What Did Lem Read? 3 Fantasy Writers from an Ancient Past
#language & literature
default, What Did Lem Read?
3 Fantasy Writers from an Ancient Past, Polish covers for 'The Time Machine', 1938, and 'The Invisible Man', 1925, by H.G. Wells, photo: Polona.pl, center, wells_okladki_polona.jpg
While more casual readers may think Polish science fiction only emerged with Lem during the post-war era of the space race, it turns out futurological visions were already being penned much earlier. Meet three authors who shaped the mind of a young Stanisław Lem.
In memoirs and interviews, the hugely popular science-fiction author Stanisław Lem would frequently return to his childhood in Lviv (called Lwów at the time). We know that he would seemingly behave like his peers: playing football, meeting girls (though he admitted ‘I scared them off by talking about the stars’), going to camps in the mountains, and getting up to silly antics. But most of all he was preoccupied with his inner world, building inventions, doing experiments (especially chemistry, along with the ensuing explosions), and reading. In modern American pop-culture terms, Lem may not have been a nerd, but he was definitely a geek.
The Many Masks & Faces of Stanisław Lem
His father, a respected, wealthy doctor, gave his only son access to his substantial library. Apart from time-honoured Polish literary classics (such as Aleksander Fredro, Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz), the young Lem devoured the era’s obligatory set of ‘books for boys’ (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Jack London, Jules Verne and Karl May). Additionally, Lem leafed through numerous popular-scientific publications, including thirty volumes of the Biblioteka Wiedzy (Library of Knowledge) series, published by Trzaska, Evert & Michalski, from which he gleaned his first knowledge of the universe, the projected cities of the future, and the composition of stars and atoms. He later wrote:
I don’t know where I got it from, but back then I was already very interested in space travel.
So, unsurprisingly, his pet passion was speculative fiction, both sci-fi and the uncanny. His favourite foreign writers in those genres were H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe. While describing his youthful fascinations, he also named these three Polish authors who were more local forerunners of fantasy…
Stefan Grabiński: Lem’s guilty pleasure
Discover 8 Classics from Poland’s Required Reading Curriculum
standardowy [760 px]
Covers for Stefan Grabiński's 'Itongo Island', 1936, and 'The Motion Demon', 1919, photo: Polona.pl
Stefan Grabiński was the first Pole to bring ghosts into the modern world. In his horror stories set in the Galician provinces (where stations and the telegraph were the first outposts of progress), technical novelties coexist with supernatural forces straight out of occult books and folk beliefs.
The stories in what is considered his best work, Demon Ruchu (‘The Motion Demon’, 1919), are filled with spectral railway stations, mysterious phantoms prowling through carriages, and people possessed with a compulsive wanderlust. To him, railways were ‘a symbol of life and its flaming pulse – symbolising the demonism of motion, that almighty force that issues from nowhere to propel worlds across the interplanetary expanse’.
Compared to Poe and Lovecraft, The Motion Demon caused quite a sensation but, much to the author’s dismay, his later works exploring esoteric and parapsychological themes were less well received. He was also more accomplished as a short-story writer than a novelist. Lem wrote, ‘Admittedly, his novels fell apart for us. They didn’t stand the test of time, as they became too exclusively occult and erudite.’ He did enjoy his short stories, however, saying that Grabiński ‘truly was a top-notch short-story writer,’ ‘on a par with his European contemporaries.’
Horror on the Train Tracks: ‘The Motion Demon’ Turns 100
standardowy [760 px]
Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, photo: Polona.pl; cover for a book of Poe stories, photo: press materials
Like Lem, Grabiński lived in Lviv in the 1930s. One of the future writer’s school friends was friends with Grabiński’s daughters. Thus he learned that the author of The Motion Demon had a private library, in which he would lock works unsuitable for his offspring’s eyes. The aura of this enigmatic book collection must have left an impression on Lem, since he mentioned it over 60 years later. As for what reading horror stories in an empty flat could lead to, Lem told Tomasz Fiałkowski:
I first read Grabinski’s ghost stories in middle school, and they made an intense impression on me. I think reading them was related to a strange event that stuck in my mind. My parents rented a box on the first floor at the Grand Theatre and used to go to performances, while I stayed at home and did my homework. One day, as I was doing my assignments, I heard my mother’s voice coming from my parents’ room behind me. The door was ajar, and it was dark inside. I answered without thinking, then suddenly realised that I was home alone. I was terrified and, thinking it must be some kind of omen, immediately rushed off to the theatre. […] I ran into the box, startling my parents: ‘What happened?’ ‘I heard a voice.’ ‘Did you go into the room?’ ‘I went in, turned on the light, but nobody was there’. It must have been a hallucination, although I’d never had such symptoms, before or after.
As an adult, Lem never gave up on Grabiński but treated his works as more of a guilty pleasure. He confessed to Stanisław Bereś:
I also enjoy reading Grabiński, although with indulgence nowadays. From a literary viewpoint, his works are terribly old-hat, but they have that special old-hat charm. […] My attitude to Grabiński is simultaneously affectionate and ironic, for he grew like an exotic flower in the swampland of Lviv. That boarded-up place and his dreams of the wide world and a big career, his troubles with the critics […] all of it was so touchingly pathetic.
Despite this hint of mockery, Lem did a lot to salvage the memory of his childhood author. Selected short stories by Grabiński appeared in the Stanisław Lem Recommends series, along with an extensive essay on his work by the writer of Solaris. He also contributed to getting Grabiński’s works translated into German. Echoes of Grabiński can also be found in Lem’s works, especially those where human technology unexpectedly starts to behave as if it were conspiring against its creators. The author said the story 'Terminus' from Tales of Pirx the Pilot was an example of this inspiration: ‘Even though it has no ghosts in it, they’re still there.’
Jerzy Żuławski: the Moon that reality couldn’t live up to
Vampire Blood & Devilish Owls: Old Polish Death Customs & Superstitions
standardowy [760 px]
Jerzy Żuławski & Jan Kasprowicz, 1911, photo: Żuławski family archive
In an interview with Jan Gondowicz, Lem spoke of how painful it can be when ideas you have imagined from literature collide with new scientific discoveries:
Oh, the Moon was a terrible disappointment. I’d been brought up on Żuławski’s visions. ‘On the Silver Globe’, with its craggy landscapes, peaks, chasms, precipices… […] And then it turned out that those peaks and rocks had never even existed… Everything is somehow smooth and rounded there, and there’s no going back from that…
Of Żuławski’s epic Trylogia Księżycowa (‘The Lunar Trilogy’), which comprised Na Srebrnym Globie – Rękopis z Księżyca (‘On the Silver Globe – A Manuscript from the Moon’, 1903), Zwycięzca (‘The Conqueror’, 1910) and Stara Ziemia (‘The Old Earth’, 1911), Lem’s favourite was the first part, which is set in the early 21st century. The prologue reads:
Near the coast of Africa, some twenty kilometres from the Congo estuary, gaped the immense opening of the ready built cast-steel well which, in a few hours, would launch the first projectile at the Moon, with five daredevils inside of it.
Their goal is to reach the far side of the Moon, invisible from Earth, for they believe it has the conditions necessary for life to develop. Their last dispatch to Earth reads: ‘All is well. No cause for concern’, then all contact is lost. A second mission is sent in their wake but also disappears without trace. Fifty years later, when the entire madcap excursion has faded into oblivion, an observatory employee recovers the journal of a member of the expedition – the remarkable story of their bizarre life on the moon is finally revealed, as narrated by its surviving Polish crew member…
To Żuławski, a doctor of philosophy, this cosmic setting was a pretext to reflect on the source of human civilisation and the genesis of religious beliefs and social systems, as well as many of their problems. Young people were fond of his books for other reasons, however. As Lem wrote:
The first voyage around the Earth, the first excursions into the heart of unknown continents, the first transoceanic flights, and the first attempts to conquer epidemics had all met with failures, defeats, disasters, and the death of pioneers, whose sacrifice was often completely in vain. Young people particularly appreciate such recklessness […] but that enthusiasm for heroes is probably one of their most beautiful virtues and is what gives Żuławski’s novel its lasting appeal.
Either way, Żuławski’s works were ahead of their time. While his Young Poland colleagues were committing their innermost dilemmas to paper, extolling the beauty of the Tatra Mountains, or deploring Poland’s hopeless situation, his imagination was orbiting well beyond matters terrestrial. His great-nephew, Andrzej Żuławski, began filming a screen adaptation of the trilogy in 1977.
Incidentally, the very first Polish literary description of a journey to the Moon (not counting the legend of Pan Twardowski) had come much earlier, in 1785. It was written by Michał Dymitr Krajewski in his book Wojciech Zdarzyński: Życie i Przypadki Swoje Opisujący (‘Wojciech Zdarzyński: Describing His Life and Its Events’), a slightly moralistic utopian novel in the spirit of the Enlightenment, topped off with high adventure. The eponymous hero illustrates the shortcomings of Old Poland – after squandering the family fortune, he escapes from his creditors to the Moon… in a balloon.
Władysław Umiński: the man who coined the word ‘samolot’
Against 'Dim & Apocalyptic Heads': The Polish Enlightenment
standardowy [760 px]
Covers for Władysław Umiński's 'Extraterrestrial Worlds' & 'By Balloon to the Pole', and Jerzy Żuławski's 'On the Silver Globe', photo: Polona.pl
At a time when horse-drawn trams were still common in Polish city streets, Władysław Umiński, another author that Lem listed as a childhood favourite, was already a eulogist of technological advances and a precursor of science fiction.
Born in 1865, he was a true child of positivism, thanks to his rationalism and belief in progress. In his youth, he dreamed of becoming an inventor, studied natural sciences in St Petersburg, and his hobby was building model flying machines. He did laboratory experiments at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw, where he met Maria Skłodowska-Curie. However, his family’s financial hardships forced him to abandon his dreams of a scientific career, and he compensated for it with science-fantasy novels.
He was labelled the ‘Polish Jules Verne’. One need only look at the titles of his novels for young people to see why: Zwycięzcy Oceanu (‘Conquerors of the Ocean’, 1891), Balonem do Bieguna (‘By Balloon to the Pole’, 1894), W Nieznane Światy (‘To Unknown Worlds’, 1895, AKA Na Drugą Planetę [‘To Another Planet’]), and W Głębinach Oceanu (‘In the Ocean Depths’, 1920).
What were the main themes of his 30-odd novels? Genius inventions, bold expeditions, the taming of nature, discovering the unknown, mankind overcoming successive limitations, but he did not forget to include a strong dose of didacticism and patriotic sentiment. The balloon, whose crew makes a pioneering flight over the South Pole, was named ‘Polska’ (the book was written while Poland was still partitioned).
The titles above were an extension of his popular-scientific activities. He published a range of brochures, providing young people with the latest news on science and technology, and he had a wide spectrum of interests, ranging from electricity, industry and dinosaurs, to space and environmental protection. He was also particularly keen on aviation. As he stated:
At the dawn of the 20th century, we are witnessing perhaps mankind’s greatest ever triumph in its age-old battle with the forces of nature; finally we have conquered the air, that capricious element that has scoffed at all our endeavours for so long.
In fact, we have him to thank for the spread of the word ‘samolot’ (literally, ‘self-flyer’) in Polish, because flying machines used to be known as ‘aeroplany’. In one story from the late 19th century, he used the word to describe an airship, and then again in the modern sense in his novel Samolotem Dookoła Świata (‘Around the World by Aeroplane’, 1911).
Teddy Bear Legionaries: Patriotism For Kids In Interwar Poland
polish books 2013
polish fantasy authors
Umiński was a Methuselah of Polish adventure literature, making his debut in 1880, and receiving an award from President Bołesław Bierut on the 70th anniversary of his writing career in the 1950s. At the time, Przekrój magazine wrote that many of his forecasts had ‘ceased to be fantastic, since modern science and technology have fulfilled and even surpassed the author’s predictions’. As a rule, Umiński did not fantasise about new inventions but tried to imagine ways in which existing ones might develop.
Written in 1948, his final novel Zaziemskie Światy: Pierwszy Lot Międzyplanetarny (‘Extraterrestrial Worlds: The First Interplanetary Flight’) tells of a trip to Venus, where the crew encounter a highly developed civilisation. The Venusians have achieved their technological prowess through profound spirituality and pacifistic ideals. The actual journey through space to Venus was facilitated by American technology, an aspect which must have displeased the censors in the Stalinist days, as the book’s publication was delayed for eight years – it came out in 1956, after the author had already been dead for nearly two.
By an interesting coincidence, around that time Lem also described a journey to Venus in his first science-fiction novel, Astronauci (‘The Astronauts’, 1951), but his was a radically different vision: the travellers discover the charred remains of a technologically advanced civilisation that had destroyed itself due to internal divisions. Reading it today, one can certainly see traces in it of all three of the authors mentioned above.
Originally written in Polish, Dec 2019, translated by Mark Bence, June 2020
Avatars, Spacemen & Mad Scientists: Poland's Vintage Sci-Fi Treasures