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

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice
music

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery NurseI am currently...

KS2 Teacher

£21000 - £34000 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, CPD, Support : Randstad Ed...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse required for ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album