Stanislaw Lem sold over 30 million books in 40 languages, mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Lem was a Polish Jew who survived both the Nazi occupation and the Stalinist puppet regime. He completed medical studies in Krakow in 1948 but refused to sit his final examinations so as to avoid being conscripted into the army medical corps. He was never to practice medicine, but his scientific training and his constitutional skepticism came to inform his work deeply. A Jew raised as a Catholic, he eventually embraced atheism. He was a fierce believer in rationalism with the rare gift of knowing the limitations of his principal philosophy. Most of his fiction explores the boundaries of rationalism, where logical thought begins to break down as a useful tool, but Lem never gives in to mysticism. To Lem, the universe was far too big and strange to be encompassed by human thought, but that was no excuse for disavowing what limited knowledge our brains can conceive.
Lem wrote in many different modes. His Ijon Tichy novels are reality-bending Swiftian satires. The adventures of Pirx the Pilot are humorous scientific puzzle pieces. The Cyberiad is a trickster myth cycle about a pair of lovable but slightly deranged robots who promise to build any sort of machine one might want, often with outrageous consequences. The same setting gives life to Mortal Engines, a book of fairy tales to be read to young robots. A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of books that do not exist. In the Kafkaesque Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a spy is given a mission so secret that nobody can tell him what it is. His most admired stand-alone novels, Return from the Stars, His Masterâ€™s Voice, and Solaris, defy easy categorization. Solaris has been filmed twice. Lem complained that the first version, by Andrei Tarkovsky, was â€œCrime and Punishment in space.â€ The second version, starring George Clooney, is more faithful to its source and is a far more satisfying movie in its own right, but still misses the point.
Given the inventiveness and philosophical muscularity of Lemâ€™s work, it was no surprise that he would be disappointed by the science fiction that became available to him as the Iron Curtain became semi-permeable. No genre could possibly live up to his expectations. To Lem, American science fiction was a pale, market-driven ghost of the genre it should be. He considered it scientifically naÃ¯ve and of low literary quality, and his forthright opinions got him kicked out of the Science Fiction Writers of America, to which he had been granted an honorary membership. He praised only Philip K. Dick, although Dick, in the grip of psychosis and drug-induced paranoia, was to repay the compliment by writing to the FBI accusing Lem of being a Communist Party “functionary.” In fact, several of Lem’s books had been suppressed in Poland.
Towards the end of his life, Lem became less prolific and his attention turned to essays and philosophical studies of the future for humanity.
Almost none of his recent works are available in English, and there was never a satisfactory (to Lem) English edition of Solaris. The only English version was translated from a French abridgement. Despite the double-insulated expression, the last sentence of Solaris encapsulates Lem’s philosophy with a brutal elegance. The words (tr. Steve Cox via Joanna Kilmartin) come to us in the voice of narrator Kris Kelvin, a hyper-rationalist psychologist who has been wounded by the unknowable, thinking ocean of Solaris: â€œI knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.â€
Lem died in Krakow on March 27 after a long illness.