Stanisaw Lem may well be the best-known Continental European science-fiction writer. He wrote teleplays (produced in his native country), but his short stories and particularly his many novels have brought him an even wider circulation. In whatever form, he concentrated on speculative fictions in which he frequently described the future of society, combining philosophical argument with imaginative technological fantasies. He also published book-length studies and collections of essays on technology, general literature, and science fiction. A valuable selection of those essays is available in English translation in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984), which also includes the autobiographical essay “Reflections on My Life.” An extensive account of Lem’s early life has been translated as Highcastle: A Remembrance (1995).
Several critics have stated that Lem is the only science-fiction writer worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the widely recognized master of this genre in Eastern Europe and one of the best-known and highly respected science-fiction writers in the world. His books have been translated into more than forty languages and have sold over twenty-five million copies. He is the most widely translated Polish writer since Henryk Sienkiewicz. Through his achievements as a philosophical novelist, short-story writer, and essayist who has probed the social, psychological, and intellectual ramifications of the human-machine interface, he elevated science fiction from a denigrated genre to respected literature. He helped found the Polish Astronautical Society and was an influential member of the Polish Cybernetic Association until he canceled his membership in both organizations when he came to doubt the capacity of such institutions to foster creativity. In Poland, the Ministry of Culture honored Lem’s work in 1965 and presented him with the 1973 Polish State Literary Award. He also received the Polish State Prize for Literature in 1976. In France, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film version of Lem’s novel Solaris (1961; English translation, 1970) won the Special Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. In recognition of the important body of work he had created he was given the Great Austrian State Award for European Literature in 1986. His works have also earned him a special Nebula Award. The Science Fiction Writers of America made Lem their second honorary member (their first was J. R. R. Tolkien), but his scathing criticisms of American science-fiction writers led to the withdrawal of his honorary membership.
Stanisaw Lem’s works of fiction defy definition. Lem wrote both realistic and utopian novels, a detective novel with the theory of probability a leading murder suspect, reviews of nonexistent books, private poetry, Kafkaesque parables, and acid social commentary and antitotalitarian statements in ingeniously nonsensical comic form. He wrote science fiction in which extraterrestrial life takes such forms as a living ocean, weird fungi, and totally invisible and unknowable entities. Though best known for his science fiction, Lem regularly wrote impressive works in other genres; all of them leap the boundaries of single forms. Many of his books are odd collections of related (or semirelated) short stories that incorporate the scientific, the philosophical, the literary, and the critical.
Lem’s principal works of nonfiction are Wejcie na orbitę (1962; getting into orbit), Summa technologiae(1964; technological treatise), Filozofia przypadku (1968; the philosophy of chance), Fantastyka i futurologia (1970; science fiction and futurology), Dialogi (dialogues), which first appeared in 1957 and was reissued in 1984 with appendixes twice the length of the original, and the collection of essays Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984). Summa technologiae examines such future possibilities as the genetic remodeling of humankind and the reconstruction of reality, and Dialogi uses Socratic dialogues to consider the potentials of cybernetics. These works establish Lem’s...
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With books translated into forty languages, many titles in print in the United States, and sales of more than twenty-five million copies internationally, Stanisaw Lem is widely known as a significant science-fiction writer and futurologist. Despite the inevitable loss of much innuendo, symbolism, and verbal gamesmanship in the translation from Polish to English, translators such as Michael V. Kandel and literary critics such as Stanisaw Baraczak and Madison Davis have made Lem more accessible to English speakers.
Lem refashioned the genre of science fiction. His well-informed critical books, Fantastyka i futurologia, Summa technologiae, and Microworlds, and his many polemical essays written for Anglo-American science-fiction magazines expanded the limits of the genre and solidified Lem’s reputation among committed science-fiction readers worldwide. His own science fiction has brought to the genre linguistic inventiveness and intellectual versatility; it combines humanism with scientific accuracy and is committed to serious philosophical questions of science and of society. Generally rejecting conventional plots, Lem organically blended real science with learned philosophical disquisitions on the nature of humanity and the universe within a semifictive mode to transform science fiction into an intellectual tool for investigating human potential and human limits (illusions, delusions, pretensions, and failures of imagination). In doing so, he rebelled against the genre, calling it both “fossilized” and a...
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Baranczak, Stanisaw. “Highcastle: A Remembrance.” The New Republic, May 20, 1996, 39-41. Baranczak 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 Lvov.
Barnouw, Dagman. “Science Fiction as a Model for Probablistic Worlds: Stanisaw Lem’s Fantastic Empiricism.” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 153-163. Examines Lem’s concept of science fiction as a cognitive aesthetic model whereby he focuses on contemporary social and psychological behavior.
Davis, J. Madison. Stanisaw Lem. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1990. Though Davis does not discuss all Lem’s works in detail, he 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. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 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, Stanisaw.” In Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, edited by Curtis C. Smith. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1986. Macdonald offers a brief biographical sketch and overview discussion of Lem’s work.
Malmgren, Carl D. “Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters.” Science-Fiction Studies 20 (March, 1993): 15-33. 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...
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