The Case for Stanislaw Lem, One of Science Fiction’s Unsung Giants

“Since his death in 2006, the work of Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem has slowly slid from view. While his impact upon on American audiences was always softened by the Iron Curtain — he was was in peak form during the ’60s and ’70s — and an often tortured translation process, Lem was at one point ‘the most widely read science fiction writer in the world,’ at least according to Theodore Sturgeon, an eminent writer of SF’s so-called Golden Age. Lem was acknowledged, especially by fellow authors, as an especially important figure in the genre, but of late he seems to be primarily remembered as the author of the novel Solaris, the base material for the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky and the 2002 version by Steven Soderbergh. This is a poor fate for an author who, for the latter half of the 20th century, skipped nimbly between SF sub-genres, with occasional excursions outside SF. While his sphere of influence was massive — he sold 45 million books worldwide — Lem’s refusal to settle into some comfortable little niche is distinctly unusual in a contemporary marketplace which today sections writers into increasingly sub-sub-genres. Lem was simultaneously a moralist, stylist, and semi-professional scientist (a teenage inventor who trained as a physician). He managed to write hard science fiction that engaged with contemporary developments in science, medicine, and philosophy without ever condescending to his audience or engaging in specialist-speak (unless he was satirizing it). Fortunately, the MIT Press has seen fit to help rejuvenate Lem’s oeuvre — they recently republished six of his key books, and, in the process, made the case for a Lemian resurgence — just in time for his 2021 centenary. The Cold War, which raged for the majority of Lem’s career, is vital context for his work. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction puts it well: ‘In between the two leviathans, Lem…fused a bright, humanistic hope with a bitter, historical warning.’ The 29 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the various crises since have distanced us from that Lem’s context — two superpowers vying for supremacy, using propaganda, visions of utopia, and spectacular exercises of state power. Post-war American SF served as the official genre of apology for the space race, the military industrial complex, and the race toward mutually assured destruction. As such, the genre presented the wide universe as a canvas for spectacular exploits and raw material for our economy. Lem’s Poland was unable to share in the glories of state-sponsored space exploration, and therefore unable to be held (directly) accountable for SF’s use as neo-colonial propaganda. …”
The MIT Press
View of Lem on Earth, just in time: A review of Stanisław Lem
LARB: The World According to Stanisław Lem

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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