Stanislaw Lem


Ever read Polish science fiction? What about Polish science fiction written by an atheist, for whom arguing theology with Karol Wojtyla (better known as Pope John Paul II) was a favorite pastime? The author in question is our Atheist of the Week, Stanislaw Lem, born September 12, 1921 in Lwow, Poland. Of Jewish descent, Lem was raised as a Roman Catholic. He was a complete rascal, however, regardless of obligatory familial cultural traditions:

From His official webpage:

…as a young boy I certainly terrorized those around me. I would agree only if my father stood on the table and opened and closed an umbrella, or I might allow myself to be fed only under the table.

Like many of our featured non-theists, Lem reached his coming of age during the tumult of World War II. Despite his Jewish descent, he survived the Nazi Occupation with false documents. As a young adult, he studied the practice of medicine and took occupancy at a scientific institution as a research assistant.

Lem began his writing career in 1946 as a poet. In that same year, his first sci-fi novel, The Man from Mars, was serialized in the Polish magazine New World of Adventures. It is understood that he found sanctuary from Communist censorship in the genre of science fiction, wherein he combined the vast possibilities of space travel with his imagination to espouse philosophy that might otherwise offend the political orthodoxy. He has since embraced the genre as his own (whilst defaming mainstream sci-fi), and has met great success with awards o’ plenty, critical acclaim, and over 27 million books sold in 41 languages. All of this has given him legendary status as one of the sci-fi “greats”. But that’s all numbers! Why the legendary status, you ask?

His work has been described as hard science. Often dark, pessimistic about the limitations of human potency, and full of humorous satire, many threads of philosophy can be found weaving in and out of almost all of his work. He had a low opinion of American sci-fi, which he saw as juvenile and simplistic, catering to popular demand. I think that there may be modicum of wisdom to this opinion, mixed into a sea of conceit. Nevertheless, he sought to set himself apart from mainstream campy sci-fi literature by diving head first into the realm of psychological and philosophical questions that plague the human condition. Contextualized into plots of interstellar travel, first contact, and artificial intelligence, these questions become at least 10 times more interesting, if you’re a geek like me.

Interestingly enough, Lem is an atheist not for empirical reasons, but moral ones.


“for moral reasons I am an atheist — for moral reasons. I am of the opinion that you would recognize a creator by his creation, and the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created by anyone than to think that somebody created this intentionally”

That might seem to be a bit irrational. I think so. He was “raised with the scientific outlook”, but that does not mean he was exceptionally rational. In fact, he was a bit of a technophobe, criticizing television and the internet in an interview. However, maybe this makes his writing more interesting, as he was able to understand science well, yet give wisdom on it’s potential corruptibility.

Stanislaw Lem passed away on March 27, 2006, at 84 years old.

Comments (6 comments)

Liquid Egg Product / September 14th, 2007, 4:26 am / #1

Interesting–going to have to check out some of this guy’s work. It’s hard to blame him for a little technophobia: the implications of what humans can potentially (and currently) accomplish can be frightening.

If I were atheist, this is not the guy I’d want to have as the advocating the position. Belief based on personal preference is the worst kind of belief of all.

DotNetty Ramblings » Why Dont You Blog? / September 14th, 2007, 11:17 am / #2

[…] If I read a blog which talks about Stanislaw Lem (for example), this tells me more about how the author of the blog understands the person, what he has done and so on, rather than going to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and hoping he has an entry. I do not expect every single detail to be 100% factually accurate (although I am disappointed if I find mistakes – not that I have found any in the Black Sun Journal post I mention) and I do not for one second expect editorial commentary to be impartial. I have yet to find any editorial content which is actually impartial. […]

Bacopa / September 15th, 2007, 11:09 pm / #3

Lem is simply the greatest hard Sci-Fi writer ever. Fiasco and His Master’s Voice are my favorite works. And “Non Serviam” from A Perfect Vacuum explores the ethics of articifical inteligence and is the perfect antidote to Pascal’s wager by placung us fallible humans in the role of God with respect to our creations.

shady character / September 17th, 2007, 3:17 pm / #4

Hey thanks for the feedback!

Liquid Egg Product,

It’s not so much technophobia that bugs me. Fear can be healthy if it is channeled productively. My issue is that technophobes rarely, if ever, say, “OK, this technology scares the shit out of us, so let’s identify the risks and figure out a way to make it safe enough so that we can take advantage of the benefits and minimize the potential pitfalls!” Instead, they say, “OK this technology scares the shit out of us, let’s protest and write Joe Governmental Representative until we can cancel the research permits/governmental funding/etc.” It’s a very negative position, and a very uncreative one.

However, Lem’s position is likely more subtle than this. I’m not familiar with the nuances of his philosophy, having only researched the most salient aspects in order to write this short biography, but I plan on picking up his work in the future.

DotNetty Ramblings,

Based on the phrase “objective opinion”, it sounds like Steve Burnard is highly confused. I’ve never heard of a blog being “referenced as valid” by anybody other than bloggers and incompetent journalists. You don’t see peer-reviewed science journals referencing bloggers…ever.


Yeah, I need to pick up his books. “Non Serviam” sounds very interesting, indeed! Thanks! :)

Synthesist / September 18th, 2007, 4:50 am / #5

A great SF writer – true – unfortunatly I cannot read Polish and some of the translated versions of his works suffer.

And don’t forget Solaris – wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky (though I believe Lem wasn’t to keen on his interpretation !) – the american remake is so-so.

Bacopa / September 18th, 2007, 10:25 pm / #6

I don’t read Polish either except to understand that “CKpqr” in prefix notation is the same as (P&Q)>R infix notation. I find that Kandel’s transtations are the best.

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