Norbert Wiener begins his autobiography with the words "I was a child prodigy." What I would have to say is "I was a monster." Possibly that's a slight exaggeration, but as a young boy I certainly terrorized those around me. I would agree only if my father stood on the table and opened and closed an umbrella, or I might allow myself to be fed only under the table. I don't actually remember these things; they are beginnings that lie beyond the boundary of memory. If I was a child prodigy, it could only have been in the eyes of doting aunts. (...) In my fourth year I learned to write, but had nothing of great importance to communicate by that means. The first letter I wrote to my father, from Skole, having gone there with my mother, was a terse account of how all by myself I defecated in a country outhouse that had a board with a hole. What I left out of my report was that in addition I threw into that hole all the keys of our host, who also was a physician...
From the autobiographical Highcastle
Stanislaw Lem was born in Lvov on September 12th 1921 to a family of a laryngologist. Since 1932 he attended the K. S. Szajnocha II State Grammar School in Lvov where he received a secondary school certificate in 1939. Between 1940 and 1941, after the occupation of Lvov by Soviet troops, Lem studied medicine at the Lvov Medical Institute:
I got there in an indirect way, since I first took the entrance exam at the polytechnic, which I thought was more interesting. I passed the exam but as a representative of the "wrong social class" (my father was a wealthy laryngologist, i.e. bourgeois) I was not accepted... My father made use of his connections and with the help of professor Parnas, a famous biochemist, I started studying medicine - albeit half-heartedly.
During the German occupation Lem worked as a mechanic helper and welder for a German firm that recycled raw materials. In 1944, when the Soviet army occupied the city for the second time, Lem resumed his medical studies. In 1946 Lvov was no longer on Polish soil and Lem as a "repatriate" moved to Krakow where he started studying medicine at the Jagiellonian University:
I could have earned quite well as a welder... On the one hand it seemed tempting, since in Krakow we had to start from scratch. On the other, however, the thought that I would abort my studies was very upsetting for my father. For some time I could not make up my mind and I eventually opted for medical studies.
Between 1948 and 1950 Lem worked as a junior research assistant at the Konserwatorium Naukoznawcze (The Circle for the Science of Science) lead by doctor Mieczyslaw Choynowski.
The acquaintance with Choynowski was a crucial event both for my personal life and intellectual development.
Stanislaw Lem received a certificate of completion of medical studies but refused to take the last exams in order to avoid a career of a military doctor.
The army took all of my friends - not for one year or two, but they were to stay in the army forever.
Lem's first novel The Man from Mars (Czlowiek z Marsa) was published in a weekly pulp fiction magazine Nowy Swiat Przygod. Lem's poems and short stories appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny, Zolniez Polski, Kuznica and other magazines. In 1948 Lem started writing his first novel Hospital of Transfiguration (Szpital Przemieniena) that was halted by the communist censorship and appeared only eight years later:
Every few weeks I had to take a night train and travel to Warsaw - I took the cheapest class since I was quite poor in those times - for endless discussions at the publishing house "Ksiazka i Wiedza". They tortured my Hospital of the Transfiguration, the number of critical reviews was continually growing and all of them proved the book's counterrevolutionary and decadent nature. I was told that this and that had to be redone... And since at the same time they gave me hope the book would eventually be published I kept on writing and revising... Because Hospital of the Transfiguration was considered improper from the "ideological point of view" I was obliged to write further episodes in order to achieve a "compositional balance"...
In 1951 Lem's first science-fiction book, the Astronauts, (Astronauci) was published.
In 1950 in the house of the Writers Union in Zakopane I met a certain fat gentleman and one day we went for a walk to the Czarny Staw. My companion was Jerzy Panski from the "Czytelnik" publishing house but I did not know it at that time. During our trip we talked about the absence of polish science fiction... Panski asked whether I was capable of writing such a book. I answered "yes" - not knowing who my companion was, thinking it was just an ordinary fat fellow who happened to be staying at the "Astoria", just as I was. After some time, to my great surprise, I received an author's agreement from "Czytelnik". Having no idea what the book will be about I filled in the blank space with the word "Astronauts"... and in a quite short time I wrote my first book that was soon published.
In 1953 Lem married Barbara Lesniak, a medical doctor (radiologist):
I met her around 1950 and after two or three years of siege she accepted my proposal. We did not have our own apartment at that time; I had a tiny room with mould on the walls and my wife, about to finish her medical studies, lived with her sister at the Sarego Street - so I became a commuting husband.
Science fiction books gained Stanislaw Lem a reputation of one of the greatest writers in the history of science fiction. One can distinguish two categories: Eden (1959), Return from the Stars (1961), Solaris (1961), The Invincible (1964), His Master's Voice (1968), Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1968) are serious novels written according to the classical pattern of the genre that Lem broadened and perfected. The second group: The Star Diaries (1957), Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961), Bajki robotów (Mortal Engines) (1964), The Cyberiad (1965), Wizja lokalna (1982), Peace on Earth (1987) consists of grotesque works that are seemingly humorous. Their style often resembles that of traditional literary forms such as fables, memoirs or philosophical tales:
In those politically uninteresting times... we used to ski in Zakopane for one month. I also traveled to Zakopane in June because of hay fever, for which there were no medications in those times. I stayed at a house of the Writers Union and worked most of the time. During one of such marathons I wrote Solaris. The same method was employed in the case of some other books. Apart from that nothing interesting was going on; my wife worked as a radiologist and I was an ordinary member of the Writers Union... I still remember my first trips to the East German Republic, with the delegation of Polish writers, and later trips to Prague and the Soviet Union - where they adored me.
Among Lem's essays Summa Technologiae occupies a central position, leaving behind cybernetic Dialogs, Fantastyka i Futurologia, Filolozofia Przypadku (an attempt at a "general theory of everything"). These other works are no less interesting, however Summa as a logical argument is "closed". It deals with problems that are even more important now than when the book was written - these issues are the most fascinating fulfillment of Lem's prognoses in the field of culture and technology.
Dialogs are partly "submerged" in an abstract of a philosophical dispute and current political topics; Fantastyka i Futurologia deals with problems of science fiction as a genre and its - usually dishonest - relationship with science. Filozofia Przypadku "erects a building of outlook" searching for structures common to biological evolution, history, culture, art, etc. In this respect Summa Technologiae is different: it is a summa and a "building", but in the sense of futuristic architecture. It presents daring hypotheses, shows the way, which -according to the author - human technological thought and culture will follow in the future.
At the beginning of the seventies two volumes of Lem's literary texts appeared dealing with "books that were never written" (A Perfect Vacuum and Imaginary Magnitude) that were later supplemented by Prowokacja (1984) and Biblioteka XXI wieku (1986):
On the "literary map" Lem's apocryphal texts are to be found somewhere between essay and fiction. These works are an attempt at trying out "various voices", different styles and points of view. Parodies of common literary patterns are blended with serious discussion regarding the nature of the universe, the future of science and human civilization. Lem chooses an apocryphal mask primarily because he perceives the culture as an enormous collection of texts through which one can sail - just as his legendary star travelers...
In 1973 in recognition of his achievements Stanislaw Lem was invited to join the Science Fiction Writers of America. However he was soon expelled from this organization because of critical remarks about low standards of American science fiction.
In 1982, after the martial law in Poland, Stanislaw Lem left his homeland to study in Berlin as a scholar of the Wissenschaftskolleg. A year later he moved to Vienna. Living abroad Lem wrote his two last books that belong to the genre "fiction": Peace on Earth and Fiasco. The writer returned to Poland in 1988.
In the nineties Lem mainly wrote futurological prognoses. He collaborated with the catholic weekly "Tygodnik Powszechy" (his feature articles "The World According to Lem" were published in a book Short Circuits), with the monthly "Odra" ("Sex Wars") and with the Polish edition of "PC Magazine" (these articles were published in two books: Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju and Bomba megabitowa; a joint edition was entitled Moloch). In 2000 Lem's Okamgnienie (The Wink of an Eye) was published.
Stanislaw Lem is a member of the Polish Writers Association and the Polish Pen-Club. Since 1972 Lem is a member of the committee "Poland 2000" under the auspices of the Polish Academy of Sciences; in 1994 he also became a member of the PAU (Polska Akademia Umiejetnosci).
The writer received several Polish and international awards for literature (Polish state prizes, Austrian State Prize for the European Culture), decorations (The Medal of the White Eagle) and honorary degrees (Warsaw Polytechnic, Opole University, University of Lvov, Jagiellonian University). Stanislaw Lem passed away on March 27th, 2006.