One of the great Science Fiction writers has died. Having survived both World War Two and a communist regime known for its sense of humor Polish S.F writer, philosopher, punster, satirist, and atheist, Stanislaw Lem passed away on March 27th, aged 84, after suffering from a long illness. Lem's two dozen or so books were translated into 41 languages and sold 27 million copies, making him one of the most widely read non-English language science fiction writers.
Lem wore many other hats in his long career: mechanic, welder, WW 2 Resistance fighter, research assistant and so on. He was a polymath, and the same can be said for the astonishingly broad range of his fiction, essays and poems. Simply listing the sub-genres explored in his Science Fiction alone reads like an A-Z of library categories. Lem was a writers' writer who could turn his hand from reviewing imaginary novels to crafting whimsical but bitingly ironic cybernetic fairy tales and speculating about the difficulties of communicating with sentient oceans.
Speaking of which, his most famous but perhaps not his most mature Science Fiction novel, Solaris, published in 1961, was twice adapted into motion pictures. The 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky version is much acclaimed, though not necessarily by Lem himself, and frequently appears in critics' all-time top S.F film lists. Steven Soderbergh's 2002 Hollywood adaptation is markedly more accessible than the famously leisurely paced Tarkovsky film but at the high cost of abandoning most of the subtitles of the story, making it a wan reflection of Lem's original novel, though I still salute the Soderbergh's courage, if nothing else, for tackling such a thankless task in the first place. A hard pitch if ever there was one. Other Lem stories have also less famously been adapted for the screen.
Nevertheless, carried on the backs of the films, it's Solaris that you're most likely to find in bookstores in English language translation, followed by The Cyberiad and perhaps Fiasco. Although Lem's themes and concepts remain remarkably relevant, sometimes specific technologies do date in his work, though sometimes not as much as you might think. I recall being struck by the helicopter exploration (Ouch!) of planet Solaris in the novel, when I re-read it recently, because it seemed rather amusingly state of the art.
On the subject of art, Lem's work has inspired many filmmakers, artists, scientists and writers, as well as one or two composers. Synthesizer artist Isao Tomita's wonderfully textured composition "The Sea Named Solaris" showed up on Carl Sagan's Cosmos Television series and is available on Isao's own album Kosmos. Esa-Pekka Salonen adapted some Lem texts for his 1982 composition, Floof.
The bulk of Lem's works remain a largely untouched for the majority of English speaking Science Fiction fans. It would be marvelous if new translations were to be forthcoming, and I for one would love to see a new bumper omnibus of his collected stories. A fitting tribute to an influential Science Fiction writer whose quantity and quality of work warrants placing him alongside grandmasters like Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Verne and Wells.
Obituary from ZERO-G AUSTRALIAN RADIO by Rob Jan