His sentimental appeal is well-received, until a second extraterrestrial stands up and begins to list humanity’s wrongdoings, which include meat-eating, war and genocide. Tichy listens as the aliens belittle us and label us misguided and corrupt, our planet a blip on their intergalactic radar.
This cosmic perspective — mischievous yet melancholy, and far beyond a human point of view — is a signature with Lem, an icon of science fiction best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the 1961 novel “Solaris.” Throughout a career spanning six decades that produced more translated works than any other Polish writer, he adopted the viewpoints of aliens, robots, a conscious supercomputer and a sentient planet, using these voices to reckon with philosophical quandaries.
This year, Poland is celebrating the centennial of Lem’s birth with a series of events, including exhibitions, conferences and festivals, and the inauguration of a new cultural space, the Planet Lem Literature and Learning Centre.
Further afield, in September Lem will be commemorated in a ceremony aboard the International Space Station and an Instagram account called FoodLemology, created by the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, is creating real-life renderings of the meals described in his books — “satellite champagne,” cactus juice and algae hamburgers have featured so far. M.I.T. Press is celebrating by publishing eight new English translations of Lem’s works.
“We’re proud of him here in Poland,” said Marcin Baniak, a spokesman for Wydawnictwo Literackie, Lem’s Polish publisher. Wydawnictwo Literackie signed Lem in 1955, and worked with him until his death in 2006. “We can see it with print runs; people are still buying his books,” Baniak said. “Right now it’s popular to read Lem as a prophet.”
The Year of Lem’s slogan is “I’ve seen the future,” because he accurately predicted so many cultural and technological shifts. His novel “Return from the Stars” predicted e-book readers (and spawned a popular meme), while his nonfiction work “Summa Technologiae” anticipated virtual reality (Lem called it “phantomatics”), search engines, nanotechnology and the singularity.
Lem’s bibliography includes 18 novels, 14 anthologies of short fiction and 14 nonfiction works, encompassing “hard sci-fi” (characterized by its respect for scientific accuracy), robot fables, satire, essays, interviews, a memoir and a collection of reviews for nonexistent books (titled “A Perfect Vacuum,” it opens with a meta-metatextual review of the book itself).
Behind the Iron Curtain in 1950s Poland, Lem constructed his own brand of science fiction, different from what was popular in the United States. He paid close attention to the scientific discoveries and theories of his times, turning his polymathic attention to space travel, chemistry, genetic engineering and mathematics, paired with a sense of literary invention worthy of Borges, Bolaño, or Flann O’Brien.
Such was Lem’s diversity of style and expertise that in 1974 Philip K. Dick, who Lem himself esteemed as “a visionary among the charlatans,” wrote to the F.B.I. alleging that Lem was actually a committee of K.G.B. agents writing under one name. (Dick was also experiencing religious visions at the time, which inspired his 944-page “Exegesis.”)
Agniesza Gajewska, a professor of Polish at Adam Mickiewicz University, said Lem’s visions of the future contain traces of the past, including the author’s own wartime experiences in Lviv, a city that was part of Poland when Lem was born there in 1921, but is now in Ukraine. She has explored that continuity in her recent book “The Holocaust and the Stars: The Past in the Prose of Stanislaw Lem.”
In an email exchange, Gajewska said that she began her research with Lem’s autobiographical novel “Highcastle,” which omits any reference to the author’s Jewish identity. The account of his childhood Lem offered had been impossible to verify, she added.
“I helplessly browsed the files, walked the streets he mentioned in the book and wondered where to look next,” she said. It was only when she learned that Lem’s father, Samuel, paid dues in Lviv’s Jewish community, that her work reached a turning point, she added.
Gajewska’s study unravels biographical details lost in history, and even deliberately obscured by Lem in interviews. He was 20 when the Nazis entered Lviv, and Gajewska describes how he survived by living under a false name and going into hiding with his parents.
“Lem spent several months in the ghetto, wore a stigmatizing armband with a Star of David, and was a witness and victim of a pogrom,” Gajewska said. This background sheds new light on Lem’s haunted robots and undercover space travelers, she added. “When I understood what he had experienced, I went back to reading his novels. What surprised me was that I began to notice recurring motifs in them: claustrophobic spaces, anxiety attacks, nightmares, desperate escapes, death by suffocation.”
Yet Lem was no pessimist, Gajewska said: He was simply aware of history. “He pointed out the dangers of technology, which affects our lives and transforms social relations,” she said. “But hidden behind these pessimistic visions is the belief that if we understand the scale of the danger, we may be able to remedy it.”
Tomasz Lem, the writer’s son and inheritor of the Lem estate, said in an emailed statement that his father moved throughout his life from optimism to doubt about the future. “It seems that chronologically speaking there were a least three Lems,” he said. “The very young one wrote science or even pulp fiction, the middle-aged one wrote fiction about science (to his dismay also referred to as ‘S.F.’), while the mature one abandoned fiction and turned to philosophical essays.”
Living in Communist Poland after the war, Lem experienced censorship and likely censored himself in order to survive as a writer. Addressing his father’s reluctance to discuss his past, his son said, “These experiences were traumatic, and the ‘Polish People’s Republic,’ where Lem lived most of his life, was not a free, democratic country but a Soviet satellite state that from time to time went through anti-Semitic episodes, ‘driven from the top.’”
Lem’s career gained momentum in the mid-1950s, when the “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union helped to improve freedom of speech in its satellites, too. Gradually, it became safe for Lem to write essays as well as fiction, and he gained access to literature and scientific research from abroad.
Maciej Zarych, an editor at Wydawnictwo Literackie, the publisher, said he had visited the library in Lem’s house after the author’s death. “It was unbelievable to see all the books he read, the old magazines from Great Britain and the United States: The Lancet, the New Scientist,” Zarych said.
Lem remained subject to censorship throughout the 1960s, but was afforded some freedoms because of his following in the U.S.S.R. “Because he was so popular,” Baniak said, “when he went to Moscow he had meetings with Russian scientists and space explorers, including Uri Gagarin.”
The astronaut is a recurring figure in Lem’s work, including Dr. Kris Kelvin, the troubled protagonist of “Solaris.” Film adaptations introduced later readers to the novel, but Lem himself refused to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation, and voiced a similar disappointment with Stephen Soderbergh’s 2002 version. He was also dissatisfied with the novel’s popular 1970 English edition: translated indirectly from a French version, Lem said that it lost the book’s original humor. Eventually, in 2011, five years after his death, a direct translation from the original Polish was published with the approval of the Lem estate.
It’s unfortunate, but oddly appropriate that “Solaris” encountered obstacles to translation. The novel takes as one of its themes the limits and possibilities of communication. Other Lem works are dense with neologisms. (Take, for example, his 1971 novel “The Futurological Congress,” in which the protagonist steps inside a “psychedelicatessen” selling “low-calorie opinionates,” “gullibloons,” “argumunchies” and the memory-removing drugs “obliterine” and “amnesol.”)
“Lem’s language is very specific,” said Wojciech Gunia, an author and translator who works for the Polish Science Fiction Foundation, a nonprofit that is one of the partners organizing the Lem centenary. “As a writer he’s deeply rooted in modernism, despite the rationalism of his scientific worldview. His language is rooted in the literature of the first half of the 20th century, and this isn’t easy to translate.”
It was notable, Gunia said, that Lem rejected the label of science fiction. “This is a very complex issue,” Gunia said, explaining that despite a rich sci-fi tradition in Poland, the genre has historically been regarded as something outside of, or less than mainstream literature: “Maybe this was the reason for his attempts to get rid of the label of ‘science fiction writer.’ However, he was a science fiction writer.”
These times are kinder to genre writers; Lem himself paved the way for recognition of science fiction as a platform where philosophical thinking can flourish, even under censorship. There’s an often-quoted line from “Solaris,” spoken by one of its melancholy space explorers: “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.” Through his vast contribution to literature, Lem gave us both.