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A Holocaust Survivor’s Hardboiled Science Fiction

Though he rarely discussed them, Stanisław Lem’s experiences in wartime Poland weighed on him and affected his stories.

By Caleb CrainJanuary 10, 2022

In “His Master’s Voice,” a 1968 sci-fi novel by the Polish writer Stanisław Lem, a team of scientists and scholars convened by the American government try to decipher a neutrino signal from outer space. They manage to translate a fragment of the signal’s information, and a couple of the scientists use it to construct a powerful weapon, which the project’s senior mathematician fears could wipe out humanity. The intention behind the message remains elusive, but why would an advanced life-form have broadcast instructions that could be so dangerous?

Late one night, a philosopher on the team named Saul Rappaport, who emigrated from Europe in the last year of the Second World War, tells the mathematician about a time—“the year was 1942, I think”—when he nearly died in a mass execution. He was pulled off the street and put in a line of Jews waiting to be shot in a prison courtyard. Before his turn came, however, a German film crew arrived, and the killing was halted. Then a young Nazi officer asked for a volunteer to step forward. Rappaport couldn’t bring himself to, even though he sensed that, if no one did, everyone in line would be shot. Fortunately, another man volunteered; he was ordered to move cadavers but that was all. Why hadn’t the officer specified that the volunteer would not be harmed? Rappaport explains that this would never have occurred to the Nazi: “Although he spoke to us, you see, we were not people.” Maybe the senders of the neutrino message, Rappaport suggests, are similarly oblivious to human considerations. Maybe they can’t conceive of a life-form so rudimentary as to focus on the weaponizable part of the message. Rappaport’s interpretation turns out to be wrong, but his recollection, with its uncanny analogy between Nazis and aliens, feels like a key.

Lem, who died in 2006, would have celebrated his hundredth birthday this past fall, and M.I.T. Press has just republished six of his books and put out two in English for the first time. Lem is probably best known in the United States for his novel “Solaris” (1961)—the basis for sombre, eerie movies by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh—about a distant planet where a sentient ocean confronts human visitors with a manifestation of a person whose memory they can’t get over. In former Warsaw Pact nations, his robot fables and astronaut tales sold in the millions. When he toured the Soviet Union in the nineteen-sixties, he was greeted by cosmonauts and astrophysicists, and addressed standing-room-only crowds. A self-described futurologist, he foresaw maps that could plot a route at a touch, immersive artificial realities, and instant, universal access to knowledge via “an enormous invisible web that encircles the world.”

In a cycle of melancholy sci-fi novels written in the late nineteen-fifties and sixties—“Eden,” “Solaris,” “Return from the Stars,” “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub,” “The Invincible,” and “His Master’s Voice”—Lem suggested that life in the future, however remote the setting and however different the technology, will be no less tragic. Astronauts disembark from a spaceship into the aftermath of an atrocity; scientists face an alien intelligence so unlike our own that their confidence in the special purpose of human life falters. Lem was haunted by the idea that losses can overwhelm the human capacity to apprehend them.

Lem was born in 1921, to a Jewish family in Lwów. Like many Jews of his generation who remained in Poland after the Second World War, he rarely discussed his Jewish identity in private and almost never in public. He omitted it from “Highcastle” (1965), a memoir of his childhood. Perhaps the only time he referred to it in print was in an essay published in this magazine, in 1984, and, even there, he downplayed its importance in his life. But two recent books by Polish authors make clear how much Lem’s wartime experience weighed on him. In Agnieszka Gajewska’s deeply researched “Holocaust and the Stars,” translated by Katarzyna Gucio (Routledge), we discover that Lem excelled in Jewish studies in secondary school, and that his father, a doctor, gave to the local Jewish community despite a modest income. And “Lem: A Life Out of This World,” a lively, genial biography by Wojciech Orliński, which has yet to be translated into English, relates a story of Lem’s parents, shortly before the Nazis sealed the Lwów ghetto, being spirited away to a safe house. Gajewska and Orliński both believe that Lem must have had to wear a six-pointed star: he told his wife, Barbara, about being struck for failing to take off his cap in the presence of a German, something only people identified as Jews were required to do.

Privately, Lem told people that he had witnessed the executions described by his fictional character. “Dr. Rappaport’s adventure is my adventure, from Lwów 1941, after the German army entered—I was to be shot,” he wrote to his American translator Michael Kandel. When Orliński asked Lem’s widow which elements in the scene were drawn from life, she replied, “All of them.”

When Lem was a child, Lwów—now named Lviv and part of Ukraine—was Poland’s third-largest city, and home to some hundred thousand Jews, who comprised about a third of its population. In “Highcastle,” Lem describes himself as a “monster” who tore apart his toys. He recalls sneaking looks at his father’s anatomy textbooks and poking through items removed from patients’ tracheae: coins, safety pins, sprouted beans. He loved to create imaginary bureaucracies, manufacturing identity papers for nonexistent sovereigns and deeds to distant empires. Lem had a large extended family, and in his memoir he recounts borrowing encyclopedia volumes from one uncle, to pore over woodcuts of locomotives and elephants, and accepting five-zloty pieces from another, to fund a different hobby—constructing motors, electromagnetic coils, and transformers. Although Lem doesn’t say so in the memoir, the uncles were killed by the Nazis.

Lem turned eighteen in September, 1939, the month that Germany invaded Poland, setting off the Second World War. He had a brand-new driver’s license and was planning to attend engineering school, but, within days, Lwów was beset by both German and Soviet troops. Because Hitler and Stalin had just signed a non-aggression pact, with secret provisions divvying up Eastern Europe, a German bombardment of the city was followed by a Soviet occupation. The Soviets deported and later secretly executed many of Lwów’s defenders, and, in the following months, the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, arrested thousands of the city’s élite, mostly ethnic Poles. Historians estimate that while the Soviets were occupying eastern Poland they deported a million and a half residents. An N.K.V.D. officer was boarded in the Lem family home, and whenever the Lems noticed him hard at work they warned friends to hide.

Later, when asked about life under Soviet occupation, Lem was cagey, talking only about how poor the Soviets’ candy was, and how excellent their circus performers. His bourgeois background disqualified him from engineering school, but his father managed to get him a place at the university in Lwów, to study medicine. This was probably not the career he would have chosen. He was already writing sonnets and trying to read Proust.

In June, 1941, Germany turned on the Soviet Union, and the Nazis mounted a surprise attack on Lwów. As German troops closed in, the N.K.V.D. deported about a thousand prisoners and then, in a panic, executed thousands more. The Lems’ boarder, in his haste to depart, left behind pages of handwritten poetry. In the city’s prisons, his comrades left behind decomposing corpses.

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The Nazis, who harped on the notion that Jews were Communist collaborators, saw a propaganda opportunity. They blamed the Soviet killings on Lwów’s Jews and recruited, encouraged, and supervised a militia of Ukrainian nationalists who carried out a three-day pogrom. Jews were forced to crawl on their hands and knees and to clean the streets, in at least one case with a toothbrush. Militiamen gave Jews orders to praise Stalin. Jewish women were stripped, chased, and sexually abused. Local children as young as six pulled Jewish women’s hair and Jewish men’s beards. In the most gruesome and violent phase, militiamen took Jews off the streets and out of their homes, ordering the men—including Lem, Gajewska reports—to retrieve the corpses that the Russians had left rotting in prison basements, and the women to clean the decayed remains. The men were beaten while they worked, and many were killed, including a cousin of Lem’s.

By a conservative estimate, several hundred Jews died during the pogrom. In the month that followed, killings across the city raised that tally to between three thousand and seven thousand. A 2011 essay by the historian John-Paul Himka corroborates some details of what Rappaport says in “His Master’s Voice.” Himka reports that a survivor remembered being forty-eighth in a line of men waiting to be shot, only for the killing to be halted at forty-seven. Another survivor, in a memoir, recounts that the Germans were taking photographs; Himka’s essay includes a shot he unearthed of a disorderly pile of cadavers in a prison courtyard, and a German film in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows Jewish women brushing cadavers with cloths and branches. Gajewska and Orliński suspect that Lem, in “His Master’s Voice,” misdated Rappaport’s memory to 1942 deliberately, because it would have been risky, under Poland’s Communist regime, to refer even indirectly to the N.K.V.D.’s culpability in Lwów.

“Is there nothing but graves on this planet?” an astronaut asks, in Lem’s 1959 novel, “Eden,” as he and his crewmates explore a world where one kind of life-form persecutes another, which it deems inferior. Orliński hears an echo of Lem’s Holocaust experience, and it’s hard not to think of photographs like the one Himka reprinted, when, for instance, a doctor among the explorers finds a ditch full of alien bodies:

The waxy heap along the edge of the ditch at first appeared to be a homogeneous mass. The men could barely breathe, the stench was so bad. Then they began to distinguish separate figures. Some creatures lay with their humps upward, others on their side; frail torsos with small upturned faces were wedged in between huge muscles, and massive trunks lay intermingled with tiny hands, knotty fingers, that dangled limply. The swollen bodies were covered with damp yellow patches. The Doctor gripped the men on either side of him so tightly that they would have cried out, had they been aware of him.

Lem’s hardboiled tone keeps the reader’s attention on moment-by-moment details. But the details come with no context. The astronauts know almost nothing about the planet they’ve landed on. They can’t even tell whether the bodies they’re looking at are those of intelligent life-forms or of domesticated livestock. When they get back to their ship, they try to explain the sight away, reasoning that maybe these creatures are manufactured rather than born, and the ditch is just a discard pile of defective samples.

It’s easy for a reader to be misdirected by such doubts. When I came to a scene in which the astronauts find an enormous automated factory that destroys its own products, I was sure it was an allegory of capitalism. In a chapter featuring a hall of glass cells containing skeletons that are all slightly different, as if a result of bioengineering, I thought I saw a literalization of Stalin’s praise of writers as “engineers of human souls.” But a connection to the Holocaust? I missed it. (The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson didn’t. “It is as though alien anthropologists, on their first visit to earth, landed in Auschwitz, and attempted to construct a rational model of human society on the basis of what they found there,” he wrote.) In my defense, though, a sense of not fully understanding what one is seeing seems to be one of the book’s subjects—an aspect of traumatic witnessing that Lem was trying to convey. The novel’s characters often feel that meaning is just beyond their reach. Visiting the new world is “like reading a text where the sentences are out of order,” one says. When an engineer shines a spotlight on a wall and sees carvings he can’t quite interpret, Lem writes that “sometimes he thought he saw something familiar, but the sense of it escaped him.”

Gajewska hears the same kind of echo—tactile, defamiliarized, baffling—in “The Invincible.” A group of astronauts land on a planet, tasked with recovering the bodies of colleagues from a spaceship that preceded theirs. After the astronauts have laid out the dead in rows, they struggle to understand what happened. One suggests that they say aloud everything they saw during the exhumation, especially if it’s “something you may not have shared with anyone. That you told yourself needs to be forgotten.”

By the time the Soviets retook Lwów, in the summer of 1944, only eight hundred and twenty-three Jews remained. “It was very rare for whole families to survive,” Gajewska writes. Lem seems to have become increasingly reluctant to say how he and his parents managed to do so. Some details appeared in a book-length interview with him by the writer Stanisław Bereś, published in the mid-eighties; but when a second edition came out, in 2002, they had been removed, likely at Lem’s request. In 1955, he published a realist novel, “Among the Dead,” set in Nazi-era Lwów, but, after 1965, he wouldn’t allow it to be reprinted or translated, renouncing it as a misguided attempt to curry favor with Stalinist authorities. His wife once begged a researcher not to ask her husband about his war experiences, saying, “Staszek isn’t able to sleep afterward.”

But Gajewska and Orliński, who exchanged drafts before their books were published, have been able to reconstruct a little. Early on, the Lems seem to have moved in with the uncle from whom Stanisław borrowed encyclopedias. In the fall of 1941, Lem’s parents may have obeyed a Nazi order to move to the ghetto, but, if so, they must have left before the ghetto was sealed, in December. The story goes that the wife of one of Lem’s father’s colleagues got them to safety. Before the war, the woman and her husband had gone on Sunday excursions with the Lems; after the war, the two families were to share a small apartment in Kraków. The exact address where Lem’s parents hid is unknown—Lem apparently named at least three different streets—and Gajewska believes that the Lems paid their protectors and prevaricated in order to spare them embarrassment.

Two ploys saved Stanisław. First, he was given a job at a waste-sorting company on which the Nazis depended for glass, scrap metal, and other raw materials. For a while, a company I.D. would protect the holder from being picked up by the Gestapo. In “Among the Dead,” Lem lightly fictionalized the company, retaining the surname of its owner, Wiktor Kremin:

The company employed Jews almost exclusively. The vast majority consisted of poor people who collected refuse from dumps, and the smaller portion—the local Jewish elite, former retailers, industrialists, lawyers, and city councillors. According to their work permits, they were ragpickers and received a salary in pennies. In reality, however, they paid Kremin to protect them, and paid so generously that most income into the manager’s pockets flowed from this source.

In the novel, Jewish women employed by the firm unstitch garments left behind after recent transports, handing over valuables they find hidden in the linings. The scene reminds Gajewska of one in “The Invincible,” in which the astronauts emptying out their dead colleagues’ spaceship feel no stigma in handling their possessions, perhaps because they suspect they’ll soon share their fate.

Cartoon by Jeremy Nguyen

Lem worked in the company’s garage as an auto mechanic and an electrician, a placement probably bought by his parents. But the immunity conferred by the position didn’t last. In November, 1942, even Jews with Nazi-approved work permits began being transported. By the end of the year, waste-sorting operations were transferred to Janowska, a work camp that later became a death camp. Lem may have stayed in his job even after the move to Janowska, but, at some point, he availed himself of a second ploy: identity papers that made him out to be an Armenian named Jan Donabidowicz. Staying under that name at a series of private homes—the protectors, again, were likely paid—Lem registered at a library and spent his days reading. Orliński thinks it was in these months that Lem conceived, and maybe even wrote, his first work of science fiction, a novella called “Man from Mars,” about an emotionless, malevolent alien who lands on the border between North and South Dakota.

Lem wrote in his 1984 New Yorker essay that this period taught him to appreciate the power of chance: “The difference between life and death depended upon minuscule, seemingly unimportant things, and the smallest of decisions: whether one chose this or that street for going to work; whether one visited a friend at one o’clock or twenty minutes later.” One evening, unexpectedly evicted by the person harboring him, Lem had to cross Lwów’s city center after curfew in order to reach his parents’ hiding place. A character in “Among the Dead” in a similar bind, dishevelled and distraught, is mistaken for a Jew and transported.

Lem’s fiction is haunted by chance. In “The Investigation” (1959), a detective novel in which the mystery to be solved is not a series of deaths but a series of corpse revivifications, a scientist suggests that the cause could be something like the statistical pattern that governs the geographic distribution of cancer mortality. The detective on the case wonders, “What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle—what if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things floating around in it?”

Almost every member of Lem’s family, with the exception of his parents, was killed by the Germans, many in concentration camps. Although Lem himself was not sent to a camp, after the war he read the testimony of camp survivors like Tadeusz Borowski, and used elements of it in his own work. A vitrine full of teeth startles a visitor to an underground bureaucracy. Broken-down robots in a recycling center plead that they’re actually in pretty good condition and don’t need to be sent to the furnace. The most telling such element may be the survivor’s guilt felt by many of Lem’s characters, even when the deaths they’re mourning seem inevitable. The hero of “Return from the Stars,” for example, can’t shake the memory of a marooned crewmate who, by the time the hero reached him, refused to be rescued because he believed he was already dead. “The dead remain young,” a researcher visiting Solaris observes, when the planet’s ocean sends him the wife, still nineteen years old, whose suicide threat he didn’t take seriously enough a decade earlier.

In July, 1945, as it became clear that the Soviets would annex Lwów, the Lems left for Kraków. Their financial resources seem to have been exhausted. Lem’s father, who was in his late sixties and had a heart condition, took a job in a hospital, and the family squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment with their old friends from Lwów. Lem’s father received a grant from a Jewish group that was helping refugees get their footing in Poland, but it was an uncertain time. Within a few weeks of their arrival, anti-Semitic violence broke out in Kraków. In 1946, a relative who had bunked with the Lems during the Nazi occupation was among forty-two Jews killed in a pogrom in the Polish city of Kielce.

Stanisław enrolled at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University to finish his medical studies. He showed an essay he’d written about brain function to a doctor on the faculty, who pronounced it loopy but invited Lem to join a science reading group and hired him to write summaries of contemporary scientific literature for a monthly magazine. Lem, as he later humblebragged to his American translator, was earning cash by contributing “all kinds of sensational trash” to “cheapo monthly booklets”; in 1946, “Man from Mars” appeared as a magazine serial. But Lem had loftier literary ambitions. He sent poems to a Catholic weekly in Kraków, and wrote columns for it until the end of his life. Through his work for the magazine, he came to know Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who, in 1989, became Poland’s first post-Communist Prime Minister.

In 1948, in a white heat, Lem wrote “Hospital of the Transfiguration,” a realist novel about a young doctor who observes moral ambiguities in a psychiatric hospital—ambiguities thrown into sharp relief when a Nazi officer arrives to liquidate the patients. The book is full of fine observations, such as when the doctor hears a patient shouting “as if practicing,” and features the kind of philosophizing that distinguishes Lem’s science fiction. “Someone who can stand and watch the person he loves most die and, without wanting to, pick out everything worth describing, to the last convulsion, that’s a real writer,” an inpatient poet declares.

Lem later called it “the first book of which I’m not ashamed.” But it was rejected by publishers, who told Lem that its embrace of socialism wasn’t fervent enough, and suggested that he add more explicitly partisan sequels. Lem obliged, but, by the time the trilogy was published, in 1955, Joseph Stalin was dead, and the compliant politics of the sequels spoiled the reception of the first novel.

In 1949, not yet discouraged about his chances of pursuing a highbrow literary career, Lem skipped his medical-school final exams, a decision his mother reproached him for to the end of her life, long after his books had become worldwide best-sellers. Unfortunately, he soon lost his job summarizing scientific literature, and such poems and stories as he was able to publish weren’t enough to win him more than a probational membership in the Polish Writers’ Union. “I turned into nobody,” Lem later told an interviewer.

His lucky break came in 1950, at a Writers’ Union retreat. One day, Lem held forth about H. G. Wells and Jules Verne to a portly man who turned out to run a publishing house. The man wanted to experiment with Polish science fiction, and two weeks later he sent Lem a contract. Lem probably had mixed feelings. Although he was proud of writing better science fiction than almost anyone else, he never became reconciled to the genre’s status. Sci-fi, he wrote, “comes from a whorehouse but it wants to break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored.” Still, Lem didn’t have a better option: he’d already seen that his literary fiction would be censored.

His first full-length sci-fi novel came out in 1951, under the title “Astronauts,” a word still so unfamiliar that people confused it with “argonauts.” It has never appeared in English, but, according to the Canadian Lem scholar Peter Swirski, its conceit is that a mysterious explosion over the Siberian town of Tunguska in 1908, usually attributed to a meteorite, was really caused by the crash of a Venusian spaceship. One critic scolded Lem for imagining a future, only fifty years away, in which people for some reason weren’t hailing each other as “comrade.” But Lem wasn’t cancelled for the offense. By switching genres, he had somehow sidestepped ideology.

“Astronauts” became a best-seller, and Lem was pestered by magazine editors for stories and by producers for screenplays. He thrived. In 1953, he married Barbara Leśniak, a medical student nine years his junior. In 1956, Lem visited East Berlin, at the invitation of German filmmakers who were adapting “Astronauts.” He slipped across to West Berlin, not yet walled off, to buy an electric train set, a coffeemaker, and a tape recorder. He joked in a letter to a friend that he had accepted advances for so many unwritten books that Poland’s treasury department would have to assume the debt. In 1957, he and Barbara bought a house in the suburbs, and in 1958 he bought his first of many cars. It had a wood chassis under a fibreglass frame and a transmission whose shifting he compared to “yanking a post out of a fence.”

During this not very socialist shopping spree came the start of Lem’s creative flowering. His tales from the period—several of which have been adeptly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in M.I.T. Press’s new collection “The Truth and Other Stories”—feature silicon minds that can’t be distinguished from human ones, extraterrestrials with an uncanny interest in mimesis, and the idea that our universe was created by imperfect gods as a sort of joke. Maybe this burst of creativity, which, in the next decade, yielded Lem’s great sci-fi novels, was spurred by the political and cultural thaw in Poland after Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of Stalin’s crimes. Maybe Lem was prompted to revisit the traumas of his youth by the resurgent anti-Semitism that accompanied this thaw.

Gajewska speculates that the sense of emotional dislocation in Lem’s fiction comes from a feeling of not being at home in Poland, despite his prosperity. “Return from the Stars” (1961) begins, “I took nothing with me, not even a coat.” After a ten-year voyage at almost light speed, an astronaut named Hal Bregg returns to Earth, where, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity, a hundred and twenty-seven years have elapsed. Nothing is familiar: bookstores no longer stock ink-on-paper books. Young women who at first glance appear to be smelling flowers turn out to be eating them. The language has changed: “You’re singing,” a flirting woman says, when she thinks Bregg is kidding her. So has food: “Kress, ozote, or herma?” a robot waiter asks. Peace has become universal, thanks to a medical procedure that erases aggression and risk-taking. Bregg and the few crewmates who also made it back are taller and more muscular than almost all other humans, setting them apart. “Everything is now lukewarm,” an older doctor warns, when Bregg goes for a consultation. Bregg is too unlike other people to make new friends, the doctor advises, and none of his family has survived, so the only way for him to be close to another person now is through sex. But, when Bregg picks up a woman and goes back to her apartment, he is disconcerted by the way her smart furniture adjusts to their bodies as they kiss: “It was like the presence of a third person, degradingly attentive.”

The future can be played for laughs, as a satire on what’s trendy in the present, but “Return from the Stars” is serious about the challenge that a person hardened by experience faces in adjusting to a world that has grown softer. Almost no one on Earth is still capable of sympathizing with the daring that motivated an astronaut like Bregg to leave the planet in the first place, and, when at last he falls for a woman who reminds him of the old days, he wishes he could undo what has made him exceptional: “Why, why had I not realized that a man must be ordinary, completely ordinary, that otherwise it is impossible, and pointless, to live.” Like a war veteran, Bregg is blocked from mourning his trauma in part because the world to which he has returned can’t recognize it. “I am useless,” Bregg thinks, regretting coming back to Earth “to walk about like a guilty conscience that no one wants.”

Lem never quite settled in, either. Despite the success of his novels, he carried a chip on his shoulder about his futurological writings, which he thought should be taken more seriously, and about the field of science fiction, where, he complained, even high-quality books were like “cathedral towers around which garbage has been dumped.” He disliked most of the films made from his books, calling Tarkovsky an idiot during a 1969 trip to Russia. “Do you know my work?” Tarkovsky asked mildly. “I don’t know it and I don’t have time for it,” Lem replied. According to Orliński, almost all the translators, literary agents, and editors who worked with Lem eventually received a Dear John letter chewing them out.

Such prickliness may reflect the insecurity that Lem felt in his homeland. “We shall not prevent Polish citizens of Jewish nationality from returning to Israel if they wish to do so,” the leader of Poland’s Communist Party declared in 1968, the year after the Soviet Union sided with Arab nations in the Six-Day War. “We do not want a Fifth Column in our country.” The comments set off a wave of anti-Semitism and a purge of supposed Zionists from Poland’s government. Nearly half the Jews remaining in the country emigrated. Poland’s Security Service, concerned about Lem’s international fame, put him under surveillance, and, in 1972, the service’s chief paid him a carefully stage-managed visit, complimenting him on a career that was “impressive, in spite of the fact that we don’t help it, and even obstruct it a little.” As early as 1956, Lem admitted privately to a friend that the socialist experiment had failed, but, when he wrote critically of the regime for the émigré monthly Kultura, he used a pseudonym.

In 1976, a friend of Lem’s recorded in his diary that Lem had “said that he was close to informing the authorities that, as a ‘dirty Jew,’ he wanted to go to Israel.” After Poland’s Prime Minister declared martial law, in December, 1981, in an attempt to crack down on the unruly trade union Solidarity, Lem burned papers he feared might be incriminating and asked his West German editor to arrange a series of fellowships that took him and his family to West Berlin and then to Vienna. When a journalist claimed that Lem had emigrated, however, Lem corrected him. He seems to have felt even less at home in Austria, and he and his family returned to the Kraków suburbs in the fall of 1988.

“The fate of a single person can mean many things, the fate of several hundred is hard to encompass; but the history of thousands, millions, means essentially nothing at all,” Lem wrote, in “Solaris.” Within the novel, the sentence is an attempt to convey how hard it is to make sense of the multifarious forms the planet’s ocean takes on, but it probably also owes something to the quip, popularly attributed to Stalin, that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Lem reprised the idea in an essay about the Holocaust, couched in one of his favorite forms, a review of an imaginary book: “No one truly knows what these facts mean: they killed millions of innocent people.” In “Solaris,” the scientist-hero suggests that, in the face of such a challenge to perception, the only hope is to get far away: “In order to truly see anything at all, one would have to draw back rapidly, retreat to an immense distance.”

It would be reductive to equate the inscrutable alien intelligences in Lem’s fiction, which have a certain majesty, with Nazis, who Lem didn’t think were at all difficult to understand. Nazis, he believed, were not only evil but in poor taste, and in his fiction they’re vain, pompous, petty, and maladroit. I wonder if Lem’s alien intelligences stand instead for human history, which contains a great deal of brutality and suffering, often caused by people in poor taste. It’s natural to look for messages in human history. And just as natural to have trouble discerning them.

To overcome the difficulty, how far away do you have to go? “I’ve been dreaming of writing the history of the world from the point of view of another planetary system,” the mad poet in “Hospital of the Transfiguration” tells the young doctor, as the doctor prepares to venture into an unnamed city, which seems to be Lwów, in search of his dying father. The doctor discovers, once he arrives, that the streets now have German names. It could be said that Lem turned his poet’s idea on its head: he told the history of the world as if it were that of another planetary system, seen from this one. ♦Published in the print edition of the January 17, 2022, issue, with the headline “Close Encounters.”