Lem in 1966
Stanis?aw Herman Lem|
12 or 13 September 1921
(now Lviv, Ukraine)
27 March 2006 (aged 84)|
|Genre||Hard science fiction, philosophy, satire|
|Spouse||Barbara Le?niak (1953-2006; his death; 1 child)|
Stanis?aw Herman Lem (Polish pronunciation: [sta'?iswaf 'l?m]; 12 or 13 September 1921 - 27 March 2006) was a Polish writer of science fiction, philosophy, and satire, and a trained physician. Lem's books have been translated into 41 languages and have sold over 45 million copies. From the 1950s to 2000s, he published many books, both science fiction and philosophical/futurological. He is best known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science fiction writer in the world.
Lem's works explore philosophical themes through speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of communication with and understanding of alien intelligence, despair about human limitations, and humanity's place in the universe. They are sometimes presented as fiction, but others are in the form of essays or philosophical books.
Translating his works is difficult due to passages with elaborate word formation, idiomatic wordplay, alien or robotic poetry, and puns.
Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, interwar Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). According to his own account, he was actually born on the 13th of September, but the date was changed to the 12th on his birth certificate because of superstition. He was the son of Sabina née Woller (1892-1979) and Samuel Lem (1879-1954), a wealthy laryngologist and former physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and first cousin to Polish poet Marian Hemar (Lem's father and Hemar's mother were brother and sister). In later years Lem sometimes claimed to have been raised Roman Catholic, but he went to Jewish religious lessons during his school years. He later became an atheist "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". In later years he would call himself both an agnostic and an atheist.
After the Soviet invasion and occupation of Eastern Poland, he was not allowed to study at Lwow 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 the subsequent Nazi occupation (1941-1944), Lem's family, which had Jewish roots, avoided imprisonment in a ghetto, surviving with false papers. He would later recall:
During that period, I learned in a very personal, practical way that I was no "Aryan". I knew that my ancestors were Jews, but I knew nothing of the Mosaic faith and, regrettably, nothing at all of Jewish culture. So it was, strictly speaking, only the Nazi legislation that brought home to me the realization that I had Jewish blood in my veins.
During that time, Lem earned a living as a car mechanic and welder, and occasionally stole the munitions from storehouses (to which he had access as an employee of a German company) to pass it to Polish resistance.
In 1945, Polish Eastern Borderlands were annexed into Soviet Ukraine, and the family, like many other Poles, was resettled to Kraków, where Lem, at his father's insistence, took up medical studies at the Jagiellonian University. He did not take his final examinations on purpose, to avoid military service, obligatory for all medical graduates at the time. After receiving absolutorium (Polish term for the evidence of completion of the studies without diploma), he did an obligatory monthly work at a hospital, at a maternity ward, where he assisted at a number of childbirths and a caesarean section. Lem said that the sight of blood was one of the reasons he decided to drop medicine. 
Lem made his literary debut in 1946 with a number of works of different genres, including poetry as well as a science fiction novel, The Man from Mars (Cz?owiek z Marsa), serialized in Nowy ?wiat Przygód (New World of Adventures). Between 1948 and 1950 Lem was working as a scientific research assistant at the Jagiellonian University, and published a number of short stories, poems, reviews and similar works, particularly at Tygodnik Powszechny. In 1951, he published his first book, The Astronauts (Astronauci). In 1953 he met and married (civil marriage) Barbara Le?niak, a medical student. Their church marriage ceremony was performed in February, 1954. In 1954, he published a short story anthology, Sesame and Other Stories (Sezam i inne opowiadania). The following year, 1955, saw the publication of another science fiction novel, The Magellanic Cloud (Ob?ok Magellana).
During the era of Stalinism, which had begun in Poland in the late 1940s, all published works had to be directly approved by the communist regime. Thus Astronauci was not, in fact, the first novel Lem finished, just the first that made it past the censors. Going by the date of finished manuscript, Lem's first book was a partly autobiographical novella Hospital of the Transfiguration (Szpital Przemienienia), finished in 1948. It would be published seven years later, in 1955, as a trilogy under a title Czas nieutracony (Time Not Lost). The experience of trying to push Czas nieutracony through the censors was one of the major reasons Lem decided to focus on the less-censored genre of science fiction. Nonetheless, most of Lem's works published in the 1950s also contain--forced upon him by the censors and editors--various references to socialist realism as well as the "glorious future of communism". Lem later criticized several of his early pieces as compromised by the ideological pressure.
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. Between 1956 and 1968, Lem authored seventeen books. His writing over the next three decades or so was split between science fiction (primarily prose) and essays about science and culture.
In 1957, he published his first non-fiction, philosophical book, Dialogues (Dialogi), as well as a science fiction anthology, The Star Diaries (Dzienniki gwiazdowe), collecting short stories about one of his most popular characters, Ijon Tichy. 1959 saw the publication of three books: Eden, ?ledztwo and the short story anthology Inwazja z Aldebarana. 1961 saw two more books, the first regarded as being among his top works: Pami?tnik znaleziony w wannie, Solaris, as well as Powrót z gwiazd. This was followed by a collections of his essays and non-fiction prose, Wej?cie na orbit? (1962), and a short story anthology Noc ksiycowa (1963). In 1964, Lem published a large work on the border of philosophy and sociology of science and futurology, Summa Technologiae, as well as a novel, The Invincible (Niezwyciony).
1965 saw the publication of The Cyberiad (Cyberiada) and of a short story anthology, The Hunt (Polowanie). 1966 is the year of Wysoki Zamek, followed in 1968 by '"G?os Pana and Tales of Pirx the Pilot (Opowie?ci o pilocie Pirxie).Wysoki Zamek was another of Lem's autobiographical works, and touched upon a theme that usually was not favored by the censors: Lem's youth in the pre-war, then-Polish, Lviv. 1967 and 1970 saw two more non-fiction treatises, Filozofia przypadku and Fantastyka i futurologia. Ijon Tichy returned in 1971's The Futurological Congress Kongres futurologiczny; in the same year he released a genre-mixing experiment, Doskona?a pró?nia, a collection of reviews of non-existent books. In 1973 a similar work, Wielko urojona, was published. In 1976, Lem published two novels: Maska and Katar. In 1980, he published another set of reviews of non-existent works, Prowokacja. The following year sees another Tichy novel, Wizja lokalna, and Golem XIV. Later in that decade, he published Pokój na Ziemi (1984) and Fiasko (1986), Lem's final science fiction novel.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lem cautiously supported the Polish dissident movement, and started publishing essays in Paris-based Kultura. In 1982, with martial law in Poland declared, Lem moved to West Berlin, where he became a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin). After that, he settled in Vienna. He returned to Poland in 1988.
From the late 1980s onwards, he tended to concentrate on philosophical texts and essays, published in a number of Polish magazines (Tygodnik Powszechny, Odra, Przegl?d, and others). They were later collected in a number of anthologies.
In the early 1990s, Lem met with the literary scholar and critic Peter Swirski for a series of extensive interviews, published together with other critical materials and translations as A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997); in the book, Lem speaks about a range of issues rarely touched on before in any interview. Moreover, the book includes Swirski's translation of Lem's retrospective essay "Thirty Years Later", devoted to Lem's nonfictional treatise Summa Technologiae. During later interviews in 2005, Lem expressed his disappointment with the genre of science fiction, and his general pessimism regarding technical progress. He viewed the human body as unsuitable for space travel, held that information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information, and considered truly intelligent robots as both undesirable and impossible to construct. Subsequently, Peter Swirski has published a series of in-depth studies of Lem as a writer, philosopher, and futurologist; notable among them are the recent From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin (2013), Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel (2014), Lemography (2014), and Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (2015).
Lem was married to Barbara Lem née Krymska until his death. She died on 27 April 2016. Their only son, Tomasz, was born in 1968. He studied physics and mathematics at the University of Vienna, and graduated with a degree in physics from Princeton University. Tomasz wrote a memoir about his father, Awantury na tle powszechnego cienia ("Tantrums on the Background of the Universal Gravitation"), which contain numerous personal details about Stanis?aw Lem. The annotation of the book says Tomasz works as a translator and has a daughter, Anna.
Lem was awarded an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) in 1973. SFWA Honorary membership is given to people who do not meet the publishing criteria for joining the regular membership, but who would be welcomed as members had their work appeared in the qualifying English-language publications. Lem, however, never had a high opinion of American science fiction, describing it as ill-thought-out, poorly written, and interested more in making money than in ideas or new literary forms. After his eventual American publication, when he became eligible for regular membership, his honorary membership was rescinded, an action that some of the SFWA members apparently intended as a rebuke, and it seems that Lem interpreted it as such. Lem was invited to stay on with the organization with a regular membership, but declined. After many members (including Ursula K. Le Guin) protested against Lem's treatment by the SFWA, a member offered to pay his dues. Lem never accepted the offer.
Lem singled out only one American science fiction writer for praise, Philip K. Dick, in a 1984 English-language anthology of his critical essays, Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lem had initially held a low opinion of Philip K. Dick (as he did for the bulk of American science fiction) and would later claim that this was due to a limited familiarity with Dick's work.
Dick, suffering from mental health issues, would go on to maintain that Stanis?aw Lem was probably a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party to gain control over public opinion, and wrote a letter to the FBI to that effect. Lem was also responsible for the Polish translation of Dick's work Ubik in 1972, and when Dick felt monetarily short-changed by the publisher, he held Lem personally responsible (see Microworlds).
Lem is one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction writers, hailed by critics as equal to such classic authors as H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science fiction writer in the world.
In Poland, in the 1960s and 1970s, Lem remained under the radar of mainstream critics, who dismissed him as a "mass market", low-brow, youth-oriented writer; such dismissal might have given him a form of invisibility from censorship.
The total volume of his published works is over 28 million volumes. His works were widely translated abroad, appearing in over 40 languages, though the bulk of them were in Eastern Bloc countries (Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union).Franz Rottensteiner, Lem's former agent abroad, had this to say about Lem's reception on international markets:
With [number of translations and copies sold], Lem is the most successful author in modern Polish fiction; nevertheless his commercial success in the world is limited, and the bulk of his large editions was due to the special publishing conditions in the Communist countries: Poland, the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic). Only in West Germany was Lem really a critical and a commercial success [... and everywhere ...] in recent years interest in him has waned.
But he is the only writer of European [science fiction, most of whose] books have been translated into English, and [...] kept in print in the USA. Lem's critical success in English is due mostly to the excellent translations of Michael Kandel.
His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), His Master's Voice (G?os pana, 1968), and the late Fiasco (Fiasko, 1987). Solaris was made into a film in 1968 by Russian director Boris Nirenburg, a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky--which won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972--and an American film in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh.
Solaris is not the only work of Lem's to be filmed. Over ten film and television adaptations of his work exist, such as adaptations of The Astronauts (First Spaceship on Venus, 1960) and The Magellan Nebula (Ikarie XB-1, 1963). Lem himself was, however, critical of most of the screen adaptations, with the sole exception of Przek?adaniec in 1968 by Andrzej Wajda. More recently, in 2013, the Israeli-Polish co-production The Congress was released, inspired by Lem's novel The Futurological Congress.
Lem's works have been used in education, for example as teaching texts for philosophy students.
In 1981, the philosophers Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett included three extracts from Lem's fiction in their annotated anthology The Mind's I, accompanied by Hofstadter's comment, which says in part that Lem's "literary and intuitive approach ... does a better job of convincing readers of his views than any hard-nosed scientific article ... might do".
A major character in the film Planet 51, an alien Lem, was named by screenwriter Joe Stillman after Stanis?aw Lem. Since the film was intended to be a parody of American pulp science fiction shot in Eastern Europe, Stillman thought that it would be hilarious to hint at the writer whose works have nothing to do with little green men.
One of Lem's major recurring themes, beginning from his very first novel, The Man from Mars, was the impossibility of communication between profoundly alien beings, which may have no common ground with human intelligence, and humans. The best known example is the living planetary ocean in Lem's novel Solaris. Other examples include swarms of mechanical insects (in The Invincible), and strangely ordered societies of more human-like beings in Fiasco and Eden, describing the failure of the first contact. In His Master's Voice, Lem describes the failure of humanity's intelligence to decipher and truly comprehend an apparent message from space.
Two overlapping arcs of short stories, Fables for Robots (Bajki Robotów), translated in the collection Mortal Engines), and The Cyberiad (Cyberiada) provide a commentary on humanity in the form of a series of grotesque, humorous, fairytale-like short stories about a mechanical universe inhabited by robots (who have occasional contact with biological "slimies" and human "palefaces").
?ledztwo and Katar are crime novels (the latter without a murderer); Pami?tnik... is a psychological drama inspired by Kafka.Doskona?a pró?nia and Wielko urojona are collections of reviews of non-existent books and introductions to them. Similarly, Prowokacja purports to review a Holocaust-themed work.
Lem's criticism of most science fiction surfaced in literary and philosophical essays Science Fiction and Futurology and interviews. In the 1990s, Lem forswore science fiction and returned to futurological prognostications, most notably those expressed in Blink of an Eye (Okamgnienie). He became increasingly critical of modern technology in his later life, criticizing inventions such as the Internet.
Dialogi and Summa Technologiae (1964) are Lem's two most famous philosophical texts. The Summa is notable for being a unique analysis of prospective social, cybernetic, and biological advances; in this work, Lem discusses philosophical implications of technologies that were completely in the realm of science fiction at the time, but are gaining importance today--for instance, virtual reality and nanotechnology.
[Tichy] endures as one of Lem's most popular characters