Stanislaw Lem was born on September 12, 1921 in Lwow, Poland. He was Jewish, but he and his parents were able to survive the Nazi occupation during World War II by using falsified documents. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, but later would turn from this faith and declare himself to be agnostic. Lem was quoted as saying, “for moral reasons … the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created … intentionally.” He worked as a science research assistant during his college years and it was during this time that he began writing his stories. Later, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, he worked as a mechanic and welder, becoming active in the resistance. When the Polish territory Kresy became part of Soviet Ukraine, he and his family moved to Krakow. His father, a doctor, wanted him to study medicine at Jagiellonian University and Lem enrolled but he intentionally failed his finals to avoid being forced to become a military physician.
Lem began writing poetry, stories, and essays while working as a research assistant. The Man from Mars, his first science fiction novel, was released as a series in a Ukraine magazine called New World of Adventures. During the Stalin regime, when works had to be approved by the government before publication, he had to include in his books content that put socialism and communism in a good light. When the de-Stalinization period in the Soviet Union started the “Polish October”, Poland celebrated a rise in political free speech. Free of the shackles of having to bow to the promotion of communism in his writing by the Soviets, Lem wrote 17 books from 1956 to 1968. It was during this time that he met and married Barbara Leśniak, a radiologist, in 1953. Their son, Tomasz, was born in 1968.
One of the novels during this busy writing period was his highly popular novel Solaris. In the book, Lem presents the recurring theme of how futile it is for humans to understand things that are extremely alien. Solaris has had three screen adaptations: a two-part Russian TV film in 1968, a full-length Russian film in 1972, and a 2002 Hollywood film.
Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed. – Stanislaw Lem
The planet Solaris is covered by a vast ocean that is possibly a giant, sentient organism. Scientists, referred to as Solarists, have been studying the planet and its ocean for decades. They have been recording and elaborately classifying the complex phenomena that happen on the ocean’s surface but they do not really understand what those activities mean. The psychologist Kris Kelvin travels from Earth to the Solaris Station, a research station hovering near the planet’s surface, and meets Snow and Sartorius, two of the scientists there. He finds the station in chaos and the scientists near madness. Another scientist, Kelvin’s acquaintance named Gibarian, has killed himself just hours before.
The crew has aggressively bombarded the ocean with high-energy X-rays as part of an unauthorized experiment shortly before Kelvin’s arrival. The ocean has responded by creating exact copies of people from the scientists’ most painful memories. These mysterious human-like beings with superhuman abilities are in the ship and are psychologically tormenting the researchers. The visitors and the real humans differ from each other sub-atomically – the visitors’ bodies are made of stabilized neutrinos that give the visitors great strength and regeneration capabilities.
My interest in the author began when I saw the 2002 movie Solaris, staring George Clooney. It intrigued me and I went on to read the novel and look at other works by Stanislaw Lem. He has a literary style to his writing that conveys deeper ideas than many science fiction novels do today. If you haven’t checked out work by this classic science fiction author before, Solaris would be a good one to sample first.