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An Interview With Stanislaw Lern / Peter Engel Researched and conducted in collaboration with John Sigda. Since he began writing science fiction almost forty years ago, Stanislaw Lern has been taking on man, the mind, and the universe, often courageously, always alone. In that time he has churned out novels, plays, short stories, screenplays, pieces of literary criticism, sociological essays and volumes on the science of cybernetics and the philosophy of chance. During World War II, as a Polish medical student, he watched his comrades pass their exams and become lifelong army surgeons. He refused to give the false answers required by Soviet biology and failed his exams, sacrificing a career in medicine. Following the war he joined other writers in championing socialism, but because he tried to advance the cause using arguments taken from cybernetics, a field banned as a "false capitalist science," much of his writing waited years to be published. By the time he achieved a critical and popular following as a Utopian writer he had become disenchanted with socialism, and the awards he received were for political beliefs left behind years before. But the prizes kept coming: the Cracow City Literary Award, the Officer's Cross for the Polish Renaissance, the Award of the Ministry of Culture, and the Great State Award for Literature, the highest literary prize in Poland. He rarely bothered to show up for the ceremonies, asking instead that the awards be shipped to his home in Cracow, where he tossed them in a cupboard and went back to writing. In supporting his ideals, Lern has often made himself a target. During World War II he abetted the Resistance movement and barely escaped several execution attempts by the Nazis. Today, he belongs neither to the trade union Solidarity nor to the Communist Party nor to the Catholic Church. In a country that is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent political, Lern may occupy the last small square of neutral ground. His skepticism of the search for extra-terrestrial life, the "advances" of modern medicine, the big bang theory, the inherent value of space exploration, and the achievements of artificial intelligence research has hardly endeared him to the community of scientists. In his own words he is like Kipling's cat, independent and alone. Although discovered only recently by the English-speaking world, Lern has long been regarded in Europe as a leading contemporary philosopher of science. He has published 11 million books, a total of over 35 titles in almost as many languages—including not only the 218 · The Missouri Review European tongues but also Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Estonian, Ukranian, Moldavian, Lithuanian, Hebrew. There may be pirated editions in other Soviet dialects, but since the Russians rarely send Lern author's copies, he wouldn't know. It hardly matters. Even without those figures, he remains the best-selling and most prestigious author in Poland as well as the most-translated author in the socialist world. In Western Europe his books fill both the libraries of the intelligentsia and the revolving book racks in supermarkets and train stations, a position among science-fiction writers perhaps last achieved by H.G. Wells. His popularity in the United States has been slower to take root, but by now his critical success is secure. For example, Newsweek has called Lern "the best science-fiction writer working today in any language," and The New York Times has deemed him "worthy of a Nobel Prize." All this recognition has not quite made him an establishment figure. The Science Fiction Writers of America once made him an honorary member, but he responded with a series of critical articles on the mediocrity of American science-fiction writers, calling them, among other things, "charlatans," and was promptly expelled. Despite his prodigious output and his acclaim, Lern has remained a literary force at a distance. He eschews interviews, and has given only three or four in his life; until now, none has appeared in English. Protected by the Iron Curtain and by a succession of narrative veils (only his fiction has been translated into English), Lern has never had to confront the American reader eye-to-eye. While we know he is a philosopher...


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