Мастер Lem: How Stanisław Lem’s Sci-Fi Conquered the USSR
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Stanisław Lem book covers from the USSR. Collage created by “Przekrój”.
Fiction

Мастер Lem: How Stanisław Lem’s Sci-Fi Conquered the USSR

Dariusz Kuźma
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time 10 minutes

He was translated by more than 80 different people in the Soviet Union, listed in Russian philosophical dictionaries, and Soviet boys were named Stanisław in his honour. Why exactly was Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem – the author of Solaris – so well-received in the USSR?

Master writer and acclaimed futurologist Stanisław Lem’s immense influence on Polish – and indeed global – science fiction is still felt today in how we discuss and contemplate the prospects of humankind. Maybe even more so than in the country’s troubled communist past, when his audacious visions served as an exciting glimpse into the multiverse of possible future normalities and, simultaneously, a heart-stopping reminder of what may await beyond our provincial Plato’s cave.

It is an oft neglected fact, though, that Lem’s legacy was also intricately interwoven with the Soviet Union’s futurist aspirations and dreams – beyond Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of Solaris. In this idiosyncratic Soviet world, Lem was read not only as a writer but foremost as a philosopher, whose name made its way into philosophy dictionaries (where it neighboured the entry for Lenin, something which Lem particularly hated) and whose ideas often gained a second, often quite surprising, sense (as with ‘solaristics’, which in the post-Stalinist Thaw era became a convenient term for Soviet bureaucracy).

Here to talk about the writer’s peculiar Russian presence is the eminent Lem scholar Victor Yaznevich.


Dariusz Kuźma: You have often labelled Lem’s presence in the cultural landscape of the Soviet Union a true phenomenon. How much of it was connected to the

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My Three Wishes
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“Dream in the Night”, Alphonse Osbert, 1895
Fiction

My Three Wishes

Stanisław Lem

A year ago, I was approached by the Munich-based publisher Matthes und Seitz with a request for an answer to the following question, which they had put to various well-known figures, mainly West Germans: how would I react to the news that aliens from outer space had landed on the planet Earth? I didn’t want to take part in their survey, so I wrote back explaining that I don’t believe such an event is at all possible, and I’d rather not make up my own reaction to an impossibility. The publisher included a photocopy of my letter in a book containing the responses to the question, which was very funny, considering that everyone else they had asked had provided an answer, and the only person to have refused was the writer who makes a living out of science fiction. So began my collaboration with this publisher, who in early spring this year came up with another survey. This time they included plenty of people from outside Germany too. We were asked to reveal our three most personal wishes, regardless whether or not they could possibly come true, and so we were in the position of a child with a fairy godmother. My answer was published in a book titled Inseln im Ich: Ein Buch der Wünsche (“Islands in Myself: A Book of Wishes”). It was sincere enough for me to publish it now, translated back into Polish (as I wrote the original version in German). I should add that this gave me my first taste of the problems that usually fall to the lot of my translators, because while they work themselves to death translating my Polish neologisms into foreign languages, this time I had to devise equivalents in Polish for the things I had made up in German.

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