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Life and work of Stanislaw Lem

(From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia) 12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006 was a Polish science fiction, philosophical and satirical writer. Lem was named a Knight of the Order of the White Eagle. His books have been translated into 41 languages and have sold over 27 million copies. He is perhaps best known as the author of Solaris, which has twice been made into a feature film. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon claimed that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.


His works explore philosophical themes; speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations and humankind's place in the universe. They are sometimes presented as fiction, but others are in the form of essays or philosophical books. Translations of his works are difficult and multiple translated versions of his works exist.
Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Ukraine). He was the son of Sabina Woller and Samuel Lem, a wealthy laryngologist and former physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army. While Lem was raised a Catholic, he later became an atheist "for moral reasons ... the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created ... intentionally". After the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, he was not allowed to study at the Polytechnic as he wished because of his "bourgeois origin" and only due to his father's connections was accepted to study medicine at Lwów University in 1940. During World War II and the Nazi occupation, Lem survived with false papers, earning a living as a car mechanic and welder, and becoming active in the resistance. (Lem's family had Jewish ancestors, and thus was in greater danger than they would have already been as Polish citizens and intellectuals.) In 1945, Polish eastern Kresy were annexed into the Soviet Ukraine[8] and the family, like many other Poles, was resettled to Kraków where Lem at his father's pressure took up medical studies at the Jagiellonian University. Since he refused to tailor his answers to the prevailing Lysenkoism, Lem failed his final examinations on purpose so as not to be obliged to become a military doctor. Earlier he had started working as a research assistant in a scientific institution and writing stories in his spare time.
Lem made his literary debut in 1946 as a poet, and at that time he also published several dime novels. Beginning that year, Lem's first science fiction novel Człowiek z Marsa (The Man from Mars) was serialized in the magazine Nowy Świat Przygód (New World of Adventures). Between 1947 and 1950 Lem, while continuing his work as a scientific research assistant, published poems, short stories, and scientific essays. However, during the era of Stalinism, all published works had to be directly approved by the communist regime. Lem finished a partly autobiographical novella Hospital of the Transfiguration (Szpital Przemienienia) in 1948, but it was suppressed by the authorities until 1955 when he added a sequel more acceptable to the doctrine of socialist realism. In 1951 he published his first book, Astronauci (The Astronauts); it was commissioned as juvenile SF and Lem was forced to include many references to the 'glorious future of communism' in it. He later criticized this novel (as well as several of his other early pieces, bowing to the ideological pressure) as simplistic; nonetheless its publication convinced him to become a full-time writer.

Lem became truly productive after 1956, when the de-Stalinization period led to the "Polish October", when Poland experienced an increase in freedom of speech. Between 1956 and 1968, Lem authored 17 books. His works were widely translated abroad (although mostly in the Eastern Bloc countries). In 1957 he published his first non-fiction, philosophical book, Dialogi (Dialogues). Dialogi and Summa Technologiae (1964) are his two most famous philosophical texts. The Summa is notable for being a unique analysis of prospective social, cybernetic, and biological advances. In this work, Lem discusses philosophical implications of technologies that were completely in the realm of science fiction then, but are gaining importance today—for instance, virtual reality and nanotechnology. Over the next few decades, he published many books, both science fiction and philosophical/futurological, although from the 1980s onwards he tended to concentrate on philosophical texts and essays.

He gained international fame for The Cyberiad, a series of humorous short stories from a mechanical universe ruled by robots, first published in English in 1974. His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), His Master's Voice (Głos pana, 1968), and the late Fiasco (Fiasko, 1987), expressing most strongly his major theme of the futility of mankind's attempts to comprehend the truly alien. Solaris was made into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972; in 2002, Steven Soderbergh directed a Hollywood remake starring George Clooney.

In 1982, with martial law in Poland declared, Lem moved to West Berlin where he became a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin). After that, he settled in Vienna. He returned to Poland in 1988.

In a rare series of interviews in 2005, Lem expressed his disappointment with the genre of science fiction and his general pessimism regarding technical progress. He viewed the human body as unsuitable for space travel, held that information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information, and considered truly intelligent robots as both undesirable and impossible to construct. Lem died in Kraków on 27 March 2006 at the age of 84 after a battle with heart disease.
Lem's work displays several recurring themes. The first major grouping of his fiction falls into a more traditional understanding of science fiction, with elements including speculation on technological advances, space travel and alien worlds. This group includes such works as Eden (1959), Return from the Stars (1961), Solaris (1961), The Invincible (1964), His Master's Voice (1968), and Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1968). Fables of a dark nature make up the other grouping. These include The Star Diaries (1957), Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961), and The Cyberiad (1965).

One of Lem's primary themes was the impossibility of communication between humans and profoundly alien civilizations. His aliens are often incomprehensible to the human mind, be they swarms of mechanical insects (in The Invincible), a living ocean (in Solaris) or strangely ordered societies of more human-like beings in Fiasko and Eden, describing the failure of the first contact. Lem's book Return from the Stars follows an astronaut's adjustment to a radically changed human society after spending 100 years in space. In His Master's Voice Lem is critical of humanity's intelligence and intentions in deciphering and truly comprehending an apparent message from space.

He wrote about human technological progress and the problem of human existence in a world where technological development makes biological human impulses obsolete or dangerous. His criticism of most science fiction surfaced in novels (His Master's Voice), literary and philosophical essays (Fantastyka i futurologia) and interviews. In the 1990s Lem forswore science fiction and returned to futurological prognostications, most notably those expressed in Okamgnienie (Blink of an Eye). He became increasingly critical of modern technology in his later life, criticizing inventions such as the Internet.

In many novels, humans become an irrational and emotional liability to their machine partners, who are not perfect either. Issues of technological utopias appeared in Peace on Earth, in Observation on the Spot, and, to a lesser extent, in The Cyberiad.

Lem often placed his characters — like the spaceman Ijon Tichy of The Star Diaries, Pirx the pilot (of Tales of Pirx the Pilot), or the narrator of Return from the Stars in strange, new settings. Thrust into the unknown, he used them to personify various aspects of the possible futures, often having them balance on the thin line separating his belief in the inherent goodness of humanity and his deep pessimism about human limitations.

He also often deploys a wicked sense of humor in his descriptions of even the darkest human situations, most famously in The Futurological Congress and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. In this regard, he has sometimes been compared to Kurt Vonnegut or Franz Kafka. Many of his lighter tales are about Ijon Tichy, a cosmic traveller in his one-man spaceship, whose adventures challenge commonly accepted ideas about things like time travel, the nature of the soul, and the origin of the universe, in a satiric and ironic, yet undeniably logical way.

Three of his novels are likely his most famous. The philosophical Solaris, filmed twice, is set on an isolated research station above the planet Solaris, which is home to a unique alien lifeform. Głos Pana (His Master's Voice) is a very philosophical - much more so than Solaris - story of a scientific effort to decode, translate and understand an extraterrestrial transmission, critically approaching humanity's intelligence and intentions in deciphering and truly comprehending a message from space. Finally, The Cyberiad, pointedly subtitled "Fables for the Cybernetic Age", provides a commentary on humanity in the form of a series of comic short stories relating the adventures of two robot 'constructors' who handle engineering issues around the galaxy.

Franz Rottensteiner, Lem's former agent, was instrumental in introducing him to the Western audience, but they later separated on bitter terms. Rottensteiner summarized his importance:

Lem is the most successful author in modern Polish fiction; nevertheless his commercial success in the world is limited, and the bulk of his large editions was due to the special publishing conditions in the Communist countries: Poland, the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic). Only in West Germany was Lem really a critical and a commercial success [... and everywhere... ] in recent years interest in him has waned. But he is the only writer of European SF of whom most books have been translated into English, and [...] kept in print in the USA. Lem's critical success in English is due mostly to the excellent translations of Michael Kandel.

Stanisław Lem, whose works were influenced by such masters of Polish literature as Cyprian Norwid and Stanisław Witkiewicz, chose the language of science fiction as in the communist People's Republic of Poland it was easier — and safer — to express ideas veiled in the world of fantasy and fiction than in the world of reality. Despite this — or perhaps because of this — he has become one of the most highly acclaimed science-fiction writers, hailed by critics as equal to the likes of H. G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon.

Lem's works influenced not only the realm of literature, but that of science as well. Return from the Stars includes the "opton", which is often cited as the first published appearance of the idea of electronic paper.

In 1981 the philosophers Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett included three extracts from Lem's fiction in their important annotated anthology The Mind's I. ... Hofstadter commented that Lem's "literary and intuitive approach... does a better job of convincing readers of his views than any hard-nosed scientific article... might do. Lem's works have even been used as teaching texts for philosophy students. Texts by Lem were set to music by Esa-Pekka Salonen in his 1982 piece, Floof.


The Man from Mars (pl:Człowiek z Marsa, 1946, only in magazine serial form) – short SF novel of which Lem often said that 'it should be forgotten'; he allowed republication in 1990s after interest was sparked by a German translation made possible by a contract glitch.

Hospital of the Transfiguration (pl:Szpital Przemienienia, written 1948) – partly autobiographical novella about a doctor working in a Polish asylum during the war, published in expanded form in 1955 as Czas nieutracony: Szpital przemienienia. Translated into English by William Brand in 1988. Made into a film in 1979.

The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1951) – juvenile science fiction novel. In early 21st century, it is discovered that Tunguska meteorite was a crash of a reconnaissance ship from Venus, bound to invade the Earth. A spaceship sent to investigate finds that Venusians killed themselves in atomic war first. Made into a film in 1960.

The Magellanic Cloud (Obłok Magellana, 1955, untranslated into English)

Sezam (1955) – Linked collection of short fiction, dealing with time machines used to clean up Earth's history in order to be accepted into intergalactic society. Not translated into English.

Dzienniki gwiazdowe (1957, expanded until 1971) – Collection of short fiction dealing with the voyages of Ijon Tichy. Translated into English and expanded as The Star Diaries (1976, translated by Michael Kandel), later published in 2 volumes as Memoirs of a Space Traveller (1982, second volume translated by Joel Stern).

The Invasion from Aldebaran (pl:Inwazja z Aldebarana, 1959) – Collection of science fiction stories.

The Investigation (Śledztwo, 1959; trans. 1974) – philosophical mystery novel. The book was made into a short film of the same name by Marek Piestrak in 1973.

Eden (1959) – Science fiction novel; after crashing their spaceship on the planet Eden, the crew discovers it is populated with an unusual society. Translated into English by Marc E. Heine as Eden (1989).

Mortal Engines (pl:Bajki robotów,1961) – Also contains The Hunt from Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Return from the Stars (Powrót z gwiazd, 1961; trans. 1980) – SF novel. An astronaut returns to Earth after a 127 year mission.

Solaris (1961) – SF novel. The crew of a space station is strangely influenced by the living ocean as they attempt communication with it. Translated into English from the French translation by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox in 1970. Made into a Russian film in 1972, and US film in 2002.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, 1961; trans. 1973) – Novel set in the distant future about a secret agent, whose mission is so secret that no one can tell him what it is.

The Invincible (Niezwyciężony, 1964; translated by Wendayne Ackerman from the German translation 1973) – SF novel. The crew of a space cruiser searches for a disappeared ship on the planet Regis III, discovering swarms of insect-like micromachines.

The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1967; trans. by Michael Kandel 1974) – collection of humorous stories about the exploits of Trurl and Klapaucius, "constructors" among robots. The stories of Douglas Adams have been compared to the Cyberiad.

His Master's Voice (Głos pana,1968) – SF novel about the effort to translate an extraterrestrial radio transmission. Translated by Michael Kandel as His Master's Voice.

Ze wspomnień Ijona Tichego; The Futurological Congress (Kongres futurologiczny, 1971) – An Ijon Tichy short story, published in the collection Bezsenność.

Ze wspomnień Ijona Tichego; Professor A. Dońda (1971)

A Perfect Vacuum (Doskonała próżnia, 1971) – Collection of reviews of fictional books. Translated into English by Michael Kandel.
Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie (1973) – Collection of linked short fiction involving the career of Pirx. Translated into English in two volumes (Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot)

Imaginary Magnitude (pl:Wielkość urojona, 1973) – Collection of introductions to nonexistent books. Also includes Golem XIV, a lengthy essay/short story on the nature of intelligence delivered by eponymous US military computer. In the personality of Golem XIV, Lem with a great amount of humor describes an ideal of his own mind.

Katar (The Cold, 1975) – borderline SF novel. A former US astronaut is sent to Italy to investigate a series of mysterious deaths. Translated as The Chain of Chance.

Golem XIV (1981) – Expansion of an essay/story from Wielkość urojona.

Observation on the Spot (pl:Wizja lokalna, 1982) – Ijon Tichy novel about the planet Entia. Not translated into English.

Fiasco (Fiasko, 1986, trans. 1987) – SF novel concerning an expedition to communicate with an alien civilization that devolves into a major fiasco.

Library of 21st Century (Biblioteka XXI wieku, 1986) – 3 more fictional reviews; translated as One Human Minute

Peace on Earth (Pokój na Ziemi, 1987; transl. 1994) – Ijon Tichy novel. A callotomized Tichy returns to Earth, trying to reconstruct the events of his recent visit to the Moon.

The Riddle (Zagadka, 1996) – Short stories collection. Not translated into English.

The Fantastical Lem (Fantastyczny Lem, 2001) – Short stories collection. Not translated into English.


(unless noted, not translated into English)

Dialogi (Dialogs 1957) - Non-fiction work of philosophy. Translated into English by Frank Prengel as Dialogs.

Wejście na orbitę (Going into Orbit, 1962)

Summa Technologiae (1964) - Philosophical essay. Partially translated into English.

Filozofia Przypadku (Philosophy of Coincidence or The Philosophy of Chance, 1968) - Nonfiction

Fantastyka i futurologia (Fantasy and Futurology 1970) - Critiques on science fiction. Some parts were translated into English in the magazine Science Fiction

Studies in 1973-1975, selected material was translated in the single volume Microworlds (New York, 1986).

Rozmowy ze Stanisławem Lemem Interviews with Stanisław Lem, Stanisław Beres, Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków(1987) ISBN 83-08-01656-1

Rozprawy i szkice (Essays and drafts, 1974) - collection of essays on science, science fiction, and literature in general

Wysoki zamek (1975) - Autobiography of Lem's childhood before World War II. Translated into English as Highcastle: A Remembrance.

Rozprawy i szkice (1975) - Essays and sketches

Lube czasy (Pleasant Times, 1995)

Dziury w całym (Looking for Problems, 1995)

Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju (Mystery of the Chinese Room, 1996) - Collection of essays on the impact of technology on everyday life.

Sex Wars (1996) - essays

Dyskusje ze Stanisławem LememM. Szpakowska, Interviews with Stanisław Lem, Warszawa 1996

Bomba megabitowa (The Megabit Bomb, 1999) - Collection of essays about the potential downside of technology, including terrorism and artificial intelligence.

Świat na krawędzi (The World at the Edge, 2000) - Interviews with Lem.

Okamgnienie (A Blink of an Eye, 2000) – Collection of essays on technological progress since the publication of Summa Technologiae

Tako rzecze Lem (And Lem says so, 2002) - Interviews with Lem.

Mój pogląd na literaturę (My View of Literature, 2003)

Krótkie zwarcia (Short Circuits, 2004) - Essays

Lata czterdzieste. Dyktanda. (The 40s, 2005) - Lem's works from the 1940s

Rasa drapieżców. Teksty ostatnie (The Predator Race 2006) - the last book of Stanislaw Lem contains actual feuilletons about art, politic and social problems from Polish press "Tygodnik Powszechny".

Film and TV adaptions

Lem was well-known for criticizing the films based on his work, including the famous characterization of Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky as "Crime and Punishment in space".

Der Schweigende Stern (literally The Silent Star, shown in USA as First Spaceship on Venus, German Democratic Republic – Poland 1960), loosely based on The Astronauts

Przekładaniec (Layer Cake/Roly Poly, 1968, by Andrzej Wajda)

Ikarie XB1 (in USA as White Planet or Voyage to the End of the Universe, Czechoslovakia 1963) – loosely based on The Magellanic Cloud, uncredited

Solaris (Соля́рис 1968) - by Boris Nirenburg (USSR). TV film based on the novel Solaris

Solaris (1972, by Andrei Tarkovsky)

Pirx kalandjai (1973, Hungarian TV)

Test pilota Pirxa or Дознание пилота Пиркса (from Pirx story "The Inquest", joint Soviet (Ukrainian-Estonian)-Polish production 1978, directed by Marek Piestrak)

Szpital przemienienia (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1979, by Edward Zebrowski)

Victim of the Brain (1988, by Piet Hoenderdos) includes adaptation of "The Seventh Sally"

Marianengraben (1994, directed by Achim Bornhak, written by Lem and Mathias Dinter)

Solaris (2002, by Steven Soderbergh)

Ijon Tichy: Raumpilot (2007), German TV (ZDF) miniseries, 6 episodes, directed by Oliver Jahn, after his student's film from 1998.

1 (2008, by Pater Sparrow)

Solaris 29 July 2007, BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial radio play adaptation, 2 one hour episodes, adapted by Hattie Naylor, produced by Polly Thomas.

Thirty-Minute Theatre: Roly Poly (1969) - by Michael Hart (Great Britain), scenario of one part was based on the story "Do you exist Mr Jones?"

Opera adaption

The Cyberiad (1970; 2nd version 1985), by Krzysztof Meyer; broadcast by Polish Television (1st act, 1971), staged in Wuppertal (Germany) (1986)