Stanisław Lem, the owner of an extraordinarily inquisitive mind and sheer literary genius, is arguably the only Polish-language writer to gain true international popularity outside Slavic Literature academic circles. The simple fact is that Lem the Futurologist is the most-translated Polish author, with multiple works making their way into over 40 languages (and that translates into more than 30 million copies sold). For some time, he was the most widely read non-English-language sci-fi writer, and his fame as one of the masters of the genre remains. Even if his novels mainly attracted the hard-core fantasy geek crowd, film adaptations of his works had a wider reach - ever heard of Tarkovsky's classic 1972 film Solaris, awarded at Cannes and hailed as one of the best sci-fi films ever made, or the 2002 Clooney-fied Hollywood version of the same? The novel behind the movies is considered Lem's most important work, a philosophical examination of a human faced with something truly incomprehensible and alien - an intelligent ocean that is unlike anything ever written about in sci-fi (unfortunately the author thought both films fell short of conveying the essence of his story). Lem also dabbled in literary criticism and analysis, denouncing American sci-fi as shallow and cheaply sensationalist, though he praised the work of Philip K. Dick, who, in turn, wrote a letter to the FBI questioning Lem's existence, speculating he was merely a communist provocation. Some of the “evidence” to back that claim was that Lem wrote in too varied a fashion, churning out both grotesque, effortlessly hilarious, enlightening short stories and full-length philosophical tales. If you're one for necro-sightseeing, swing by the Salwator Cemetery, where you'll find the writer's tombstone just north-northwest of the square chapel; come back in the summer season to dip into the world of scientific discovery at the Lem Garden of Experiments.
What to Read:
If you’re into classics, by all means go for Solaris; however, if you want to truly get hooked, start off with The Star Diaries, the irresistibly funny and delightfully clever adventures of space traveller Ijon Tichy. These “sci-fi tall tales” include time loops, intergalactic conferences, and extraterrestrial civilizations that show humanity in a warped mirror.