Stanisław Lem

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Stanisław Lem
St Lem resize.jpg
Born12 September 1921
Lwów, Poland (now Ukraine)
Died27 March 2006 (aged 84)
Kraków, Poland
GenreScience fiction, philosophy, satire
SpouseBarbara Leśniak (1953–2006; his death; 1 child)[1]
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Stanisław Lem
St Lem resize.jpg
Born12 September 1921
Lwów, Poland (now Ukraine)
Died27 March 2006 (aged 84)
Kraków, Poland
GenreScience fiction, philosophy, satire
SpouseBarbara 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 41 languages and have sold over 45 million copies.[2][3] He is 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] In 1996, he received the prestigious Polish award, the Order of the White Eagle.[5]

His works explore philosophical themes; 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 (now Ukraine). He was the son of Sabina Woller (1892–1979) and Samuel Lem (1879–1954), a wealthy laryngologist and former physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Though raised a Roman Catholic,[6] 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".[7] Lem called himself an "agnostic" later in life.[8] 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.[9] During World War II and the Nazi occupation (1941–1944), Lem survived with false papers, earning a living as a car mechanic and welder, and becoming active in the resistance.

"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. We succeeded in evading imprisonment in the ghetto, however. With false papers, my parents and I survived that ordeal." (Stanisław Lem, "Chance and Order", The New Yorker 59 / 30 January 1984, page 88–98)

In 1945, Polish eastern Kresy was annexed into Soviet Ukraine[10] 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. He refused to tailor his answers to the prevailing Lysenkoism and failed his final examinations on purpose so as not to be obliged to become a military doctor.[9] Earlier he had started working as a research assistant in a scientific institution and writing stories in his spare time.


Stanisław Lem and toy cosmonaut, 1966

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 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 persuaded him to become a full-time writer.[10]

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. 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.


Lem signing in Kraków, 30 October 2005

He gained international fame for The Cyberiad, a series of humorous short stories from a mechanical universe inhabited by robots (who had occasional contacts with biological "slimies" and human "palefaces"), 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 humanity'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;[10] 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 the early 1990s Lem met with a 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.[11]

Lem died in Kraków on 27 March 2006 at the age of 84 due to heart disease.



Lem was awarded an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) in 1973 despite being technically ineligible. SFWA Honorary membership is given to people who do not meet the criteria for joining the regular membership but who would be welcomed as members. 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.[17] After his American publication, when he became eligible for regular membership, his honorary membership was rescinded, since technically he was no longer eligible for the honorary one. Some of the SFWA members apparently intended this as a rebuke,[18] and it seems that Lem interpreted it thus. After his American publication, Lem was invited to stay on with the organization with a regular membership, but declined.[19] 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.[17][19]

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, however, perhaps due to drug use or mental illness, believed that Stanisław Lem was 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 a publisher translating Dick into Polish; when Dick felt monetarily short-changed by the publisher, he held Lem personally responsible (see Microworlds). This may have also been the impetus for Dick's letter to the FBI. [20]


Science fiction[edit]

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 and humans, which may have no common ground with human intelligence. The best known example is the living planetary ocean in Lem's novel Solaris. Other examples include swarms of mechanical insects (in The Invincible) or 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 in deciphering and truly comprehending an apparent message from space.[21][22]

Two overlapping arcs of short stories, (pl:Bajki Robotów, Fables for Robots, translated in the collection Mortal Engines), The Cyberiad (Cyberiada) provide a commentary on humanity in the form of a series of comic short stories in the world of robots.[23] The first one is a mixture of the retelling of traditional fairy tale folklore with traditional science fiction topics. The second arc concerns the adventures of two constructor robots who handle engineering issues around the galaxy.


His criticism of most science fiction surfaced in literary and philosophical essays (Fantastyka i futurologia) and interviews.[24] 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.[25]


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:

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...

— Franz Rottensteiner , View from Another Shore: European Science Fiction , second updated edition, Liverpool University Press 1999, ISBN 0-85323-942-8, Note on the Authors: Stanisław Lem, p. 252

Stanisław Lem, whose works were influenced by such masters of Polish literature as Cyprian Norwid and Stanisław Witkiewicz,[citation needed] and 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.[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 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".[26]

Other influences exerted by Lem's works include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Stanislaw Lem – Obituaries – News". The Independent. 2006-03-31. Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  2. ^ Stanislaw Lem 1921 – 2006 Obituary at Lem's official site
  3. ^ Visionär ohne Illusionen - part essay, part interview with Lem by Die Zeit newspaper
  4. ^ Theodore Sturgeon: Introduction at the Wayback Machine (archived October 17, 2007) to Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York 1976
  5. ^ Orzeł Biały dla Lema (White Eagle for Lem), article in "Gazeta Wyborcza" nr 217, 17 September 1996, page 2
  6. ^ ; see also Stanisław Lew at
  7. ^ An Interview with Stanislaw Lem at the Wayback Machine (archived September 27, 2007) by Peter Engel. Missouri Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1984.
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ a b Stanislaw Lem about himself
  10. ^ a b c Lem, Stanisław. (2006) In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 June 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service
  11. ^ Auch Hosenträger sind intelligent, Zeit Wissen, 1/2005; Im Ramschladen der Phantasie, Zeit Wissen, 3/2005. (German)
  12. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. p. 325. ISBN 3-540-00238-3. 
  13. ^ UCHWAŁA NR VIII/122/07 Rady Miasta Krakowa z dnia 14 marca 2007 r. w sprawie nazw ulic. Par.1, pkt.1 (Polish)
  14. ^ Uchwała nr XXXII/479/2009 Rady Miejskiej w Wieliczce z dnia 30 września 2009 r. w sprawie nadania nazwy ulicy (Polish)
  15. ^ "Stanisław Lem doodle". Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  16. ^ Google creates doodle in Stanislaw Lem's book, The Guardian Retrieved on 23 November 2011
  17. ^ a b Stanislaw Lem – Frequently Asked Questions
  18. ^ The Lem Affair (Continued)
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ P.K.Dick, Letter to FBI quoted on Lem's homepage
  21. ^ David Langford, "The SEX Column And Other Misprints", a collection of essays from SFX, 2005, ISBN 1930997787, p. 65
  22. ^ The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works ... – Google Books. Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  23. ^ "Cyberiada", at Lem's official website
  24. ^ Stanislaw Lem – Interview February 2003
  25. ^ "Shargh" daily newspaper interview
  26. ^ a b "Stanislaw Lem". The Times. 28 March 2006. 
  27. ^ Lew, Julie (15 June 1989). "Making City Planning a Game". Retrieved 28 May 2010. 
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ "Israeli Polish coproduction "The Congress" to Open Director’s Fortnight in Cannes". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]