2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Polish science fiction author Stanisław Lem, and ahead of that centennial, MIT Press has reissued a series of some of his lesser-known work, including stories about first contact, machine intelligence, and even a look at his own early life.
Born in September 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), Lem and his family survived the Soviet and Nazi invasions and occupations of the late ’30s and ’40s, with Lem studying medicine and at times working as a mechanic and welder. After the end of the Second World War, his family was resettled in Kraków, where he resumed his education at Jagiellonian University and began writing science fiction. He published his first novel, The Astronauts, in 1951 (he had apparently completed drafts of other books by this time, but this was the first novel to make it past the censors to publication). The death of Joseph Stalin in early 1953 led to a lifting of some of the more oppressive practices and censorship policies, allowing him to publish more freely in the years to come.
Lem’s best-known novel came in 1961: Solaris, a story about a research expedition to a distant planet with an uncanny intelligence. The novel has been adapted three times over the years: a Soviet television version was produced in 1968, while Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s film version was released it in 1972. The latest adaptation came in 2002, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
But Lem’s body of work extends far beyond better-known works like Solaris, and MIT Press’s acquisition editor Susan Buckley explained that she was “frustrated with the quality of the available print editions.” When she contacted Lem’s estate, she discovered that they had regained the publishing rights for six of his works, and had been publishing them under their own imprint, Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek.
Buckley explains that MIT Press was able to license those six titles: Highcastle: A Remembrance, Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy, Hospital of the Transfiguration, The Invincible, His Master’s Voice, and Return from the Stars.
Those six novels, Buckley says, represent a cross-section of Lem’s writing, one that she hopes will introduce readers to his larger body of work. The books themselves cover a broad selection of topics and themes:
• As the title suggests, Highcastle: A Remembrance is one of Lem’s nonfiction offerings. Originally published in 1966, the memoir is about his time in Lvov prior to the Second World War and provides a bit of insight into his childhood and how he became interested in reading, science, and in writing science fiction, all while he muses on the nature of memory and how it relates to life. “Memory, which is not a receptacle altogether independent of me,” he writes in the prologue, “altogether inanimate, the soul’s storeroom with innumerable recesses and cubbyholes, but on the other hand neither is memory I.”
Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy is a collection of Lem’s shorter works, originally published in 1971, and is part of a much larger body of work about a character named Ijon Tichy, published from the 1950s through the 1990s. This short volume only contains a handful of those works, but they follow the character as he travels through time, encounters strange intelligent machines, and meets scientists obsessed with solving some of humanity’s deepest desires: “immortality, artificial intelligence, and top-of-the-line consumer items.”
Hospital of the Transfiguration is one of Lem’s non-genre novels, but is instead story about a doctor named Stefan Trzyniecki who works at a psychiatric hospital during the Second World War. While the hospital provides something of a refuge from the war raging outside, Trzyniecki is dragged into the conflict as he befriends a patient hiding from Nazi forces, and as resistance fighters camp out in the woods nearby. The book is the first of a trilogy from Lem, although it’s the only one translated into English thus far. The novel was also adapted into a film in 1979.
The Invincible is one of Lem’s science fiction novels. Published in 1964, it follows a starship called Invincible, which has been dispatched to a seemingly-uninhabited planed called Regis III to track down the fate of its sister ship, the Condor. Upon landing, the crew discovers that the planet isn’t uninhabited: it’s home to a civilization of self-replicating machines, the survivors of an alien civilization that crash-landed on the world millennia ago. Lem uses the book to explore the nature of sentience and the limits of our knowledge and understanding of the universe.
First published in 1968, His Master’s Voice is another of Lem’s science fiction novels, a take on how first contact with extraterrestrials might go. Peter Hogarth, a scientist attempting to decode a message or signal from outer space, works through the complicated nature of understanding an alien intelligence, and through his story Lem touches on everything from the ethics of military research to human bias and the limitations of our intelligence. It was adapted as a film in 2018 in Hungary.
Finally, Lem’s 1961 novel Return from the Stars follows an astronaut named Hal Bregg, who has taken part in a mission to Fomalhaut, a star in the Piscis Austrinus constellation. For Bregg, the mission lasted a decade, but because of time dilation, 127 years have passed on Earth, and when he returns home, he discovers that the home he once knew has drastically changed. He finds himself faced with a utopia where humans have undergone a process to remove violent and aggressive impulses, but at the cost of their urge to explore and desire to take risks.
Buckley expresses the hope that the series will introduce Lem to an entirely new generation of readers who might not have encountered him, praising Lem’s novels as “really unlike any of the SF work written in in the 20th Century,” and noting that “he constructed his own idiosyncratic approach—engaged in a critical way with scientific and philosophical ideas, and with an absolutely wicked sense of humor.”
While these first six books are now available in plenty of time for the centennial of Lem’s birth, Buckley explains that these initial entries in MIT Press’s Lem series won’t be the last: they’ve recently licensed seven other books that have never been translated into English.
Andrew Liptak is a writer and historian from Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cosplay: A History (Saga Press, 2021), and his work has appeared in Clarkesworld, io9, Lightspeed, Polygon, Tor.com, The Verge, and other publications.