Stanislaw Lem

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Stanisaw Lem (lehm), highly praised in some circles and condemned in others, is one of the most important European science-fiction writers of the postwar era. He was born in Poland in 1921, the son of a physician. A brilliant student, Lem followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in medical school. Soon thereafter, German and Soviet troops invaded Poland, and Lem did not complete his medical studies until several years after the war had ended. Meanwhile, he had begun working at a scientific institute that received technical literature from abroad and disseminated it to Polish universities. This experience, which put him in touch with current developments in a number of scientific fields (including the fledgling field then known as cybernetics), profoundly influenced Lem’s career. While still a student, Lem had begun publishing poems and stories. His first novel, never published in book form, was a science-fiction tale serialized in a magazine for teenagers in 1946. His first book, the science-fiction novel Astronauci (the astronauts), appeared in[Lem, Stanislaw]}aw[Lem, Stanislaw]}aw[Lem, Stanislaw]}

In his own country Lem is classified as a member of the “Columbus” generation. This term, coined by the writer Roman Bratney, identifies those Polish writers who experienced the war as children or youths, supported Communism briefly, and later turned in disillusionment against Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism if not against socialism. Astronauci and another early novel, Obok Magellana (the Magellanic cloud), published during the heyday of Socialist Realism, depict a utopian future entirely in line with the Marxist doctrine of historical inevitability. Lem would come to dislike these works, especially the latter, regarding them as naively optimistic.

Beginning in 1956, when the nations of Eastern Europe briefly challenged Soviet domination, Lem’s production of fiction increased greatly. While his early works were great popular successes and were widely translated, only gradually did he gain recognition as a serious writer. In this respect, the year 1961 was especially important for Lem. In that year he published two novels, Return from the Stars and Solaris, that were to gain for him a much broader readership and increased critical esteem. The first of these is the story of an astronaut returning home to find that more than a century has elapsed on Earth during a voyage that for him took only ten years. His difficulty in adjusting to a radically different society is the main concern of the book. The second, Solaris, was even more important for Lem’s career. When the novel was translated in 1970, its immediate popularity brought him to the attention of the West. Solaris is a lyrical space fantasy about humanity’s encounter with a mysterious planet, a world which defeats all efforts to understand it, so alien to human experience is the place. The picture of the vast shifting oceans of the planet is a haunting one, and the work stresses the limitations of human understanding in a vast universe. There is a slight touch of irony in the fact that it was the novel Solaris which popularized Lem in the West, for throughout his career he has devoted much of his attention to short fiction.

Readers fond of the short story will find some of Lem’s work highly reminiscent of that of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer for whom Lem has expressed admiration. Lem’s collections A Perfect Vacuum and One Human Minute consist of reviews of nonexistent books, and Imaginary Magnitude is similar, being composed of an introduction to the book, three introductions to imaginary works, an advertisement for a nonexistent encyclopedia, and a final set of six pieces consisting of an introduction and a foreword to a...

(This entire section contains 1084 words.)

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set of lectures produced by a reasoning computer, instructions for consulting the computer, two of the lectures themselves, and an afterword.

Two series of more orthodox short stories—the comic adventures of Ijon Tichy and the serious tales of Pirx the Pilot—show Lem’s continuing interest in the theme of man-machine interaction. Tichy is frequently a passive observer of machines more or less antagonistic to humans, but his serious counterpart, Pirx, is a spaceman who often struggles with such machines. Pirx, a dreamer but a survivor, illustrates the fragility of the human endeavor in space: vulnerable humans inside ships, totally dependent on the machines that enclose and guard them. Yet in the stories, Lem emphasizes the seemingly contradictory idea that humanity’s weakness, its very vulnerability, defines its strength. Pirx is neither a sympathetic bungler nor the beneficiary of outstanding good luck; he is simply human in the best sense—adaptable.

In a third set of stories Lem explores the question of what being human means. In this theme, one that has also concerned the American writer Isaac Asimov throughout his career, Lem considers robots with human traits. The stories in The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines are set in the far future and depict robots with self-consciousness and free will. Like Asimov, Lem concludes that it is behavior that defines humanness.

In addition to novels, stories, and fictional hybrids, Lem published a variety of nonfictional works, most of which combine philosophical and technological speculation. For the most part, Lem the essayist is not known in the West, as his nonfiction remains largely untranslated. There are, however, two notable exceptions. Highcastle: A Remembrance is Lem’s narrative of pre-World War II Poland, his childhood, and early influences. Second, many of Lem’s essays on science fiction have appeared in journals such as Science-Fiction Studies. Some of the best of them, along with a valuable autobiographical piece, “Reflections on My Life,” are collected in Microworlds. Lem’s writings on science fiction tend to be polemical and highly critical of his fellow practitioners; one essay is entitled “Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case with Exceptions.” Such views have provoked considerable controversy, even prompting the Science Fiction Writers of America to expel Lem from their organization after having granted him honorary membership. It should be noted that Lem had great respect for science fiction as a vehicle for speculation on fundamental questions. For that very reason, he objected strongly to what he regarded as the trivialization of the genre. Throughout all of his works, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, Lem displayed a characteristic sense of humor, a concern with important issues, an openness to and understanding of technological change, and a willingness to confront the problems that such change will inevitably produce. It is these strengths that made him one of the most important writers of science fiction in the twentieth century.