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Stanislaw Lem Tribute Week

While the recently deceased Harlan Ellison may be considered the most curmudgeonly science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) is a close runner up. Lem was a prolific Polish science fiction author and the most read scifi author of his time. He was read by everybody but Americans because there weren’t any translations. That was OK with him because he thought American science fiction was crap and loudly (and frequently) declaimed it, despite being given an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (the Nebula awards organization). Ironically the only American Lem thought was any good at writing was Philip K. Dick, who reported Lem to the FBI that he was part of a communist plot.

You might have been introduced to Lem without knowing it. If you saw Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris with George Clooney, that was based on Lem’s book. Of course, Solaris a bit unrepresentative of Lem’s work. One difference is that Soderberg changed the ending (Lem was Polish, happy endings only happen in Hollywood). The second was the Lem was a hard science fiction writer, so in the book Solaris amid the emotional exploration of love and loss there is at least some 20 or more pages of exposition on how the planet could manipulate neutrinos. (I didn’t keep count because after 20 pages of his physics lecture, I skipped to where the moody action resumed.)

In terms of robots, Lem is best remembered in the US for his fractured fairy tales, which appear in two collections of short stories: The Cyberiad and Fables for Robots. The two books are not hard robot scifi but intended to be amusing faux fairy tales. They are great reading for younger teens, both for the crazy plots and the satirical take on moralizing folk stories. But these trifles are not really representative of Lem’s hard science writing that rivaled Arthur C. Clarke. For a taste of that, check out Peace on Earth, his 1987 novel about a possible robot uprising on the Moon, which is reviewed here.

- Robin

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