Stanislaw Lem

Author of 'Solaris' and, after Jules Verne, the most influential sci-fi writer to be translated into English


Stanislaw Lem, writer: born Lwow, Poland 12 September 1921; married 1953 Barbara Lesniak (one son); died Krakow, Poland 27 March 2006.

Along with Czeslaw Milosz, Stanislaw Lem was for 50 years Poland's premier intellectual of the imagination. Writing in a language not easily accessible to other Europeans, and restricted in his travel by inclination and political barriers, he became all the same world-famous as the most daring and demanding of those authors of speculative fiction - like the Strugatski Brothers in the Soviet Union, and Josef Nesvadba in Czechoslovakia - who managed to flourish behind the Iron Curtain during the years of plague, 1946-90.

His novels and stories - though not many of his non-fiction works - were translated into 35 languages or more, selling at least 27 million copies. In monoglot Britain and America, he was, after Jules Verne, the best-known and most influential science-fiction writer to be translated into English. His 1961 novel Solaris was filmed twice, first by Andrei Tarkovsky and most recently, in 2002, in a version starring George Clooney and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Lem was born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, to well-to-do parents; though never professing Judaism (he was not a religious man), he had Jewish ancestors. After normal schooling, he began medical studies at Lwow University, 1940-41, until the Germans occupied the city, where he survived the Second World War as a member of the Polish resistance with false papers. He worked as a mechanic and welder, later recording that he had some success at the task of sabotaging German vehicles.

In 1944, the Soviet army occupied Lwow, never to leave until the end of the Soviet Union itself; Lwow is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Lem returned to medical school but soon quit - interestingly, the British author J.G. Ballard, who shared some parallel experiences and also attended medical school before turning to writing, shares with Lem a dry-ice sharpness of eye, a cold, seemingly impassive focus on the grotesqueries of the human condition.

Very soon, Lem published obscurely the first of his approximately 70 books, the never-translated Czlowiek z Marsa ("A Man from Mars", 1946), though he soon found himself frustrated by the Polish censors, who blocked several further manuscripts; it was not until the release of Astronauci ("The Astronauts", 1951) that his career was really launched. Lem disliked this novel for its naïve crudity, which did not keep it from being one of his most popular titles on the Continent (no English edition ever appeared).

It was around this time, though, that Lem, like many of his contemporaries, began to learn how to "operate" the abstract, seemingly unreal worlds and concerns of science fiction, and to say exactly what he wished to say, in a code only dolts (that is, Party officials) would not be able to decipher immediately. This Aesopian language - this couching of hard subversive truths in sheep's clothing - Lem found extremely congenial, and his decision to stop writing fiction in 1989 may, at least in part, have come from a sense that, now that he no longer needed to tell fables, he no longer needed to write fiction.

The great novels followed fast, beginning with Eden (1959; translated in 1987) and Pamietnik znaleziony w wannie (1961, translated as Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, 1973). Memoirs was the earliest Lem novel to be translated by the American editor and novelist Michael Kandel, whose extraordinary fluency and verbal ingenuity came close to matching the author's. Their mutual masterpiece may be Ze wspomnie Ijona Tichego (1971, translated as The Futurological Congress, 1974), a dazzling spoofing of intellectuals, congresses, inventions, the totalitarian desire to own the future. Ijon Tichy, the Trickster protagonist of this and other tales, is one of the great comic blockheads of 20th-century literature. In the end, almost 20 of Lem's fictions - most of his major works - were published in English.

In the meantime, Lem had married Dr Barbara Lesniak, a radiologist, who survives him; fathered a son with her in 1968, Tomasz Lem, who now runs the official Lem website; and by 1970 had begun to be honoured by the Polish government. None of this softened his tongue. In his fiction, and in untranslated volumes like the formidable Summa Technologiae (1964), he continued to address political and human issues in fable form, and speculated in clear on topics like cybernetics, biological engineering, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality (which he was indeed initially forced to call "phantomology" because VR was not an approved topic).

His relations with fellow science-fiction writers were uneasy, as he thought British and American science fiction was spoiled, spineless, frivolous and intellectually void. His expression of these views in the 1970s caused the withdrawal of an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America, a personal slight and intellectual insult he never forgave. It was in any case an unlikely match. English-language science fiction tended to place in the foreground protagonists who come to grips with an ultimately comprehensible universe. For Lem, though much is comprehensible, and humans must never stop trying to understand the universe, the full reality of things, like the sentient ocean of Solaris, is in the end entirely alien.

Towards the end of his life, despite a regular output of non-fiction studies and polemics, Lem seemed to feel that human history itself was not in fact graspable through reasoned discourse. Looking back, in an interview he gave in 2003, he said, "It is true that we live longer now - but the life of everything around us became much shorter."

"The world around us is dying so quickly," he said of the 21st century, adding that it was for this reason he could no longer write fiction. A response to this might have been that the worlds he made for us, through the fiction of half a century and through his heroic efforts to grasp the history he had lived through, surely remain.

John Clute

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