The leading representative of Polish science fiction, a philosopher, futurologist and essayist, Lem's work also includes realistic novels and satirical texts. Born in Lviv in 1921, Lem lived in Kraków from 1946. He died there March 27, 2006.
Table of contents: Life and Work | Realism | Grotesque | Discursiveness | Apocrypha | Fiasco, or Pessimism | Obsessions | The first Polish Editions of Lem's Works
Life and Work
Lem was the son of the successful laryngologist, Samuel Lehm and Sabina Woller (he recalls his childhood in the autobiographical, Wysoki zamek / High Castle), a relative of Marian Hemar. He attended the Karol Szajnoch second Grammar School and planned to study at Lviv Technical University but this proved impossible in a city occupied by Soviet troops. Thanks to his father's connections, he was accepted for studies in medicine but they were interrupted during the German occupation, when he worked as a mechanic's assistant and a welder. Lem continued his studies after the war but he did not take his final examinations because he wanted to avoid being drafted. In 1946, the whole family moved to Kraków as they did not wish to accept citizenship of the USSR.
Lem's literary career began with periodicals - Kuźnica, Tygodnik Powszechny, Nowy Świat Przygód. Initially, he published poems, later included as an appendix to Wysoki zamek, as well as stories about the occupation. In "Nowy Świat Przygód", he also published, in extracts, his first science fiction novel, Człowiek z Marsa / Man from Mars.
From 1947-50, the writer worked in the Scientific Conservatory headed at that time by Dr Mieczysław Choynowski. After this institution was closed, he found himself in difficult circumstances. The unexpected success of Astronauci / The Astronauts, the first of Lem's science fiction works to be published in book form, and concurrent problems with the printing of the earlier, Szpital Przemienienia / Hospital of the Transfiguration (because of the censor's demands, this was developed into a trilogy entitled Czas nieutracony / Time Not Lost, which ends with the main protagonist accepting a party membership card) meant that the writer decided once and for all to devote himself to science fiction. On the one hand, this allowed him to write about the role of technology in the lives of human beings; on the other, it made evading censorship easier.
In 1953, Stanisław Lem married Barbara Leśniak, a radiologist; their son, Tomasz, was born in 1968. From 1983-88, the writer lived abroad (Berlin, Vienna) before settling again in Kraków. During the last years of his life, he cooperated intensively with "Tygodnik Powszechny". He died on March 27, 2006 and the urn containing his ashes was laid at the Salwatorski Cemetery. Although he declared himself an agnostic, Lem's funeral, at his family's request, was conducted in accordance with Roman Catholic rites.
Stanisław Lem was awarded several honourable PhDs (including from Wrocław Technical University, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Lvov University and the University of Bielefeld). In 1973, the writer was granted honorary membership of the Association of Science Fiction Writers of America but, because of procedural worries, he refused the ordinary membership that he was offered in 1975. The planetoid, 3836 Lem, was named after the writer.
As early as in 1961 Jan Błoński drew attention to the multiplicity of shapes in Lem's creative work in "Życie Literackie" no. 497. Lem touched upon almost all the possibilities afforded to a writer by contemporary science fiction. It could even be said that in his creative work, chronologically compact but quantitatively abundant, he repeated the evolution of the genre: in essence, he began with tales that were simple, trusting and encouraging (Astronauci, Obłok Magellana / The Magellanic Cloud) in order to arrive quite soon at parody (Dzienniki gwiazdowe Ijona Tichego / The Star Diaries) and at an apocalyptic and concentrated vision of "the worst of all possible worlds" (Eden). What is more, he systematically tested the literary opportunities that science fiction offers.
Lem's work can be provisionally divided into several groups. After the early stories that were optimistic in tone (and later criticised by the writer himself as "socialist realist"), in the 1960s Lem created works that had the most to do with science fiction while at the same time introducing a specifically understood realism to the genre. I am referring here to novels such as Eden (1959), Powrót z gwiazd / Return from the Stars (1961), Solaris (1961), Niezwyciężony / The Invincible (1964), Głos Pana / His Master's Voice (1968) and also to the tales that were published in various collections, and finally together, in Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie / Tales of Pirx the pilot (1968). After 1968, Lem returned to this writing formula only once, in his last novel, Fiasko / Fiasco (1987).
A somewhat longer life was lived by his works of a grotesque hue that were sometimes even perversely outmoded and linked in a series by their distinctive protagonists, such as the stellar traveller, Ijon Tichy, or the constructors, Trurl and Klapaucjusz. Texts of this kind are characterised by great linguistic invention. They feature technical-feudal neologisms, rhymes, and grotesque terms for the tools of the future world. The last novel with Ijon Tichy, Pokój na ziemi / Peace on Earth, appeared in 1987.
In time, Lem's creativity moved more in the direction of essays and philosophical deliberations. His most important work here is undoubtedly Summa technologiae although it is also worth mentioning Filozofia przypadku / The Philosophy of Chance, since an echo of the attitudes expressed therein can be heard in the anti-crime stories, Śledztwo / The Investigation and Katar / The Cold.
On the borderline between the grotesque stories and the essays are the so-called apocrypha, reviews of non-existent books, moving from Doskonała próżnia / A Perfect Vacuum, towards a more serious tone. The last in the book review series, The World as Holocaust, was written in such a way that people believed the book existed.
In the final period of his life, Lem was active as a columnist. His texts appeared in "Tygodnik Powszechny" and as Rozważania sylwiczne / Silvan Deliberations in the monthly, "Odra". These feature articles concerned the present and future of broadly understood civilisation, and the form was quite traditional and, therefore, far from the bravura of some of his earlier works. The brilliance of his ideas, however, remained the same; for example, in his remark that it is natural that before artificial intelligence there should appear something called "the artificial cretin".
The above description is naturally quite sketchy. More detailed analyses are to be found below, where the themes are grouped in accordance with their subject matter and not chronologically. This decision was dictated by the fact that excellent descriptions of particular works, written by Jerzy Jarzębski, can be found at: http://solaris.lem.pl.
Science Fiction Films Adapted from Lem
The world presented in Lem's works differs from the reality known in typical science fiction primarily because, as a rule, the author does not encourage us to believe he is presenting remarkable things. On the contrary, many elements of Lem's reality are constructed in such a way as to create the impression of future normality and daily routine. Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie is characteristic; here, the Solar System is described as a tamed space, subjected to scientific research and economic exploitation, and even able to sustain tourist activity. This does not mean, however, that it is a safe space.
Another comparison comes to mind here: the space flights in Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie are presented more or less like long sea voyages at the end of the era of great sailing ships. This feature is underlined, for example, by the stylised decorations of the rocket from the story, Terminus: round, brass, pseudo-windows, in which the lighting has been placed, light-blue maps imitating the colour of marine maps, and finally the half-legendary story about shipwrecked people fighting for survival. In Pirx reality, however, the romanticism of the cosmonaut's profession gradually gives way to routine and that in turn leads to numerous shortcomings. Both the procedures and the equipment leave much to be desired, being a mixture of the newest, and the most outdated, technologies (all of this, obviously, from the point of view of the future).
This combination of experimental novelty and inevitable obsolescence is reflected by the material objects presented in the tales. On the one hand, prototypes of equipment often appear (which, of course, does not guarantee their reliability) and, on the other, there are very precise descriptions of discomfort, destruction, wear and tear, or even flawed construction decisions (the peeling armour-plating on the "Koriolan"). The greatest threat to people, however, is not constituted by unreliable technology but by their own limitations. In Ananke, the cause of the spectacular catastrophe is the programmer's pathological perfectionism; in Odruch warunkowy / Conditioned Reflex, the error, fatal in its consequences, appears several times when the readings of the unreliable alarm equipment are misinterpreted by the people working there. If the main protagonist usually finds a way out of similar situations, this does not occur as the result of superhero features: Pirx the pilot is presented as an absent-minded dreamer, but, due to intuition, he goes beyond the schematic way of acting. What is more, this daydreaming, an apparently negative feature, conditions the practical effectiveness of Pirx's actions. This model of heroism, strictly connected with a weakness, and attained by a person who is in essence average (which from the point of view of the rules of science fiction writing is a novelty) gives the figure of Pirx a somewhat Conradian nature.
The price of the reader feeling at home in Lem's fantastic worlds is the presence of certain anachronisms. In Eden, where the technology allows for not only inter-planetary travel but also inter-stellar journeys, one of the protagonists uses a petrol lighter. Such situations should be differentiated from obviously humorous anachronisms, such as those that appear in Bajki robotów / Mortal Engines or Dzienniki gwiazdowe / The Star Diaries.
Another somewhat paradoxical manifestation of realism is the very artistic and detailed presentation of a reality that appears to the protagonists as alien. Interestingly, these could be manifestations of an extra-terrestrial civilisation or the situation seen on earth by a person from another time. This person can be the victim of physical paradoxes connected with travelling at near light speed (Powrót z gwiazd / Return from the Stars) or the beneficiary of being revived after many years (Fiasko or Kongres futurologiczny / The Futurological Congress, which illustrates the same problem in a light-hearted way).
In all these cases, the alienness presented by Lem is convincing; human cognitive schemata are put to the test by a blurring of the distinctions between the living and the dead, the natural and the artificial, the organic and the inorganic. Here we recall the necrocytes from Niezwyciężony, i.e. the miniature flying military automata intelligent only as a swarm, or the biological factory in Eden or all the forms of thinking jelly that appear from Solaris up to Dzienniki gwiazdowe. Another sign of strangeness typical of Lem is the degeneration or perversion of the construction conception, usually bringing about a catastrophe, after which only fragments remain to be interpreted. This motif appeared first of all in Astronauci and then underwent numerous modifications.
Władimir Borisow (http://acta-lemiana.prv.pl) draws attention to the strength and nature of Lem's images of alienness:
"The highest degree of the expressiveness of the linguistic means used by him are testified to by the descriptions of at least two fantastic landscapes. You could look through even a thousand science fiction books and never find such spectacular descriptions of invented phenomena as in the stories about the creations in 'Solaris' - puzzling symmetriads, mimoids, tree-mountains etc. or about Birnam Wood on Titan ('Fiasko') which, admittedly, did not go anywhere in contrast to Shakespeare's but is constantly changing nevertheless."
One can also talk about Lem the realist from a completely different perspective. He began his exercises in presenting alienness at the end of his early novel, Szpital przemienienia, set during the German occupation. In Jarzębski's opinion, this work presents the same philosophical problems that we know from Lem's mature and canonical works (partly neutralised, however, by the fact that the most difficult questions are asked in this novel by a negative character, the man of letters, Sekułowski).
The remark about the philosophical precedence of Szpital przemienienia ought to be supported by examples. Let me say, then, that the conflict between cold scientific rationality and human nature, presented in Szpital przemienienia in the form of a discussion among psychiatrists, will return, for example, in the tale, Rozprawa / Debate, in the utterances of the rebellious humanoid robot, Calder, and in the thoughts of Pirx, who confronts him. The humanist aspects of the doctor's mission will, in turn, resonate in the figure of the Doctor in Eden and the disturbing descriptions of madness will affect, more often than people, the robots caricaturing our awareness (cf. the image of religious rapture expressed at the scrapping of the automata in Powrót z gwiazd).
Just as the appearance of Pirx the pilot is a serious reflection on the meeting-point of technology and human nature, so the presence of Ijon Tichy almost always indicates the grotesque character of a work (the exceptions are the untitled but numbered tales about mad inventors added to Dzienniki gwiazdowe and stylised rather on intimate technological horror stories). To the improbable tales of Ijon Tichy, Jerzy Jarzębski attributed features of the tales of Baron Münchhausen (Lem himself, however, stated that any similarity was absolutely unintentional). The whole series makes use of ideas that no longer appear to have any place in "serious" science fiction - time travel (the inconstant numbering of successive voyages is explained by the possible existence of such types of incidents), cases of being lost in a time loop, aliens very similar to humans. This suggests that Dzienniki... is not in essence science fiction sensu stricto but a philosophical tale (on the pattern of Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist), merely making use of an unusual set of props.
Among the works of philosophical tales, a sizeable group is comprised of texts that are a kind of speciality of Lem's output: anti-utopias presented in a comical way. Degenerate other-planet societies can be allegories of totalitarianism, such as the planet Pinta, where attempts are made to force people to breathe under water, an action supposedly the consequence of an excessive growth of bureaucratic structures responsible for the irrigation of a once-dry globe. At other times, these stories are allegories of chaos and the aimlessness of history, like the globe on which Ijon Tichy sets up a machine to speed up the passage of time so that he can observe successive revolutions and changes of system. Sometimes, texts of this kind become completely serious intellectual experiments, as in the case of the description of a rational race that gains the opportunity to shape, freely, the bodies of its representatives.
The comical features of the Ijon Tichy series ensue as much from the futuristic situational comedy and the ideas going beyond the borders of probability as from the finesse of the linguistic jokes. Both kinds of humour enliven the text of Ratujmy kosmos / Let's Save the Cosmos attached to some editions of Dzienniki.... The open letter from Ijon Tichy calls into existence various grotesquely dangerous or distasteful forms of extra-terrestrial life that nevertheless have to be protected in accordance with the highest standards of ecology. Among the forms of threatened life is the ant Krzesławka Dręczypupa ("Chairish Bottomtormentor"), herds of which attack tourists near sightseeing spots; in order to attract their victims, swarms of ants form themselves into the shape of wicker armchairs.
Ijon Tichy also appeared in the relatively late works, Wizja lokalna / Observation on the Spot, and Pokój na ziemi / Peace on Earth, that, under the mask of humour, talk about extremely serious problems: the former about possible future societies, juxtaposing ethics with technology, and about the civilisational implications of non-human anatomical construction (the Entians presented here are a rational race descended from flightless birds). Pokój na ziemi / Peace on Earth, meanwhile, talks about disarmament. Here, the similarity to a philosophical tale, or to an allegorical fantasy in the style of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, is even clearer.
Lem's jokes generally have a hidden agenda. The idea in Cyberiada / The Cyberiad of a unit connected with the metric system to measure happiness (one hed is the measure of happiness felt by a person taking off a shoe in which there was a nail that had been tormenting him for one kilometre) seems to be purely grotesque. It takes on a deeper meaning, however, when we recall the mathematical apparatus and statistical tools used in psychology and sociology. If, on the other hand, someone is looking to Lem's work for a greater dose of absurd humour, then Bajki robotów is recommended. The structure of the joke is as follows: technologically advanced beings live in feudal societies because it is only there that fairy-tale characters can appear: a cruel tyrant, a brave knight, a king's false adviser or a princess waiting to be married. The list of fairy-tale characters has been changed in only one place, the wizard is replaced by a constructor. This substitution seems to be in accordance with Stanley C. Clarke's thinking, according to which each sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, whereas the constructor, on the side of good, gives the impression of praising rationalism and science, both of which cope well even in a world of absurd rules. Such a vision would, however, be an oversimplification; rationalism is mercilessly mocked in Przyjaciel Automateusza / Automatthew's Friend. The eponymous hero buys a small piece of equipment to be worn in the ear that is capable of maintaining a friendly conversation. When, however, Automateusz accidentally finds himself on a desert island, his electronic friend keeps on suggesting the most rational way out of the situation, suicide.
At the same time as Bajki robotów and Cyberiada, Dyktanda / Dictation Exercises appeared, short and absurd texts full of difficult spellings supposed to help teach his wife's nephew. The texts had to wait until 2001 to be published in book form. Dyktanda is characterised by a black, sometimes even quite macabre, humour (for instance, this method of obtaining a vital organ: "In order to prepare it, you should buy a car and race around in it until you run somebody over. The liver, no longer needed by the victim, should be taken out of his insides and placed in the fridge").
In the later period of his creative output, as I have already mentioned, the writer abandoned fiction in favour of forms that more directly expressed his beliefs. It is worth noting, however, that Lem moved towards essay writing gradually and almost from the beginning of his creative work. Although scientific explanations of the reality shown in his novels are, within the framework of science fiction, a completely typical device, the author of Solaris used it with particular intensity.
The discursive and non-fictional character is first seen in the relatively early novel, Astronauci, that considers the Tunguska catastrophe and rocket technology, and is characterised by a relatively small measure of fiction. The aforementioned tendency to present scientific deliberations in an almost unprocessed manner was stronger because Lem chose, as his protagonists, people for whom science and technology constituted an inseparable element of their lives: engineers, doctors, scientists, explorers, pilots. In effect, his novels do not attempt to exploit an alternative compositional scheme in which the main protagonist is a child or a lay-person who could ask questions, naturally and naively, on the subject of the world surrounding them.
The above-mentioned choice is symptomatic because Lem's protagonists, specialising in the cognition of reality, sooner or later find themselves in situations that in fact make lay-persons of them. The author is interested in topics on the borderline of human cognition. The plots of his novels are generally scaffolding for thoughts. It is not strange, therefore, that after a certain time Lem switched to a form expressing those thoughts without fictional additives.
The book crowning the series of canonical works from the 1960s, Głos Pana, can be somewhat paradoxically called "a novel in the form of an essay". The main protagonist, Peter Hogarth, is an outstanding mathematician who is prone to anthropological deliberations and attempts to read "a letter from the stars" that, despite the commitment of the finest minds, becomes contaminated by typically human militarism. The project, uniting scientists selected to decipher the mysterious message, begins to resemble the Manhattan Project, on account of the location of the research complex in the desert, interference from the authorities, and the hopes nurtured by the state founders of discovering new technologies that could be used as weapons of mass destruction. The last point, however, does not materialise, not even because of the "conspiracy" of Professor Hogarth but because of the random nature of the TREX effect (Transport Explosion). Hogarth sees in this fact the effect of extraordinary carefulness on the part of the Aliens, who had foreseen and prevented all possible destructive readings of the "letter".
Against the background of other novels about contact, Głos Pana is different because it expresses complete cognitive failure. Everything that the novel's protagonists can do, despite their undoubted scientific genius, is the creation of another mythology about Contact, making it almost the Word of God and, in addition, protecting it from interpretations that could have fatal consequences for humanity.
An often overlooked aspect of Lem's work is the biting satire of the universalistic claims of humanism in the 1960s. It is not without reason that the key words repeated many times by the protagonists include: communiqué, context, code, transmitter and receiver, terms originating in Jacobson's structuralist teachings about language. The humanists taking part in the Project are, therefore, presented as quite unnecessary, because even if some of their ideas can be regarded as interesting, they do not refer at all to the presupposed aims of the research.
Another text straddling the border between fiction and essay is "Golem XIV". Among the fictional elements is an artificial intelligence that far exceeds human intelligence. The rest is a series of lectures presented as the fruit of the thoughts of the eponymous super-computer. It is interesting that Golem suggests a description of evolution consistent with that found in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976).
The greatest achievement of Lem's essay writing is undoubtedly Summa technologiae. The book's title brings to mind the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and discusses the philosophical implications of future discoveries by analysing the meeting-point of technology and biology as well as introducing ideas like virtual reality (here called phantomatics). This text displays extraordinary intellectual panache. For example, it deliberates the consequences of humanity achieving such a technological level that it will be possible to talk about omnipotence (the possibility of creating universes and establishing the rules governing it). Another provocative idea in Summa... is the Pasquinade on evolution, which states that from an engineering point of view natural selection led to the existence of a construction that is far from perfect (whereas earlier evolution "projects", like unicellular beings, were decidedly better). Although the title rather suggests something from the grotesque, the idea itself is developed in a deadly serious manner, leading to a consideration of the possibility of gradually replacing biology with technology.
If you consider the book against the background of the other essays, Summa technologiae plays a very specific role: a considerable part of Lem's later essay writing can be treated as monographs, amendments or complements to Summa.... This was noticed by Tomasz Fiałkowski with reference to a series of conversations he had with the writer and included in his book, "Świat na krawędzi":
"He also confronted the prognoses contained in 'Summa technologiae' and in his other books with the world surrounding us. He did this not without satisfaction - many of these prognoses had come true and even earlier than he himself had predicted - but also not without bitterness, discouraged as he was by many aspects of contemporary civilisation and the misuse of new discoveries by people."
A particular place among his non-fiction works is occupied, albeit for somewhat different reasons, by Fantastyka i futurologia / Fantasy and Futurology. It expresses in a direct way the author's views on creativity. In Jarzębski's summary it presents itself as follows:
"Perhaps the most significant thing for Lem in evaluating science fiction is the assessment of how seriously and responsibly it treats the first part of its generic name."
The demands of probability, of the logical cohesion of the presented world and of the basic differences that characterise the fantasy reality's influence on plot, not being simply a picturesque background for a traditional adventure story, recall the postulates expressed considerably later by Jacek Dukaj.
Finally, Filozofia przypadku is also a specific text, arising from a revolt against structuralism (confirming the reading of Głos Pana suggested above). Admittedly, Lem begins his deliberations about chance from a literary point of view but he moves away from them by formulating a concept of culture as the domain of random processes and then teaches us how to recognise random factors when we instinctively expect to see a cohesive construction set towards a defined aim.
Filozofia przypadku may not be a particularly expressive continuation of Lem's philosophical writings but two anti-crime stories may serve as such, Śledztwo and Katar (regarded by the author as an improved version of Śledztwo). The two works differ from classical crime stories in that they lack the most important element, a perpetrator. In both cases, he is replaced by a sequence of strange coincidences and, in Katar, even the solving of the mystery is brought about by chance.
A singular form of Lem's creative output is the description of non-existent books, taking on the form of a review or an introduction to a fictional publication. Doskonała próżnia / A perfect vacuum contains mainly reviews of future fictional works while Biblioteka XXI wieku / Library of the 21st Century discusses non-existent popular scientific publications. Stanisław Bereś summed up this kind of creative work in a concise sentence:
"The literature of fantasy has become transformed into the fantasy of literature."
Lem himself explains the reason for writing these works:
"I think that with the passing of the years there grew within me a certain impatience with regard to conscientious, craftsmanlike and slow fictionalisation. In order to change the illumination of an idea into narration you have to work terribly hard, including in extra-intellectual categories. That was one of the main reasons why I took such horrible short-cuts as these books were."(http://solaris.lem.pl/content/view/151/104/)
It would be appropriate here to discuss a few of the literary ideas presented in Doskonała próżnia. Some of them can be regarded as sketches from which full-length novels might germinate. The longest, "Gruppenführer Louis XVI", describes a mad attempt to create a state, patterned on feudal France but based in Argentina, by a group of refugees from defeated Nazi Germany. There are also parodies of experiments conducted under the banner of roman nouveau, such as Toi / You, a torrent of abuse directed at the reader, or Gigamesh. It is worth mentioning a third group of works, related to Biblioteka XXI wieku, projects of future essays, prognoses of future cultural processes or ideas corresponding to Lem's non-fiction writing. For example, there are texts attributed to one Kouska who, with grotesquely exaggerated meticulousness, describes the role of coincidence in human life. These texts can be connected with both Filozofia przypadku and the novels, Śledztwo and Katar.
Fiasco, or Pessimism
Lem talked reluctantly about his earliest novels, seeing in them too many concessions to socialist realism. The matter turns out to be more complex, however, because none of these supposedly "law-abiding" books offers the smallest mention of future governments of the Communist party, and Lem's praise of science, rationalism and technocracy does not fit in at all well with those ideologised times. It is possible, therefore, to attribute the writer's scepticism towards his earlier works to the fact that they contain an optimism that later he could no longer share.
Lem the pessimist appears most clearly in his last novel, Fiasko, a recapitulation of the motifs included in earlier works. The main protagonist is, in a certain sense, Pirx the pilot ("in a certain sense" because he was resurrected from two bodies, one of which belonged to Pirx, the other to a young pilot who hurried to his aid). The voyage's aim, to make contact with an alien civilisation, recalls Obłok Magellana, the planet's inhabitants who "bag themselves up" are like those in Eden, and their military technology resembles the necrocytes from Niezwyciężony. The difference is that in the aforementioned books the people do not have such a destructive instinct, and their desire to make contact with the other side is stronger (Lem directly refers to the concept of a "contact window" - a short period - on the cosmic scale - between civilisation's achievement of a technological level enabling inter-stellar communication and self-destruction or an abandonment of expansion). In Fiasko, both the people and the other side ratchet up the spiral of suspicion, as a consequence of which the planet is destroyed.
The meaning of this fictional solution is clear: Lem thinks that the genetic conditioning of the human race towards violence is so strong that it can become active in even the most inappropriate situations. The myth about progress and joyous expansion is substituted, irreversibly, by a tale about the dark sides of humanity.
The writing of Stanisław Lem can also be characterised by his favourite motifs. Ideas such as thinking jellies or the miniaturised and mobile weapons moving around in herds like insects, or even robots taking over or parodying the mystic needs of humanity - all of these are visible to everyone who has read several of the writer's most important works. There are also a whole series of subjects repeated with somewhat less intensity but which are also important for the overall picture of his creative work.
One of these is the activity of various kinds of secret services. The childhood game of fabricating fictitious and usually secret documents in Wysoki zamek can be seen as an indication of the writer's early interest in this subject matter. The author himself recalls:
"As a pupil I used to produce a lot of important documents: identity cards, certificates, passports, diplomas and legal acts, on the strength of which I received uncounted wealth, noble titles and authority, or else 'the highest plenipotentiary powers', permits, encoded proofs and cryptograms of the greatest importance - and all of this from a country for which it would be futile to search on a map."
A similar reality, consisting almost exclusively of ranks, documents and secret codes, materialised in the grotesque, Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie / Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, the fundamental difference being that the protagonist of this tale is only just learning the rules binding the world of secret hierarchies. What's more, the centre of gravity has been moved from joy at the structure of the bureaucratised world into an individual attempt to become alienated from it through a mystically understood Betrayal.
Another often and eagerly repeated motif is a worldwide catastrophe, prompted by humanity's loss of artificially stored information. In Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie the cause is extra-terrestrial bacteria that decompose paper. In Pokój na ziemi, it is a weapon that is the effect of artificial evolution deprived of human control. On this occasion, the catastrophe concerns all the information stored electronically, effectively reversing human development. Finally, Professor A. Dońda's tale, added to Dzienniki gwiazdowe, suggests a humourous supplement to the theory of relativity, postulating the equivalence of matter, energy and information. The effect is such that after crossing a defined threshold beyond which the world is saturated with information, the knowledge created by humanity disappears, leading to the creation of a new universe.
Lem also expressed his obsession with a surfeit of information in another way. In Doskonała próżnia, there appears, for example, a text entitled Perycalypsis, that proposes a system of grants to those creators who would refrain from any unnecessary multiplication of the achievements of humanity. In Wizja lokalna, the highly developed civilisation of the Luzanians has to cope with the problem of losing orientation around its own scientific achievements, periodically undertaking the so-called investigation of science (broad-scale research into the resources of their own knowledge).The motif signalled above makes us wonder about the image of science in Lem's writings. The author, who came from a background of firm rationalism, began to turn his attention to its inevitably human and, therefore, limited character. Hence, in the descriptions of the sociological background of research works, there is often an element of the grotesque. This happens not only in the novels of a satirical bent (Kongres futurologiczny). Stanisław Bereś comments on the parts of Solaris devoted to a description of the state of research:
"Impressing with his erudition and his inventiveness, creating hypotheses (a post-modern game with scientific concepts) and at the same time critical towards the mechanisms governing the development of science (the pamphlet tone of the reconstruction of the state of research into the planet), the writer shows the helplessness of humanity in the face of the mysteries of the universe and the inability to go beyond one's own categories and logic." (http://acta-lemiana.prv.pl/)
Lem's theological fascinations are also interesting and little discussed. They are often fulfilled in grotesque forms, such as the description of the order of robots (Destructionist Fathers) included in Dzienniki gwiazdowe. However, it's difficult to consider as a joke the title of the aforementioned Summa Technologiae or else Głos Pana. The latter is particularly interesting: if the undecoded message from the stars is identified with the Gospel, then it constitutes a utopian project of a Holy Book that cannot be exploited for evil purposes (technological novelties arising from partial readings of the "letter" cannot be used as weapons). In this sense, Głos Pana would suggest a Word of God that would be more human, more humanitarian.
At the start of the 21st Century, Lem's works once again picked up a great degree of interest from the theatrical and cinematic spheres, serving as the inspiration for such futuristic works as the 2010 film by the Quay Brothers: Mask and one of the flagship projects of the 2011 Polish Presidency.
The first Polish Editions of Lem's Works
- Człowiek z Marsa" / "Man from Mars (s-f novel) printed in instalments in the "Nowy Świat Przygód" periodical, 1946.
- Astronauci" / "The Astronauts, Czytelnik, 1951.
- Jacht 'Paradise'. Sztuka w czterech aktach" / "The Yacht 'Paradise'. A play in four acts (co-author: Roman Hussarski), Czytelnik, 1951.
- Sezam i inne opowiadania" / "Sesame and other Tales (contains the first episodes of the adventures of Ijon Tichy), Iskry, 1954.
- Obłok Magellana" / "The Magellanic Cloud, Iskry, 1954 (the novel had been printed earlier in instalments in "Przekrój")
- Czas nieutracony" / "Time Not Lost, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1955.
- Dzienniki gwiazdowe" / "The Star Diaries, Iskry, 1957 (amended and expanded edition: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1966; Czytelnik, 1971).
- Dialogi" / "Dialogues (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1957.
- Eden, Iskry, 1959.
- Śledztwo" / "The Investigation, Wydawnictwo MON, 1959.
- Inwazja z Aldebarana" / "The Invasion from Aldebaran (contains tales that would later form part of "Tales of Pirx the Pilot"), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1959.
- Powrót z gwiazd" / "Return from the Stars, Czytelnik, 1961.
- Solaris, Wydawnictwo MON, 1961.
- Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie" / "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1961.
- Księga robotów" / "The Book of Robots (tales), Iskry, 1961.
- Wejście na orbitę" / "Going into Orbit (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1962.
- Noc księżycowa" / "A Moonlit Night (tales and television screenplays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1963.
- Niezwyciężony i inne opowiadania" / "The Invincible and other tales, Wydawnictwo MON, 1964.
- Bajki robotów" / "Mortal Engines, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964.
- Summa Technologiae (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964.
- Polowanie" / "Hunting (tales), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1965.
- Cyberiada" / "The Cyberiad (tales), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1965 (expanded edition: 1967).
- Wysoki Zamek" / "Highcastle, Wydawnictwo MON, 1966.
- Głos Pana" / "His Master's Voice, Czytelnik, 1968.
- Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie" / "Tales of Pirx the Pilot, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968 (expanded edition: Czytelnik, 1973).
- Filozofia przypadku" / "The Philosophy of Chance (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968.
- Fantastyka i futurologia" / "Fantasy and Futurology (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1970.
- Doskonała próżnia" / "A Perfect Vacuum (apocrypha), Czytelnik, 1971.
- Bezsenność" / "Sleeplessness (tales), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971.
- Wielkość urojona" / "Imaginary Magnitude (apocrypha), Czytelnik, 1973.
- Rozprawy i szkice" / "Essays and Sketches (essays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1975.
- Szpital Przemienienia" / "Hospital of the Transfiguration, Czytelnik, 1975.
- Katar" / "The Cold, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1976.
- Maska" / "The Mask (tales and television screenplays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1976.
- Powtórka" / "Repetition (tales and radio scripts), Iskry, 1976.
- Golem XIV (tales), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1981.
- Wizja lokalna" / "Observation on the Spot, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1982.
- Prowokacja" / "Provocation (apocrypha), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1984.
- Człowiek z Marsa" / "Man from Mars, 1985 (fanzne edition, not respecting copyright).
- Biblioteka XXI wieku" / "Library of the 21st Century (apocrypha), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986.
- Pokój na Ziemi" / "Peace on Earth, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1987.
- Fiasko" / "Fiasco, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1987.
- Pożytek ze smoka" / "The Usefulness of the Dragon (tales), PTWK, 1993.
- Człowiek z Marsa" / "Man from Mars, Nowa, 1994 (the first official compact edition).
- Lube czasy" / "Delightful Times (feature articles), Znak, 1995.
- Sex Wars (feature articles), Nowa, 1996.
- Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju" / "The Mystery of the Chinese Room (feature articles), Universitas, 1996.
- Dziury w całym" / "Picking Holes (feature articles), Znak, 1997.
- Bomba megabitowa" / "The Megabit Bomb (feature articles), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1999.
- Okamgnienie (feature articles), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000.
- Przekładaniec (screenplays), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000.
- Dyktanda czyli..." / "Dictation Exercises or..., Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001.
- Listy albo opór materii (selection of letters), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2002.
- Dylematy (feature articles), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2003.
- Krótkie zwarcia (feature articles from "Tygodnik Powszechny" written after 1994), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2004.
- Lata czterdzieste. Dyktanda (debut tales from the 1940s and "Dictation Exercises"), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2005.
- Rasa drapieżców. Teksty ostatnie (feature articles from "Tygodnik Powszechny" from 2005 and 2006 selected by Tomasz Fiałkowski), Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2006.
- Sknocony kryminał (crime story and play from the author's notes), Agora SA 2009.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, April 2009; English translation: Tadeusz Z. Wolański. Edited by James A. Hopkin, January 2011.
Tags: stanisław lemscience fictionsci fisolaris
Language & Literature
See the interactive version here!
Stanisław Lem was one of the biggest and most influential science-fiction writers in history; his books were translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. Even if you haven't read Lem, you might have watched Solaris, a film based on one of his books.
This year would be Lem's 90th birthday, and today is the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Astronauts. We decided to prepare a really special Google doodle for this occasion.
Today's doodle was inspired by The Cyberiad, a series of stories about two brilliant “constructors,” Trurl and Klapaucjusz. “Lem’s stories can be somber, but The Cyberiad is comparatively lighthearted and upbeat, though it still addresses the philosophical themes found in the rest of his writing,” says Sophia Foster-Dimino, the doodle’s illustrator. “The distinctive visual style is inspired by the work of famous Polish illustrator, Daniel Mróz, whose drawings accompanied many of the editions of the book.”
Sophia: This pensive from the 1972 edition of The Cyberiad becomes a lot more evocative when you remember that Daniel Mróz, the illustrator, styled Trurl after Lem himself. This is also the only image of Trurl's bird friend; we initially thought it would be nice to include him as a little easter egg, but then expanded his role. (Illustration © Łucja Mróz-Raynoch.)
This is also a doodle you can actually play. “All of Lem’s universes are rich and believable. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to pay homage to it, and quickly decided to build a small game. But the game is never quite the same each time you play it – as we felt befitted the imperfect, arbitrarily futuristic world of The Cyberiad,” says Marcin Wichary, who originally proposed the doodle and was in charge of bringing it to life. “One of the many easter eggs is that we included one item drawn by Lem himself. It’s up to you to figure out which one is it.”
Marcin: Some of our explorations of the eight-storey machine that doesn’t know mathematics all that well. We spent a lot of time figuring out the user interface and the puzzles for this and subsequent levels.
This doodle is also special in terms of creative ideas and technology used in its conception. “We were looking at Mróz’s illustrations, and how they appeared on the page. We came up with the idea to give the doodle the same proportions – there’s more room to show the universe, and hopefully more of an impact.” says Sophia. Marcin agrees: “We wanted our tribute to feel unique, big, and alive. We used some elements of HTML5 – for example <canvas> for faster graphics, Web Storage to remember whether you played the game, or touch support – but also decided not to use some others. For example, CSS3 transformations gave us poor visual fidelity that we didn’t feel respected Sophia’s intricate drawings – so we are rotating some images the old-fashioned way.”
Today’s doodle was done in collaboration with Lem’s estate and Łucja Mróz-Raynoch, the daughter of Daniel Mróz. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do, that it will bring back some great memories to Stanisław Lem readers, and inspire the rest of you to check out The Cyberiad and other books!
Additional artwork is available in the Stanislaw Lem Doodle Gallery.
Originally published at the Google Poland Blog.
Update Dec 21: The code for this doodle has been open-sourced. For more info, see the article on HTML5 Rocks.