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  • Stanisław Lem:Against Illusion by Rachel Cordasco
  • Rachel Cordasco (bio)
Lem, Stanisław. Hospital of the Transfiguration. Translated by William Brand. MIT Press, 2020. 232 pp. $17.95.
Lem, Stanisław. The Invincible. Translated by Bill Johnston. MIT Press, 2020. 240 pp. $17.95.
Lem, Stanisław. His Master's Voice. Translated by Michael Kandel. MIT Press, 2020. 280 pp. $17.95.
Lem, Stanisław. Highcastle: A Remembrance. Translated by Michael Kandel. MIT Press, 2020. 152 pp. $17.95.
Lem, Stanisław. Return From the Stars. Translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. MIT Press, 2020. 312 pp. $17.95.
Lem, Stanisław. Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. Translated by Joel Stern, Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. MIT Press, 2020. 200 pp. $17.95.

Stanisław Lem's nimble, brilliant mind has carried us across space and time, and into the heart of the most complex questions of physics and the nature of human consciousness. As a Jew, Lem managed to avoid the Nazi death camps through a combination of cunning and luck; as a scientist, he delved into everything from astronomy and robotics to evolution and physics; as a writer, he showed us that science fiction, at its core, isn't really about the adrenaline rush of space travel or contact with alien species but about our own biases, assumptions, desires, and deepest beliefs. A harsh critic of the Anglo-American science fiction of his day (though he praised Philip K. Dick, once calling him "a visionary among the charlatans" [Lem, "Philip K. Dick"]), Lem used his own science fiction to highlight the very human tendency to think only in terms of humanity itself. As one character argues in Lem's most celebrated book in English, Solaris, [End Page 92]

…we don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos… We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man…We are searching for an ideal image of our own world.… At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves.


Nonetheless, Lem is rarely preachy or pedantic. Rather, he weaves stories that bring human beings face-to-face with the unknowable and unimaginable while reminding us of the impossibility of ever truly understanding those phenomena.

Thanks to MIT Press, Anglophone readers can now enjoy six classic Lem texts in a new way. While all have been available in English for some years, these current editions come with bold, striking covers by Przemek Debowski and introductions by acclaimed authors and astronomers. Previously, if readers wanted to have Lem on their shelves, they needed to comb through the shelves of used bookstores (an enjoyable activity, nonetheless) or search online for old copies printed by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich or Seabury. By reissuing these texts with their original direct Polish-to-English translations and eye-catching covers, MIT Press is introducing a new generation to these stories of alien contact, human brutality, and mechanical evolution.

While Lem started publishing science fiction in the 1950s, by the 1960s he had fully embraced the genre in order to slip his books past Soviet censors. Two of the newly-reissued books from MIT, however, offer us Lem as a "realist" and an autobiographer—Hospital of the Transfiguration (1955, tr. 1982/8) and Highcastle: A Remembrance (1966, tr. 1995), respectively. Hospital is the story of a young physician, who travels to his hometown for a relative's funeral and winds up staying years to work in a psychiatric hospital. (If you think that sounds like the beginning of Thomas Mann's masterpiece The Magic Mountain, you're correct.) Set in Poland during World War II, it features the violence and brutality of the occupying German forces when they close in on this seemingly-safe refuge for the mentally ill. Before that happens, though, the young doctor first encounters a brilliant poet who claims he's using the hospital to hide from the Nazis [End Page 93] and then meets...