Stanislaw Lem, 84; Polish Sci-Fi Author

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Stanislaw Lem, 84, a Polish-born writer of "reality based" science fiction who tweaked Communist authorities and became one of the world's best-selling authors with books such as "Solaris" and "The Futurological Congress," died March 27 at a hospital in Krakow, Poland. He had a heart ailment.

Mr. Lem disliked having the phrase "science fiction" applied to his body of work, which included dozens of books, plays, collections of essays and a memoir. "I've always believed in science, but I write about the real world," he said. "So I write about what is happening, only in my own way, in my own terms."

Although much admired in the United States, Mr. Lem was far more celebrated in Eastern Europe, where he was allowed a remarkable freedom of movement and expression in an otherwise repressive society.

As his books were translated into many languages and sales reached tens of millions of copies, Mr. Lem came to be regarded as a symbol of Polish pride. He had, by Eastern bloc standards, a luxurious life. This came, it was noted, with the understanding that he would not relinquish his citizenship.

Mr. Lem was born to a prominent laryngologist on Sept. 12, 1921, in Lviv, then a Polish city but now part of Ukraine. As a youth, he had periods of melancholy in which he submerged himself in the science fiction of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon.

During World War II, his secular Jewish family struggled to stay together and survive. The family forged identification papers to avoid internment in the Jewish ghetto.

He wrote in his memoir, "Highcastle" (1966), that "the difference between life and death depended upon . . . whether one went to visit a friend at one o'clock or twenty minutes later."

To help the resistance, he worked as a garage mechanic and "fixed" Nazi vehicles to break down.

After the war, Mr. Lem attended medical school in Krakow but refused to embrace the quack theories of Stalin's handpicked medical adviser, the agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. He began satirizing Lysenko in a science magazine and soon abandoned his medical studies.

In 1948, Mr. Lem completed a novel, "Hospital of the Transfiguration," set in an insane asylum during the World War II German occupation of Poland. Censors delayed publication until 1956, during a period of cultural liberalization.

Mr. Lem swiftly emerged as a literary force, and when the book was published in the United States decades later, science fiction editor George Zebrowski, writing in The Washington Post, called it a "nearly perfect book" with "cunning observations of life and people."

Mr. Lem saw in the language of science a perfect way to combat repression with allegory. His 1957 book "Dialogues" used cybernetics, the science of communication and control systems, to critique the political culture of his day.

"Why was I able to write this?" he later told The Post. "Because in that book there were no political terms. 'Party,' 'politburo' -- these words were not necessary for me. And the authorities are very afraid, mainly, of certain words."

"Solaris" (1961) was a novel about the paranoia that overcomes a scientific expedition sent to study a sprawling -- and living -- ocean on the planet Solaris. When the scientists cannot comprehend the sea, they attack it with radiation. The liquid body responds by recreating figures symbolizing great guilt for each scientist.

As with many of his books, "Solaris" showed a probing intellectual hero who explores eerie situations that have emotional and psychological repercussions. He was unsatisfied with Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film version, once saying, "Tarkovsky wanted to show that the cosmos is very nasty and unpleasant, whereas on Earth it is fine. But I wrote and thought quite the contrary."

He was also unimpressed with Steven Soderbergh's 2002 version that cast George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. He said the film should have been renamed "Love in Outer Space."

Mr. Lem spun out many more books, including "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub" (1961), an espionage tale of unimaginable bureaucratic labyrinths; and "The Futurological Congress" (1974), featuring a world run by "chemocrats" who pacify revolt through peace-inducing drugs. Though not every book met with unanimous approval, the overall constancy and quality of his output brought him important backers in the United States, including writers John Updike and Ursula K. Le Guin.

He was offered an honorary membership in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but he was soon expelled after denigrating many members for writing "pure fantasy."

Membership was not something he craved in any form, literary, scientific or political. He once spoke of members of the Solidarity movement, which fought the Communist regime in Poland, as "good-hearted and sincere but very naive and inexperienced and understood nothing at all of little or big politics."

Long settled in Krakow, he enjoyed giving the illusion of rudeness. His home bore a sign warning of "ferocious dogs," but the animals, one reporter noted, were "five friendly dachshunds."

Survivors include his wife, Barbara; and a son.

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