THERE’S A PARADOX at the heart of science fiction. The most basic aspiration of the genre — its very essence, really — is to transcend time and place. Not just to predict the future, but to imagine things that are totally foreign to human experience. How would an alien life form have evolved, compared with those on Earth? What will human society look like 10,000 years from now? What is artificial intelligence, anyway? SF tries to imagine the unimaginable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe the indescribable, and to do it all in entertaining, accessible prose.
But SF, like everything else, is also a product of its time. Jules Verne’s tales of trips around the globe and voyages to the center of the Earth reflected the scientific optimism of the late 19th century, before World War I blew open technology’s dark side. During its midcentury golden age in the United States, the pulpy genre cheered on the rising economic and military dominance of the United States, forecasting an American empire that stretched to the stars. Not long after, New Wave authors like Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrestled with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, from Cold War paranoia to the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and the drug culture. What kind of stories the Trump era might inspire is still unknown, but they probably won’t be cheerful.
Stanisław Lem, the Polish novelist, futurologist, literary theorist, satirist, and philosophical gadfly, tried mightily to free his work from the shackles of the present. In dozens of novels, short stories, essays, metaliterary experiments, and futurological treatises, he attempted to imagine everything from a living ocean that could read human minds (Solaris) to a swarm of nonbiological mechanical insects (The Invincible) to a supercomputer many times more intelligent than its human creators (Golem XIV). In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae, Lem mocked writers whose works were merely historical fiction recast in the future — “corsairs and pirates of the thirtieth century.” It’s easy to find targets for Lem’s criticism; most SF movies are exercises in wish fulfillment, projections of a space-age Columbus in search of a final frontier. For Lem, science fiction meant thinking harder and imagining more.
But even Lem could not transcend his own history. Born in 1921 in Lviv (then called Lwów as part of the Second Polish Republic), he survived World War II, served in the Polish resistance, and lived for most of his life under Polish Communism. In his work, he turned repeatedly to themes reflecting those experiences, including the role of chance in determining fate, the oppressive bureaucracy of authoritarian regimes, and the possibility of a runaway arms race that escapes human control. Ironically, Lem’s effort to think outside of history often provides the best descriptions of the period he lived through.
Lem died in 2006, having lived to see many of his ideas come true. Yet today he has fallen into quasi-obscurity, at least in the English-speaking world. Not even in his heyday did he have the cachet in the United States of writers like Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein. But Lem was phenomenally popular in Eastern and Central Europe. According to a recent estimate, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold almost 40 million copies, and he was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize. By all measures he was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century.
Ten years after his death, there continues to be a steady drumbeat of interest in Lem. A film adaptation of his novella The Futurological Congress (1971) was released in 2013; the first full English translation of Summa Technologiae, by Joanna Zylinska, appeared in 2014; and three new books on Lem have been published in the last two years, all of them written or edited by literary scholar Peter Swirski, the most prominent Lem expert in the world. These include Lemography: Stanislaw Lem in the Eyes of the World (2014), a collection of critical essays co-edited by University of Alberta professor Waclaw M. Osadnik; Stanislaw Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel (2014), a collection of Lem’s correspondence with his English translator; and Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (2015), a collection of Swirski’s own pieces.
All of these books illuminate Lem’s writing and thinking, from his opinions on literary contemporaries to his views on the Nixon administration. Most importantly, they illustrate the complex relationship between Lem’s future-facing novels and the turbulent period in which they were produced. Among science fiction writers, Lem was one of the most creative and intellectually bold. But even he couldn’t escape his time.
In his 1975 memoir Highcastle: A Remembrance, Lem described his younger self as chubby and bookish, an only child doted on by his parents, an intelligent loner who enjoyed poking through his father’s collection of medical textbooks. Lem’s father, Samuel Lem, was a well-to-do laryngologist who provided his son with books and toys, a French governess, and a manual Remington typewriter that Lem used for the rest of his life. He gave his son a weekly allowance of 50 groszy, which Lem spent entirely on halvah.
As he got older, Lem developed other hobbies, such as buying bits of “electrical-mechanical junk” at a local flea market. Like many children he was given to magical thinking, imagining that these scraps possessed their own independent lives. “I believed […] that inanimate objects were no less fallible than people,” he reflected in Highcastle. “And if you had enough patience, you could catch them by surprise.” Lem’s sympathy for inanimate and mechanical objects later showed up in his portrayals of robots and other forms of artificial intelligence. These beings, he wrote, were created by humans but were “crippled even before they were born — right on the drawing board.”
As a teenager Lem put his collection of mechanical flotsam to work in a series of inventions that he designed and sometimes attempted to build. There was a solar-powered airplane “shaped like a parabolic mirror”; an oar that looked like an umbrella; “a bicycle without pedals, which you rode like a horse”; an electromagnetic cannon; a dozen different kinds of perpetual motion machines; and the already-existing differential gear. He also designed a rocket that, he later noticed, was similar to the German V-1s that were about to wreak havoc all over Europe.
In high school, Lem developed another hobby, inventing a fictional empire entirely out of documents: identity papers, passports, licenses, warrants, passes, authorizations, seals, permits, vouchers, and payable-to-bearer certificates, some of which were in code and required intricate keys to decipher. In Highcastle, he described this activity — what we would now call “world-building” — as an unwitting preparation for his literary career: “Ignorant of the rules of writing, I strengthened the setting, the atmosphere, not describing any person or scene directly.” Such habits showed up in novels like Solaris (1961), which featured an entire chapter on the fictional field of “Solaristics,” as well as in other books where he went on long tangents devoted to fictional scientific developments. “I surround myself […] with the literature of a future, another world, a civilization with a library that is its product, its picture, its mirror image,” Lem wrote in “Chance and Order,” a 1984 essay in The New Yorker. For Lem, thinking about the future didn’t just mean telling a story but describing an entire society.
Lem didn’t immediately aspire to become a writer, however. After graduating from the Karol Szajnocha Gymnasium in 1939, he followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled at the Lwów Medical Institute. It was not good timing. When the German army occupied the city in 1941, the university was closed, and Lem went to work as a gopher and welder for a German scrap shop. He later joked that he risked being accused of resistance activity because he was such a bad welder, but in fact Lem did work for the Polish underground, smuggling in his overalls ammunition and radios from a Luftwaffe depot. These activities were especially dangerous because Lem and his family were Jewish — though they lived as completely assimilated Poles — and avoided imprisonment in the city’s ghetto only by obtaining forged identity papers.
Nonetheless, Lem had several close brushes with death. In His Master’s Voice, a 1968 Cold War novel about a mysterious message that arrives from outer space, an émigré scientist named Saul Rappaport tells how he once expected to be killed during a mass execution, but was inexplicably set free. The narrator of that novel, Peter Hogarth, is a cynical mathematician whom Lem once identified as his closest fictional stand-in. But in a 1972 letter to his American translator, Michael Kandel, Lem admitted that the experience related by Rappaport was his own: “In 1941, when the German troops marched into Lviv, I was going to be shot dead — barring one extra element […] everything described in the book is true.” Although his immediate family survived, the rest of his relatives were killed in concentration camps.
Near the end of the war, after the city had been reoccupied by the Soviet Army, Lem returned to his medical studies. But Lwów, which had been part of Poland, now became part of Soviet Ukraine, and the Lems were repatriated to Cracow. Whereas the family had once been well off, they were now impoverished; at age 71, Samuel Lem was forced to go back to work, and the family was reduced to living in a one-room apartment.
In Cracow, Lem completed medical school, but because doctors were then being drafted into the Polish army for life, he decided to forgo graduation. Instead he got a job as a scientific research assistant at Jagiellonian University, where he taught courses and reviewed scientific publications for a journal called The Life of Science. He also became interested in cybernetics and taught himself English by reading the work of mathematician Norbert Wiener. In an essay in Lemography titled “Lem Redux: From Poland to the World,” by Swirski and Osadnik, the authors quote filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki, who recalls Lem from the period wearing “a Jagiellonian University medical school cap” and old-fashioned knickers, “a certain sign of his provincialism.”
Lem also started writing, contributing short stories to a magazine called New World of Adventures. These included a serialized novel called The Man From Mars that presaged his later preoccupation with the fundamental impossibility of communicating with alien life. Although the novel was never published in English, a small part of it was translated by Swirski in 2009 and appears in Lemography along with other selections of Lem’s early works. In the excerpt, an unnamed narrator is whisked off the street in a case of mistaken identity and is introduced to a secretive cabal whose purpose is unknown. Although Lem hadn’t yet arrived at fully formed ideas, he had already mastered the art of suspense.
Despite his early promise, life was fraught for the young writer. In 1950, he lost his job at the university, and in 1951 was briefly expelled from the Polish Literary Guild because he had not yet published a book. His first bona fide novel, a non–science fiction trilogy titled Time Not Lost, was completed in 1948 but not published until 1955, and not in an uncensored version until 1975. In its first section, translated into English in 1988 as Hospital of the Transfiguration, Lem portrayed a young Polish doctor working in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the German occupation. When the Nazis take over, the doctors must decide whether to risk their lives trying to save their patients or to protect themselves.
Lem’s eventual success was thanks to an event that could have come straight out of one of his stories. In 1950, during a trip to the mountain resort of Zakopane, he made the acquaintance of “a rotund gentleman who turned out to be the director of a state press.” This chance meeting resulted in the publication of The Astronauts (1951), Lem’s first successful novel. The book — a small fragment of which is available in English in Lemography — is about an expedition to Venus in the early 21st century, following the discovery of alien remains at the site of the Tunguska explosion. When the astronauts reach Venus, they discover that the native population has mysteriously destroyed itself on the eve of launching an attack on Earth — a grim foreboding of species-wide self-destruction.
Lem resisted the novel’s translation, along with the rest of his early works, given its naïve depiction of a technologically advanced utopian society. But The Astronauts was a hit, and it paved the way for Lem’s literary career. After censorship and a rewriting process that Lem referred to as “mild brain washing,” his Time Not Lost trilogy appeared, as well as The Magellan Nebula (1955), another utopian first-contact novel that has remained mostly untranslated. In 1953, he married medical student Barbara Lesniak, and a few years later moved with her into a spacious house in the picturesque suburb of Klíny, where he would live for most of his life.
In his New Yorker essay, “Chance and Order,” Lem described his writing regimen from the period: “I usually get up a short time before five in the morning […] When I was younger I could write as long as my stamina held out; the power of my intellect gave way only after my physical prowess had been exhausted.” This work ethic resulted in an impressive output. Between 1956 and 1968, he wrote at least 17 books, four of which appeared in 1961. If Lem has become synonymous with Polish SF, it’s because for years he was a one-man industry, churning out a library’s worth of books all by himself.
Compared to most science fiction writers, Lem’s thinking was both disinterested and far-reaching. In works like the nonfictional Summa Technologiae, he explored the possibilities of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genetic engineering, comparing technological advancement to biological evolution. Just as evolution had no moral agenda, he argued, technological developments were neither inherently good nor bad, but followed their own internal logic. Unlike most would-be prophets, who predict the future with warnings of dystopia or promises of a better tomorrow, Lem approached the subject without a moralizing tone.
But in his fiction Lem did explore the pitfalls that the future might hold. His experience living under German occupation impressed on him the role of chance in life and the ease with which that life could be snuffed out. The absurdities of authoritarian communism and the perils of the Cold War further illustrated the danger humanity posed to itself. Worst of all, the construction of oppressive ideological systems seemed to occur through processes that its participants were unable to prevent, or even fully understand.
Following the end of World War II, Poland fell increasingly under the sway of the Soviet Union. Although Stalin assured the allied powers that the country would be governed by a democratically elected coalition, in 1948 the communist Polish United Workers’ Party seized power, and in 1952 they proclaimed the People’s Republic of Poland under Stalinist Prime Minister Bolesław Bierut. Poland was never annexed by the USSR — one of the democratic opposition’s few victories — but in practice it remained a satellite state of the Soviet Union. And, as in the USSR, communist ideology wasn’t restricted to politics. At its General Congress in 1949, the Polish Writers’ Union announced its support for the Party’s program of socialist realism, essentially declaring literature to be subservient to political goals.
For Lem the crackdown on free speech was an obstacle, but not a life-threatening one. Early novels like The Astronauts and The Magellan Nebula were favorable to communism, predicting its success on both social and technological fronts. Although he later disavowed those works, they were, he wrote, a product of their time — a choice of “historically untenable optimism” over “skepticism that was […] apt to turn into nihilism.” Even as he grew more daring, his books were rarely blocked from publication. Despite Soviet influence, Poland avoided the worst of Stalinist repression, and during the period of liberalization that followed Stalin’s death and Poland’s October Revolution, writers like Lem were increasingly free to publish what they liked.
That freedom had its limits, however, and Lem took care to present his criticisms as SF. To his credit, it was a flimsy disguise. In one story, from the 1971 collection The Star Diaries, a cosmic adventurer named Ijon Tichy visits a kingdom governed by a rogue computer and populated by human-hating robots. When Tichy goes to investigate, he discovers that all of the robots — and even the computer itself — are actually people in costume. In another story, Tichy discovers a planet where the people are trying desperately to live underwater. “[A]fter the network of canals and reservoirs had been completed, the bureaus refused to disband themselves and continued to operate, irrigating Pinta more and more,” one of the characters explains. “The upshot was […] that what was to have been controlled, controlled us.” In both cases, the allusions to Stalinist conformism and paranoia were clear.
While The Star Diaries took the form of lighthearted parables, Lem’s most substantial work depicting a totalitarian society was Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a 1961 novel about a post-apocalyptic future that reads like a cross between Kafka and Lewis Carroll. The book is preceded by an introduction, purporting to be from 3,000 years in the future, telling the history of a predigital catastrophe in which all of the world’s paper was destroyed by a space-borne catalyst. One of the few exceptions to the great “papyralysis” was a memoir kept safe in the bowels of the “Third Pentagon,” a hermetically sealed building deep under the Rocky Mountains.
The memoir, told in the first person by an unnamed “Agent,” describes its author’s wanderings through “The Building,” fruitlessly trying to discover his “Mission” while stumbling across one bizarre scene after the next. As he wanders from office to office and official to official, he becomes lost in the building’s maze of conspiracy and intrigue. One character tries to convince him that everything he encounters is actually in code. Another tells him that every agent is really a double or triple or quadruple agent, and that the forces of the Building have over time completely switched places with an antagonistic “Antibuilding.” In this nightmare world, truth and falsehood have become meaningless, and anything could mean anything else.
Although the novel is set in the United States, and the Building is described as the last holdout of American capitalism, the bureaucracy gone mad is clearly a satire of communism. As Swirski writes in Philosopher of the Future, the backward-looking frame narrative describing a historical papyralysis was actually a later addition, tacked on “under the pressure from the Polish censors who wanted to deflect the novel’s satirical overtones onto the decadent West.” But like Stalin’s totalitarian regime, the Building assumes for its inhabitants the semblance of an omniscient power, where every detail seems like the intentional expression of an infallible system. As Lem explained in a 1972 letter to Kandel, “Once you assume that such perfection EXISTS, you see it everywhere […] It was precisely such faith and not any kind of torture that led the accused to confess to the most absurd acts during the infamous trials.”
These ideas evoke comparisons to Orwell, and to the British novelist’s famous depiction of Stalinism in 1984 (1949). But in his letters to Kandel, Lem claimed that Orwell had gotten Stalinism wrong. Whereas Orwell described his dystopian regime as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” Lem argued that communist oppression was not a sadistic evil pursued for its own sake but a natural result of turning state ideology into dogma. Similarly, Lem critiqued Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, writing that “she made out these systems to be fruit of strictly intentional evil.” Rather, he writes, “Stalin’s times concocted a myth, never concretely or cogently expressed, of the state as a machine that was not only perfect, but also omniscient and omnipotent.” For Lem, the tragic consequences weren’t the result of premeditated cruelty, but the logical outcome of turning politics into faith.
Lem may have been critical of the Soviet Union, but that didn’t mean he had a positive view of the West. “Say, one country permits eating little children right before the eyes of crazed mothers,” he wrote to Kandel in 1977, “and another permits eating absolutely anything, whereupon it turns out that the majority of people in that country eat shit. So what does the fact that most people eat shit demonstrate […] ?” In other words, just because life behind the Iron Curtain was bad, that didn’t make the United States good. For Lem the world wasn’t divided between good and evil, but between bad and even worse.
Starting in the late 1960s, Lem turned away from conventional SF in favor of experimental works of literary and cultural criticism. These included books like The Philosophy of Chance (1968), in which he attempted to produce an empirical form of literary theory, and the Borgesian A Perfect Vacuum (1971) and One Human Minute (1986), in which he reviewed nonexistent books. While Lem’s literary experiments displayed a playful dexterity, his cultural criticisms were often clichéd, focusing on the West’s supposed vulgarity, tastelessness, and excess. In a 1992 interview with Swirski, he commented on the exploding number of TV channels, calling them “simply appalling. It is like having two thousand shirts or pairs of shoes.” While Lem’s main argument was about the unmanageable explosion of media, neither TV channels nor an excessive wardrobe seems like humanity’s greatest crime.
If Lem didn’t think much of American popular culture, neither did he have much esteem for its literature. In his letters to Kandel he singled out books like Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (1975), which he called “utterly worthless,” and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which he proclaimed a “demented dud.” But he reserved his greatest scorn for American science fiction, which he attacked as “pseudo-scientific fairy tales” and “hyped-up trash,” among other insults. When the aggrieved Science Fiction Writers of America revoked his honorary membership in 1975 over an article titled “Looking Down on Science Fiction: A Novelist’s Choice for the World’s Worst Writing,” Lem expressed his satisfaction to Kandel, commenting that “to me the opinion of morons is worth exactly nothing.” Later it turned out that the English title of the piece was an inaccurate translation of the German, but Lem’s views were clear enough.
Lem’s criticisms may have been curmudgeonly and, as Swirksi suggests, rooted in his frustrated desire for greater American recognition. But to Lem the country also represented dangers that we are only now beginning to appreciate. He foresaw dystopia not only in resource-starved wastelands, but also in technological prisons of pleasure and excess. “The idea would be to expand the gamut of pleasurable sensations to the maximum, and perhaps even to bring into being […] other, as yet unknown, kinds of sensual stimulation and gratification,” he wrote in His Master’s Voice. This possibility became the premise for The Futurological Congress, in which humanity becomes trapped in a pharmacologically induced paradise, unaware of its own looming extinction.
Most presciently, Lem understood that even mundane varieties of information could be disastrous in overwhelming quantities. What happens, he asked in His Master’s Voice, when “the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?” Or, as he wrote in the same novel, “freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors […] ?” Facebook and the deluge of fake news sites didn’t exist when Lem wrote this, but their creation wouldn’t have surprised him. The future of the United States, he wrote to Kandel, is “dark, most likely.”
In his 1986 novel Fiasco, one of his last major works, Lem described a group of astronauts flying to Quinta, “the fifth planet of Zeta Harpyiae,” where they hope to make contact with an alien civilization. Quinta isn’t the only other inhabited planet in the galaxy; the universe is actually bursting with life, the astronauts believe. But unlike most extraterrestrials, which are either too primitive to bother with or too advanced to detect, the Quintans are still in an intermediate stage. On a scale from single-celled organisms to transcendental super-beings, they are close enough to humans for communication to take place.
This idea — a “window of contact,” as Lem called it — was a useful premise for an SF novel, and it solved a bigger problem as well. In 1950, on his way to lunch at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi posed a famous question. Given the age and size of the universe, it seems likely that life exists on other planets. And since much of that life would have been around longer than we have, some of it should be technologically advanced. So why haven’t we found it? Or why hasn’t it found us? According to Lem’s answer, there may be intelligent life, but given the narrow window during which contact is possible, and the interstellar distances that have to be overcome, the chances of communication are vanishingly low.
The question of alien contact isn’t just about aliens, however; it’s also about humanity. As an intelligent species develops, Lem theorized, it eventually outstrips the capacity of its natural environment to sustain it. At that point, it reaches a crisis: either it manages to overcome its environmental limitations, or it collapses. If the reason we haven’t found other civilizations is because they’ve destroyed themselves, or have retreated into a dark age, that doesn’t bode well for our own future. But if it’s because they’ve passed successfully through the bottleneck — the “singularity,” if you will — and emerged transformed on the other side, who knows what our future may hold?
Lem considered any effort to make accurate predictions a fool’s errand — “Nothing ages as fast as the future,” he once wrote — but he did try to think rigorously about the paths our civilization might take. At first technology is applied toward our environment, he argued, as we enter the Anthropocene era on Earth. But eventually it is turned toward the human organism itself, leading to a stage of existence that is as yet unpredictable. “Man remains the last relic of Nature, the last ‘authentic product of Nature’ for an indefinite period of time,” he writes. But “the invasion of technology created by man into his body is inevitable.”
Most importantly, Lem viewed biological evolution and technological development as part of the same process. Following Norbert Wiener’s formulation that there exist in the universe “islands of locally decreasing entropy” — that is, areas of space-time that tend naturally toward greater complexity and organization — Lem posited that evolution was not just a biological process guiding life on Earth but a phenomenon that could include any form of matter or energy. While these islands might sometimes result in biological life, they might also result in other kinds of complex systems, including our own creations. “Who causes whom?” he asked in Summa Technologiae. “Does technology cause us, or do we cause it?” Or, as he put it more pointedly in His Master’s Voice, “The roles are now reversed: humanity becomes, for technology, a means, an instrument for achieving a goal unknown and unknowable.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that any Earth-based society will reach this point. Perhaps, as Lem suggested in The Futurological Congress, we will simply drug ourselves out of existence. Premature efforts at “auto-evolution” may go horribly awry. Right now runaway climate change, natural disasters, resource shortages, and nuclear war seem like the most likely doomsday scenarios. As Lem warned in an essay titled “Weapon Systems of The Twenty First Century or the Upside-down Evolution,” our tendency toward conflict may prompt us to invent ever more intelligent weapons, until they slip from our control and lead to ultimate disaster. Instead of successfully exiting the window of contact — or entering a new one — we might die on the threshold, a victim of our own advancement. The possibilities for our demise are endless.
Perhaps, however, we will yet emerge on the other side of the unfolding crisis. What the world will look like then, we don’t know. Both the planet and our bodies may be transformed. Even for science fiction writers like Lem, a post-singularity world is difficult to imagine. But if we’re lucky to make it that far, we’ll be at the beginning of another great stage of life in the universe. And if we’re very lucky, some of us may yet live to see it.
Ezra Glinter is the editor of Have I Got a Story for You (2016), an anthology of Yiddish fiction in translation. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.