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Stanisław Lem

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Stanisław Lem
St Lem resize.jpg
Born 12 September 1921
Lwów, Poland (now Ukraine)
Died 27 March 2006 (aged 84)
Kraków, Poland
Occupation Writer
Nationality Polish
Period 1946–2005
Genre Hard science fiction, philosophy, satire
Spouse Barbara Leśniak (1953–2006; his death; 1 child)[1]

Stanisław Lem (Polish pronunciation: [staˈɲiswaf ˈlɛm]; 12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006) was a Polish writer of science fiction, philosophy, and satire. His books have been translated into forty-one languages and have sold over forty-five million copies.[2][3] From the 1950s to 2000s, he published many books, both science fiction and philosophical/futurological. He is best known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.[4]

His works explore philosophical themes through speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations, and humanity'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 due to passages with elaborate word formation, alien or robotic poetry, and puns.


Early life[edit]

House #4 on Bohdana Lepkogo street in Lwów, where, according to his autobiography "Wysoki zamek", Lem spent his childhood.

Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (since 1945 Lviv, Ukraine). He was the son of Sabina née Woller (1892–1979) and Samuel Lem (1879–1954), a wealthy laryngologist and former physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army,[5][6] and first cousin to Polish poet Marian Hemar (Lem's father and Hemar's mother were brother and sister).[7] Though raised a Roman 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".[8][9] Lem called himself an "agnostic" later in life.[10] After the Soviet invasion and 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.[11] During the subsequent Nazi occupation (1941–1944), Lem's family, which had Jewish roots, avoided imprisonment in a ghetto, surviving with false papers.[6] During that time, Lem earned a living as a car mechanic and welder.[6] Lem declared:

During that period, I learned in a very personal, practical way that I was no “Aryan”. I knew that my ancestors were Jews, but I knew nothing of the Mosaic faith and, regrettably, nothing at all of Jewish culture. So it was, strictly speaking, only the Nazi legislation that brought home to me the realization that I had Jewish blood in my veins.[6][12]

In 1945, Polish eastern Kresy was annexed into Soviet Ukraine and the family, like many other Poles, was resettled to Kraków, where Lem, at his father's insistence, took up medical studies at the Jagiellonian University.[6] He did not take his final examinations on purpose, so as not to be obliged to become a military doctor.[11] Earlier, he had started working as an assistant in a hospital[citation needed] and writing stories in his spare time.[6]

Rise to fame[edit]

Stanisław Lem and toy cosmonaut, 1966

Lem made his literary debut in 1946 with a number of works of different genres, including poetry as well as a science fiction novel The Man from Mars (Człowiek z Marsa) serialized in Nowy Świat Przygód (pl) (New World of Adventures).[6] Between 1948 and 1950 Lem was working as a scientific research assistant at the Jagiellonian University, and published a number of short stories, poems, reviews and similar works, particularly at Tygodnik Powszechny.[13] In 1951, he published his first book, The Astronauts (Astronauci).[6] In 1954, he published a short story anthology, Sesame and other stories (Sezam i inne opowiadania (pl)).[6] That year he also married Barbara Leśniak.[6] The following year, 1955, saw the publication of another sci-fi novel, The Magellanic Cloud (Obłok Magellana).[6]

During the era of Stalinism, which had begun in Poland in the late '40s, all published works had to be directly approved by the communist regime. Thus Astronauci was not, in fact, the first novel Lem finished, just the first that made it past the censors.[6] Going by the date of finished manuscript, Lem's first book was a partly autobiographical novella Hospital of the Transfiguration (Szpital Przemienienia), finished in 1948.[6] It would be published seven years later, in 1955, as a trilogy under a title Czas nieutracony (Time Not Lost).[6] The experience of trying to push Czas.. through the censors was one of the major reasons Lem decided to focus on the less-censored genre of science fiction.[13] Nonetheless, most of Lem's works published in the 1950s also contain—forced upon him by the censors and editors—various references to socialist realism as well as the "glorious future of communism".[13][14] Lem later criticized several of his early pieces as compromised by the ideological pressure.[6]

Lem became truly productive after 1956, when the de-Stalinization period in the Soviet Union led to the "Polish October", when Poland experienced an increase in freedom of speech.[6][13][14] Between 1956 and 1968, Lem authored seventeen books.[14] His writing over the next three decades or so was split between science fiction (primarily prose) and essays about science and culture.[13]

In 1957, he published his first non-fiction, philosophical book, Dialogues (Dialogi (pl)), as well as a science-fiction anthology, The Star Diaries (Dzienniki gwiazdowe),[6] collecting short stories about one of his most popular characters, Ijon Tichy.[15] 1959 saw the publication of three books: Eden, Śledztwo and the short story anthology, Inwazja z Aldebarana.[6] 1961 saw two more books, the first regarded as being among his top works: Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, Solaris, as well as Powrót z gwiazd.[6] This was followed by a collections of his essays and non-fiction prose, Wejście na orbitę (1962), and a short-story anthology Noc księżycowa (1963).[6] In 1964, Lem published a large work on the border of philosophy and sociology of science and futurology, Summa Technologiae, as well as a novel, The Invincible (Niezwyciężony).[6][14]

Lem signing in Kraków, 30 October 2005

1965 saw the publication of The Cyberiad (Cyberiada). That year also saw the publication of a short-story anthology, The Hunt (Polowanie (pl)).[6] 1966 is the year of "Wysoki Zamek", and 1968, "Głos Pana" and "Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie".[6][14] "Wysoki Zamek" was another of Lem's autobiographical works, and touched upon a theme that usually was not favored by the censors: Lem's youth in the pre-war, then-Polish, Lviv.[6] 1967 and 1970 saw two more non-fiction treatises, "Filozofia przypadku" and "Fantastyka i futurologia".[6] Ijon Tichy returns in 1971's The Futurological Congress Kongres futurologiczny, the year of a genre-mixing experiment, "Doskonała próżnia" (a collection of reviews of non-existent books).[6] 1973 sees a similar work, "Wielkość urojona".[6] In 1976, Lem published two novels: "Maska" and "Katar".[6] In 1980, he published another set of reviews of non-existent works, "Prowokacja".[6] The following year sees another Tichy novel, "Wizja lokalna".[6] Later in that decade, he published "Pokój na Ziemi" (1984) and "Fiasko" (1986), Lem's final science-fiction novel.[6]

In the late '70s and early '80s, Lem cautiously supported the Polish dissident movement, and started publishing essays in Paris-based Kultura.[6] 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).[6] After that, he settled in Vienna. He returned to Poland in 1988.[6]

Final years[edit]

From the late 1980s onwards, he tended to concentrate on philosophical texts and essays, published in a number of Polish magazines (Tygodnik Powszechny, Odra, Przegląd, and others).[6][13] They were later collected in a number of anthologies.[6]

In the early 1990s, Lem met with the literary scholar and critic Peter Swirski for a series of extensive interviews, published together with other critical materials and translations as A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997); in the book, Lem speaks about a range of issues rarely touched on before in any interview. Moreover, the book includes Swirski's translation of Lem's retrospective essay "Thirty Years Later", devoted to Lem's legendary nonfictional treatise Summa Technologiae. During later 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.[16] Subsequently, Peter Swirski has published a series of in-depth studies of Lem as a writer, philosopher, and futurologist; notable among them are the recent From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin (2013), Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel (2014), Lemography (2014), and Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (2015).

In 1996, Lem received the prestigious Polish award, the Order of the White Eagle.[17]

Lem died from heart disease in Kraków on 27 March 2006 at the age of 84.[13]



Lem was awarded an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) in 1973. SFWA Honorary membership is given to people who do not meet the publishing criteria for joining the regular membership, but who would be welcomed as members had their work appeared in the qualifying English-language publications. Lem, however, never had a high opinion of American science fiction, describing it as ill-thought-out, poorly written, and interested more in making money than in ideas or new literary forms.[18] After his eventual American publication, when he became eligible for regular membership, his honorary membership was rescinded, an action that some of the SFWA members apparently intended as a rebuke,[19] and it seems that Lem interpreted it as such. Lem was invited to stay on with the organization with a regular membership, but declined.[20] After many members (including Ursula K. Le Guin) protested Lem's treatment by the SFWA, a member offered to pay his dues. Lem never accepted the offer.[18][20]

Philip K. Dick[edit]

Lem singled out only one[citation needed] American SF writer for praise, Philip K. Dick—see the 1986 English-language anthology of his critical essays, Microworlds. Dick thought that Stanisław Lem was probably a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party to gain control over public opinion, and wrote a letter to the FBI to that effect. Stanislaw Lem was also responsible for Polish translation of Dick's work, and when Dick felt monetarily short-changed by the publisher, he held Lem personally responsible (see Microworlds).[21]


Lem is the most internationally famous Polish writer.[13] He has become one of the most highly acclaimed science-fiction writers, hailed by critics as equal to such classic authors as H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon.[22] In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.[4]

In Poland, in the '60s and '70s, Lem remained under the radar of mainstream critics, who dismissed him as a "mass market", low-brow, youth-oriented writer; such dismissal might have given him a form of invisibility from censorship.[6]

The total volume of his published works is over twenty-eight million volumes.[13] His works were widely translated abroad, appearing in over forty languages, though the bulk of them were in Eastern Bloc countries (Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union).[6] Franz Rottensteiner, Lem's former agent abroad, had this to say about Lem's reception on international markets:

With [number of translations and copies sold], 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 [science fiction, most of whose] 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.[23]

His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), His Master's Voice (Głos pana, 1968), and the late Fiasco (Fiasko, 1987). Solaris was made into a film in 1968 by Russian director Boris Nirenburg, a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky—which won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972—and an American re-adaptation in 2002 by American director Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney.

Solaris is not the only work of Lem's to be made into a movie. Over ten movie, film, and television adaptations of his work exist, such as adaptations of The Astronauts (First Spaceship on Venus, 1960) and The Magellan Nebula (Ikarie XB-I, 1963).[24] Lem himself was, however, critical of most of the screen adaptations, with the sole exception of Przekładaniec in 1968 by Andrzej Wajda.[6] More recently, in 2013, the Israeli–Polish co-production The Congress was released, inspired by Lem's novel The Futurological Congress.[25]

Lem's works have been used in education, for example as teaching texts for philosophy students.[26]

Lem's works have influenced not only the realm of literature, but that of science as well. For example, 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 annotated anthology The Mind's I, accompanied by Hofstadter's comment, which says in part 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".[22]

Other influences exerted by Lem's works include Will Wright's popular city planning game SimCity, which was partly inspired by Lem's short story The Seventh Sally.[27]


Science fiction[edit]

Stanisław Lem works were influenced by such masters of Polish literature as Cyprian Norwid and Stanisław Witkiewicz.[citation needed] His prose show a mastery of numerous genres and themes.[6]

One of Lem's major recurring themes, beginning from his very first novel, The Man from Mars, was the impossibility of communication between profoundly alien beings, which may have no common ground with human intelligence, and humans. The best known example is the living planetary ocean in Lem's novel Solaris. Other examples include swarms of mechanical insects (in The Invincible), and strangely ordered societies of more human-like beings in Fiasco and Eden, describing the failure of the first contact. In His Master's Voice, Lem describes the failure of humanity's intelligence to decipher and truly comprehend an apparent message from space.[28][29]

Two overlapping arcs of short stories, Fables for Robots (Bajki Robotów), translated in the collection Mortal Engines), and The Cyberiad (Cyberiada) provide a commentary on humanity in the form of a series of grotesque, humorous, fairytale-like short stories about a mechanical universe inhabited by robots (who have occasional contact with biological "slimies" and human "palefaces").[6][30]

"Śledztwo" and "Katar" are crime novels (the latter without a murderer); "Pamiętnik . . ." is a psychological drama inspired by Kafka.[6] "Doskonała próżnia" and "Wielkość urojona" are collections of reviews of non-existent books and introductions to them.[6] Similarly, "Prowokacja" purports to review a Holocaust-themed work.[6]


Lem's criticism of most science fiction surfaced in literary and philosophical essays Science Fiction and Futurology and interviews.[31] In the 1990s, Lem forswore science fiction and returned to futurological prognostications, most notably those expressed in Blink of an Eye (Okamgnienie (pl)). He became increasingly critical of modern technology in his later life, criticizing inventions such as the Internet.[32]

Dialogi and Summa Technologiae (1964) are Lem's two most famous philosophical texts. The Summa is notable for being a unique analysis of prospective social, cybernetic, and biological advances;[6] in this work, Lem discusses philosophical implications of technologies that were completely in the realm of science fiction at the time, but are gaining importance today—for instance, virtual reality and nanotechnology.



  1. ^ "Stanislaw Lem – Obituaries – News". The Independent. 2006-03-31. Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  2. ^ Rob Jan. "Stanislaw Lem 1921 – 2006. Obituary by Rob Jan". ZERO-G AUSTRALIAN RADIO and 
  3. ^ "Technik: Visionär ohne Illusionen". ZEIT ONLINE. 28 July 2005. . Part essay, part interview with Lem by Die Zeit newspaper
  4. ^ a b Theodore Sturgeon: Introduction at the Wayback Machine (archived 17 October 2007) to Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York 1976
  5. ^ Jerzy Jarzȩbski (1986). Zufall und Ordnung: zum Werk Stanlisław Lems (in German). Suhrkamp. p. 1. ISBN 978-3-518-37790-1. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as Tomasz FIAŁKOWSKI. "Stanisław Lem czyli życie spełnione" (in Polish). 
  7. ^ Lem's FAQ
  8. ^ "The religion of Stanislaw Lem, science fiction writer". 
  9. ^ An Interview with Stanislaw Lem at the Wayback Machine (archived 27 September 2007) by Peter Engel. Missouri Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1984.
  10. ^ Noack, Hans-Joachim (15 January 1996). "Jeder Irrwitz ist denkbar Science-fiction-Autor Lem über Nutzen und Risiken der Antimaterie (engl: Each madness is conceivable Science-fiction author Lem about the benefits and risks of anti-matter)". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  11. ^ a b "Lem about Himself". Stanislaw Lem homepage. 
  12. ^ Stanisław Lem (January 1984). "Chance and Order". The New Yorker 59 / 30. pp. 88–98. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Jerzy Jarzębski. Lem, Stanisław (in Polish). 'PWN. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Lem, Stanislaw. SFE. 25 October 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Stanisław Lem (2000). Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. Northwestern University Press. p. Back cover blurb. ISBN 978-0-8101-1732-7. [Tichy] endures as one of Lem's most popular characters 
  16. ^ Auch Hosenträger sind intelligent, Zeit Wissen, 1/2005; Im Ramschladen der Phantasie, Zeit Wissen, 3/2005. (German)
  17. ^ Orzeł Biały dla Lema (White Eagle for Lem), article in "Gazeta Wyborcza" nr 217, 17 September 1996, page 2, [1]
  18. ^ a b "Stanislaw Lem – Frequently Asked Questions. SWFA, quoted on Lem's homepage". Stanislaw Lem. 
  19. ^ "The Lem Affair (Continued)". Science Fiction Studies, # 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978. 1978. 
  20. ^ a b "Lem and SFWA". Archived from the original on 11 January 2008.  in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America FAQ, "paraphrasing Jerry Pournelle" who was SFWA President 1973-4
  21. ^ "Stanislaw Lem – Frequently Asked Questions. P.K.Dick, Letter to FBI, quoted on Lem's homepage". Stanislaw Lem. 
  22. ^ a b "Stanislaw Lem". The Times. 28 March 2006. (subscription required (help)). 
  23. ^ Franz Rottensteiner (1999). "Note on the Authors: Stanisław Lem". View from Another Shore: European Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press. p. 252. ISBN 978-0-85323-942-0. 
  24. ^ Peter Swirski (1 January 2008). The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. pp. 153–170. ISBN 978-0-7735-7507-3. 
  25. ^ "Israeli Polish coproduction "The Congress" to Open Director’s Fortnight in Cannes". 
  26. ^ For instance, in the subject Natural and Artificial Thinking, Faculty of Math. & Phys., Charles University in Prague, or Philosophy in sci-fi at Masaryk University in Brno
  27. ^ Lew, Julie (15 June 1989). "Making City Planning a Game". Retrieved 28 May 2010. 
  28. ^ David Langford (July 2005). The Sex Column and Other Misprints, a collection of essays from SFX magazine. Wildside Press LLC. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-930997-78-3. 
  29. ^ The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works ... – Google Books. Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  30. ^ "Cyberiada". Lem's official website. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  31. ^ ""Folha de S.Paulo" - interview with Lem". Stanislaw Lem's homepage. 
  32. ^ ""Shargh" daily newspaper interview". Stanislaw Lem. Archived from the original on 2011-08-07. Retrieved 15 October 2014. 
  33. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. p. 325. ISBN 3-540-00238-3. 
  34. ^ "UCHWAŁA NR VIII/122/07 Rady Miasta Krakowa z dnia 14 marca 2007 r. w sprawie nazw ulic. Par.1, pkt.1" (in Polish). 
  35. ^ "Uchwała nr XXXII/479/2009 Rady Miejskiej w Wieliczce z dnia 30 września 2009 r. w sprawie nadania nazwy ulicy" (PDF) (in Polish). Urząd Marszałkowski Województwa Małopolskiego. 
  36. ^ "Stanisław Lem doodle". Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  37. ^ "Google creates doodle in Stanislaw Lem's book". The Guardian. 23 November 2011. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wojciech Orliński, Co to są sepulki? Wszystko o Lemie (What are Sepulki? Everything about Lem), 2007, ISBN 8324007989.
  • Peter Swirski, Stanislaw Lem Reader, Northwestern University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8101-1495-X description
  • Peter Swirski, Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge, McGill-Queen's UP, 2000, ISBN 0-7735-2078-3
  • Peter Swirski (ed), The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-7735-3047-9
  • Peter Swirski From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013.
  • Peter Swirski Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel, Liverpool University Press, 2014.
  • Peter Swirski (ed), Lemography, Liverpool University Press, 2014.
  • Peter Swirski Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future, Liverpool University Press, 2015.
  • "Acta Lemiana Monashiensis" ed. Lech Keller, „Acta Polonica Monashiensis", special edition dedicated to Lem, 2002, vol. 2, nr 2 Monash University 2003, 207 p., ISSN 1326-8562 review in Polish
  • Lech Keller, Visions of the Future in the Writings of Stanislaw Lem (Volume 1, "Visions of the Future") Saarbrücken, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010, 392 p., ISBN 978-3-8383-5900-7
  • Lech Keller, Visions of the Future in the Writings of Stanislaw Lem (Volume 2, "Annotated and Cross-Referenced Primary and Secondary Bibliography of Stanislaw Lem") Saarbrücken, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010, 696 p., ISBN 978-3-8383-6942-6
  • Jameson, Fredric. "The Unknowability Thesis." In Archaeologies of the Future: This Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London and New York: Verso, 2005.
  • Suvin, Darko. "Three World Paradigms for SF: Asimov, Yefremov, Lem." Pacific Quarterly (Moana): An International Review of Arts and Ideas 4.(1979): 271–283.

External links[edit]