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Bewildering Stories

Slawomir Rapala writes about...

Stanislaw Lem and
Polish Science Fiction

[Ed. note] As our Interview in the Second Quarterly Review says, Bewildering Stories takes great pride in its tradition of being a kind of literary United Nations. In this column, veteran contributor Slawomir Rapala gives us a native speaker’s first-hand appreciation of Stanislaw Lem as well as a valuable list of other current writers in Polish science fiction.

In Lem’s Star Diaries, Iljon Tichy meets many different cultures and civilizations from a vast variety of planets and galaxies. He encounters different social groups and hierarchies, machines and apparatuses created by various alien civilizations, etc.

Lem often gives his machines long and obscure names (for instance, Intergalactic Spatial Redistributor — I made that one up, but you get the idea). In the original Polish, the first letters often stand for something funny if not vulgar (for example, A.S.S.). I’ve had a good laugh at many of them. I imagine that such plays on words are difficult or impossible to translate into English.

I agree with Don about Lem’s short fiction being his best work. I remember reading a collection titled The Mask (I’m not sure if it has ever been translated). The short story of the same title moved me quite a bit; it wasn’t a typical Lem story, I don’t think. Basically, it was written from the point of view of a machine assassin, created on a king’s orders to destroy his enemy. The reader reads through the machine’s birth and coming of being, then its metamorphosis, falling in love, being torn between love and hate, fate and destiny, facing temptation and finally redemption. For a short story about a machine, Lem managed to inject into it so many profoundly human themes that it really left me mesmerized.

Given the volume of Lem’s work and the fact that I have read only a fraction of it, I’m not sure I’d be doing him justice by picking one story over another. I think his short fiction is the best, but for example, Return from the Stars was very moving as well, much darker than the comical Star Diaries. Some critics accused this particular novel of losing much of its appeal with the introduction of a love story, but I disagree.

Solaris is a classic love story — which may explain why it is so widely popular, given its universal theme — while in the Return from the Stars the love story is secondary. To me, Return from the Stars is primarily a look into the future from the point of view of an outsider, an examination of both the social trends and the feeling of disconnectedness that many are faced with today. It is caused by, among other things, migration; think of refugees and other displaced persons.

I’m presently reading Lem’s Dialogues, a momentous book which is basically a conversation between two philosophers. They discuss cybernetics, metaphysics, etc. while also touching on different aspects of our social existence. A mere glance at that book will assure anyone that some of Lem’s work indeed transcends time and language, because it deals with universal aspects of human existence.

As for other Polish science fiction, I have before recommended Jacek Dukaj who is an up and coming writer, already labeled by many as the next Lem. Although his work is very different from Lem’s — it is more complex and multilayered — it still manages to achieve great philosophical depth.

Dukaj writes a lot of different things, from cyberpunk to alternate history — one of his books is even based in a world where different laws of physics apply. I think he has a degree in physics, which makes him sometimes difficult to read, but he nevertheless manages to be very captivating.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that any of Dukaj’s work has been translated yet, at least not to my knowledge. However, I’m sure it will be shortly, because he’s topping the charts and grabbing all the awards in Poland. Look for novels Black Oceans and Other Songs; the short stories “Cathedral”, “The General’s Move”, “Iaacte”, “Irrehaare,” and many more. He’s already built a huge bibliography and a cult following – I’m one of his biggest fans and can’t wait to get my hands on his newest creations.

Dukaj achieves an understanding of the order of the world and social existence through the marriage of physics and philosophy which, albeit often difficult to grasp, makes the reader unable to put his books away.

A few years ago, a short animated movie Cathedral, which was based on Dukaj’s story, was nominated for an Oscar. A six-minute flick, but it is stunning.

Other Polish writers of science fiction and fantasy worthy of note: Janusz Zajdel, Olga Tokarczuk, Marek Oramus, Jaroslaw Grzedowicz, Cezary Domarus... Again, however, I have no idea if any of their stories or novels have ever been translated.

Slawomir Rapala

Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala

Thank you very much, Slawomir! Personally, I’ve always been intrigued not only by Lem’s short stories but also by his essays, as in Microworlds, Imaginary Magnitude, and One Human Minute.

The names of the authors you cite are very difficult for English-speaking readers, but I’m willing to bet that once we learned the rules we’d discover that Polish spelling is much more regular that that of English!

Let spelling not stand in our way. Bewildering Stories invites our readers to a cooperative venture. The names and titles Slawomir has given us deserve to be researched in case some have been translated. If anyone can send us a pertinent bibliography — however long or short — we’ll be glad to publish it. You can use this link or “Please share your ideas with us,” below.


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