Lem at Amazon

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The 1960s and 1970s were the era of one writer. Lem set the boundaries of the genre; Lem defined the genre; all young writers reflected Lem and competed with Lem. How could one author so completely dominate an entire literary category? It’s simple: he was quite simply a genius, with a mind that could fully display its powers precisely within the domain of science fiction.

First of all, he was very accomplished in the literary sense: he was able to tell stories, to build tension, to fascinate readers through narrative, suspense, and surprising denouements. Examples of this classical form are the Tales of Pirx the Pilot, or the novels Eden and The Invincible. These are good, hard science fiction, including space travel, contact with alien beings, and dangers brought by future technologies. Lem was equally capable of building other moods and atmospheres, for instance, terror (The Investigation) and romance (Return from the Stars).

Second, Lem had a magnificent command of language. He was able to describe both dynamic action and extraordinary cosmic landscapes (a masterly description of the march of a mecha across the icy wastes of Titan in Fiasco). But he also played with words, transforming them, writing absurd cyber fairy tales and rhymes (The Cyberiad), and ranging through various linguistic conventions (science and technology, myth and poetry, colloquial language).

Third, Lem was comprehensively educated. He grasped the achievements of contemporary science, from cosmology, through medicine and cybernetics, to philosophy. This erudition is apparent in the background setting of his works, but it also constitutes the basis of Lem’s analytical and futurological reflections concerning the development of civilization, the progress of technology, and social changes.

All of these elements led to him becoming the most frequently translated Polish prose writer, published and analyzed in the USSR, the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, and also, thanks to the translations of Michael Kandel, in the USA. It is interesting that Lem himself did not particularly wish to be counted within the circle of science fiction writers, expressing increasingly negative opinions about it. He was particularly critical of Anglo-Saxon speculative fiction, accusing it of infantilism and of satisfying the tastes of a teenage audience at best. By degrees, he also gave up prose writing, deeming that he no longer had the time or desire to create stories and to think up the various twists and turns for his heroes. His last novels from the end of the 1980s (Fiasco, Peace on Earth, Observation on the Spot) are already lectures masquerading as fiction. The writer’s killing off of Pirxthe hero of a cycle of stories from the 1960s, which a whole generation of science fiction devotees in Poland had grown up withwas perhaps symbolic.

translation by Stanley Bill published by "Words without Borders": read more...