Legendary Leopolitans No. 4: Polish spaceman Stanislaw Lem
Lviv’s colourful cosmopolitanism has often made the city a place where new ideas have taken flight with particular ease and buoyancy, but few Lviv natives have been as imaginative or entertaining in their innovation as Stanislaw Lem, the man widely acknowledged as the greatest science fiction writer of the Soviet Bloc, if not the entire world.
An ethnic Pole of Jewish extraction, Stanislaw Lem was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century, producing such classics as ‘Solaris’, which has twice been made into a major blockbuster movie. Lem spent much of his adult life living in post-war Poland, having survived the Nazi occupation of his hometown Lviv only to fall victim to Stalin’s population resettlement policies in the newly annexed lands of West Ukraine (which prior to WWII has been Eastern Poland). However, his childhood in multiethnic Lviv of the inter-war years clearly left a lasting impression on Lem and was to add an international aspect to his work for the rest of his career.
Lem was born in 1921 in Lviv, the son of Samuel Lem, a prosperous physician. The family lived in a plush apartment on today’s Bohdan Lepkiy Street close to the city centre. His family were prominent among the professional classes and he spent his early years at one of Lviv’s first schools – today’s School No. 8 which even now specialises in the German language. His plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor were ruined by the German invasion of 1941. Although raised as a catholic, Lem’s Jewish ancestry placed him and his family in enormous danger as the occupying Germans sought to decimate the once-thriving Jewish community, but the family were able to see out WWII with forged papers. After the war Lem’s life was thrown into further chaos by the Soviet seizure of West Ukraine – a change in government which was accompanied by ethnic cleansing, deportations and massive population transfers as the Polish community were forced out of Lviv and the surrounding countryside. Lem’s family settled in Krakow in 1947 he accepted a position as a research assistant at Jagellonian University in Krakow, reading articles on a wide range of scientific fields for review in the journal “Zycie Nauki” (Life of Science). Almost thirty years old, Lem was receiving a second education that grounded him firmly in contemporary scientific trends.
Stalinist social realism in space
It was at this time that Lem began to publish his first works of fiction. His first novels largely conformed (with the help of extensive state censorship) to the officially promoted Stalinist standards of Social Realism – they painted optimistic pictures of a happy future in which social progress is supported by technology. None of these early works has been translated and although they did establish his status as one of Poland’s most talented writers,
Lem later disowned them altogether. The tone of Lem’s fiction underwent a great change in 1956 when a wave of popular uprisings against Soviet rule swept Eastern Europe - one of the immediate results of which in Poland was a relaxation of government controls on the press. Lem’s own thinking seems to have changed as well, although he always proven reticent about his political views. At any rate, 1956 marks the start of what critics have called Lem’s “golden period”, a dozen years of remarkably fertile literary output. In this period Lem imagined a number of different universes and populated them with fantastic and gripping stories. Later, in addition to story cycles Lem composed a string of challenging novels, each posing a question about the conditions and limits of human knowledge. “Solaris” is probably Lem’s bestknown work, published in 1961 and set on an isolated space station.
It was made into a film epic 10 years later by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and into a 2002 Hollywood remake shot by Steven Sodebergh and starring George Clooney. The novel tells the story of an encounter between a group of planetary explorers and a bizarre entity on the planet Solaris, which is a sort of living ocean that covers most of its world and is capable of chemical transformations of astounding mathematical complexity. For over a century before the encounter, Solaris had been the subject of intense scientific scrutiny, yet all attempts to establish contact with its vast inhabitant had failed. What experiences or concepts could humans possibly share with such a creature in order to have a basis for communication? At the end of the book comes an unexpected conclusion - nothing is resolved and it is impossible to tell whether the psychic replicates are an attempt by the planet to communicate, an experiment it is carrying out, a game or an inadvertent by-product of some other process.
Cold War rivalry enters sci-fi scene
In the early 1970s Lem’s books began to appear in English and it was hoped they would find an avid, ready-made readership, but relations between this Socialist Bloc author and his Western colleagues were not always immune to Cold War rivalry and political suspicion. In 1973 the Science Fiction Writers of America, moved by the spirit of Nixon-era international goodwill, awarded an honorary membership to Lem, as the most prominent representative of Eastern Bloc sci-fi. Four years later, however, this membership was summarily revoked. The immediate cause of “the Lem Affair” was an article Lem had published in criticism of science fiction in the English-speaking world. He called it derivative and asserted that it consisted largely of sterile elaborations on a handful of threadbare hemes that had been developed by H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Lem, by contrast, claimed to have been tainted by his own originality within a genre that accommodates far too much mediocrity and repetition. In the wake of the harsh Communist crackdown on Solidarity in 1982 Lem, without making any public political statement, quietly moved with his family to Vienna, where his close friend and literary agent Franz Rottensteiner lived. From 1983 Lem lived in Austria and Italy, but he did not identify himself with dissident writers. He remained dissatisfied with the state of modern science fiction and was often a vocal critic. Lem died of heart failure on 27 March, 2006, in Krakow and is buried at Salwator Cemetery in the historic Polish city.