Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Stanisław Lem

Go To
"According to Lem's Law, "No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn't understand; if he understands, he immediately forgets".
One Human Minute

"[...] 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. In 1996, he was named a Knight of the Order of the White Eagle (Poland's highest decoration).

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 switches between 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, and 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.note  Despite Lem's views, he was defended by Ursula K. Le Guin in his conflict with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

His works include:

  • The Astronauts (Astronauci, 1951)
  • The Star Diaries and Memoirs of a Space Traveler (Dzienniki gwiazdowe, 1957, expanded 1971; trans. in English 1976 and 1982)
  • Eden (1959; trans. 1989)
  • Return from the Stars (Powrót z gwiazd, 1961; trans. 1980)
  • Solaris (1961; trans. 1970)
  • The Invincible (Niezwyciężony, 1964; trans. 1973)
  • Fables for Robots (Bajki Robotów, 1964; the American translation is called Mortal Engines [1977])
  • Summa Technologiae (1964, second ed. 1967; trans. 2013)
  • His Master's Voice (Głos Pana, 1968; trans. 1983)
  • The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1967; trans. 1974)
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie, 1968; trans. 1979 and 1982)
  • A Perfect Vacuum (Doskonała próżnia, 1971)
  • The Futurological Congress (Kongres futurologiczny, 1971; trans. 1974)
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie, 1971; trans. 1973)
  • The Chain of Chance (Katar, 1975)
  • Golem XIV (1981; trans. 1985)
  • Fiasco (Fiasko, 1986; trans. 1987)
  • Peace on Earth (Pokój na Ziemi, 1987; trans. 1994)

His work includes examples of:

  • Author Tract: Some of the Ijon Tichy stories arguably qualify, but it's usually subtle and well-written.
  • Black Comedy: The entire point, really of the Ijon Tichy stories is darkly humourous satire. Whenever Lem is being funny, it's either wonderfully absurd or black comedy. Or both. And it gets very black. One summer vacation, he was helping his nephew improve his ortography by the tried-and-true method of "dyktando" (dictation) exercises that Lem improvised on the spot. The nephew later published the contents of his exercise book as Dictations, or Rather How Uncle Staszek Taught Then Michaś, Now Michał, to Write Without Errors. Those contents are full of Black Comedy Cannibalism, among other things.
  • Celibate Hero: Most of Lem's protagonists are solitary males who show no interest in romance over the course of the story.
    • Averted in Solaris, where the protagonist is not technically married, but encounters a copy of his fiancee (or possibly wife, it's unclear) who died ten years prior, and, after some hesitation, takes up the relationship.
    • 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.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Chain of Chance is not the only Lem's story that hinges on a wildly improbable piling up of innocuous circumstances that, acting together, result in mysterious deaths. Pirx has solved enough of these puzzles to call himself a Weirdness Magnet in a Lampshade Hanging of yet another.
  • Crapsack World: Often. Lem was not an optimist.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Return from the Stars. The world the protagonist ends up in is colourful and, above all, safe, to the point of treatments everyone receives that make people risk-averse and nonviolent. And he is an astronaut, for whom risk had been the reason of his existence. 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 feast 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 thoroughly 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.
  • Cybernetic Mythical Beast: In the "Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon" from Bajki Robotów (Fables for Robots a.k.a. Mortal Engines; 1964), set on the planet of Cyberia, the faulty transmission of a royal order causes a computer which is tasked to build synthetic enemies for the wargames of the king of Cyberia to construct a hostile elektrosmok ("electro-dragon") on Cyberia's moon. The electro-dragon, which grows uncontrollably by devouring the moon piecemeal and transforming it into its own body, soon threatens Cyberia and lays claim to the throne, but is defeated in time when it is persuaded to "to subtract itself from itself".
  • Description Porn: Lavish, picturesque descriptions of Moon and Mars surface abound.
  • 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.
  • Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion. In the short story "Invasion from Aldebaran" (Inwazja z Aldebarana, 1959), two Starfish Aliens from Aldebaran scouting for planets to conquer for their galactic empire land on Earth, at a random spot which turns out to be in rural Poland. Although the Aldebarans are technologically highly advanced and command an arsenal of sophisticated bioengineered devices, their attempt to reconnoitre the nearby village is impeded by the poor state of the local roads. Before they have reached the town, they meet their doom by getting into a brawl with a late-night drunkard who clobbers them to death in a drunken stupor, mistaking them for someone else. Unfortunate to them, their bioengineered weapon system is disabled by the man's alcoholic breath, as alcohol is apparently poison to all organisms from Aldebaran.
  • First Contact: Possibilities of contact and communication between profoundly alien beings was a theme Lem explored often - be it the living planetary ocean in Solaris, Microbot Swarm in The Invincible or strange and incomprehensible societies in Eden and Fiasco.
  • Genius Loci: The eponymous planet in Solaris. Probably.
  • 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.
  • Gratuitous Latin:
    • 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.
  • Hard on Soft Science
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Mortal Engines sometimes treats humans like this. Other times the robots just consider them mythical beasts.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: A recurring theme. Rafał Ziemkiewicz attributes this (as well as Lem's atheism and dislike of the optimistic science fiction by people whose families got to America before World War II) to terrible Survivor Guilt - Lem got through the Holocaust, quite possibly by hair's breath, and he never wanted to speak or write about his early life, even the life before the war - he did write Wysoki Zamek ("High Castle", a district of Lwów where Lem grew up), a memoir of his childhood, but it's nebulous, the people in the book have no names, like ghosts. In any case, there's a lot of simple disgust with humanity in his books.
    • "It's comforting to know, when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard."
  • Lost in Translation: Lem's love of puns and wordplay often makes him a daunting task for a translator. For example, his SF whodunnit Katar is translated into English as The Chain of Chance, but often dubbed The Cold, from its Polish title. Except the Polish word "katar" actually means "runny nose" and is just used for mild colds metonimically (as in Definitely Just a Cold): what the hero had was hay fever ("katar sienny") — which was an important plot point, but was lost on the translator. The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines are regarded as particularly difficult to translate, since they are written in an idiosyncratic style that relies on the Polish rules of word coinage to create archaic-sounding neologisms.
  • Mechanical Evolution, Mechanical Lifeforms: The Invincible the most prominent example, though the latter trope is recurring in his work.
  • Microbot Swarm: The spontaneously evolved population of microautomata destroying all land-based life in The Invincible.
  • Mood Whiplash: A characteristic of the Ijon Tichy books, for example The Star Diaries and especially Memoirs of a Space Traveller. See also in Peace on Earth: Actually plot-advancing fragments are interchanged with Ijon Tichy describing his split-brain condition.
  • No-Paper Future: Played for Laughs in the introduction to Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Seems to be averted otherwise (protagonists read books a lot), although in Return from the Stars books have been replaced by Data Crystals and television rules the place, which may be for the Cold Sleep, Cold Future effect.
  • Pun: Quite a lot in the less serious works. Especially The Star Diaries.
  • 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: Bajki Robotów are fairy tales IN SPACE! WITH ROBOTS!
  • Riddle for the Ages: In Solaris, why did the planet send the visitors (copies of people from the protagonists' pasts)? Was it an effort to study humans, as the humans study Solaris? Why these memories specifically? (There are suggestions the copies come from emotionally loaded, guilt-laden memories, but why?) And who was Gibarian's visitor? (We do see her, but Kelvin, who has known Gibarian for years, has no idea who she was.) The main theme of the novel is the incomprehensibility of a truly alien intelligence and impossibility of real, meaningful interaction with it.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Often.
    • Tales of Pirx the Pilot have one that gets destroyed while Scaling the Summit it doesn't need to climb, but the mountain is there, a mining robot that goes mad in a disturbingly human way, and the robot on board of Coriolanus that holds the personalities of the dead crewmembers in its memory, whom you can talk to and they reply.
    • In The Cyberiad, everyone is a robot! And you can very well forget about it while reading. Lampshaded by the existence of "palefaces", weird, unrobotic monsters also known as humans.
    • The Star Diaries are full of robots that act exactly like humans, in one case actually humans who think they're hiding among robots, but the robots turn out to be humans, too.
    • In Return from the Stars the protagonist visits a robotic-operated factory and hears people crying, moaning and calling for help. Horrified, he goes to them and learns they're malfunctioning robots.
  • Scenery Porn: Quite often. Lem could go on for pages about strange, alien, beautiful planetary landscapes.
  • 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.
    • And in The Sexplosion (from A Perfect Vacuum, the sex drive (after roboporn took it up to eleven) is accidentally wiped out, but since nature abhors a vacuum (sorry), the end result is literal Food Porn.
  • Simulated Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic Reality: In The Futurological Congress, the hallucinated Earth of the future is an overpopulated frozen wasteland, so the people are kept under crazy amounts of hallucinogens and believe themselves to be in a beautiful utopian world. George Simington, who is revealed to be the mastermind behind it, tries to convince Ijon Tichy that keeping people in a sweet delusion is an act of "the last Good Samaritans", only for Tichy to counter that if Simington really thought so, he would have fed Tichy a pill or two of belief-inducing hallucinogen and Tichy would have become his biggest fan instantly.
  • Starfish Aliens: A recurring theme in his works is the portrayal of profoundly alien civilizations, and the impossibility of understanding them.
  • Take That!: Half of A Perfect Vacuum. Lem wasn't a fan of modern literature, and his reviews of fictive books make that clear. Especially James Joyce gets outpunned to hell and back.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Ijon Tichy experiences this in The Futurological Congress after he and his colleagues are dosed with powerful hallucinogenic drugs by a terrorist group.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The Chain of Chance.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Lem's writings contain many motifs that would be instantly recognizable by a SF enthusiast nowadays (First Contact and The Singularity are just two examples), and he usually discussed them thoroughly years before they became popularized, in ways that go wildly against later-established conventions.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The author was. Science and philosophy fill his writings.