July Author Spotlight: The Visionary Philosophies of Stanisław Lem
Updated: Aug 29
Keep reading to learn more about our July BOTM's author, his personal history, and his literary career.
Image ID: An older man wearing glasses and a collared shirt looks into the camera with a slight smirk on his face on a blue and yellow swirling aquatic background.
Staisław Lem is a complex character to describe– when researching this author spotlight, I was struck by the number of directions I could follow when describing his influence on the literary canon of science fiction and Western literature as a whole. With multitudes of novels that touch on the societal implications of technological development, communication with alien consciousnesses, and philosophical musings, Lem’s body of work is cosmically expansive.
Much like the plots of his novels, Lem’s well-known personal history and literary career are widely interesting, with entire college courses dedicated to him and his enigmatic oeuvre. In contemporary scholarship focusing on Lem’s life and career, many scholars have drawn out the influence of his Jewish heritage and experiences during the 1940s in Soviet and German-occupied Poland as they reveal themselves in many of the themes, scenes, and characters which populate his works. The legend of Lem persists in the popularity of his novels across the globe, translated into over 50 languages through 45 million copies sold across the globe– and in some instances, this popularity is tied to the intertwining of Soviet propaganda, a phenomenon often which reveals itself in the art and literature in periods of political oppression. Although I can’t squeeze an entire semester’s worth of examination and analysis into this one article, I can certainly illuminate your path as you journey through our July Book of the Month, Solaris!
Lem's Biographical Background
This figure above is the one and only Stanisław Lem. Born in Lwòw, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1921, Lem quickly found his life’s path interrupted by the beginnings of WWII. In 1939, Poland became occupied by both Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1940, Lem began his academic career in the medical field, studying to become a doctor in the footsteps of his father. The arrival of the Third Reich made the venture impossible– during the war, he was forced to postpone his studies to work as a mechanic’s assistant, a job which provided both technological know-how and protection from the Third Reich’s oppression of Poland’s Jewish population. Lem’s family avoided placement in the Lwów Ghetto by falsely identifying themselves as Aryan. Although Lem was raised in a Jewish family, burying his heritage became necessary for his and his family’s survival. Both the Jewish and Polish populations in Poland tangibly suffered at the hands of the Third Reich– millions of Jewish lives were lost in concentration camps and in mass killings across Poland, and suffered vast atrocities at the hands of the Nazi Regime. Non-Jewish Poles living in Lwów were also subject to transportation to labor camps, and Polish intellectual, religious, and political elites were executed. The Soviet occupation overlapped with the German occupation of Poland twofold– the Red Army controlling eastern Poland, and the Germans controlling the west.
Eventually, Lem and his family settled in Krakow, where he would begin his literary career with 1946’s The Man from Mars in a Polish periodical. His early career is marked by a certain focus on realism, particularly in 1948’s Hospital of the Transfiguration, which faced trouble getting published in the wake of Stalinist censorship. Many of the themes consistent through Lem’s writings involve human relationships and communication in the wake of technological development. Lem understood that shifting the way our world works shifts the way we interact in it– this dynamic is well represented throughout the history of technological development and the internet.
Lem's Science Fiction Double Feature: Communication and Technological Advancement
Lem’s experiences during the war greatly influenced his literary career, as they changed the way he viewed and understood the world. In his autobiographical descriptions, Lem rarely discussed his Jewish heritage and wartime experiences. However, in contemporary scholarship focusing on Lem’s life and career, many scholars have drawn out the influence of witnessing such atrocities as they reveal themselves in many of his works. As he says through the character of Snow in Solaris,
“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”
This quote provides us with a kind of methodology for understanding and analyzing Lem’s works. When read allegorically, the meanings behind many of Lem’s stories change and morph, and themes reveal themselves to be much deeper than expected (for a more in-depth explanation of exactly how Lem writes allegorical fiction, including a breakdown of the specific literary techniques he uses, check this article out!). Lem’s science fiction plots' philosophical elements are revealed once the layer of scientific satire is peeled back. Lem’s layered meaning was intentional, and more necessary than a mere stylistic choice. The political oppression of Stalinism following WWII affected Lem’s ability to openly write and publish his works, leading to his turn to science fiction. Science fiction provided Lem with a lens through which he could examine and explore the ethics of technology and its impacts on our daily, human realities while simultaneously developing and exploring his philosophies.
Our Book of the Month, 1961’s Solaris, focuses on communication– the novel’s largest conflict, the one which spurs all others as his plot winds and thickens, involves the communication between the Ocean and humans. The events of Solaris prove exactly how miscommunication with those we consider “other” unfolds– technology also consistently mediates the communication between the Ocean and humans, allowing Lem to question what’s lost in translation, even questioning the nature of translation itself. Magnified through Kelvin’s dreamy, dreary traipse through the hallways of the research station where he’s met with the shadows of his memory’s past, Lem’s literary style emphasizes the effects technological advancement has on humankind. Academic scholarship has changed its tune when considering Lem’s message in Solaris’s madness– Lem purposefully constructed the novel with no specific meaning. Anthony Enns suggests that this tactic draws attention to the nature of communication rather than its meaning, striking upon one of Lem’s most consistent literary themes and focuses in his science-fiction literature.
From Fiction to Philosophy
As his career progressed, his works continued to turn more philosophical than fictional. 1964’s Summa Technologiae was the first of this kind, featuring the philosophical underpinnings of A.I. technology which is currently changing our daily relationship to technology and each other, earning him the title of “futurist” alongside philosopher and novelist. His satirical visions of the utopian, technologically driven society such as the one featured in 1971’s The Futurological Congress evoke a kind of modern-day deja vu. The Futurological Congress and Lem’s other futurist works interrogate the ways society has changed due to technological advancement, in which modern-day utopias and dystopias present themselves as the extremes of technology’s integration into our daily lives and routines. From our viewpoint today, it appears that Lem’s writings are uncannily ahead of their time. Lem predicted and theorized virtual reality and many other advancements we’ve developed in modern times, such as the Internet, personal tablets, and technological singularity.