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The Times March 28, 2006


Stanislaw Lem


Author who used science to express philosophical truth

Lem: the communist authorities did not detect his  satire (AP)

AS ENGLISH translations of the work of Stanislaw Lem began to be available, from 1970 onwards, it became evident that science fiction, always a somewhat disputed genre in literary terms, had a true master. Previously, with the exception of H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon and a few others, the form had produced plots of high ingenuity and great interest, but remarkably little really profound writing, and not a great deal of convincing characterisation. It was a specialist subject and most of its critics were either downmarket, or simply popularisers.

From Lem’s Solaris (1961, translated under that title in 1970) onwards, it became clear that the vexed genre was not, after all, necessarily a literary egg-bound fowl. For Lem, besides being in possession of all the required ingenuity, was also a writer of genius, and one with a highly developed sense of humour.

In 1981 the philosophers Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Bennett included three extracts from Lem’s fiction in their important annotated anthology The Mind’s I. Paying tribute to Lem’s regular translator Michael Karlen for his “ingenious conversions of sparkling Polish wordplay into sparkling English wordplay”, Hofstadter commented that Lem’s “literary and intuitive approach . . . does a better job of convincing readers of his views than any hard-nosed scientific article . . . might do”.


This was taking Lem at the level at which he ought to be taken. There are few dissenters from such a high estimate of his reputation, and no one who usually eschews science fiction need be put off Lem. He was a fully fledged writer who chose — in part because he had to in the circumstances of Soviet domination of Poland — the science-fiction form.

Stanislaw Lem was born in Lwow, in the newly independent Poland (later to become Lvov, in the Soviet Union, now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1921. He was born into a doctor’s family, and at first intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. But his studies at Lwov University were interrupted in 1941 by the German invasion.

Thereafter he became a garage mechanic: “I learnt to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn’t immediately be discovered,” he later said. Within a decade he would start doing something very similar, with his tales, to the hard-line communism which held his country in its grip after the end of the war.

In 1944 he was able to resume his studies at Lwow, completing them at Cracow in 1946. While he was devoting himself to biological studies he was also publishing lyric poems in a Roman Catholic weekly — and reading his way through Polish literature.

The Lysenko affair, the misguided application of discredited Lamarckian theories to Soviet biology, which had a disastrous effect on Soviet biology and farming for 20 years, caused him to put an end to his official pursuit of theoretical biology, at least in communist Poland. He began to write fiction, his first works being in the tradition of socialist realism acceptable to the authorities. But he graduated to literary “fantasies”, which he succeeded in hoodwinking the humourless and dogma-bound authorities into believing were innocuous, though they were in fact highly subversive and satirical.

Astronauci (The Astronauts, 1951) was his first success: soon translated into Russian, French and German, it was eventually filmed in East Germany. In 1955 he published a memorable straight novel, Czas nieutracony (Time not Lost), an account of Polish life under the Nazis.

But it was in the haunting Solaris that his full genius first emerged. Solaris is a planet whose two moons, by their interaction in an “ocean”, a colloidal and apparently lifeless sea, create a brain, a brain which is shown as capable of bringing figures from the human unconscious to life. The horror of the situation is that the figures it materialises are those who are remembered with most guilt and shame. Thus, an astronaut is confronted by a girlfriend who has killed herself; now she is poignantly unaware that, although she “exists”, she is not real. Lem’s compatriot, the poet, critic and eventual Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz — one of the keepers of the Polish conscience in the long years of trial — spoke of this book as paraphrasing “the stages of a human lifespan” , and intensifying “that anguish which is usually veiled by the routine acceptance of the unavoidable”. Solaris was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and by Stephen Soderbergh (2002).

Sledztwo (1959, translated as The Investigation in 1974) is set in a London plagued by disappearance — and resurrection — of bodies from coffins. This, and such works as Pametnik znaleziony w wannie (1961, translated as Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, 1973) and Katar (translated as The Chain of Chance, 1978) represent, as Hofstadter asserted, serious speculative philosophy in the guise of exciting fiction. That they are certainly the latter ought not to detract from their high value as the former.

Lem was also as distinguished in the field of the short story. Many of his tales are about Ijon Tichy, a naive cosmic traveller in his one-man spaceship, whose adventures mock generally accepted ideas and substitute for them bizarre inventions. Some of the Tichy stories appear in The Star Diaries (translated in 1976); another, a short novel, is The Futurological Congress (translated in 1974). The account of Tichy’s time-loop, which he gets into in order that his “Monday self” may help his “Wednesday self”, is hilarious. But it is also, simultaneously, a serious discourse on the true nature of time.

Much of Lem’s work has roots in earlier Polish writers, now all of them in process of urgent revaluation. They include Cyprian Norwid, the 19th-century poet and thinker who anticipated most of the pressing concerns of the 20th century, and who ought to be as internationally famous as Baudelaire or Carlyle; the mystical Tadeusz Micinsky; and, above all, the incomparable “Witkacy”, Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939), author of the incomparable novel Insatiability.

It was in this extraordinary tradition that Lem wrote, for all that he chose the science-fiction form — and he was a prime examplar of it. He was a true polymath and at the same time a virtuoso storyteller. He was truly described as “one of the deep spirits of the age”.

He leaves a widow and son.