(1921 - 2006)
Polish satirical and philosophical science fiction writer, whose novel SOLARIS (1961) was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1971. Lem's books have been translated into over 40 languages and sold about 27 million copies. He was probably the best single sci-fi author of the late 20th century not to write in English. Lem often wrote in comical style, but examined serious moral questions about technological progress, the limits of science, and our place in the universe.
"Oh, I read good books, too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don't really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth, even when they're about things that never have been and never will be. They're truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind - and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there." (from 'Pirx's Tale' in More Tales of Pirx The Pilot, 1983)
Stanislaw Lem was born in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) as the son of Samuel Lem, a prosperous physician (a laryngologist). The family lived on the second floor of Number Four of Brajerska Street. In his childhood Lew was a voracious reader - he read poetry, novels, popular science books, and his father's anatomy books. With his father he used to walk to the Jesuit Garden or toward Saint Jur's Orthodox Church, the enormous barrel in the garden appeared later in a Lem's story, 'The Garden of Darkness'.
In an autobiographical essay Lem told, that when his IQ was measured in high school, it was over 180. Lem studied medicine at Lwów University and at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. To avoid being drafted, he did not take his final exams.
During the war and Nazi occupation Lem worked as a car mechanic and welder, and was a member of the resistance fighting against the Germans. With false papers that concealed his Jewish origins, he avoided concentrations camps. Toward the end of the war Poland was occupied by the Red Army and the country was closely controlled by the Soviet Union for the next 50 years. In 1946 Lem moved from Lwów to Kraców. His family had lost all of their possessions in the course of the war. After finishing his studies Lem received his MD. He worked a research assistant in a scientific institution and started to write stories on his spare time. He also wrote articles in the professional press. In 1953, he married Barbara Lesniak, a young student of medicine
In the beginning of his career Lem published lyrical verse, essays on scientific method and realistic novels. His first work was a story CZLOWIEK Z MARSA (1946), which appeared in a magazine. In the 1950s Lem turned seriously into science fiction, publishing ASTRONAUCI (1951), OBLOK MAGELANA (1955), and EDEN (1959), a prophecy in which five ship-wrecked space traveling scientist explore a world where chemical manipulation is a part of the social lassez-faire. He had written in 1948-49 a three-volume autobiographical novel CZAS NIEUTRACONY, but it did not appear until 1957 - due to its first volume which was a problem for the censor. Hospital of the Transfiguration, a novel set in a mental institution, was not published until 1956, three years after Stalin's death.
Lem's early novels and stories were more or less optimistic and based on the conventions of Socialist Realism. He examined technological development, future civilizations, and responsibility of scientist. In the 1960s Lem's vision became more independent, experimental, and radical. Although the communist Polish government did not tolerate criticism, authorities regarded science fiction as an unimportant genre of literature. This made possible to ask politically forbidden questions about progress under the disguise of harmless fantasy.
In the 1960s Lem was very productive: he wrote among others CYBERIADA (1965, The Cyberiad), a satire in in which two robots have too creative talents, OPOWIESCI O PILOCIE PIRXIE (1968), stories about Pilot Pirx, and SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE (1964), philosophical essays on cybernetics and biology. Because "cybernetics" was banned in the Soviet science, Lem invented a new term, "mechanioristics". The Cyberiad referred in its title to The Iliad and 'cybernetics'. BAJKI ROBOTÓW (1964) was a mixture of fairy tales, social satire, and science fiction, in which highly developed artificial beings have all the negative personal and societal traits of human beings. "The theme he stresses in most of his work," wrote Phil José Farmer in The New York Times, "is that machines will someday be as human as Homo sapiens and perhaps superior to him. Mr. Lem has an almost Dickensian genius for vividly realizing the tragedy and comedy of future machines; the death of one of his androids or computers actually wrings sorrow from the reader." (September 2, 1984)
Lem's adventure stories about Ijon Tichy, an astronaut, laugh at commonly accepted ideas and play with bizarre inventions. In one story an inventor keeps his wife's ''soul'' in a small box, and in another a robot proves to be a bad mountain climber. A scientist invents a time machine, in which he ages and dies. Ijon Tichy appeared among others in The Star Diaries (1957) and the collection The Futurological Congress (1971). Peace on Earth (1987) was about military technology. One high-tech weapon slices through the left and right hemispheres of the legendary polymath. As a consequence, Tichy can type only with his right hand, while his left pinches women's behinds and otherwise acts with a will of its own. The fate of nations may depend on the secrets of his confused mind.
"And do you believe in God?"
"But you didn't think a robot would, right?"
(from 'The Inquest' in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, 1983)
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (trans. 1973) is a story about an aspiring agent, who seeks his mission and the meaning of his existence. In Return from the Stars (trans. 1980) a space pilot returns to Earth after a 10 year journey. He has to adjust himself to a new world - meanwhile 120 years had passed in Earth time. Imaginary Magnitude (trans. 1984), moves into the literary world of Jorge Luis Borges, and consists only of introductions of 16 (imaginary) books. However, Lem has criticized Borgets's hermetic approach to literature: "We are building newer, richer, and more terrible paradises and hells; but in his books Borges knows nothing about them." A Perfect Vacuum (1971) was a collection of essays masqueraded as reviews of books that have not yet been written. The second ''review'' is about ''the military evolution of civilization'', seen from the viewpoint of the 21st century. It describes how arms builders managed to overcome all obstacles and create really effective "synsects'' to fight a modern war. "The war of good and evil present in all religions does not always end, in every faith, with the victory of good, but in every one it establishes a clear order of existence. The sacred as well as the profane rests on that universal order..." (from One Human Minute) FIASKO (1986, trans. 1987) was a meditation on the nature of culture and technology, in which aliens avoid contact with humans. A spaceship, the Hermes, is sent to Quinta, which reveals evidence of life but remains silent. When the spaceship approches the planet, they find out that the Quintas have developed a Cosmic War Zone.
Lem's most famous work, Solaris, is among the classic science fiction novels of the 1960s. In it the author explored one of his favorite subjects - the limitations of human understanding. The story is set in a space station hovering above the planet Solaris. Scientists probe the mysteries the planet where the only living thing is an intelligent ocean, that covers the whole surface. Andrei Tarkovsky's film adaptation of the novel from 1972 has been called the 2001: A Space Odyssey of Russian sci-fi cinema. However, the director was not interested in special effects or superficial science fiction elements, rockets and space stations, and later said that the film "would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether." In the story a scientist (Donatis Banionis) is sent to investigate why his colleagues have suffered mental breakdowns on the space station. He discovers that the mysterious organic, sentient "ocean" of the planet is capable of either reproducing images and people from a person's past, innermost obsessions, or causing him to fantasize that he is seeing such visions. Banionis himself is haunted by a reincarnation of his suicided wife (Natalja Bondartshuk), who appears in physical form. Horrified he kills her, but a replica arrives again, and the meetings forces him to face up the past events of his life. The vast fluid "brain" remains enigma for human intelligence and probing - the phantoms may be an attempt by it to communicate. Towards the end of the movie - differing from Lem's novel - Solaris replicates a small portion of Earth upon its surface.
In his memoirs, Highcastle: A Remembrance (1997), Lem described his childhood as the son of a doctor in Lvov between the two world wars. His favorite writers were Sienkiewicz, Verne, Dumas and Wells. The book ends in his military training in 1935. "During the three years of my military training," Lem wrote, "there was no mention made, not once, of the existence of tanks." Four years later the Polish Army fought against German tanks on horseback.
Several of Lem's books were translated into English in the 1980s, and his writings appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Penthouse, and Omni. From 1983 Lem lived in Austria and Italy, but he did not identify himself with the dissident writers. After writing POKÒJ NA ZIEMI (1987, Peace on Earth), an Ijon Tichy satire on the moon, Lem announced that he will finish his career as a novelist and publish only essays and columns. Lem expressed his disappointment in current science fiction in Microwords: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984). Science fiction should examine, according to Lem, scientific problems or mysteries, but it offers hostile monsters and juvenile fantasy. However, in 2000 Lem published a new novel, OKAMGNIENIE, about how the word ends happily. Lem died of heart failure on 27 March, 2006, in Kraków.