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Lem, Stanisław

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Author, Critic.

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(1921-2006) Polish critic, polymath and author, winner of numerous awards including the 1973 Polish State Literary Award. Born in Lwów, he described his childhood and adolescence charmingly (if selectively) in the autobiographical Wysoki zamek ["High Castle"] (1966; trans Michael Kandel as Highcastle: A Remembrance 1995). Lem's study of medicine was interrupted in World War Two by the Nazi occupation, which as a Jew he survived at great risk (most of his family were murdered in the Holocaust), working as a car mechanic and welder under false papers. These experiences are not apparently reflected in any of the Pulp fiction he wrote during the mid-1940s, but do inform his first novel under his own name (not sf), Szpital Przemienienia (written 1948; 1955 in omni; 1975; trans William Brand as Hospital of the Transfiguration 1988) [for publication details see Checklist below]. In 1946 he moved to Cracow, received his MD and wrote lyrical verse and essays on scientific methodology until he ran foul of the Soviet state's adulation of the Lamarckian biological theories of T D Lysenko (1898-1976) (see Evolution; Pseudoscience), and was research assistant in a scientific institute.

At the same time he had begun to write sf, beginning with a novella, Człowiek z Marsa ["Man from Mars"] (1946 Nowy Świat Przygód; 1996), in which First Contact is established with a Robot-like visitor from Mars; he published more than two dozen sf titles before he abandoned fiction four decades later, with translations into at least thirty languages and several million copies sold. Short fiction from 1956 to 1993 has been assembled as The Truth and Other Stories (coll from various sources trans Antonia Lloyd-Jones 2021). His early sf novels, Astronauci ["The Astronauts"] (1951) – filmed as Der Schweigende Stern (1960; see entry for vts) – and Oblok Magellana ["The Magellan Nebula"] (1955), are limited by some of the conventions of "socialist realism", but are still interesting and contain a number of Lem's constant themes (the threat of global destruction and militarism; human Identity); their Utopian naivety is shaped by the committed humanism characteristic of one axis of his work. His other axis, a black grotesque, appears in Dzienniki Gwiazdowe (coll 1957; gradually exp until by 1971 there were 14 "voyages" and 8 other Ijon Tichy stories; trans 2vols, the second of which is an expansion rather than simply a continuation of the first: vol 1 trans Michael Kandel as The Star Diaries 1976 US, vol 2 trans Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek as Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy 1982), which develops into a parable-like expression.

The dozen years after the "Polish October" of 1956 were the golden noon of Lem. He published seventeen books: five sf novels; ten partly overlapping books of sf short stories including the Pirx the Pilot cycle (see below), the "robotic fairy tales" of Bajki robotów (coll 1964) and the Trurl-Klapaucius or Cyberiad cycle (see below); Noc księzycowa (coll 1963), one sf play and three television plays; nonfiction including the "cybernetic sociology" of Dialogi (1957; exp 1971; latter trans Peter Butko as Dialogues 2021); and the crown of Lem's speculation and key to his fiction, Summa technologiae (1964; rev 1974; trans Joanna Zylinska 2013), a breathtakingly brilliant and risky survey of possible social, informational, cybernetic, cosmogonic and biological engineering in humanity's game with Nature, and of the interweavings between biological and technological Evolution.

Eden (1959; trans Marc E Heine as Eden 1989), Solaris (1961; trans Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox [from French trans] 1970; new trans by Bill Johnston 2011), Niezwyciezony (1964 Poland; trans Wendayne Ackerman [from German trans] as The Invincible 1973; new trans by Bill Johnston 2020) and Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie (coll 1968; trans Louis Iribarne as Tales of Pirx the Pilot 1979 US and Louis Iribarne and Magdalena Majcherczyk as More Tales of Pirx the Pilot 1982) use the mystery of strange beings, events and localities (see Zone) to educate their protagonists into understanding the limitations and strengths of humanity; Solaris was twice filmed as Solaris (1971, 2002). These parables for our age are fittingly open-ended: their tenor is that no closed reference system is viable in the age of Cybernetics and rival political absolutisms; the protagonists are redeemed by ethical and aesthetic insight rather than by hardware, abstract cognition or power – thence Lem's strong, at times oversimplifying but salutary critique of English-language sf in his Fantastyka i futurologia (1970; excerpts trans with other material as coll Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy 1985) for abusing the potentials of the new in gimmicks and disguised fairytales. His critique of equally anthropomorphic banalities in Soviet sf was effected by means of his immense popularity and liberating influence there. In between the two leviathans, Lem used the experience of Central European intellectuals (see Albania; Bulgaria; Czech and Slovak SF; Hungary; Poland; Romania; Russia; Soviet Union) to fuse a bright, humanistic hope with a bitter, historical warning. This double vision subverts both the Comic Inferno approach and a deterministic utopianism by juxtaposing the black flickerings of the former with the bright horizons of the latter. Such a style of wit places Lem in the contes philosophiques tradition of Jonathan Swift and Voltaire. Even his grotesque stories, where no "cruel miracles" redeem the often disgusting limits of Man – such as Cyberiada (coll 1965; trans Kandel as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age 1974), collecting many of the Trurl-Klapaucius stories – are informed by such humanizing fun, black Satire or allegorical Iconoclasm.

Signs of an ideological dead-end, if not exhaustion, showed in about 1968, prompting further formal experimentation and a furious brilliance in Lem's writing. In Glos pana (1968; trans Kandel as His Master's Voice 1983), Lem's radical doubts about human self-determination and sovereignty, and therefore about possibilities of Communication with other people (not to mention other civilizations detected through SETI), began threatening to distort the fictional form of the novel into solipsist musings, lectures and ideational adventure. His Master's Voice may have avoided that by a tour de force of narrative tone, but Lem learned some lessons from this near-escape: he turned to a brilliantly innovative series of briefer second-order glosses at the borderland of fiction and treatise. Doskonała próżnia (coll 1971; trans Kandel as A Perfect Vacuum 1978) – mainly composed of reviews of nonexistent books, which simultaneously characterize and persiflage their targets – and Wielkość urojona (coll 1973; trans Marc E Heine with 2 pieces from Golem XIV [coll 1973] as Imaginary Magnitude 1984) range from thumbnail sketches of grisly futuristic follies to developments of Summa technologiae ideas on "intellectronics" (artificially heightened intelligence) and "phantomatics" (illusory existence). We find the latter in the most grimly hilarious and longest work of this period, a further Ijon Tichy story, "Ze Wspomnień Ijona Tichego: Kongres Futurologiczny" (in Bezsenność, coll 1971; trans Kandel as The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy 1974), as well as Lem's deeply rooted though atheistic theologico-cosmogonic obsessions. This tale was loosely adapted for Cinema as The Congress (2013) directed and written by Ari Folman. Only in the 1980s, with the awkward but ferocious assault upon human cognitive pretensions contained in Fiasko (German trans 1985; 1986; trans Kandel as Fiasco 1987), did he return briefly to novel-length sf. After about 1990, despite a continuing production of nonfiction addressed to a wide range of subjects, Lem turned his attention from fiction. It may be he felt that the course of history could no longer be grasped through reasoned narrative discourse."The world around us is dying so quickly," he stated in a 2003 interview, when asked why he no longer wrote fiction.

Lem's overflowing linguistic inventiveness, matching his controversial ideational plenty, is partly lost in translation, though the short stories assembled as Bajki robotów (coll 1964; cut trans Michael Kandel as Mortal Engines 1977), The Cosmic Carnival of Stanisław Lem (coll trans Michael Kandel 1981) and One Human Minute (coll trans Catherine S Leach 1986) reveal some of the exuberance of the writing; the latter's title story was filmed as 1 (2009 Hungary), directed by Pater Sparrow. Nonetheless, Lem's peculiar geopolitical vantage-point led him effectively to transcend both cynical pragmatism and abstract utopianism. His stubborn warnings against static "final solutions", his position at the crossroads of major European cultures and ethics, his fusion of dilemmas from ultramodern science and the oldest cosmogonic heresies joined to an intense internalization of problems from Cybernetics and Information Theory, his dazzling formal virtuosity: all mark him as one of the most significant sf writers of the twentieth century, and a distinctive voice in world literature. [DS/JC]

see also: Aliens; Astronomy; Automation; Conceptual Breakthrough; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Fermi Paradox; Humour; Identity Exchange; Invention; Islands; Living Worlds; Machines; Metaphysics; Perception; Physics; Poisons; Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; Seiun Award; Space Stations; Spaceships; Supernatural Creatures.

Stanisław Lem

born Lwów, Poland [now Lviv, Ukraine]: 12 September 1921

died Kraków, Poland: 27 March 2006



Ijon Tichy

  • Sezam i inne opowiadania ["Sesame"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1954) [coll: Ijon Tichy: pb/Jan Mloddozeniec]
    • Sezam ["Sesame"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1955) [coll: exp vt of the above: Ijon Tichy: pb/]
  • Dzienniki Gwiazdowe (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1957) [coll: Ijon Tichy: binding unknown/Daniel Mróz]
  • Ksiȩga robotów ["The Book of the Robots"] (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1961) [coll: contains Ijon Tichy and Pirx the Pilot stories and other material: binding unknown/]
  • Noc ksiȩżycowa ["Lunar Night"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1961) [coll: contains Ijon Tichy and Pirx the Pilot stories and other material: binding unknown/]
  • "Ze Wspomnień Ijona Tichego: Kongres futurologiczny" in Bezsenność (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971) [coll: containing Ijon Tichy and Pirx the Pilot stories: binding unknown/]

Pirx the Pilot

  • Ratujmy kosmos i inne opowiadania (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1965) [coll: contains Ijon Tichy and Pirx the Pilot stories: binding unknown/]
  • Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968) [coll: containing nine of the 10 relevant tales: Pirx the Pilot: binding unknown/]
    • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979) [coll: trans by Louis Iribarne from the above: Pirx the Pilot: hb/Jean-Marie Troillard]
    • More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) [coll: trans by Louis Iribarne and Magdalena Majcherczyk from the above and other sources: Pirx the Pilot: hb/Jean-Marie Troillard]

individual titles

  • Człowiek z Marsa ["Man from Mars"] (Warsaw, Poland: Agencja Praw Autorskich i Wydawnictwo Interart, 1996) [first appeared 1946 Nowy Świat Przygód: hb/Roman Kirilenko]
  • Astronauci ["The Astronauts"] (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1951) [pb/Jan Samuel Miklaszewski]
  • Obłok Magellana ["The Magellan Nebula"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1955) [binding unknown/]
  • Czas nieutracony ["Time Not Wasted"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1955) [omni including the title listed below plus two sequels (later disavowed): binding unknown/]
  • Śledztwo (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1959) [binding unknown/]
    • The Investigation (New York: Seabury Press, 1974) [trans by Adele Milch of the above: hb/]
  • Eden (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1959) [binding unknown/]
    • Eden (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1987) [trans by Marc E Heine of the above: hb/]
  • Solaris (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1961) [pb/Konstanty Maria Sopoćko]
    • Solaris (New York: Walker and Co, 1970) [trans by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox from the French trans of the above: hb/Jack Gaughan]
    • Solaris (Los Angeles, California: Premier Digital Publishing, 2011) [ebook: new trans by Bill Johnston: na/]
  • Powrót s gwiazd (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1961) [binding unknown/]
    • Return from the Stars (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980) [trans by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson of the above: hb/Alan Henderson]
  • Pamiȩtnik znaleziony w wannie (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1961) [binding unknown/]
  • Niezwyciȩżony i inne opowiadania (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1964) [coll including title novel plus four Ijon Tichy stories and another: binding unknown/]
    • The Invincible (New York: Seabury Press, 1973) [trans by Wendayne Ackerman from the German trans of the above: hb/Richard Powers]
    • The Invincible (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2020) [new trans by Bill Johnston of the above: pb/Przemek Debowski]
  • Głos pana (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1968) [pb/Andrzej Heidrich]
    • His Master's Voice (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) [trans by Michael Kandel of the above: hb/from René Magritte]
  • Katar (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1977) [binding unknown/]
  • Wizja Lokalna ["The Scene of the Crime"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1982) [Ijon Tichy: pb/Władysław Targosz]
  • Fiasko (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Fisher, 1985) [trans into German: binding unknown/]
    • Fiasko (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986) [first edition in Polish: pb/]
      • Fiasco (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987) [trans by Michael Kandel of the above: hb/John Alfred Dorn III]
  • Pokoj na Ziemi (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986) [pb/]
    • Peace on Earth (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994) [trans by Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel of the above: hb/]

collection and stories

  • Inwazja z Aldebarana ["Invasion from Aldebaran"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1959) [coll: pb/Daniel Mróz]
  • Bajki robotów (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • Mortal Engines (New York: Seabury Press, 1977) [coll: trans by Michael Kandel of eleven stories from the above, plus stories from Maska (see below): hb/from Max Ernst]
  • Cyberiada (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1965) [coll: Cyberiad: pb/Daniel Mróz]
  • Polowanie ["The Hunt"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1965) [coll: binding unknown/]
  • Opowiadania ["Stories"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1969) [coll: material from earlier collections: binding unknown/]
  • Doskonała próżnia (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1971) [coll: pb/]
  • Wielkość urojona (Warsaw, Poland: Czytelnik, 1973) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • Imaginary Magnitude (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984) [coll: trans by Marc E Heine of the above plus two stories from Golem XIV below: hb/]
  • Maska ["The Mask"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1976) [coll: see Mortal Engines above: pb/]
  • Powtórka ["The Repetition"] (Warsaw, Poland: Iskry, 1979) [coll: pb/Kazimierz Hałajkiewicz]
  • Golem XIV (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1981) [coll: pb/]
  • The Cosmic Carnival of Stanisław Lem (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1981) [coll: trans by Michael Kandel of stories from several sources: hb/]
  • Prowokacja ["Provocation"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1984) [coll: pb/]
  • One Human Minute (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986) [coll: trans Catherine S Leach of the above: hb/John Alfred Dorn, III]
  • Ciemność i pleśń ["Darkness and Mildew"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1988) [coll: containing stories from previous collections: binding unknown/]
  • The Truth and Other Stories (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021) [coll: trans by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson: hb/]


  • Dialogi ["Dialogues"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1957) [nonfiction: binding unknown/]
    • Dialogi ["Dialogues"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971) [nonfiction: coll: exp of the above: several new essays added: binding unknown/]
      • Dialogues (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021) [nonfiction: coll: trans of the above by Peter Butko: pb/]
  • Wejście na orbite ["Getting into Orbit"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1962) [nonfiction: coll: binding unknown/]
  • Summa technologiae (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964) [nonfiction: binding unknown/]
  • Wysoki zamek ["High Castle"] (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1966) [nonfiction: memoir: pb/]
  • Fiozofia przypadku ["Philosophy of Chance"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1968) [nonfiction: binding unknown/]
  • Fantastyka i futurologia ["Science Fiction and Futurology"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1970) [nonfiction: binding unknown/]
  • Rozprawy i szkice ["Essays and Sketches"] (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1974) [nonfiction: coll: hb/]
  • Biblioteka XXI Wieku (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986) [coll: essays: pb/nonpictorial]
  • Stanisław Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel (Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2014) [nonfiction: coll: translated and edited by Peter Swirski: hb/]

about the author


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