Philip K. Dick: Stanisław Lem is a Communist Committee
In September 1974, the FBI received a letter. The accusations in the letter were shocking – it told of a communist conspiracy aimed at the hearts and minds of America through propaganda in the subtle guise of science fiction. Major science-fiction publishers and organisations had been infiltrated, and their agents, notable figures in the genre, were abroad in the West. The orchestrator of it all was a communist committee, acting under the name... Stanisław Lem.
The unveiler of such an insidious subterfuge was none other than Philip K. Dick, the legendary science-fiction writer. According to his letter, fellow science-fiction great Stanisław Lem, didn't even exist, except for as a figurehead for the purposes of disseminating propaganda. He was “probably a composite committee rather than an individual.” Dick's evidence for this denouncement was that “[Lem] writes in several styles and sometimes reads foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not.” And the conspiracy spread further still: “The Party operates (a U..S.] publishing house which does a great deal of Party-controlled science fiction.”
In addition to Lem, Dick named three other sci-fi figures associated with him as in on the plot – Peter Fitting, Fredric Jameson and Franz Rottensteiner (also Lem's literary agent in the West). The committee behind the Lem nom de guerre had the intention of gaining “monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas.” And they were were succeeding: he wrote of the “evident penetration of the crucial publications of our professional organization SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA”.
At the time, Dick and Lem were both already successes in science fiction. The Man in the High Castle had earned a Hugo award, and the rest of his prolific output had garnered him high praise in science-fiction circles. To the FBI, perhaps, Dick may well have been well-placed to catch a communist invasion of science-fiction. It was surely a sinister notion – literature was one thing which passed the Iron Curtain westwards with ease, so communist ideology subverting the readers of science fiction, including a large number of impressionable youth, would have been a sinister plot.
Now, of course, we are entirely certain that Lem was just a single person. But regardless, did Dick have any reason to be worried? Had Dick really penetrated an actual communist conspiracy, and did he have any real justification for seeing Lem (or, at least, the composite figure he represented) as such a menace?
In reality, Lem wasn't even a member of the communist party. He actively avoided association with it and even spoke out against it. Not that he wasn't courted by the communists – the Central Committee and the secretary of the interior of the PRL, Franciszek Szlachcic, had tried to convert Lem to the cause in the early 70s, asking him to support Edward Gierek's cabinet, but Lem abstained. Later in the 70s, he started taking on a more active against the authorities, signing protests against changes in the constitutional provisions regarding leadership of the Communist Party and "friendship with the Soviet Union". His writings for the Parisian emigre magazine Kultura included negative pieces on the PRL.
Whilst (despite Dick's best efforts) Lem may or may not have been a person of interest to the FBI, he certainly was one to the PRL's security services. By 1978, his correspondence with foreign publishers and literary agents was being interfered with so severely that he wrote to the Department of Culture of the Central Committee protesting. This harassment, and the onset of martial law in 1981, cemented Lem's desire to flee Poland.
But passports were not easily obtainable in the PRL. In 1982, Lem received one and went for a year-long scholarship at the Institute for Advanced Study in West Berlin, but he was unable to take his family with him. His return to Poland was due to fact that critical speech against the communist system could result in him being unable to return, or his family to join him. Finally, after the end of martial law in 1983, Lem received an invitation from the Austrian Writers Society to come to Vienna. This time, his wife Barbara and son Tomasz were able to accompany him first to West Germany, and then on to Austria, where they stayed until 1988.
Evidently, Dick's allegations were unfounded. Lem surely existed, and his communist connections were non-existent. He was even active against the PRL's government, and had been ill-treated by those in power. If Dick's shadowy cabal of conspirators infiltrating science fiction existed, Lem was certainly not it's originator. So why, then, was Dick such an ardent believer in his guilt?
In 1973, Lem became an honorary member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a gesture of “international goodwill” on the association's part. However, in 1976, 70 percent of the SFWA's voted in favour of a resolution to revoke Lem's membership. A very quick dismissal for such a prestigious author, but the reasons for his quick ejection from the organisation are clear – he didn't seem to regard his honorary membership as any sort of honour. He considered American science fiction “ill thought out, poorly written, and interested more in adventure that ideas or new literary forms” and "bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue”, and these are just a few examples of Lem's deprecatory attitude towards the US branch of his genre.
Lem, however, considered one science fiction author as exempt from his scathing criticisms – his denouncer, Philip K. Dick. The title of an essay Lem published about Dick is evidence enough of this high regard: A Visionary Among the Charlatans. The essay itself waxes lyrical on Dick's many excellent qualities as a writer, and expounds upon the dire state of US sci-fi. Lem considered Dick to be the only writer exempt from his cynical view of American SF. It seems likely that Dick was unaware of Lem's high opinion of him and that he took Lem's disparaging comments personally, stating in his letter to the FBI:
Lem's creative abilities now appear to have been overrated and Lem's crude, insulting and downright ignorant attacks on American science fiction and American science fiction writers went too far too fast and alienated everyone but the Party faithful (I am one of those highly alienated).
In addition, Dick had another reason for disliking Lem, the result of a previous professional disagreement. In 1972, Lem had translated Dick's Ubik into Polish. Due to the economic restrictions of the PRL, Lem was unable to give Dick his due royalties. Surely losing out on this potential source of income, regardless of reason, would incline Dick unfavourably towards Lem.
Whether a civic duty to defend against the communist menace or a simple desire for revenge were the impetus behind Dick's incriminating letter, there is another factor which could have affected Dick's take on things. He was a frequent user of a variety of recreational chemicals, so no stranger to altered states of consciousness. But in February 1974, Dick was recovering from the effects of sodium pentathol (an anaesthetic strong enough to also be used as a “truth serum”) used in dental surgery for a compacted wisdom tooth, when he received a delivery of opioids from a young woman. Her golden ichthys necklace entranced him in an intelligent pink beam of light – which Dick initially thought a side-effect of the anaesthetic – before discovering it had bestowed upon him clairvoyance and other psychic powers.
This plot wouldn't be out of place in one of Dick's mind-bending novels. An enthusiastic drug user, he often explored themes of the fragility of consciousness and mentality. But after this communion, Dick experienced frequent hallucinations, and even became displaced in time – living two parallel lives, one as an American science-fiction author, the other as a persecuted Christian in ancient Rome.
All in all, it can be assumed that Dick was undergoing a slight disconnect from reality (at least, from our reality) just a few months before he denounced Lem to the FBI. There are certainly numerous other factors at play – the feeling that Lem had ripped him off, or a sense of defensive patriotism against Lem's libels of U.S. sci-fi – but we could also entertain the possibility that this intelligent pink ray of light revealed the shadowy communist conspiracy.
Of course, nothing came of Dick's letter – Lem (man or committee) was safely behind the Iron Curtain, well outside the FBI's jurisdiction, and no embargo of his work took place. Lem's sour relations with the Science Fiction Writers of America and poor opinion of U.S. sci-fi hasn't hampered his popularity – recognition in the West hasn't diminished over the years, with many of his works achieving a wide audience in the form of translations, both new and old, or in adaptations such as Solaris.
It's also worth noting that whilst the FBI may have shown no interest in Lem, Dick was certainly on their radar. His file (which Dick obtained with the US Freedom of Information Act) showed that his denouncement of Lem was not his first contact with the bureau. In fact, he'd written to them numerous other times – just two years before the above-mentioned letter, he'd unveiled another conspiracy to them, this time at the other end of the political spectrum. He was apparently approached in 1972 by a representative of a neo-Nazi organisation who pressured Dick into placing coded messages involving “politics, illegal weapons, etc” into his future novels. He linked this organisation to a series of robberies which happened at his home in California. Given that his later claims involving Lem were not even included in his file, it's very unlikely the FBI gave any weight to any of Dick's theories.
Written by Matt Davies, 2015. Sources: Science Fiction Studies; The Selected Letters Of Philip K. Dick; egs.edu