Stanisław Lem 1921-
Polish novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, critic, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Lem's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 15, and 40.
A prolific and intellectually gifted author of speculative fiction and philosophy, Lem is internationally recognized as one of the premier practitioners and theorists of the science fiction genre. Although his most acclaimed works—including the novels Solaris (1961), Glos pana (1968; His Master's Voice), Bezsennosc (1971; The Futurological Congress), and the short story collections Dzienniki gwiazdowe (1957; The Star Diaries), Pamietnik znaleziony w wannie (1961; Memoirs Found in a Bathtub), and Cyberiada (1965; The Cyberiad)—were produced behind the Iron Curtain in communist Poland, Lem attracted a large and devoted following throughout the world. His books have sold tens of millions of copies, and have been translated into dozens of languages. While much of his fiction is set in the future, involves space travel and exploration, and depicts contact with alien races and phenomena, Lem's primary concern is contemporary life on Earth. His intricate, farcical fiction and sophisticated discursive writings evince a cynical view of humanity, particularly its proclivity for self-destruction, the arrogance of technological rationality, and the anthropomorphic interpretations of the universe.
Born in Lvov, Poland, Lem was the only child of Samuel, a physician, and his wife Barbara. His father's success as a laryngologist in Lvov ensured the family's material security. A precocious and inquisitive child, Lem studied the books in his father's library, even when it meant using a foreign dictionary to decipher their content, and disassembled toys to discover how they worked. Lem recounts these formative diversions in his memoir, Wysoki zamek (1966; Highcastle: A Remembrance). Reputed to have an I.Q. of 180, Lem used his intellectual gifts to great success throughout his formal schooling. In 1939, he began a course of medical study at Lvov's Institute of Medicine. However, his studies were interrupted by the Nazi occupation of Poland later that year. His family's Jewish ancestry meant that Lem and his parents had to take on false identities to survive the occupation. During World War II, Lem worked as a garage mechanic, contributing to resistance efforts by stealing ammunition for resistance fighters and damaging German vehicles in a way that was not readily apparent. After the war, the Lem family moved to Krakow, where they lived in significantly reduced circumstances, all their possessions having been confiscated during the Nazi occupation. In 1944 Lem resumed his medical studies at Jagellonian University in Krakow and began publishing fiction as a way of bringing in extra money to support the family. Between 1947 and 1949, he worked as a research assistant in the “Science Circle” at the University, creating abstracts for scientific literature and conducting research in cybernetics. During this same period, Lem also worked as an editor for Zycie Nauki and wrote poetry and fiction. He finished his first novel, Szpital przemienienia (1955; Hospital of the Transfiguration), in 1948 while still a medical student. Lem abandoned medical school, due to the imposition of official Soviet doctrine on Polish medical studies, and began to pursue his literary interests. His fourth novel, Eden (1959), brought Lem legitimacy as a serious writer of science fiction. He achieved even greater international recognition two years later with Solaris, which was made into a film in 1971 by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Despite the underlying social criticism in his fiction, Lem's books were tolerated by state censors, and over a thirty-year period during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, he produced a large array of innovative works that cut across academic disciplines and literary boundaries. Lem has received numerous awards, including the Polish Ministry of Art and Culture's Literary Prize in 1965 and 1973, the Polish State Prize for Literature in 1976, the Great Austrian State Award for European Literature in 1986, the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation award in 1987, and the Kafka award in 1991. He is also reported to have been short-listed for a Nobel Prize in literature. Lem co-founded both the Polish Astronautical Society and the Polish Cybernetic Association, and has often been consulted as a philosopher, futurologist, theorist, reviewer, and critic.
Lem's fiction and nonfiction works wrestle with fundamental questions of epistemology and ontology as they relate to advances in science and technology, particularly space exploration, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence. The majority of Lem's writings investigate his growing concern with the moral and ethical impact of scientific and technological developments on humanity. Lem's fiction has approached these philosophical and sociopolitical preoccupations in a wide range of styles and genres, including science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, philosophy, fables, satires, and parodies. After early experiments with social realism in Hospital of the Transfiguration and conventional science fiction in Astronauci (1951; The Astronauts) and Oblok Magellana (1955; The Magellan Nebula), Lem abandoned generic conventions and utopian optimism for a more sophisticated philosophical and iconoclastic style marked by irony and formal experimentation. The Star Diaries debuted what would became Lem's trademark comic style along with introducing one of his best-known characters: the space traveler and philosopher, Ijon Tichy. Tichy returns as the protagonist in a number of other well-known Lem stories, including The Futurological Congress, Memoirs of a Space Traveler (1981), and Pokoj na Ziemi (1987; Peace on Earth). In The Star Diaries, Lem also began to display an increasingly critical, bleak view of the relationship between humanity and technology. Tichy's farcical intergalactic adventures also introduce a perennial Lem theme—the arrogance of human intellect and its tendency to embrace illusions. With these stories, Lem set up a series of oppositional principles that he revisited in works throughout his career, most notably chance versus determinism and chaos versus order.
Eden explores the ways in which human perception can be a barrier to acknowledging one's own ignorance, a condition with potentially deadly consequences. The novel focuses on the planet Eden, a virtual dystopia, whose society is based on misinformation and held together by anger. The planet's inhabitants live in oppressive conditions, but most remain oblivious to the situation—another common leitmotif in Lem's work. The story also raises moral issues concerning encounters with and involvement in the affairs of alien civilizations about which little is known or understood. Sledztwo (1959; The Investigation) assumes the conventions of the detective fiction genre to challenge traditional philosophical assumptions that underlie investigations of any kind, whether criminal, scientific, or mathematic. Solaris and Niezwyciezony i inne opowiadania (1964; The Invincible) both explore the result of human encounters with alien intelligences. Solaris centers upon the scientific efforts of humans to understand and communicate with a vast sentient, ocean-like substance that covers the planet Solaris. Solaris delves further into the issues surrounding the flawed and anthropomorphic nature of space exploration and humanity's attempts to make contact with an alien phenomenon. The ocean's response to the crew's exploratory actions elicits fear and paranoia from the individual crew-members, illuminating nothing about the ocean, but instead exposing the crew's inability to comprehend the nature of a vastly different intelligence. The Invincible revolves around the investigation of another strange planet and an encounter with an alien intelligence, in this case, a black cloud of insect-like micro-crystals. As in Solaris, the crew are stymied by the limitations of their investigative approach and their encounter with the cloud. In the process, the crew and ship are nearly annihilated and the crew must return home, humbled by the experience. The Invincible illustrates how willing the ship's creators and crew are to deceive themselves about their abilities and limitations. However, the novel evinces a degree of hope that humanity's recognition of its limitations will balance, if not alter, the acquisitive goals of space exploration—a hope that Lem would abandon in his later novels.
The settings of Lem's novels returned to Earth in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a Cold War allegory set in the United States involving a 32nd-century spy who is sent on a secret mission to investigate the Pentagon, although he is not provided with any information about the mission's goal. This novel bears striking similarities to Lem's depictions of space exploration missions in which those sent to investigate distant worlds have neither the knowledge nor the ability to carry out their mission. In Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, however, the consequences of this botched mission have the potential to destroy humanity. Introducing yet another recurring theme—humankind's tendency toward self-destruction—Memoirs Found in a Bathtub reflects the absurdity and paranoia of ideological confrontations, a concern Lem would revisit decades later in Fiasko (1986; Fiasco). In The Futurological Congress, Ijon Tichy reemerges as a participant in a conference (held in a revolution-torn third-world country) regarding the future. The narrative incorporates extensive wordplay to demonstrate how language shapes our perception of reality. The novel also attempts to collapse the distinction between reality and fiction (as well as dream and hallucination) to illustrate the moral and philosophical consequences of living in a drug-dependent, utilitarian world. Lem predicted dire consequences for humanity in Fiasco, a novel dealing with humankind's tendency toward aggressive, violent, and destructive capitulation to fear in the face of the unknown. Fiasco reprises a familiar Lem scenario of alien contact, this time ending in disaster. Tichy reappears in Lem's last novel, Peace on Earth, a dark allegory on the potentially dire consequences of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars.” In this seriocomic novel, all of Earth's instruments of war have been put on the Moon and robots play out war games for humanity.
Lem's nonfiction writings, particularly his essays and criticism, develop and elaborate many of the themes explored in his fiction. The essays in Summa Technologiae (1964) address the effect of technology on humans and explore related subjects such as cybernetics, information technology, and biological and genetic engineering. Focusing on what he views as humanity's pervasive drive toward conflict and annihilation, Lem contends that no amount of scientific or technological development could stem these tendencies. In Fantastyka i futurologia (1970; Fantasy and Futurology, I and II), an encyclopedic critique of the science fiction genre, Lem presents his literary credo and argues that the science of futurology and the literary genre of science fiction share a social responsibility to communicate accurately and realistically the consequences of scientific and technological development to society at large. Lem later turned to metafiction in collections of reviews and critical essays on nonexistent books, as found in Doskonala proznia (1971; A Perfect Vacuum), Wielkosc urojona (1973; Imaginary Magnitude), and Biblioteka XXI wieku (1986; One Human Minute). These ironic, satirical reviews articulate Lem's belief that art and culture have become impotent in the face of profound contemporary sociocultural problems. Lem has also used this format to dismiss current literary experimentation as meaningless exercises in style. In these commentaries, Lem blames not only artists for the barren state of culture, but also complacent reviewers and critics who have allowed sterile works to pass into the culture with little or no critical response.
Lem has achieved international acclaim for both his fiction and nonfiction. Considered Eastern Europe's leading writer of science fiction, he has opposed generic classification, believing that they “ghettoize” a writer's work and lower readers' expectations. Though Lem has attracted a large audience in Europe, American readers have come to appreciate his work more gradually. Critics have cited the American perception of science fiction as a second-rate genre as one explanation for American readers and scholars unfamiliarity with Lem's work. Many critics, however, have consistently praised Lem for using science fiction as a tool to examine humanity's cognitive and biological limitations, its illusions and delusions, and to satirize governments and military establishments. Lem's skills as a prognosticator and futurologist have also been admired for the accuracy with which he has charted scientific and technological developments, and the sensitivity with which he has identified the key moral and ethical issues that these developments raise. Reviewers have expressed great respect and admiration for his prodigious intellect, imagination, and persistence in challenging readers, critics, and other writers to reflect on the implications of scientific and technological advances. Lem's work is rarely discussed without significant commentary on his writing style, which is regarded as an integral part of his overall message. By adapting and assimilating various narrative and discursive forms, Lem has created distinctive stylistic hybrids that many scholars consider important challenges to contemporary literary forms, including postmodernism. Lem has been compared, by turns, to François-Marie Voltaire and Jonathan Swift for his satire; George Orwell for his insights into the machinations of political oppression; Franz Kafka for his evocation of East European social alienation; and Jorge Luis Borges for his metafictional experiments. Critics have taken special note of Lem's linguistic inventiveness, drawing attention to his use of puns and neologisms. Many critics, including Lem's English translator Michael Kandel, have called attention to Lem's humanist and Enlightenment ideals, claiming that his increasing pessimism in the later part of his career owes its sharp edge to his struggle to retain those beliefs.