Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006) “skillfully dissected the 20th century’s foolhardy efforts to create utopias by stifling individuality and economic freedoms.” So said cultural critic Bruce Edward Walker. Lem was best known internationally as author of the classic Solaris — twice adapted for the silver screen — but the majority of his fiction featured damning allegories against the suppression of the human spirit.
Lem ranks high in the Polish pantheon of independent thinkers and dissidents, any list of which would be long and distinguished. Poland’s role in the historic unraveling of the Soviet empire was pivotal by any measure. And while world leaders from Pope John Paul II to Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher played a part, the audacity of the homegrown resistance is a story that is still underemphasized to this day.
What Lem did with a wrench to German vehicles, he later did with pen and ink to the communist state.
In November 1986, I spent nearly two weeks in Poland with the anticommunist underground. This was five years after the Warsaw government declared martial law and threw many pro-freedom activists in jail. It was still many months before the big changes of 1989 that would liberate Eastern Europe from the communist yoke. One night during my visit, I met in a private home with a half-dozen underground printers. They were eager to impress me with examples of many great pro-freedom books they had illegally translated, printed, and distributed throughout the country.
I asked, “Where did you get the paper to publish all this stuff?”
“From two places,” replied a young man named Pavel. “One, we smuggle it in from the West. Two, we steal it from communists.”
When I asked him to explain the second source, he revealed that many of the workers in the communist government’s publishing houses were sympathetic to the resistance. When those workers saw the opportunity, they smuggled the paper out or even printed resistance literature on the government’s own printing presses.
The impressive stack of illegally printed books those printers showed me included works by great scholars of liberty from the West — Freeman writers F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray N. Rothbard, to name just three. I later raised $5,000 for the underground to translate, publish, and distribute Milton Friedman’s classic Free to Choose, a copy of which I proudly display today in a glass case in my study. But there were books, essays, and ideas by native Poles that the underground took risks to disseminate as well. Stanislaw Lem was one of them.
Born in 1921, Lem survived both Nazi occupation and Soviet rule in the town of his birth, which was known alternately as Lwów in free Poland, Lvov in the Soviet Union, and Lviv in modern Ukraine. His father was a doctor, and Lem was poised to follow in his footsteps until Hitler’s invasion in 1939. He was forced to work as a mechanic but became a crack saboteur: “I learnt to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn’t be discovered,” he said.
Lem resumed his medical studies following the war, eventually finishing his degree in Cracow in 1946. He intended to pursue a career in theoretical biology, but abandoned his plans rather than adhere to the since-discredited practices of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko. He turned to writing, only to have his first novel, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, banned by communist censors for nearly a decade.
By 1951, Lem realized that his only hope of publishing was to mask his views as allegorical works of science fiction. State apparatchiks in charge of expunging subversive works from the public square were too stupid to appreciate his subtlety, but Polish intellectuals and many ordinary readers knew full well what the underlying message was. What Lem did with a wrench to German vehicles, he later did with pen and ink to the communist state.
Lem realized that his only hope of publishing was to mask his views as allegorical works of science fiction.
Lem used his considerable intellect (he reportedly had an IQ of 180) and writing skills to parody Soviet and Polish leaders and subtly convey the torments of communist life. He is seen as in the same mold as satirical fantasists Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka. In the estimation of many who took great risks to criticize the Soviet and allied Eastern European regimes, his work sits comfortably alongside such anti-totalitarian classics as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
Lem’s writings have been translated into at least 40 languages, have sold nearly 30 million copies, and span a wide range from screenplays, short stories, and mystery novels to more serious matters of philosophy, cybernetics, and the nature of intelligence itself.
The Astronauts, published in 1951, was followed by Time Not Lost, a fictionalized account of Nazi occupation of Poland. Return from the Stars, published in 1961, presented a world devoid of “the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything now is lukewarm.” This bland reality, noted reviewer Marilyn Jurich, “reduces the possibility of individuals accepting personal risks,” resulting in “a monotone, denatured safe world at the cost of direct experience in a nature that is open, unknown, risky; a world where wild animals have disappeared along with human emotion and initiative. Individuals have few means left to test physical capacity or mental endurance.”
The short story “The Thirteenth Voyage,” in the collection The Star Diaries, depicts the totalitarian urge at its most invasive. In that story, the Angelicans, a group of social engineers, determine that all human foibles can be solved by collectivization, producing a nightmarish, stagnant conformity. Having lived through collectivism of both the national socialist and communist varieties, Lem knew his subject well.
Lem published his last collection of fiction in 1988, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union. He told interviewer Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. in 1985,
"The literature of the 20th century has lost its battle, or at least finds itself in retreat.… The tales of refugees from totalitarian countries reduce themselves to an exhaustive catalogue of social and psychological suffering that such systems treat their citizens to. These books cannot pick their readers up, and the lessons they teach are not pleasant. One could say that the job of literature is not primarily to entertain, move, and cheer us up, but as [Joseph] Conrad said, to ‘bring the visible world to justice.’ Well, in order to bring this world to justice, it is first necessary to understand it with one’s intellect, to appreciate the wealth of its diversity."
Another Polish dissident, Stefan Kisielewski, was once jailed for an eloquent three-word sentence: “Socialism is stupidism.”
As a rule, dictators understand the power of ideas better than most people, which is why they often make it illegal to simply harbor a certain thought or give that thought expression in ink on paper.
Thankfully, courageous men and women like Stanislaw Lem found creative ways around evil regimes — a key reason those very regimes now exist, with a few exceptions, only in the history books.