Stanisław Lem – colossus of science fiction of the XX century

When I was a little boy the books by Julius Verne allowed me to travel. I went around the world in 80 days, I visited the oceans with captain Nemo, and I even traveled to the moon. A couple of years later came the time of Łajka, Gagarin, and Armstrong. All of a sudden the mankind was on a brink of conquering space. And this is when, for the first time, I saw a book written by Stanisław Lem. For a teenager in Poland, in the fifties, when everything was a “state secret”, his books about robots, astronauts, and space vehicles were like a magical world.  Lem opened our eyes; his books moved galaxies and planets closer to us, while the technology became more understandable and accessible.

Stanisław Lem was born in 1921 in Lwow, in a family of doctors. His medical studies were interrupted by WWII. During the German occupation he worked as a mechanic and welder; he took an active part in the resistance movement. After the war he moved to Krakow, where he finished his medical studies. He did not accept a doctor’s diploma because during these years all doctors ended up in the army. Instead he started to work at the Jagiellonian University as a scientist and a columnist for the magazine “Life of Science.” He also started to publish his first books. In this first period his books conformed to the rules of Social Realism, his heroes were optimists creating a new and better world. Although they brought him recognition as a talented writer, these books were never translated into other languages, as a matter of fact Lem later just forgot about them His most productive years of science fiction writing started in 1956, when Poland went through a period of political “thaw” and the censorship became more liberal. His books are now full of humor and irony, they also show problems encountered by human societies. The heroes of his books travel trough cosmos and time; they meet unusual and grotesque creatures that are somehow familiar to us. The problems facing his protagonists reflect in outer worlds both tyrannies and free democracies. His originality is particularly evident when he describes new types of machines, their programming, and relationships with cosmonauts.

Of his books the most famous became Solaris, first made into a movie, and this way made popular, by a soviet director A. Tarkowski, and later by an American director S. Soderbergh with George Clooney playing the main part. Solaris deals with the connection of humans with aliens. The book provokes the reader to deep thinking and asks him questions to which he must find answers himself.

In the last period of his creativeness Lem published only scientific treatises and philosophical essays. Although in his books he often wrote about the relationship of a man to machines and technical progress, toward the end of his life he was less and less happy about the way people used their best technical innovations. In the interview given to Wojciech Orliński and published in the “Wiadomości Kulturalne” he said: “I do not resist progress, but I have a growing feeling that mankind uses it mostly for disgraceful purposes. Take a look at what happens in Africa. All the weaponry there was bought in highly civilized countries… Some time ago crime was modest – take Al Capone and his mere dozens of victims. Now we have the “Independence Day” movie, where alien spaceships murder almost the entire mankind… This is so disgusting for me, that I decided to leave the street-car of science fiction on a stop of essay writing.”

Stanisław Lem was a big star of the XX-century science fiction. He was also a philosopher with a vast knowledge of sciences, cosmology, biotechnology and programming. His books were translated into 41 languages. He is the most often translated Polish writer. There were 27 million copies of his books sold with over 2000 editions. The most popular of his books are, among others Astronauts (1951),  Daily Star Papers (1959), Return from the Stars (1961), Solaris (1961), Cyberiada (1965), Tales about pilot Pirx (1968),  The Imaginary Grand Size (1973), Local Vision (1981), and Peace on Earth (1987).  We lose in him this year a great visionary, writer, and a man, who tried to improve our world through his entire life.

Joseph Hart

Forum, 7-8/2006