Lem wrote that his career could be divided into three phases: a period of utopian optimism compatible with Soviet standards of hopeful expectation for the human future, a period of exploration of existing science fiction and other literary forms for use in expressing a more complex and often darker vision of human life, and a period of experimentation with new modes of expression for many of these same complex themes. Although some overlap exists from one career phase to another, the general movement of Lem’s creative life has been from simplicity to complexity, from traditional to more experimental forms, and from a relative optimism to a satiric darkness.

The two works most closely associated with Lem’s optimistic period are Astronauci (1951; the astronauts) and Obok Magellana (1955; the Magellan nebula), novels that helped establish his popularity in the Communist world but which he later repudiated and refused to reprint. Set in the years 2000 and 3000, respectively, these novels, according to Lem, have “nothing Communist Party about them” but “could evoke in a certain sense the communist utopia.” His short-story collection, Dzienniki gwiazdowe (1957, 1971; The Star Diaries, 1976, and Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy, 1982), is a work of travel literature as well as science fiction, and its style and satiric tone have been compared to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Centering on spaceman Ijon Tichy, these stories humorously portray a universe in which human attempts at heroism, communication, and control are frustrated by the baffling randomness of cosmic forces, the bizarre otherness of nonhuman intelligence (both organic and mechanical), and the general weaknesses of humanity. Although many of his later works are more somber in tone than The Star Diaries, Lem’s various books about the adventures of Ijon Tichy and his stories about Pirx the Pilot and the robots Klapaucius and Trurl allow the author to display his genius for bizarre comedy.

Eden, despite its title, shows Lem’s drift toward darker views of the human condition, but it is in Solaris that Lem gives definitive expression to the second phase of his artistic development. Kris Kelvin, the scientist hero of the novel, seeks to comprehend the mysteries of the oceanic intelligence that surrounds the planet Solaris, but he discovers instead that he has no real understanding of his own nature and the nature of others of his own species. Powrót z gwiazd, 1961 (Return from the Stars, 1980) continues the theme of the need for human-to-human communication and understanding and further warns of the dangers impending if the utopia envisioned by the technocrats is someday achieved. The Invincible attacks human technical arrogance in a different way, this time by having a product of technology, the ironically named spaceship of the title, wrecked by minuscule cybernetic entities. Gos pana (1968; His Master’s Voice, 1983) returns to the theme of the difficulty of human-to-human and human-to-alien communication as twenty-five hundred ego-driven experts attempt to decipher a message from the cosmos.

In his later novels, Lem attempted to transcend traditional science-fiction forms in order to examine his complex humanistic themes. Through the device of writing nonfictional commentaries on fictional books, either as prefaces or critical analyses, Lem discussed the relationship of the human to the nonhuman and explored the interactions of organisms with mechanisms.

The Star Diaries

First published: Dzienniki gwiazdowe, 1957 (English translation, 1976 and 1982)

Type of work: Short stories

The well-intentioned but sometimes inept Ijon Tichy experiences the bewildering challenges of life as a wandering citizen of the cosmos.

Written over a period of approximately two decades, The Star Diaries constitutes a diverse collection of comic tales playing on the full range of world travel literature and of science fiction’s reworking of that literature, while adding much that is Lem’s own to an already rich tradition. Suggestive at one moment of Marco Polo’s accounts of cultural discovery, at another of the pure fantasy of Sinbad’s voyages, and at still another of the acerbic satire of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, these tales exhibit a variety of styles and purposes reflective of Lem’s multifaceted genius.

One story, “The Seventh Voyage,” exemplifies the book’s exuberant diversity. The story relates Tichy’s attempts to repair the rudder of his spacecraft after an accident in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Although traveling alone, Tichy discovers that the repair job requires the cooperative efforts of two people, an indication of technological human’s lack of foresight. He finds himself with multiple opportunities to solve his problem, however, when he falls through one after another of the 147 gravitational vortices in the local space-time continuum and encounters diverse other versions of himself. At each new encounter, Tichy exhibits a different way in which humanity’s mixed rational and emotional nature prevents productive cooperation, and it is only when two child Tichys ignore the alternating violence and committee-directed stagnation of the adult Tichys that the repair work is completed. A brilliant parody of tales of paradoxical time travel, like Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” “The Seventh Voyage” is also a sly commentary on human social deficiency.

In “The Eighth Voyage,” Tichy represents the earth at the General Assembly of the United Planets as humanity is being considered for membership. After nearly setting off an interplanetary confrontation by mistaking a diplomat from Rhohch for a soda machine, he ineptly attempts to help prepare humankind’s case for galactic recognition by discussing the destruction of Hiroshima, explaining that most governmental funds are spent on the military, and running through an inventory of ingenious bombs. During the debate over Earth’s admission, a knowledgeable alien gives an account of humanity’s place within galactic taxonomy. Roughly translated, the nomenclature he uses labels humanity as “deviate screwheaded corpseloving abominable howlmouthed stinking meemies,” and much of what follows is an account of human bloodshed. The horrors of the human past turn out not to be humanity’s fault, however, as a second alien reveals that two intoxicated creatures named Gorrd and Lod purposely set off the monstrous evolutionary process that produced humanity by dumping spoiled food on Earth, giving its molecules a twist to the left (etymologically, the “sinister” direction of evil), and then sneezing on the abominable mixture. Tichy suddenly awakens to discover that this voyage was literally a nightmare, but the dream vision framing device, common to much past theological literature, hardly lessens the satiric message of human brutality and pretensions to divine origin.

“The Twentieth Voyage” also takes up the theme of origins and suggests that, if there have, indeed, been good intentions behind the shaping of the cosmos and the directing of human destiny, those intentions have gone sadly astray. In this tale, a reluctant Ijon Tichy is recruited to head a project called THEOHIPPIP (Teleotelechronistic-Historical Engineering to Optimize the Hyperputerized Implementation of Paleological Programming and Interplanetary Planning), in essence, a bureaucratic effort to undo the mistakes of history. Tichy and his colleagues put prodigious energy into their attempts to create perfection, but like the flawed God described in the final pages of Lem’s novel Solaris, they botch the job. As they work to remake time and space, they set off ice ages, kill off the dinosaurs, destroy a planet and thereby create the asteroids, thrust the intelligent dolphin into its anomalous home in the sea, invent the biological ugliness of human sexuality, turn humans into hairless and superstitious carnivores, trigger the Diaspora and the beginnings of anti-Semitism, initiate...

(The entire section is 3370 words.)