Stanisław Lem

Science fiction writer


Lem in his private, little library


Stanisław Lem is the most frequently translated Polish science fiction writer, a forerunner of science fantasy, and also a philosopher, futurologist and literature critic. His work touches on topics of development of science and technology, human nature and the place of humanity in the universe whilst undergoing an examination of the status of intelligent beings. His literature contains references to the state of modern society, scientific and philosophical reflections about this, and also criticism of the Soviet Union’s political system. He was at one time the most read non-English sci-fi writer. His books have been translated into 40 different languages with circulation of more than 30 million copies. His influence on sci-fi literature is compared to H.G Well’s or Olaf Stapledon’s. He was awarded with the “Gloria Artis” medal and the highest Polish state decoration – the “Order of the White Eagle”.


Meet Stanisław Lem, one of the greatest Polish writers.


Stanisław Lem was born on September 12th, 1921 in Lwów, where he spent his childhood. His parents were Jewish, which he never admitted to in his lifetime. He claimed he was raised as Catholic, but later for, as he said, moral reasons, he declared himself as both agnostic and atheist . While he was studying in secondary school, the tests he took revealed him to be the most intelligent boy of his province. He planned to study at the University of Technology and become a researcher. The outbreak of WW2 changed his plan.


In Soviet occupied Lwów, he was refused entry to the University of Technology, despite passing the entrance examination. He was not accepted because of his “wrong” social origin, deemed “bourgeois”. In order to avoid conscription into The Red Army, he began to study medicine thanks to the connections of his father.


His studies were interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, during which all Lwów’s universities were closed down. Despite their Jewish origins, his family escaped being put in a ghetto by using false documents. Thanks to them, young Lem found employment as a mechanic helper, whilst collaborating with the Polish resistance. In 1943 he had to change identity again because he was afraid of being arrested for hiding his Jewish friend. In 1944 after the second invasion of Lwów by the Red Army, he continued his studies. In 1945 Lem’s family finally moved to the safety of Kraków, a Polish city, where Stanisław could complete his medicine studies. Before his final exams, he decided to abandon his studies in order to escape conscription into the Army.


The material and financial situation Lem’s family experienced at the time was very bad, because in order to move to Kraków, they had to leave all possessions (otherwise they would have been forced to accept Soviet citizenship), so Lem began to write to make some money. Lem’s first work were related to war and occupation, but also stories containing fantastic subject matter. He debuted with the stories Alien, The Garden of Darkness and History of One Discovery printed in “Tygodnik Powszechny”, a respected weekly of high journalistic quality.


In 1948-50 Lem worked in the Jagiellonian University as an assistant of Mieczysław Choynowski, defined by Lem as his “Intellectual mentor”. Choynowski guided Lem towards science, so he started to study Cybernetics of Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by N. Wiener and A Mathematical Theory of Communication by C.F Shannon, among other works.


In 1951, after the publishing of Astronauts, an adventure novel about expedition to Venus, he was accepted to the Polish Writers’ Association. In 1951 Lem published Jacht Paradise, a story which stigmatizes American imperialism, written with Roman Huassarski. In 1954 Lem released Sesame and other stories, which included a few less popular stories among pieces of Star Diaries, one his most popular series. In 1955 he wrote Magellan’s Cloud, a Utopian story about expedition to the closest to Earth star system Alfa Centauri. Works of this period were written in accordance with the artistic movement social realism, because of the Soviet censorship.


Lem together with his dog - Pluto

During 1950s Lem wrote prolifically, publishing several hard S-F stories and novels about futuristic themes on the conquest of space, often along Marxist social realist lines. Some of the Star Diaries, later forming a beloved collection of witty tales parodying the classic subjects of SF, were also published at the time, signalling a new era in Lem’s writing.


After 1956 censorship became less rigorous. Lem’s international career as a science fiction writer could begin. With it came a long awaited stable life. He wrote numerous SF- books, both in realistic and grotesque style. Several editions of collections were published during 1960s. Notable among them were Cyberiad and Robots’ Tales. His important novels were Eden, and Investigation. From then on the moral and philosophical aspects of science and technology took priority over simple presentation of the world of the future.


One of Lem’s best known achievements, the novel Solaris, twice made into film form, is concerned with the strangeness of the universe, the helplessness of science and humans in understanding the nature of their discoveries.


For the rest of his life, Lem went from strength to strength with his, Stories about pilot Pirxs; Voice of the Lord (1968), High Palace (1966), Perfect Void (1971), Greatness of delusion (1973), Runny nose (1976), Local vision (1982), Fiasco: Peace on Earth (1987), Twinkling: World on the Edge, Lem says so and Dilemas (2000-2003). They were widely translated into several languages including English and enjoyed popularity rarely accorded to a modern Polish writer.


Statue honoring Stanisław Lem

During the 1980s, after the imposition of Martial Law in Poland Lem moved to Vienna with his family . He kept writing and collaborated with expat Polish language monthly – “Culture” published from Paris. As his vast popularity rendered him practically immune to the government displeasure, Lem decided to return to Poland in 1988. He spent his remaining years turning out articles and dissertations on the state of modern science, increasingly pessimistic about the direction our civilisation was taking. His last published work was The Race of Predators (2006). While writing it Lem started to complain of cardiac irritation and was admitted to the Hospital of Collegium Medicum of Jagiellonian University in Cracow, before he turned 85.


Lem’s works revolutionized the ideas of scientific development in human life and its future . He opened to humanity the vastness of doubts and uncertainties about science’s progress, understanding the cosmos and humans’ place in it, and developed a huge ground for interpretation of his works on a wide spectrum of philosophical issues. At that, he was immensely readable, probably doing more than any other modern writer to bring the scientific discoveries to untrained perceptions . The legacy of Lem continues today, he inspired people to think and to learn. Lem’s work are read to these days and he is still very popular.


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