Born 1921 in L'vov (part of Poland then, now part of Ukraine) as son of a doctor and former k.u.k. officer. He had a lightheartedly childhood and started early to reflect upon the Creator and hierarchies in general, which is explained in his autobiographical novel Wysoki zamek (1965; ger. Das Hohe Schloß, 1974). He studied medicine from 1939 to 1941 in L'vov, worked as auto body repariman for a short time and continued his study 1946-48 in Kraków, (engl. Cracow, thx Gritchka). However, he worked as medical doctor only for very short time. He was employed at the conservatory of Naukonawcze as assistant. He wrote reviews of scientific books and articles for magazines (mainly for Zycie Nauki) but he wrote lyrics as well. His first published work in the genre of science fiction was the short story Czlowiek z Marsa (ger. Der Marsmensch) which was written during the war and has been published 1946 in Nowy Swiat Przygód (ger. Neue Welt des Abenteuers).

In 1948-50 he wrote the trilogy Czas nieutracony (ger. Die Irrungen des Dr. Stefan T., 1959). However, he dissociated himself from the second and third part and he allowed only the first one (ger. Hospital der Verklärung) to be reprinted. His first SF-novel was published 1951, Astronauci (ger. Planet des Todes, 1954, later Die Astronauten, 1974). From then on, Lem stayed loyal to the genre of SF, even if he attacked it himself in the essay Fantastyka i Futurologia (ger. Phantastik und Futurologie, 1st Part 1977, 2nd Part 1980).

Apart from his work on the field of SF, where his books have been sold more than 10 million times and translated into more than 30 languages, Lem wrote philosophical and socially critical essays. Summa technologiae (1964) is an unusual piece of fiction which doesn't bother to predict exact evolution, but attemts to test the power of the human mind.

Lem was member of the polish cybernetic society (he discussed in Dialogi (1957) the aftermath of cybernetics in an inventive way) and a founding member of the society for astronautics. However, he quitted his membership in both already.

Lem's start on the genre of SF consisted of pretty simple, adventurous creations. Later he started to write in a much more philosophical way. He sometimes tried to apply elements from the tale of the humoresque or grotesque. Lem often succeeds in mixing humor and seriousness in a playful and sometimes even paradoxical way.

Coincidence, communication with foreign worlds and creatures, the limits of understanding, the simulation of new worlds, the evolution of civilization, and troubles of creation are the subjects of lems works, and he often handles them in a pretty ironic way.

Lem was honored in Poland with the Grand State Award For Literature 1976 and 1985 with the Austrian State Award For European Literature. He is considered the most original and most profound author of the genre of SF, and he has a prominence only H.G. Wells shares.

Ed. note: Stanislaw Lem died on March 27, 2006 at the age of 84.

Important works:

The above is an english translated (from German) part from an essay of mine: Science Fiction - principles and evolution. (The prefix "ger." refers to the german title of the mentioned original)
Since I'm no native english speaker nor trained translator, please excuse my clumsy grammar. Critics about typos/grammar/style are not frowned upon, but warmly welcome.
Science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 in Lvov, Poland. His father was a doctor, and it was expected that Lem would follow in his footsteps. He studied medicine at the Lvov Medical Institute until 1941, when the institute closed because of the war, at which time he became a welder and mechanic for a German corporation.

Though he was of Jewish ancestry, he was luckily never arrested by the Nazis, and managed to steal supplies for the Polish resistance. After the war, moved to Cracow in 1946,where he studied medicine for two more years but declined a Diploma as he would have then been automatically conscripted into the Polish army.

While working as a research assistant at Jagellonian University he began writing fiction. He has since entirely disavowed these early novels as they conformed to the social realist standards of the Soviet censor, in other words fairly straightforward fantasies of utopian socialist progress through technological advancement; quite dissimilar from his later more satirical work.

In the late 1950s, censorship of fiction was relaxed somewhat in Poland, and it is in this period that Lem began writing some of his more interesting work. Generally light-hearted and often silly fantasies of absurd places around the universe, his short stories had a definite undercurrent of social satire, and have been compared to the work of Jonathan Swift and Voltaire.

1961’s Solaris is probably Lem’s best-known novel. It was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film by Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Like much of Lem’s more interesting work, it is a mixture of hyperbolic science-fiction fantasy and very dark psychodrama. It is likely that the novel and the film influenced Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, with a similar atmosphere of interstellar confinement and psychological claustrophobia.

Lem’s fiction in the 1970s departed from science fiction per se and into even more experimental realms.

In The Futurological Congress (1971), his somewhat parodic space adventurer Ijon Tichy explores worlds-within-worlds by taking psychedelic drugs, eventually reaching a possible future “pharmocracy” where nearly every sensation is simulated by specially-designed hallucinogenic drugs specific to each purpose. Here Lem combines extremely imaginative scenarios with his dark sense of humour and endless pharmaceutical word-play (offering quite a challenge to translation; though I don’t read Polish, it does seem that his translators have always done quite an incredible job.)

Also published in 1971, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is a Kafka-esque allegory of an intelligence agent who is condemned to wander the interior of a huge and labyrinthine government building trying to discover what his mission is. “The Building,” as it’s called, is a place where everything seems to be a dissimulation of some order. All communication is encoded, with no certainty what code is being used, alliances are apparently constantly shifting and unclear. It is an interesting story in that, essentially, it is the hero’s job to discover what the story is to be, and this task seems nearly impossible. This is one of Lem’s most farcical novels, and also one of his darkest.

Lem’s literary experiments continued with such ventures as Imaginary Magnitudes, which consisted of prefaces to books that have not yet been written, and A Perfect Vacuum, a Borges-like collection of reviews of imaginary books.

Lem’s place in the science-fiction community, as such, has always been somewhat peculiar to say the least. Though he is probably the best-selling science fiction author world-wide, he doesn’t seem to have much respect for the genre, and has written numerous essays about the ludicrousness of writing science fiction. While much of his writing is solidly within the genre, he consistently mocks it at the same time, for instance in one of the voyages of Ijon Tichy the central problem he must solve is how to fix his spaceship’s rudder.

In 1973, The Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Lem an honourary membership, which they soon revoked after his publication of an essay entitled “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans” in which he lambasted science fiction as being boring and derivative; exempting Phil Dick from his condemnation because of his more imaginative exploration of psychology and the nature of reality, things Lem saw as worthier of literary effort than much of the genre’s pursuit of more escapist fantasy or “gee-whiz” invention for its own sake.

Ed note:Lem died on March 27, 2006 at the age of 84.

The above represents a somewhat incomplete history of Lem’s life and work, but I have covered what I feel are the most important periods both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of its importance to later writers.

Bibliography of works translated into English:
(in the order of original publication; details on translation and English publication follow)

1957: Hospital of the Transfiguration
San Diego: Harcourt, 1988 (trans. William Brand).

1957: The Star Diaries
New York: Avon, 1977 (trans. Michael Kandel).

Memoirs of a Space Traveler
San Diego: Harcourt, 1983 (trans. Joel Stern and Maria Swiçicka-Ziemianek).

1959: Eden
San Diego: Harcourt, 1989 (trans. Marc E. Heine).

1959: The Investigation
New York: Avon, 1976 (trans. Adele Milch).

1961: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
New York: Avon, 1976 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1961: Return From the Stars
New York: Avon, 1982 (trans. Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson).

1961: Solaris
New York: Berkley, 1971 (trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox).

1964: The Invincible
Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1976 (trans. Wendayne Ackerman).

1964: Mortal Engines
New York: Avon, 1982 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1965: The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age
New York: Avon, 1976 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1966: Highcastle: A Remembrance
San Diego: Harcourt, 1995 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1959-68: Tales of Pirx the Pilot
New York: Avon, 1981 (trans. Louis Iribarne).

1968: His Master's Voice
San Diego: Harcourt, 1983 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1971: The Futurological Congress
New York: Avon, 1976 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1971: A Perfect Vacuum
San Diego: Harcourt, 1983 (trans. Michael Kandel).

1973: Imaginary Magnitude
San Diego: Harcourt, 1985 (trans. Marc E. Heine).

1976: The Chain of Chance
San Diego: Harcourt, 1984 (trans. Louis Iribarne).

1981: Golem XIV (published in English as part of Imaginary Magnitude)

1965-83: More Tales of Pirx the Pilot
San Diego: Harcourt, 1983 (trans. Louis Iribarne, Magdalena Majcherczyk, and Michael Kandel).

Collection of essays: Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy
San Diego: Harcourt, 1984 (ed. Franz Rottensteiner).

1984-6: One Human Minute
San Diego: Harcourt, 1986 (trans. Catherine S. Leach).

1987: Peace on Earth
San Diego: Harcourt, 1994 (trans. Michael Kandel with Elinor Ford).

1987: Fiasco
San Diego: Harcourt, 1988 (trans. Michael Kandel).

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