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"These days no one ever reads anything. If they read, they don't understand. If they read and understand - they forget immediately."
—attributed to Lem in an interview
"[...] Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual, since he writes in several styles and sometimes reads foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not [...]"

Stanisław Lem (12 September 1921 – 27 March 2006) was a Polish novelist, most credited for his Science Fiction writings. His works range from philosophical books and analyses to "tall tales", to light and darkly comic satire; and he enjoyed subverting many common genre tropes. He is one of the most recognized and respected Polish writers, as well as one of the most prolific science-fiction writers; and was named a Knight of the Order of the White Eagle.

He loved word-plays, making up new words and divining the future of civilisation from them; it was one of the many ways in which he subjected plot to paradoxical associations rather than to the straight and narrowly reasonable prognoses. He was particularly fond of satirizing religion, technology, and human foibles; typically with a sharp and incisive wit. Later in his career, he grew increasingly critical of technology, particularly the Internet, which he considered little more than a gathering of idiots. Many of his works, both novels and short stories, feature the recurring character Ijon Tichy; an intelligent, accident-prone, adventurer who varies between being the Only Sane Man, and an Unreliable Narrator, occasionally veering into Parody Sue.

Lem had a low opinion of most of science fiction, and thought that the existence of the Sci Fi Ghetto was justified, not because the genre is inherently worthless, but because the authors haven't used the possibilities in it. The only contemporary author he considered worthwhile was Philip K. Dick; Dick did not return his respect, but considered Lem's attacks on American science fiction to be unjustified and insulting. At the same time, he also became a target of Dick's increasing paranoia.[1] Despite Lem's views, he was defended by Ursula LeGuin in his conflict with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

His works include:

  • The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1951)
  • Eden (1959)
  • Return From the Stars (Powrót z gwiazd, 1961; trans. 1980)
  • Solaris (1961)
  • The Invincible (Niezwyciężony, 1964)
  • Summa Technologiae (1964/67)
  • His Master's Voice (Głos Pana, 1968, trans. 1983)
  • The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1967; trans. by Michael Kandel 1974)
  • The Star Diaries and Memoirs of a Space Traveler (Dzienniki gwiazdowe, 1976/1982)
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie, 1973)
  • The Futurological Congress (Kongres futurologiczny, 1971)
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, 1971)
  • The Chain of Chance (Katar, 1975)
  • Golem XIV (1981)
  • Fiasco (Fiasko, 1986, trans. 1987)
  • Peace on Earth (Pokój na Ziemi, 1987; transl. 1994)

His work includes examples of:

  • A Worldwide Punomenon: Quite a lot in his less serious works. Especially The Star Diaries.
  • Altum Videtur: more frequently in his non-fictional works. Arguably, that was less a personal trait of Lem than it was common for the educated Poles as a whole. Due the immense influence the Catholic Church and its liturgical language, Latin, had in Polish culture and history, literary Polish itself became heavily latinized, and it shows.
    • He studied medicine in Lwów, although he did not finish the studies because he did not want to succumb to the party-mandated doctrine of Lysenkoism. The fact that medicine is the most prominent (if not only) field in which Latin is actually used, probably had its influence too.
  • Author Tract: Some of the Ijon Tichy stories arguably qualify; but it's usually subtle and well-written.
  • Batman Gambit: In The Star Diaries it's paired with a literal Paranoia Gambit. On an alien planet, an uber-computer creatively interprets its directives and turns most of the population into black disks. The survivors forbid him to kill any more people, thus he proposes that he will only do so with people who he is told to carry off. Guess what, in the next morning there a lot more disks...
  • Black Comedy: A large part of the Ijon Tichy stories is darkly humourous satire.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Exaggerated: Ijon Tichy once turned his rocket around and headed back several parsec because he had left his pocket knife in a spaceport cafeteria.[2]
  • Celibate Hero: Most of Lem's protagonists are solitary males who also show no interest in romance over the course of the story.
    • Subverted with Pirx. Sort of. Also averted in Solaris. The main protagonist's "guest" is his dead girlfriend. "Guests" of the others are implied to be their sexual fantasies.
    • In Return from the Stars, the astronaut protagonist returns to Earth after 120 years. While trying to find a partner (and succeeding, after a fashion), he ultimately stays isolated in a society that has changed too much to re-integrate him.
  • Cold Sleep, Cold Future: In Return from the Stars, astronauts who have completed a century-long interstellar exploration mission return to an Earth where violence and risk-taking is so foreign to the population that the returning astronauts are regarded as dangerous beasts.
  • Continuity Nod: In the first chapter of Fiasco, the protagonist goes on a mission to rescue the titular character of Tales of Pirx the Pilot.
  • Crapsack World
  • Crap Saccharine World: Return from the Stars. And The Futurological Congress even more so but it was all a dream.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: Wizja Lokalna (Observation on the Spot) is a veritable fest of complex and multilevel cultural jokes and comparisons. Craziest of which is the discussion of the mating rituals during his visit to some university -- both sides are thorougly baffled by the experience: locals by the closed and intimate nature of Earthlings reproduction (for them it's the most public thing possible), and Tichy by the outlandish theories they invent to give this behavior a logical explanation.
  • Creator Backlash: Against his first published novel The Astronauts and his even earlier short story "Man from Mars".
  • Deus Est Machina: Golem XIV in the book of the same name.
    • Golem XIV--despite expressing itself in human language--experiences a rarified world of pure intellect, so far above and beyond human concerns, it has become a Starfish Alien in every sense except the physical. One wonders the extent to which the almost painfully-rigorous Lem felt similarly alienated from his fellow human beings (and, therefore, was an ideal writer to depict what a Deus Est Machina might think about).
      • In the US, "Golem XIV" appears as a "story" in Lem's anthology Imaginary Magnitude; it takes the form of an article from an academic journal, albeit one eventually given over entirely to the title AI, reproducing its attempt to communicate with humanity. All of the book's contents are in peculiar formats with which Lem was experimenting: such as Fictional Documents, or prefaces which can only hint at the nature of the as-yet-unrealized media they purport to be introducing.
    • Also the Digital Engrammic Universal System (called the General Operational Device in the original) from Fiasco. One character notes that the acronym was probably intentional.
  • Dystopia: He portrayed many dystopian societies, and wrote about the impossibility of creating an Utopia.
  • Executive Meddling: And they were party executives! He was forced into creating two sequels of Hospital of the Transfiguration, because happy endings were mandatory at the time. A few paragraphs praising communism in The Astronauts also qualify.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Especially the twentieth and the twenty-first voyage of The Star Diaries.
  • Genius Loci: The eponymous planet in Solaris.
  • Genre Shift : In Fiasco the sci-fi story suddenly switches to some extracts of an adventure novel the main character is reading in the story.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Awruk!" is probably the most famous instance, which especially tends to be Lost in Translation. Also of political variety.
  • God Is Inept: At the end of Solaris, Kelvin theorizes about a god "whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror." Snow suggests that the ocean might be the first phase of such a god.
  • Hard on Soft Science
  • Human Aliens: Averted in most of his serious works. Played with a few times in The Star Diaries:
    • In the twenty-first voyage, Lem creates an alien species having the exact appearance of humans for speculating on the future of bioengineering; throughout the story, he even calls them humans "for convenience".
    • At the end of the twenty-fifth voyage a group of Starfish Aliens living on an extremely hot planet discuss a possibility of an intelligent species living in a lower temperature; the oldest one explains that the existence of such creatures is impossible, and any other sapient species must be exactly like them.
  • Humans Are Bastards: A recurring theme in his work.
    • "It's comforting to know, when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard."
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Robot Tales treats humans like this.
  • Humans Are Ugly: In The Cyberiad, robots see humans (whom they call "palefaces") as the most disgusting creatures in the universe.
  • Lost in Translation: Lem's love of puns and wordplay often make him a daunting task for a translator. For example his SF whodunnit Katar is translated into English as The Chain of Chance, but is often dubbed The Cold, from its Polish title. Unfortunately the Polish word "katar" does not mean "cold", it just means "runny nose": the hero didn't have a cold, but a hay fever ("katar sienny") -- which was an important plot point, but was lost on the translator.
  • Mechanical Evolution, Mechanical Lifeforms: The Invincible the most prominent example, though the latter trope is recurring in his work.
  • Minovsky Physics:
  • Mood Whiplash: The stories in The Star Diaries. Purely satirical stories are followed by completely serious ones, about hard themes like the creation of a truly independent mechanical intelligence, or the horror of having an immortal soul without a body. Justified in that it's a collection of short stories featuring the same main character, written over a period of about twenty years.
    • Also in Peace on Earth. Actually plot-advancing fragments are interchanged with Ijon Tichy describing his split-brain condition.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: He produced works on both ends of the scale. In his serious stories, he worked hard to be accurate, in his comedic ones, anything goes.
  • The Munchausen: The Star Diaries play with this trope, when it is repeatedly alluded to that certain "critics" of the book's narrator, Ijon Tichy, the great pioneer of space exploration, who knows the galaxy like the back of his hand, think that he is exactly that. And though Tichy repeatedly and indignantly rejects such insolent reproaches, it is sometimes lampshaded that he has not a bit of evidence for all his outrageously wacky adventures. (The later Ijon Tichy books however drop this aspect and everybody seems to take the factuality of his travelogues for granted.)
  • No-Paper Future: Played for Laughs in the introduction to Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Seems to be averted in most of his other works.
  • Old Shame: He said that The Astronauts (his first sci-fi novel) lacks any value.
  • Random Number God: A theme of many Lem's works, especially The Investigation and The Chain of Chance.
  • Real Trailer, Fake Movie: His book Imaginary Magnitude contains introductions to nonexistent books. Also A Perfect Vacuum that contains reviews of these. Among Lem's readers, they are collectively known as "apocrypha".
  • Recycled in Space: He wrote several short stories that are fairy tales IN SPACE! WITH ROBOTS!
  • Religious Robot: The Star Diaries has robot monks. They are aware that if they connected to a robot with all the facts on religion they would become atheists, so they choose not to connect to other robots out of religious principle.
  • Riddle for the Ages: In Solaris, why did the planet send the replicas of people? The main theme of the novel is that we can't find out, because humans can't comprehend a truly alien intelligence.
  • Ridiculously-Human Robots: In The Cyberiad, intentionally.
  • Scenery Porn: The description of the spaceport given in Tales of Pirx the Pilot.
  • Sex Is Cool: Deconstructed and parodied. For example, in the twentieth voyage of The Star Diaries, Ijon Tichy whines how ugly and misplaced human sexual organs are. It was his fault. Indirectly.
    • This theme was revisited in Observation On The Spot.
  • Sex Is Evil: One of Ijon Tichy's ancestors created a substance that made sex painful, so humanity wouldn't be controlled by carnal desires anymore. When he put it into the water supply of his city, he was lynched.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Fiasco. With a title like that, it's pretty much unavoidable.
    • The novel can be described as an in-depth exploration of the concept of "epic fail" -- so many completely avoidable and generally meaningless failures happen there.
  • Space Pirates: Ijon Tichy mentions that his grandfather made a committed attempt, but it didn't pay off.
  • Starfish Aliens: A recurring theme in his works is the portrayal of profoundly alien civilizations, and the impossibility of understanding them.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The HPLD civilization (meaning Highest Possible Level of Development) encountered by Klapaucius in The Cyberiad.
  • Time Travel: Ijon Tichy gets handed the Timey-Wimey Ball several times, the most amusing instance probably being the episode when Tichy, caught in a time loop, is banged on the head with a saucepan wielded by a future version of himself (then goes on to bang a saucepan on the head of a past version of himself). For a week.

Notes

  1. It stemmed from a series of publishings of foreign science-fiction in communist Poland, signatured by Lem - Dick received payment, but in Polish złotys, which he couldn't exchange to dollars. He was already super paranoid, so it added fuel to the fire.
  2. Turns out it was in his pocket all along.
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