Stanisław Lem Lem, Stanisław - Essay

Stanislaw Lem


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Astronauci [The Astronauts] (novel) 1951

Sezam i inne opowiadania [Sesame and Other Stories] (short stories) 1954

Oblok Magellana [The Magellan Nebula] (novel) 1955

Szpital przemienienia [Hospital of the Transfiguration] (novel) 1955

Dialogi [Dialogues] (nonfiction) 1957

Dzienniki gwiazdowe [The Star Diaries] (short stories) 1957

Eden (novel) 1959

Inwazja z Aldebarana [Invasion from Aldebaran] (short stories) 1959

Sledztwo [The Investigation] (novel) 1959...

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Stanisław Lem with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. (interview date May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Twenty-Two Answers and Two Postscripts: An Interview with Stanislaw Lem,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 242–60.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in May 1985, Lem discusses his approach to discursive and fictional writing, his literary and philosophical influences, and the problem of art and speculative philosophy in an age dominated by science and technology.]

The present interview was conducted in writing, following conversations that I had with Lem in Vienna in May of 1985 and a year-long correspondence that surrounded them. Our original plan had been to converse with the help of a Polish-English...

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N. Katherine Hayles (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Space for Writing: Stanislaw Lem and the Dialectic ‘That Guides My Pen,’” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 292–312.

[In the following essay, Hayles explores the dichotomy of Lem's intuitive approach to writing and analytical scrutiny, drawing upon The Cyberiad and His Master's Voice as representative examples.]

Few writers speak as much about their own and others’ works as Stanislaw Lem. His interviews, personal essays, critiques of SF [science fiction], philosophical treatises on language, and sweeping attempts to categorize modern fiction testify to his continuing fascination with the processes and...

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Robert M. Philmus (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Futurological Congress as Metageneric Text,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 313–28.

[In the following essay, Philmus examines aspects of generic self-referentiality and the differentiation of real and imaginary worlds through language in The Futurological Congress. Philmus views Lem's novel as a continuation of H. G. Wells's conceptual experiment in The Time Machine.]

Most, perhaps all, of Stanislaw Lem's fictions are typically “modern” or “postmodern” in this respect (inter alia): they implicitly comment on the genre(s) in relation to which they define themselves. It might therefore seem...

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L. A. Anninski (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Lem's Highcastle,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 345–51.

[In the following essay, Anninski examines Lem's philosophical and literary perspective in Highcastle: A Remembrance, drawing parallels between Lem's formative experiences and his preoccupation with the development of individuality and the quest for absolute meaning.]

On the surface, Stanislaw Lem's autobiographical novel Wysoki Zamek (Highcastle: A Remembrance, 1966) is closer to David Copperfield than to Solaris. This is unexpected. The first emotion of the reader of Highcastle is surprise: Lem, the writer of SF...

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Irina Rodnianskaia (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Faces of Stanislaw Lem: On His Master's Voice,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 352–60.

[In the following essay, Rodnianskaia examines Lem's literary approach and philosophical perspective in his novel His Master's Voice, particularly Lem's “philosophy of chance” and issues surrounding the role of scientific inquiry.]

A collection of works by Stanislaw Lem has been published by Mir. In addition to the cycle of stories about the space travels of the navigator Pirx, already quite familiar to Soviet readers, the volume includes the novel His Master's Voice, one of this intelligent,...

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Jerzy Jarzebski (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanislaw Lem's Star Diaries,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 361–73.

[In the following essay, Jarzebski examines the development of Lem's philosophical perspective in his Star Diaries stories, drawing attention to Lem's mockery of intellectual arrogance and positivist views of human progress.]

Among Lem's story-cycles, the Star Diaries has a special place. Chronologically, it is the oldest, but the author has continued to develop it up to the present day. Moreover, so far as its tone and problems are concerned, it is the most heterogeneous of Lem's fictions. For these reasons it is worth analyzing in...

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Michael Kandel (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Meditations on Stanislaw Lem,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, Pt. 3, November, 1986, pp. 374–81.

[In the following essay, Kandel discusses the evolution of Lem's philosophical outlook and various literary approaches, from satire to cross-genre philosophy to science fiction. Kandel concludes that Fiasco evinces an unsettling bleakness and total lack of redemption not found in Lem's previous works.]

1. The Enlightened Lem. An enormous calculating machine insists that two plus two equals seven. A machine to satisfy a Faustian desire for knowledge produces truths in the form of an overwhelming flood of trivia. A tiny machine inserted in the...

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J. Madison Davis (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Quest for Art: Lem's Analysis of Borges,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 53–64.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses Lem's literary criticism and views on Jorge Louis Borges, presented in the essay “Unitas Oppositorum: The Prose of Jorge Louis Borges.”]

As a critic, Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem is anything but worshipful. Having, as he does, a belief that the purpose of contemporary criticism is to improve the future works of the author in question, he is never satisfied with merely praising a writer. One often has the impression he is embarrassed at making laudatory remarks and is quick to get on to the...

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Wanda Urbanska (review date 23 October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Insane Asylum Serves as Setting for the Early Lem,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 23, 1988, p. 7.

[In the following review of Hospital of the Transfiguration, Urbanska commends Lem's “acute powers of observation,” but finds shortcomings in the novel's disengaged characters.]

There are certain novels, written early in a career, that are published only after the writer has staked a place on the literary map. Camus’ A Happy Death comes to mind. Often these works demonstrate youthful talent not fully realized, and their interest lies mainly in how they foreshadow subsequent material. Hospital of the Transfiguration—the first...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 7 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Science Friction,” in New Republic, November 7, 1988, pp. 39–41.

[In the following review, Baranczak provides an overview of Lem's literary accomplishments and discusses his early realist novel Hospital of the Transfiguration.]

Q: What puts Stanislaw Lem in a category with François Rabelais and Anton Chekhov? A: All three started out in the medical profession. The best known representative of European science fiction, as well as the most widely translated among Poland's living authors, Lem wandered into literature almost reluctantly. Something of a Polish Isaac Asimov, he can claim an up-to-date familiarity with many fields of science; as the legend...

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John Clute (review date 3–9 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Experimental Torture,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 3–9, 1989, p. 226.

[In the following review, Clute offers a positive assessment of Hospital of the Transfiguration.]

Written in 1948, but not published in any language until the 1980s, Hospital of the Transfiguration may come as something of a shock to the reader of Stanislaw Lem's mature work. Books such as Solaris and Fiasco do more than present intellectual arguments about the universe in an unmistakably Central European voice, angular and unrelenting; as science fiction of the highest order, and as examples of surreally barbed wit, they are very threatening texts indeed....

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John Clute (review date 9–15 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hell in Space,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 9–15, 1990, p. 149.

[In the following review, Clute offers a positive assessment of Eden, but notes that archaic qualities in the novel may be attributed to its original 1959 publication date.]

Of all the writers of science fiction who work in languages other than English, only Jules Verne has been more translated than Stanislaw Lem. This may seem remarkable. Verne fabricated his planetary prospectus for an audience as universal as he could conceive, while Lem seemingly directs his barbed deconstructions of the world to an audience of daunting peers. An Eden built by Verne would be a safe...

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Tom J. Lewis (review date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Eden, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, p. 666.

[In the following review, Lewis offers a positive assessment of Eden, but notes that it does not match the excellence of Lem's best works.]

Originally published in 1959, Eden is Stanislaw Lem's fifth science-fiction novel, antedating the masterpiece Solaris by two years. The translation follows the English version of Solaris (1970) by nineteen years and is the twenty-first book by Lem to be rendered into English.

Not as compellingly written as Solaris, The Invincible, or His Master's Voice, Eden...

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Peter Swirski (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Playing a Game of Ontology: A Postmodern Reading of The Futurological Congress,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 32–40.

[In the following essay, Swirski examines the interpenetration of reality and illusion in The Futurological Congress and argues that the narrative's self-reflexive structure is not an autonomous framework, but integral to the novel itself.]

Among the consequences of the “radical redescriptions” (Rorty 7) of epistemology wrought by modern revolutions in science, philosophy, and literary theory were the profound changes in the theory of knowledge in general, and the theory of literature in particular....

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John Clute (review date 3 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Detective Deconstructs,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 1992, p. 10.

[In the following review, Clute offers a positive assessment of The Investigation.]

The England which features in Stanislaw Lem's The Investigation resembles the real England of 1959 about as closely as Franz Kafka's Amerika does Kansas. Ice, fog, incessant snow and a cold wind from the steppes routinely scour the Home Counties in Lem's vision of a storm-racked, Central European United Kingdom whose populace huddles over tiny fires in vast cluttered baroque flats in the labyrinthine hearts of intensely urban, feverishly ornate apartment blocks. It is in this echoing...

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Thomas P. Weissert (essay date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanislaw Lem and a Topology of Mind,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, Pt. 2, July, 1992, pp. 161–65.

[In the following essay, Weissert examines Lem's investigation of the human mind and evolutionary consciousness in his fiction, particularly as reflected in his portrayal of inorganic extraterrestrial intelligence in Solaris and The Invincible.]

Reading the fiction of Stanislaw Lem, one inevitably discovers the recurring theme of contact with another noetic species—that is, a species with the property of mind. Although Lem explores a wide range of possible forms of other species, the result of the contact in each case runs from relatively...

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Elyce Rae Helford (essay date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘We are Only Seeking Man’: Gender, Psychoanalysis, and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, Pt. 2, July, 1992, pp. 167–77.

[In the following essay, Helford draws upon Alice Jardine's concept of “gynesis” and the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Jacques Lacan to elucidate metaphorical representations of gender, sexual identity, and psychic alienation in Solaris.]

We think of ourselves as the Knights of Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.


In this brief passage...

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Jo Alyson Parker (essay date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gendering the Robot: Stanislaw Lem's ‘The Mask,’” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, Pt. 2, July, 1992, pp. 178–90.

[In the following essay, Parker examines the construction of gender identity and femininity in “The Mask,” drawing attention to Lem's use of a robot to illustrate the process of social programming by which sexual difference, language, and power hierarchies are established.]

They therefore as to right belong'd,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate;
As if Predestination over-rul'd
Thir will, dispos'd by absolute Decree
Of high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I:...

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Manfred Geier (essay date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanislaw Lem's Fantastic Ocean: Toward a Semantic Interpretation of Solaris,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, Pt. 2, July, 1992, pp. 192–218.

[In the following essay, Geier examines Lem's fictional ocean in Solaris as a model for understanding how imaginary conceptions and phenomena are given linguistic reality in science fiction writing.]

It is a commonplace that human consciousness can refer to things it does not perceive directly. Merely imagined or conceived objects can exist at varying degrees of distance from immediately perceived reality. Concepts can refer to things which were once capable of being experienced as present and...

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Leonard A. Cheever (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Epistemological Chagrin: The Literary and Philosophical Antecedents of Stanislaw Lem's Romantic Misanthrope,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 319–29.

[In the following essay, Cheever examines Lem's skeptical attitude toward the problem of human knowledge in His Master's Voice and the protagonist's “feeling of embarrassment rather than despair in light of mankind's limitations.”]

Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice is not only a fascinating and entertaining novel but also a complex and profound meditation upon what might happen if humanity were to receive a possible “message from the stars” and find itself...

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Tom J. Lewis (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Investigation, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 168–69.

[In the following review, Lewis offers a positive assessment of The Investigation.]

The English translation of Stanisław Lem's Śledztwo (1959) first appeared in the U.S. in 1974. Almost twenty years later, the same translation [The Investigation] has now been published in England. Why the novel should appear in the U.S. long before it does in England is somewhat curious in view of the fact that the work is a piece of detective fiction set in England, with Scotland Yard at the center of events. Indeed, not only is Scotland Yard at the...

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Peter Swirski (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of Games with the Universe: Preconceptions of Science in Stanislaw Lem's The Invincible,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 324–42.

[In the following essay, Swirski examines the fundamental epistemological concerns in Lem's fiction, as exemplified in The Invincible.]

Even a general overview of Stanislaw Lem's fictions cannot fail to remark the extent to which his works reflect on the narrative and speculative premises which have gone into their making. Although it would not be easy or even necessarily possible to offer a tidy divisio of Lem's patterns of self-reflexive commentary, it is useful at least to...

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Kenneth Krabbenhoft (essay date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lem as Moral Theologian,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, Pt. 2, July, 1994, pp. 212–24.

[In the following essay, Krabbenhoft examines elements of Christian morality in Lem's novels concerning human encounters with extraterrestrial life. Focusing on Fiasco, Solaris, The Invincible, and His Master's Voice, Krabbenhoft discusses the conflicts and juxtapositions of religious morality and scientific rationality as humans interact with alien beings whose intentions and spiritual essence is ambiguous or unknown.]

If Stanislaw Lem's novels on the theme of Contact With Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) can be said to express a coherent set...

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Ann Weinstone (essay date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Resisting Monsters: Notes on Solaris,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, Pt. 2, July, 1994, pp. 173–90.

[In the following essay, Weinstone discusses the characterization of monsters in Western literature. Weinstone examines Mary Shelley's character, Frankenstein, and Lem's character, Rheya, in Solaris as notable departures from this tradition.]

Our monsters have always resisted us, and until recently, resistance was futile.1 Beginning with the earliest Greek texts, the Western narrative encounter between man and monster has done the work of reinforcing the political and cultural hegemony of propertied males. In the Greco-Roman...

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Neil Easterbrook (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sublime Simulacra: Repetition, Reversal, and Re-covery in Lem's Solaris,” in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 177–94.

[In the following essay, Easterbrook draws upon Sigmund Freud's description of “The Uncanny” and the theoretical statements of Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard to explore aspects of psychic, symbolic, and textual doubling and repetition in Solaris.]

How does the thunderstorm happen, in other words, repetition, the event, which is also to say, a tear, a rupture? Something, perhaps, blows or blows up, pops, pierces, opens and shows up. There it was, and now here it is. It happens....

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Giles Foden (review date 23 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Divided Self,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 1995, p. 27.

[In the following review, Foden offers a positive assessment of Peace on Earth.]

Born in 1921 in Poland, where his medical studies were interrupted by the Nazi occupation, Stanislaw Lem has had a long and successful career. “A science fiction writer worthy of a Nobel Prize,” the New York Times has said. Among his works is the novel Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem's writing combines a wild, dystopian vision—wittily, absurdly logical—with a firm grasp of actual scientific and philosophical issues. In Peace on Earth, he introduces us once again to his...

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Tom J. Lewis (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Peace on Earth, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 205–06.

[In the following review, Lewis offers a negative assessment of Peace on Earth.]

Fans of Stanisław Lem will enjoy Peace on Earth, but they will not derive from it the sense of wonder that came with The Invincible, Solaris or His Master's Voice. In comparison to those three works, Peace on Earth seems stale, hackneyed, and contrived of outdated scientific insights. Nor does the humor match that of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub or The Cyberiad.

The novel opens with Ijon Tichy struggling to make...

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Peter Swirski (essay date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Game Theory in the Third Pentagon: A Study in Strategy and Rationality,” in Critique, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 303–30.

[In the following essay, Swirski applies game theory analysis to Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub in order to describe the insanity and paranoia that conditions military strategy, political ideology, and group rationality.]


Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub was published in 1961, only a year before the Cuban missile crisis, when the world faced the spectre of a superpower nuclear confrontation.1 It would be reductive to propose a straightforward...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 20 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Spin, Memory,” in New Republic, May 20, 1996, pp. 39–41.

[In the following review, Baranczak discusses the critical reception of Highcastle: A Remembrance upon its original 1966 publication, and the problems with reading Lem's factual memoir in light of his previous works of imaginative fiction.]

A renowned science fiction writer who all of a sudden publishes a book subtitled A Remembrance is like your local Delphic oracle announcing its conversion into a branch of the Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You hate it when such a thing happens. There's nothing wrong in searching for one's roots, but you...

(The entire section is 2750 words.)

Tom J. Lewis (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Highcastle, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 726–27.

[In the following review of Highcastle: A Remembrance, Lewis commends Lem's insight into the workings of memory and the details of his physical world, but finds shortcomings in his lack of “curiosity about emotions and how they work.”]

Unlike most autobiographies, which explore the life of the autobiographer in relation to other people, Stanislaw Lem's “remembrance” [Highcastle: A Remembrance] examines his life in relationship to man-made objects. As he explains, it was an awareness of things—principally unusual and curious...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Peter Swirski (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanislaw Lem: A Stranger in a Strange Land,” in A Stanislaw Lem Reader, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 1–19.

[In the following essay, Swirski provides an overview of Lem's wide-ranging publications and the development of his philosophical, literary, and sociopolitical concerns.]

A stranger in a strange land. Ever since Elizabeth Ashbridge coined this phrase to express her sense of alienation on arriving in America, it has become a standard metaphor for describing someone's sense of wonder and estrangement. These days the phrase appears equally frequently in works of fiction and of philosophy that target the future.


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Marilyn Jurich (essay date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Pseudo-Utopian Cosmographies of Stanislaw Lem,” in Utopian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 122–48.

[In the following essay, Jurich examines the presentation of “pseudo-utopias” in Lem's fiction. Jurich holds that Lem reveals the insidious oppression and self-destruction inherent in false promises of ideal social order and scientifically engineered freedom through his depiction of pseudo-utopias.]

“… it turns out that today there are more lunatics in any given minute than all the people who lived on Earth for the last several dozen generations. It is as if all previous humanity consisted, today, of madmen. … The...

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Carl Tighe (essay date July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanislaw Lem: Socio-Political Sci-Fi,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 94, Pt. 3, July, 1999, pp. 758–74.

[In the following essay, Tighe examines the social and literary context of Lem's fiction and publishing history in communist Poland, drawing attention to his sociopolitical concerns, particularly in Solaris. Tighe also addresses the impact of censorship on Lem's interest in closed information systems.]

The existing criteria of value have been falsified and distorted. The force brought to bear against consciousness must, sooner or later, develop into physical force. To take note of this and to give warning is the role of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Borowski, Jacek. “Stanislaw Lem's Dark Vision.” World Press Review 48, No. 3 (March 2001): 46.

Borowski offers an overview of Lem's science fiction writings and thematic concerns.

Gapp, Paul. “Lem's Special Effect on Science Fiction.” Chicago Tribune (10 February 1995): 35.

Gapp offers an overview of Lem's literary career and lauds the positive contribution of his intellectually challenging science fiction.

Petrakos, Chris. “Stanislaw Lem's Childhood Memoir Charming and Powerful.” Chicago Tribune (5 October 1995): 3.

Petrakos offers a positive...

(The entire section is 177 words.)