science for fictional purposes. Swirski, Peter. A Stanislaw Lem Reader. Northwestern UP, 1997. Collects various writings by and about Lem. Includes an introductory essay by Swirski, two lengthy interviews with Lem, and an essay by Lem. Concludes with a complete bibliography of Lem’s books in English and Polish, a list of Lem’s essays and articles in English, and an extensive bibliography of critical sources on Lem in English. Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. MIT P, 1980. Contains the chapter “Stanislaw Lem’s Robot Fables and Ironic Tales,” which discusses Lem’s use of irony to parody cybernetic fiction in both the utopian and dystopian modes. Includes a brief discussion of the tone and content of the typical Lem short story. Ziegfeld, Richard E. Stanislaw Lem. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1985. An introduction to Lem that surveys his translated works and his themes. Includes a biographical sketch, two substantial chapters on the short fiction, an annotated primary bibliography, and a select secondary bibliography.

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