When discussing a literary genre over a length of time, it becomes apparent that such genre worlds are inherently insular: authors, inspired and encouraged by authors coming before them, work within genre conventions, often because such limits are self-imposed or placed on authors due to what a publisher reasonably thinks can sell. For a genre such as science fiction, where literally anything is possible, it seems absurd, thinking about it, but it’s something that’s frequently accepted without argument (or with little argument) throughout the genre’s history. Some authors, however, buck that trend completely. An excellent example of this is Stanislaw Lem.
Stanislaw Lem was born on September 12th, 1921, in Lvov, Poland. He was an intelligent child, the son of a doctor and a housewife. Throughout his childhood, he was an avid reader, reading widely from a broad range of books in his father's personal library. By the time he reached high school, he was bilingual. He went to college at Lwow University, where he studied medicine. The onset of World War II interrupted his education, and he endured both the Soviet occupation of Lvov, and eventually, the capture of the city by German forces in 1941. During the war, he made due as a mechanic and welder. The conflict would have a huge impact on his career as a writer, according to literary critic Peter Swirski, exemplified by "his relentless return to the subjects of change, survival, the use of force, aggression, and military 'solutions' in so many of his mature writings." At some point in his youth, he read works by H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, both of which heavily influenced him and his writing.
Following the end of World War II, Lem and his family relocated to Kraków, Poland (Lvov is now in Ukraine), where he resumed his studies at Jagiellonian University. By this point, he had begun to write science fiction. His first story, "Człowiek z Marsa" ("The Man from Mars"), was published in Nowy Świat Przygód (New Adventure World magazine) in 1946, a first contact novel about the study of a crashed Martian, although Lem would later disparage it (along with a number of his earlier stories).
His first novel was Astronauci (The Astronauts), which was published in 1951. In it, a multinational expedition journeys to Venus, where they uncover the remains of an alien civilization, one that had wiped itself out in an arms race of its own. The novel is overtly utopian, and Lem later said about the book that "naiveté is present on all pages of this book. The hope that in the year 2000 the world would be wonderful is indeed very childish." In 1955, he published his next novel, Obłok Magellana (The Magellan Nebula). Like its predecessor, the book is a utopian work, about a group of explorers headed to Proxima Centauri to locate an intelligent alien civilization. Swirski notes that "These three early novels—Man from Mars, The Astronauts and The Magellan Nebula—present a different face of Stanislaw Lem, more utopian and optimistic, even if already hinting at a darker side of our human kind." This early phase of Lem's career is steeped in utopian overtones, heavily influenced by a proscribed vision of the confidence on the part of the Soviet Union.
In 1959, Lem published a new novel, Śledztwo (The Investigation), a science fiction mystery set in London. However, it was the publication of his next novel, Eden, later that year, that Lem's career began a new phase: one that shed the optimistic outlook of the future and turned far more pessimistic. In this novel, astronauts land on a distant planet, only to discover they've arrived in the middle of a blood bath: a systematic purge by an oppressive government is underway. Lem's book uses the book to comment on the control of information in a rigid society, one that controls its citizens—a stunning rebuke of oppressive regimes during the Cold War.
Lem’s next novel, Powrót z gwiazd (Return from the Stars), was published in 1961, and examines how societies change over time and how human nature inherently shines through. This is apparent when an astronaut, Hal Bregg, returns from a 10 year mission in space, finding that over a century has passed at home on Earth. Society has completely changed: technology has allowed the world to eliminate violence and hatred, but at a price. Another novel appeared in 1961, Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub).
At this time, Lem had only recently come to the attention of Western readers: His first work in English appeared in 1969 when he placed a translation of a story, "Are You There, Mr. Jones?" in a U.S. publication. The story had originally been published as "Czy pan istnieje, Mr. Johns?" in 1957, and was printed in Vision of Tomorrow 1 in August 1969.
While Lem had been putting together a strong backlog of novels, it was his 1961 novel Solaris for which he is best known. The novel followed an astronaut's arrival on a space station, with a crew of astronauts haunted by strange visitors. As the human crew worked to study the strange nature of Solaris, it gives few answers, but creates visitors from the crew's own memories, providing some dark insights into each member’s own personality. In the novel, Kelvin has arrived, and shortly thereafter, is visited by a visitor of his own: Rheya, a lover who killed herself after the pair fought. Solaris largely focuses on the inability to comprehend an extraterrestrial intelligence, and the assumptions we bring with ourselves when we attempt to study the cosmos.
Lem, Franz Rottensteiner notes in a critical look at Solaris, is interested in the process in which the scientists are working to understand the planet, even as he "is not so much concerned with results as with processes and ways of thinking....In this respect, Lem is somewhat of an existentialist; in spite of a positive attitude toward science, he is well aware of the absurdity of existence." Faced with a vast alien intelligence that is completely incomprehensible, Lem essentially does something that no American author would have: Solaris isn't a problem to be solved or examined by the wit and intelligence of the astronauts. Solaris is a phenomenon that exists with its own set of logic, defying human examination because humans are examining it from their own set of rules and systems. It's incomprehensible on one level, completely alien on another.
Solaris reached English-speaking audiences with a translation that came from the French edition of the book, a translation which has long been characterized as a poor one. It wasn't until 2011 that a definitive Polish to English translation was published. Since the original publication, Solaris has been adapted for film three times: the first in 1968, directed by Boris Nirenburg for Soviet television, and the second in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky (who would go on to direct another adaptation of a Soviet-bloc science fiction novel, Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky in 1979). The third adaptation came in 2002, with Steven Soderbergh at the helm.
Lem would continue to publish following Solaris's original release. Niezwyciężony (The Invincible) was published in 1964, Głos pana (His Master's Voice) in 1968 and Kongres futurologiczny (The Futurological Congress) in 1971.
Lem's fiction takes on a different direction from most of the science fiction being published at this point in time: Landon Brooks notes that "[Lem] presents the method of science as a philosophy of science—as 'critical doubt in action,' a process in which science 'throws up new questions for any problem solved.' " Indeed, Lem was highly critical of science fiction published in the United States, which he characterized as being light fare, geared toward mere entertainment and which failed to comprehend itself in any appreciable way.
Notably, in an article in Science Fiction Studies, he explains his issues with genre fiction as a whole: "If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought." This makes sense, given that the rise of Lem's fiction didn't arise through the shared influences of the American genre, or even the underpinning cultural influences that informed it. In many ways, Lem was an alien in and of himself to the regular language of science fiction, and his viewpoint is a good way to recognize the limitations of the fiction emerging from the United States at this point in time. It’s also a good reminder that science fiction existed outside of North America and the United Kingdom.
Lem's attitude toward American science fiction put him at odds with other professionals in the field. Thomas Disch called him smug, and noted that he was insufferable due to his own high regard of his works. Other authors went to further lengths: Philip K. Dick wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding Lem: "What is involved here is not that these persons are Marxists per se or even that Fitting, Rottensteiner and Suvin are foreign-based but that all of them without exception represent dedicated outlets in a chain of command from Stanislaw Lem in Krakow, Poland, himself a total Party functionary (I know this from his published writing and personal letters to me and to other people). For an Iron Curtain Party group—Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual, since he writes in several styles and sometimes reads foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not—to gain monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas."
Brooks summed up Lem's attitude toward American science fiction: "Lem [refused] to think of himself as an SF writer and has written denunciation of SF—particularly American SF—so scathing that in 1976, individuals in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) through a complicated and controversial series of events, rescinded his honorary membership, awarded only three years before." The formal word came from Jerry Pournelle: Lem's honorary membership was a miscommunication. "According to the SFWA by-laws then in force, honorary membership was intended not as an ‘honor’ but as a means to extend benefits of SFWA membership to individuals who would otherwise be ineligible, such as SF writers who had not published in the U.S." Lem, having published in the United States, was technically ineligible for “Honorary Status,” and instead was offered a full membership, which he refused. While the affair seems to have been explained away as a bureaucratic problem, in reality, it was Lem's abrasiveness and attitude which was the motivation for his expulsion. This wasn't a universal opinion in the ranks of SFWA members: A number of members, including Ursula K. Le Guin, protested. Lem later claimed to harbor no ill-will toward members of the association, "but it would be a lie to say the whole incident has enlarged my respect for SF writers."
In spite of Philip K. Dick’s attitude and letter to the FBI, Lem seems to have held his writing in high regard: According to Mike Ashley, "Lem believed that the New Wavers should have used Philip K. Dick as their 'guiding star' rather than, as he believed, Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany or Michael Moorecock....In Lem's view, 'Until now the New Wave has succeeded well in making SF quite boring.' " Lem’s issues with American science fiction derive mainly from where the genre seemed to pull most of its influences: the early 1900s, when fiction was written quickly and with an eye toward adventure, rather than toward deeper thinking. Lem's thoughts weren't unique; others throughout the New Wave began raising similar points. Science fiction needed to mature and not rely so closely on its past. For Lem, hailing from Poland, this was an easy task. For others in the U.S., the conventions were deeply entrenched.
Lem continued to publish, with his final novel, Fiasko (Fiasco), published in 1987, although he would publish three story collections in the 1990s and 2000s: Pożytek ze smoka i inne opowiadania (The Benefit of a Dragon and Other Stories) in 1993, Przekładaniec (Layer Cake) in 2000 and Lata czterdzieste / Dyktanda (Forties / Dictation) published in 2005. Lem passed away at the age of 84 on March 27th, 2006.
Lem has frequently been cited as one of the 20th century's most important and widely read science fiction authors, enjoying a very large audience in the USSR throughout his career. As a writer he was particularly interested in the impact of humanity's relationship with others, and what that relationship reflected on ourselves. Hailing from Eastern Europe, Lem's writing style developed outside of the confines of conventional science fiction, and as a result, his work is unique and deeply philosophical.