Stanisław Lem

On March 27th, 2006, Polish science-fiction writer and philosopher Stanisław Lem passed away. His biography is available at Wikipedia.

I want to wax lyrical about pan Stanislaw a little bit, if only to get it out of my system.

It is likely that an average north american either has no idea who Lem was, or maybe heard that the 2002 movie “Solaris” is based on Lem’s book.

Bruce Sterling, in his “ The Spearhead of Cognition” points out that this was done on purpose – Lem was expelled from SFWA, and efforts were made to make his works non-grata in the States.

Tensions with his American colleagues came to a head in a bizarre international literary incident. In 1973, in an effort to promote “international goodwill,” the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) conferred an honorary membership upon Lem, a distinction that had previously been given to only one other foreign writer, J.R.R. Tolkien.

But in 1975, the writer Philip Jose Farmer, whose sexually frank thrillers Lem had criticized, raised objections to Lem’s honorary membership. Farmer’s concerns were echoed by an addled Philip K. Dick, who was experiencing fits of paranoia at the time. Dick maintained that Lem had embezzled royalties from a Polish translation of Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik.

“The honorary voting of Stanislaw Lem to membership is the sheep voting the wolf a place at the communal hearth,” Dick warned SFWA members in ’75. “They certainly must be licking their chops back in Krakow right now.”

These attacks might not have gone any farther if Lem hadn’t published yet another critical article on contemporary sci-fi, “SF, or Phantasy Come to Grief.” The article itself was acidic, but its impact was amplified by yet another translation problem. In 1975, the Atlas World Press Review put out a dubious English-language version of the essay under the inflammatory title “Looking down on Science Fiction: A Novelist’s Choice for the World’s Worst Writing.” In this version, Lem is made to describe American sci-fi as “bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue.” Although he did call American sci-fi “kitsch,” the other accusation appears to have been invented by the translators.

The perpetrators of the World’s Worst Writing turned on Lem. One SFWA member accused him of attacking American sci-fi writers at the prompting of his Communist masters. Other SFWA members questioned his ability to read English or suggested, falsely, that he was profiting from pirated editions of American books. In a straw vote taken in 1976, 70 percent of SFWA’s voting members supported a resolution to revoke Lem’s honorary membership.

Lem did have some American defenders. In an open letter to the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1977, Ursula K. Le Guin declared: “The SFWA is not a powerful organization, nothing compared to the Soviet Writers Union, say; but when it uses the tactics of the Soviet Writers Union, I think there is cause for concern, and reasons for shame.”

Today, former SFWA president Jerry Pournelle insists that Lem’s membership was revoked because of technicalities in the group’s bylaws, not politics. But in his 1977 exchange with Le Guin, Pournelle described Lem as someone “who finds a communist regime congenial” and “embraces communist egalitarianism.” In 1983, a letter to the editor in Omni Magazine denounced Lem as “the most boring writer in the world – and an avowed Communist” – even as Lem and his family were preparing to go into exile in Vienna. (They returned to Poland in 1988.) Despite the hostility of the American sci-fi community, mainstream writers such as John Updike and Anthony Burgess started praising Lem’s books in prominent places.

Jeet Heer, “Stanislaw Lem”

Oh, current take by SFWA is that Lem didn’t want to. God is their judge.

On the subject of God, in his youth Lem was rather close to one Karol Wojtyla. Life is funny this way.

It is true, however, that pan Stanisław was rather famous in the countries of the (now former) Soviet Block.

30 years before Hollywood did a remake of Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky filmed that other, original, “Solyaris“.

Coincidentially, pan Stanisław did not approve of that version, and, in fact, stopped talking to Tarkovsky after one of quarrels. If you are both familiar with the work in question, and curious, has English translations of the opinions of both Tarkovsky and Lem.

Your local BlockBusters probably doesn’t have it, however “Дознание пилота Пиркса” is based on Lem’s “The Inquest“, part of Tales of Pirx, the Pilot, and was a joint Soviet/Polish film.

“Astronauts” were filmed for TV in three parts as “Light of a Far Away Star” (Свет далекой звезды).

I’d say that generations of people got their start on science fiction with Lem’s works. “Return From the Stars”, Rohan from “The Invincible”, Bregg from “Return From the Stars”, The Cyberiad, many short stories were translated and published. One can argue that the censors didn’t get the subtle satire of Lem’s.

Some of Stanislaw Lem’s books in Polish are available at Translations to Russian are both there and at

I’ve looked for an English language translation, and couldn’t find one on-line, so the following bit is my translation from Russian of a few paragraphs from Z dzienników gwiazdowych Ijona Tichego (Star Diaries of Ijon Tichy), 21st Voyage.

In it (scientific literature -sta), as I soon discovered, there was plenty of new information. For example, Dr Gopfshtosser, brother of Gopfshtosser that was practicing tychology, created a periodic table of space civilizations, based on the three principles that allow to unmistakably identify most developed societies. These are the Laws of Trash, Noise and Spots. Each civilization that reaches technological stage, more and more finds itself sinking in it’s own trash, that creates lots of inconveniences, until the point when it moves all the trash to space. So that trash would not interfere with spacefaring too much, it gets placed in it’s own, isolated orbit. Thus an ever expanding ring of trash gets created, and exactly by it’s existence one can recognize civilizations that reach higher stages of progress.

However, after some time trash changes it’s nature – as intelligent electronics gets more and more developed, civilization needs to get rid of the ever increasing mass of computer trash, old probes, spacecraft, etc. These thinking refuses do not want to circle in the trash orbit forever, and run away, filling the neighborhood of the planet, and even whole of the solar system. Pollution of the environment by the AI is characteristic for this stage of development. Different civilizations use different approaches to deal with this problem; sometimes they even attempt computerocide – they place special traps in space, stickies, squishers, and other traps for the psychotic self-aware refuse. However the end results of all such efforts are ineffective: only the least intelligent trash gets caught, and this tactics just helps in survival of the smartest, weeding out the weak. Survivors, in turn, form groups and gangs, and start attacks and protest actions, demanding hard to fulfill demands, such as spare parts and living space. In case of refusal, they start interfering with radio transmissions, hijack broadcasts, read their own proclamations, and as a result around such a planet occurs an area of such noise and howling, anyone listening might rapture their ear-drums. Exactly by such noise it is possible – at a great distance at that – to identify civilizations suffering from AI pollution. It is even kind of strange that Earth astronomers were guessing for such a long time why it is that Cosmos is full of noise and various senseless signals. These signals are nothing other then interference created by the above-mentioned conflicts and seriously interfers in establishing trans-stellar communications.

And finally, sun spots, but distinct by the shape and chemical composition – that can be identified by spectrometer – betray existence of the most developed civilizations, that overcame both the Trash and Noise Thresholds. Such spots exist, when great clouds of the trash, accumulated over the ages, just like moths, sprint into the flames of the local Sun, in order to commit suicide. Such mania is induced in them by special depression-causing methods that acts on anything electronic that thinks. Method, of course, overly cruel, however existence in Cosmos, and furthermore creation of Civilizations in it, is also not a picnic.

According to Gopfshtosser, these three stages are an ironclad laws of development of humanoid civilizations. Periodic table of the good Doctor still had some flaws regarding the non-humanoid civilizations, however that didn’t hurt me any – I, for obvious reasons, were interested in creatures similar to us. So, after creating by the Gopfshtosser’s schematics a “WC” (Wonder-Civlization) detector, I immediately headed towards the Giades abundance, as extremely powerful noise was emitted from there, many planets were surrounded by trash rings, and in addition a few stars were showing spots with unusual lines in the spectrum – silent evidence of mass murder of electronic mind.

Oh, and lastly, if you’ve read the Star Voyages, 14th voyage, and were wondering “What the heck are sepulcis?”, well, wonder no-more.

Co-incidentially, Alexandr P. Rasnitsyn, in late 1960s, chose to name a family of newly discovered jurassic winged creatures Sepulcidae. A pre-print of the work was by round-about ways sent to Stanislaw Lem, who replied with a surprised post-card, amazed (and probably honored) to find out what they look like (as told by Kirill Eskov).

A good place to start reading up on the order Sepulcidae is probably: Rasnitsyn A.P. 1993. New taxa of Sepulcidae. In: Mesozoic insects and ostracods from Asia. Trans. Paleontol. Inst., Russian Acad. Sci. 252, Nauka Press, Moscow., 80-99. (in Russian).

Fare well, Stanislaw Lem.