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Introduction to Solaris

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Wojciech Kajtoch

Introduction to “Solaris”

Translated from Polish by Lech Keller

Stanisław Lem is unquestionably one of the greatest authors of SF in the global history of this genre. Thus inclusion of his works to the reading list ***1/ is certainly a gesture, which acknowledges the reality. One could also regard this inclusion as an ennoblement of a genre, so far virtually ignored by the school administration because of its “lowly” origin (i.e. Verne’s fantastic novels, targeted mostly for young people, and American “pulp” SF magazines of the 1930s). There are also different claims, namely that “Solaris” (and this novel is virtually unanimously regarded as the best work of Lem, the work, which introduced his works to the list of “must-read” books), is not really SF. The main reason is that “Solaris” can be read and interpreted as a psychological novel, thus in this context Lem is a “real”, i.e. “mainstream” writer, actually not much interested in science and technology. In short: Lem is strictly speaking a “high brow” writer, rather than a “lowly” SF writer. It should be also noted the lack of regard to the cultural background (or its arbitrary selection), which was frequent in the interpretation of the post-Second World War literature, and common in the Polish secondary schools habit of reading every literary text as a direct reflection and appraisal of the real world. This way we have compiled a catalogue of the dangers threatening analysis of “Solaris’, as it is done at the classes of Polish literature.
Thus this essay will not give a comprehensive analysis of “Solaris”. I shall only take more attention to the genesis of the novel, and to those elements in “Solaris”, which have the closest links to the SF genre, its history and to the development of Lem as a writer.


“Solaris”, “Powrót z gwiazd” (“Return from the Stars”), “Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie” (“Memoirs Found in the Bathtub”) and “Księga robotów” (”Book of the Robots”) were all published in 1961: a year which was crucial for the way Lem exists in the Polish literary life. It was the period, when so-called names ***2/ started to write more frequently about his literary output. In the early 1960s, for rather short-term, the Polish professional critics increased their interest in SF. Lem started to become a peculiar institution in the Polish literature, which he remained until now. How to describe, otherwise, a writer, who writes in Polish, but is translated into more than thirty languages, ***3/ whose books were in the twentieth century alone printed world-wide in more than three million copies, an author, who wrote more that forty original books (plus numerous compilations), including several scientific monographs and collections of essays… Thus, before we will begin our analysis, our first effort should be rejection of today’s perspective and constant remembering who was the person, who wrote in Zakopane ***4/ between June 1959 and June 1960 the novel, in which we are interested. On the one hand he was a thirty-eight years old writer at the threshold of his creative peak, a writer who had pass long time ago his debut and juvenilia (i.e. from his first novel - ”The Astronauts” in 1951 to late 1954 and early 1955). On the other hand he was a popular ***5/ and curious author of SF, who used be asked by the journalist of the post-October ***6/ tabloids such questions as “which rocket did you use to arrive at our main railway station”, and who, apparently enjoying his status as a pop-star, allowed to be photographed in a space suit. ***7/ Those games were, however, a symptom of a more serious phenomenon. Namely: Lem was for the long periods of time unsure, as to the literary rank of SF, his chosen genre. Here are the facts, which support our proposition:
Above all, Lem has begun his serious literary career writing about contemporary life. In the years 1948-1950 (before his official debut) he commenced writing a trilogy about life of a young medical practitioner during the Second World War and first years of the (“communist”) Peoples’ Republic of Poland (“Czas nieutracony” consisting of: “Szpital Przemienienia”, “Wśród umarłych”, “Powrót” – “Time not Lost”: “Hospital of the Transfiguration, “Among the Dead” and “Return” – published in 1955). ***8/ This trilogy was, beyond any doubt, written in a manner of so-called “literatura rozrachunków inteligenckich” (“settling of accounts by the intelligentsia” ***9/), and also in the almost pure socrealistic style. Especially the last two parts of the trilogy describe unequivocally an ideology of overcoming so-called moral nihilism and nightmares of German occupation, which tormented the Polish intelligentsia. “Return” contains not only strong condemnation of “prawicowe odchylenie", ***10/ and satire on “drobnomieszczaństwo” (petty bourgeoisie), but also elements of so-called powieść produkcyjna (novels about production of goods and services) set in a hospital environment.
Thus, it was likely that Lem would have become a mainstream writer, mostly interested in the present. However, “Czas nieutracony” was published too late, ***11/ so it virtually made no impression. On the other hand, there were several factors in favour of SF. Firstly, socrealist SF novels “The Astronauts” and “Magellanic Cloud” (written approximately in 1953, published in 1955) became widely known in Poland. Together with Krzysztof Boruń and Andrzej Trepka SF trilogy “Zagubiona przyszłość” (“Lost Future”), “Proxima” and “Kosmiczni bracia” (“Cosmic Brothers” - 1954-1957) they have created in the Polish literature this, based on the Soviet experiences, and even being ahead of the latter ***12/ – type of utopian literature (and thus a literary genre describing the future, or at least, desired arrangement of the humanity, and this way criticising the present political and social state of affairs), which purpose was to create a literary vision of communism. It should be also mentioned that satirical “anti-American” theatrical play “Jacht Paradise” (“Yacht Paradise”, published in 1951, and written together with Roman Hussarski), and written in the similar manner stories, which together with rather primitive “Wellsian” short stories (i.e. based on a description of one, unusual technological invention) together with initial grotesque stories from the cycle “Dzienniki gwiazdowe” (“The Star Diaries”), which made the 1954 collection “Sezam i inne opowiadania” (“Sesame and Other Stories”), were practically the whole Lem’s literary output in the first period of his artistic life.
Also beginning of the second period (years: 1955-1968), which is remembered –besides “Solaris”- due to such works as “Niezwyciężony” (“The Invincible”) and “Bajki robotów” (“Fairy Tales of the Robots”) in 1964, “Cyberiada” (“The Cyberiad”) in 1965, “Opowiadania o pilocie Pirxie” (“Tales of Pirx the Pilot”) and “Głos Pana” (“His Master’s Voice”) in 1968, as well as other works, did not bring immediately an answer in favour to SF to the question: “realistic contemporary prose or SF?”.
Initially, whilst working on “Dialogi” (“The Dialogues”) ***13/, which were devoted to his much loved subject: cybernetics, he has discovered his talents as an essayist and author of popular science books and articles. In this book, while discussing in a subtle way possibility of creation of an artificial intellect, and about chances of creating efficient system of government, he has also formulated basic framework of his conviction that the unknown awaiting us in the future is basically unpredictable.
Acceptance of this idea would have made it necessary for Lem to take a more serious interest in the gnoseologic reflection. His first attempt will be a “para-detective” novel “Śledztwo” (“The Investigation”) ***14/. Its plot is set in the (then) contemporary England, whilst the alleged fantastic element (“the unknown” is a mysterious force, which is apparently able to resurrect the dead – this mysterious force, and maybe a more real culprit, is unsuccessfully sought by the police), refers not to SF, but to a genre, which is generally, and rather superficially known as “ghotic novel”, and especially to its “zombie” subgenre, so popular in the West.
The direct genesis of “Solaris”, the novel we are interested here, was influenced – according to the author of this paper - by three more factors:
- Firstly , it seems that immediately before beginning the work on “Solaris” Lem became somehow disenchanted with the utopian visions of the future, which in their scholarly and socrealistic shape, were unable to carry the weight of its subject. Also Lem must have had lost in just few months his earlier conviction as to the proffertinc values of such socrealistic utopian literature ***15/.
In 1957 Lem has also made the second important choice: he has chosen the modern shape for his novels. So far he had recognised the author’s right to direct rule over the reality, as presented by him; he had only tried to avoid too much meddlesome comments (he had then highly valued Dostoyevsky and Mann). Now, writing a discerning essay about Camus’ “The Fall” (1956) ***16/ he has supported the writer’s right to use possibilities created by a combination of processes, which are presently called “departure of the author” - i.e. he has supported an application in his novel of a neutral or personal narrative perspective ***17/.
This idea could have lead Lem into the direction of psychological realism. However, it has happened differently: whilst writing “Eden” (1959) he has recognised usefulness of SF. It is true, that for time being only for the “earthly” settlement of accounts, as the political situation on planet Eden was, as a matter of fact, an image of Stalinist “mistakes and perversions” pushed up to the limits. However, not much later Lem wrote classical SF short stories: “Inwazja”(The Invasion”), “Przyjaciel” (“Friend”), “Test”, “Patrol”, “Ciemność i pleśń” (“Darkness and Mould”) and “Młot” (“The Sledgehammer”) ***18/. This way Lem has recognised SF as a genre worth new ideas, and worth the use of a highly artistic form. Thus we are at the threshold of “Solaris”.
At the end we should also mention the third element of the genesis of “Solaris”, namely the fact, that Poland of the late 1950s and early 1960s has discovered the Western mass culture. Lem has thus discovered American SF, as one of the elements of this phenomenon ***19/. It was then known in the US for about thirty years, and the general difference between it, and the older European utopian literature was mostly such, that the fantastic world created by the European utopian literature, world full of amazing technology, was regarded not as an ultimate objective, but as a background to the adventures of its heroes and heroines ***20/. And, finally, a yet another remark: while discussing the “discovery of SF” I keep on my mind an access to information, which is more in-depth, more competent. The reason is that it is not possible to say that during the years of Polish socrealism (from the late 1940s to the early and middle 1950s) information about the Western SF was not available at all in this country. The truth is that some such “condemnations” took a size of a substantial essay ***21/.
Those phenomena were, however, not of equal range. It has simply happened, that Lem, whilst preparing a review of American SF, has read, even before commencing his work on “Solaris”, seventeen thousand (as he has diligently wrote down) pages of American SF ***22/. It is also a truth, that after 1956 it can be observed in Poland a change in social atmosphere. On the level of a passer-by it resulted in crowds around a parked Western car, among the teenagers it resulted in a fascination with rock and roll and hoola-hop, and among those, aspiring to the so-called higher culture, resulted (among the others) in obsession with so-called crisis of values, fascination with existentialism and Western “black literature”.
Thus SF became fashionable as well. As it familiarised peoples of the West with so-called shock of the future – so it started to be published in Poland, despite the fact, that in those years, that shock did not really constitute any danger for the Poles. “Older” generation of Polish SF writers (Lem, Boruń and Trepka) was joined by Roman Gajda, Konrad Fiałkowski, Adam Hollanek, Bohdan Korewicki, Maciej Kuczyński. Eugeniusz Morski, Andrzej Ostoja, and, not much later, by Czesław Chruszczewski, Andrzej Czechowski, Jan Malinowski, Bohdan Petecki, Janusz A. Zajdel and others. “Czytelnik”, by publishing a collection of foreign SF stories “Rakietowe szlaki” (“Rocket Lanes”) made them popular among the Polish readers, whilst monthly popular science magazine “Młody Technik” (“Young Technician”) become a sponsor of the youngest generation of Polish SF writers.
There is no doubt, that as Western SF was in vogue, so this fashion (anyway, not the most important among the then contemporary styles) has influenced Lem. However, he did not became a mere follower of a contemporary fashion, as he has started a discussion with the genre, he has also defined terms and demands. SF was for Lem a subgenre of the fantastic literature, and he was looking for determinants of this broadly understood genre (as the whole traditional genology) in the obvious differences between “its world” and the real world, world beyond the fantastic world created by the literature. SF is different from the fairy-tale in this, that in SF author takes care to make everything (at least on the surface) look probable, or, at least, not being in a direct contravention to the laws of nature (thus “science fiction” - fiction based on science). To achieve this result, author of SF takes advantage of science (real or imaginary). SF is thus in direct contrast to fairy-tale, where author does not take care for probability or for laws of nature, but virtually always assumes some high moral order, so in fairy-tale justice always wins, virtue is always rewarded and evil always looses. Contemporary literary fairy-tale (“fantasy”) does not any longer take care for those moral laws, but, like traditional fairy-tales, disregards probability and laws of the nature.
Lem has awarded such understood SF a range of myth… and prophecy. But only for the whole genre, not for the majority of actual SF works, which he has condemned because of their primitive structure, conformism, and intellectual shallowness. He has accused SF of such sins as lack of seriously presented eroticism, poor presentation of psychological dilemmas, resulted from a contact of a human being with the future, importunate anthropomorphism, “extending Earth to the limits of the Galaxy”, formal conservatism, and sensational plot (as a framework): all this incompatible with potentially valuable (and with potential futurological value) serious reflection on the future. All the above (and we can hear in this place an echo of the mentioned essay on Camus) makes it impossible, according to Lem, to write a really good SF novel:
“Novel is like an open space or a nicely built-up area. The reader, while progressing with the plot, rises (so to say), higher and higher, so he or she is able to see in more detail the internal logic of the novel, its general architectural plan, as well as complicated relations between different elements of the whole work, and, finally, the complete picture of this whole work – not as a simple arithmetic sum of the elements, but as an integral, of a new, previously unknown value […] That gradual increase of the horizon, enrichment of the frames, complication of not just adventures, but relationships, this is what is lacking in the great majority of SF novels. […] To build a novel it is not sufficient to know the basic procedures, or to have some unrelated ideas. A novel must be a whole, but in SF […] the only whole is the genre itself”. ***23/
Whilst not forgetting the date, when the above text was originally published, it is possible, according to the author of this essay, to interpret “Solaris” as an attempt to fill this gap, an attempt to cope with the postulates defined by Lem himself.


The remote future: humanity in the “cosmodromic” era of advanced space travel discovers antigravitation and is ready to answer to any possible provocation by the “aliens” with antimatter, reaches the limit of the Galaxy. On a remote, covered by a kind of a living (sentient?) “ocean”, a trio of scientists with names sounding very English, X-rays its plasma with a hard, potentially killing radiation. And then on their orbiting space station appear the “guests” (“visitors”): materialisation of their obsessions, previously hidden at the very bottom of their subsconsciousnesses. Those creations are subjectively confident, that they are the real human beings. Everyday, those “guests” behave as ordinary human beings. Only when provoked, they show their real, inhuman nature: when killed, they resurrect themselves, when separated from the “host”, they are able to tear metal walls apart with bare hands. Scientist, who proposed this X-ray experiment, commits a suicide, and the rest hectically tries to destroy those “phantoms”. At the station arrives a new researcher. His “guest” will be a reincarnation of a girl, who killed herself ten years ago, because of unhappy love affair with him. Our hero, at the beginning, reacts as the others, but later he falls in love with her. In the meantime his colleagues discover a method to get rid of those “guests”: they can be disintegrated by a specially constructed ray-projector. But Kelvin, our hero, wants to rescue his fiancée, so we have a serious conflict…
Obviously, the plot of “Solaris” will not follow the above scenario. But, even if that variant, mentioned in one of Kelvin’s dreams, will not be followed, this does not mean that the plot of “Solaris” is radically different to the stereotypes of SF. Let us compare the above synopsis of the plot of “Solaris” to Lem’s own précis of Cordwainer Smith’s story “The Game of Rat and Dragon”:
“In the space lie, in wait for the rockets, uncanny monsters made of stellar gas or dust – they attack space ships, and, on a surface, cause no harm, but later their passengers die or become mad. Only people with telepathic abilities can sense proximity of those monsters, commonly called “the dragons”. Those monsters can be annihilated by special photon (“light”) bombs, which are on board of all rockets, but there is no sufficient time between the sensing of the danger and the actual attack. To the rescue arrive ordinary domestic cats, for which those “dragons” are simply “cosmic rats”. Cats, acting together with the human telepaths, thanks to the links to the telepathic network “ ***24/ …
“To be honest, I am no longer able to continue this story” ends Lem with a deep distaste. However, the plot of “Solaris”, with just a little bit of more adventure, could become a phenomenon of the same magnitude as Cordwainer Smith’s story ***25/. Even more: introduction of “cosmic monster” (i.e. Solarian Ocean) and psychoanalysis, is not much different to Cordwainer Smith’s parapsychology, so it could be said, that “Solaris” somehow refers to the old, shabby, and very American patterns. And finally, it should be mentioned here, that those psychoanalytic motifs helped “Solaris”, without any doubt, to achieve good sales in the West, and especially in the US.
This was a conscious choice by the writer – a reformer of the genre. He wanted to show, on the basis of something typical, various not yet utilised possibilities. The new element was to be replacement of the intrigue (developed on the background of the fantastic reality) by a serious psychological analysis. Obviously, this required different construction of the whole novel, for example different dominants of its composition. Thus the events, which the reader will observe in the space station, will be, objectively, not really interesting. Kris shall live again (but in a weird way) his old romance, and there will be another attempts to contact the Ocean. At the very end Kelvin’s colleagues will build this annihilation-ray gun, but there will be no sensational events, not even a decent fight. Quite contrary: Harey (Rheya) will demand to be atomised, as this is the only way for her to kill herself.
But, as a trade-off, the reader shall see the Unknown, and how the individual human beings can react to it. One of the solarists, Snaut (Snow) shall say in one moment: “We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. […] We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of planet, of a civilisation superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past” ***26/.
Star voyages are possible today only in SF, so the problem is, so far, only of literary (artistic) and theoretical nature. It touches the basic limitation of the fantastic literature (and, to some extent, fantastic cinema as well): the necessity to build a fantastic motif from the conventional, realistic elements. Thus the only real difference is in quantity, not in quality. For example: giant is just a gigantic man, space ship is like a very big and very fast aeroplane, and so on. For that reason alone, we frequently smile, whilst reading even not very old SF, especially containing predictions as to the future.
The above necessity decreases, in a large extent, futurological (proffetic) value of the genre, as the future will never be like present, only magnified. As Lem wanted to treat futurological tasks of SF seriously (which is especially necessary in the subject of the aliens on remote planets), so he tried to create in his imaginary world of planet Solaris elements of different quality . It is the Solarian Ocean itself, with whom, according to Lem, humanity has a scientific encounter. In the other words: either as individuals and as institutions, which create a given branch of science, or as individuals, who can only depend on the strength their own mind and character.
Constructing an image of the “alien”, Lem applied the principle of “non-coherent traits”. Few years after “Solaris” he made this comment:
“Recognisable traits of the others should consist such a set of elements, that only a part of this set could be classified. When we try to classify all its elements, than the frame breaks, and traits become spread, so we have to start our task again from the very beginning” ***27/.
And thus – during the one hundred years of the development of solaristics (which the reader learns, while Kris peruses and discusses the classics of this science), there was no real progress in learning about the true nature of the Ocean. This should not be any surprise, as Lem created the idea of a sentient ocean in such a way, that it should be gradually becoming obvious for the reader that:
“Reduction ***28/ of the phenomena, which are the elements of the Ocean’s “normal activity” (such as creation of the “symmetriads”, “asymmetriads”, “mimoids” “extensors” ***29/, “stained in blood angels’ wings” to one idea, contained within rational domain, becomes impossible, as there are no available cultural meanings, which could be assigned to those phenomena, which the solaristics was only able to name. At the same time, peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings.” ***30/.
Although bibliography of the solaristics contain entries for thousands of items (which Lem thoroughly indicates, as there is no other way to describe the development of a science, even imaginary one, on just few pages of text), it is no more that a descriptive (idiographic) science. It was unable to formulate even a single law. Further more: it has passed its peak. The troika of the scientists was expected to conduct only routine observations. However, the phenomena observed by Kelvin can be only described as a scientific breakthrough.
“The next element of the syllogism, which makes the thesis assuming “intelligence” of the Ocean more likely than its opposite thesis of “purely physical nature of those phenomena” is everything, which happens on the station as a result of the oceans activity. The “extensors” and “symmetriads” alone could be, in the last resort, described as a kind of “local geysers” of some peculiar type. However, it is not possible to do so with the human beings, that became to appear on the board of the station, after being synthesised by the Ocean. Those creatures, by their appearance alone, support strongly the thesis advocating intentional character of all Ocean’s deeds. This applies also to those acts, which have no link at all to the presence of the human beings on the planet.” ***31/
Personally, I am of an opinion, that this “incoherrency principle” was applied by Lem with consequence. It is so, because even if one assumes intentional activity of the Solarian Ocean, than nothing would be still explained “in full. The readers, and the heroes of the novel alike, try in vain to reduce those phenomena to a kind of a rational activity, known to the humans. Hypothesis of “imperfect God” is a kind of logical humbug, as it explains nothing. This hypothesis can be warranted by a psychological order, as the heroes of the novel need to interpret somehow the reasons of their adventures. This hypothesis can be also warranted by a theoretical analysis of the novel, as “Solaris” is based on the typical structures of SF genre, where all puzzles should be (and usually are) explainable and explained.
Confrontation of the humanity, our way of thinking, with the Unknown constructed in such manner, ends with a total failure. But reading of a problem formulated in this way is a task for the reader. It is a task hidden behind rather random behaviour and thinking of Kelvin – “Solaris” can be thus understood as a kind of his rather subjective memoirs (as two months of action were reduced to just six days).
We know about the problem connected with the novel and its plot only as much, as we can assume during its lecture ***32/. Kelvin, above all, describes only this, which is significant to him. For example: he is not interested in the technology, which surrounds him, and even if he is forced to do so, he is more concerned with the principles of its operation than its look. He is simply not more concerned with that marvellous technology than we are concerned with today’s technology, technology present in our own environment. This is the second main reason why “Solaris” has aged only marginally. However, the novel starts to be fusty when Lem forgets about this principle (for example when he describes radio transmitters with vacuum tubes ***33/, tape recorders, or Main Solarian Library equipped with ninety thousand reels of microfilm). Even more: Kris’ position on the station is quite special from the beginning: firstly , he has come during the period of Ocean’s unusual activity, so he has to seek the truth alone ***34/, and secondly , his “guest” is of an unusually kind nature.
Finally: the narrative is influenced by the fact that Kelvin is a psychologist, so he does not spare us his introspective analysis or delicate suggestions as to the behaviour of Sartorius and Snaut (Snow). And he does it not accidentally. He makes it possible for Lem to attempt to describe how different personalities can react to an encounter with the Unknown. Behaviour of the solarists is researched by Lem in two aspects: attempts to rationalise and fear of the danger.
The first of those problems can be found even in Lem-socrealist ***35/, and was instrumental in selecting the graveyard theme of novel “Śledztwo” (1959, “The Investigation”, 1974). The question is if a researcher, when encounters something, which does not fit in his or her comprehension, has a right to doubt in his (her) sanity or in the rationality of the universe? Lem answer is no: he or she should not, although this solution seems to be very tempting for our solarists. However, while attempting to describe experiences of a scientist, who has to face such a choice, Lem falls in a trap of twofold contradictions:
Firstly – psychological, as to emphasise the heroic choice of a rational attitude it is necessary to show also a fear of the individual facing such a phenomenon (which is about to be rationally explained). However, after providing such a rational explanation, the initial fear must produce (in the reader’s mind) a feeling of pity.
Secondly – specific, as mixing of real elements with fantastic elements is rather typical for so-called weird fiction ***36/, where in a “fissure” created by the author in our congruous, “normal” picture of the universe, enters something uncanny. However, pure (hard) SF tolerates only such fantastic elements, which are rational, or, at least, are likely to be rational. Thus the reader, who knows that “Solaris’ belong to the SF genre, does not believe in Kelvin’s fear: the reader simply refuses to share this fear.
Further psychological analyses by Lem make the crevice on the monolith of the novel’s edifice even deeper. It is thanks to those analyses (and not fantastic elements), that “Solaris” can be easily classified as a novel written in the early 1960s.Making an attempt to formally refresh the genre, Lem identified all modern prose with the French existentialist anti-novel (anyway, this was quite understandable in that period). Thus “Solaris’ accepted, with the “benefit of inventory”, its unbearable rhetoric and its peculiar concept of an individual. Anyway: it was quite easy to interpret the situation of our three scientists as ultimate and existential. And in such a way “Solaris” was read by the contemporary critics, for example by Stanisław Grochowiak, a leading representative of the so-called “dark literature” ***37/, who wrote a very positive review of Lem’s novel ***38/.
Finishing, I shall cite two pronouncements of Kelvin, in which such psychological influences can be easily recognised. The first is after the first encounter with the “guest”:
“I was stunned. My thoughts ran wild. What was happening to me? If my reason was giving way, the sooner I lost consciousness the better. The idea of sudden extinction aroused an inexpressible, unrealistic hope” ***39/.
And how Kelvin confesses to Harey (Rheya) his feelings, after she had discovered the secret of her “origin”:
"You may have been sent to torment me, or to make my life happier, or as an instrument ignorant of its function, used like a microscope with me, on the slide. Possibly you are here as a token of friendship, or a subtle punishment, or even as a joke. It could be all of those at once, or - which is more probable ? something else completely. If you say that our future depends on the ocean's intentions, I can't deny it. I can't tell the future any more than you can. I can't even swear that I shall always love you. After what has happened already, we can expect anything. Suppose tomorrow it turns me into a green jellyfish! It's out of our hands. But the decision we make today is in our hands. Let's decide to stay together.” ***40/
It was not my intention to declare that Lem had nothing to say in the domain of human psychology ***41/ (for example it is a good idea to look closer into controversial Sartorius), but it looks like such intellectual stand as illustrated by the first of the quotations cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of the “fashions” of this era (early 1960s). I have always seen those fashions, especially in the movies of those years, in outlines of its heroes: smart young men dressed in black turtle-necked pullovers and trench coats, riding scooters, and girls in bell-shaped (flaring) skirts. Those girls usually were wisely silent. Their silence could be hiding the extreme tension of their minds – as well as masking their intellectual emptiness.


“Solaris: - a novel about humanity encounter with the Unknown, was, as a rule, read either as a psychological novel, with rather weak links to SF ***42/ (a novel, which has chosen an original costume to analyse old problems of love, responsibility and danger), or as a rather traditional fantastic romance about the cosmonauts who encounter the danger in deep space. The latter approach assumes that Lem had only extended the sphere of psychological analysis a little bit, and that the nature of the Ocean can be explained by the above mentioned flawed hypothesis of imperfect God. There were also other, entirely facultative attempts of the exegesis of the novel, such as that, which was made by the Soviet critics, and mentioned by Lem in “Fantastyka i futurologia” ***43/. According to this “school” the Ocean and the solarists are the symbols of the society and the individual! And “Solaris’ is really a novel about such impossibility of a meaningful contact.
All those propositions of explanation could not address the real value of Lem’s masterpiece. This is, most likely, the only fantastic idea, which could be realised. For sure, we do encounter phenomena, which are beyond our cognitive abilities. Thus the way, Lem has described them (such as even ex post, i.e. after the lecture of the novel, those phenomena remain the Unknown), has proved to be the only possible one. Neither Lem, nor numerous contemporary Polish SF writers were able to repeat Lem’s accomplishment: they were unable to invent a fantastic idea, which would not age. In his subsequent books Lem has chosen more traditional and more utopian SF, i.e. SF rich in various hypotheses (usually futurological) – as a rule exceptionally original, but presented in the “sensible” and “objective” way. In such ideas he saw the major value of his SF. At the end he has gave up his literary ambitions sensu stricte : since 1968 he was writing (with relatively few exceptions such as novels “Fiasco” or “Peace on Earth”) mainly essays, which he had fictionised only rarely and in superficial way ***44/.
And what about the genre? Science Fiction has been accepted in Poland for good. Nowadays, numerous (mostly private) publishing houses release every month tens of titles. There are several dozens of leading Polish SF writers, and popular SF monthly “Fantastyka” (since the early 1990s “Nowa Fantastyka”) has no problems with sales. However, the writers gave up the program proposed by Lem in “Solaris”: the program that postulated the presence of SF in so-called “upper echelon of literature. As a rule (with only few exceptions) Polish SF (as well as the Western, mostly English language SF), has chosen the proven, “hackneyed” ways. Thus it either develops outside the market, in the domain of “fandom” ***45/, or as heavily commercialised “mainstream” SF, for the entertainment of numerous readers. Thus it can be said that SF has chosen commercialisation. However, SF deserves acknowledgement and appreciation, for in the beginning of its Polish career it has produced a masterpiece, which was able to show the way of its potential advancement. This was indeed very unusual for a popular genre ***46/.

© Wojciech Kajtoch 1983, 1995, 2002
© For English language translation: Wojciech Kajtoch & Lech Keller 2002

Selected Bibliography 47***

Balcerzak, Ewa “Stanisław Lem” Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1973
Balcerzan, Edward - Review of “Solaris” in “Teksty” No. 4 of 1973
Bratny, Roman “Propozycje dyskusji o prozie i poezji” (“Propositions to a Discussion on the Subject of Prose and Poetry”) in “Twórczość” No. 11 of 1949 Bugajski, Leszek “Spotkania drugiego stopnia” (“Encounters of the Second Kind”) Kraków: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1983
Caillois, Roger “Od baśni do `science fiction’” (“From Fairy-Tale to `SF’”) in: “Odpowiedzialność i styl” (Responsibility and Style”) Warszawa, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1967 (translated by J. Lisowski from “De la féerie a la science-fiction” Paris, 1966)
Graff, Vera “Homo futurus. Analiza współczesnej Science Fiction” (“Homo Futurus. An Analysis of the Contemporary SF”) Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1975 (translated by Z. Fonferko from “Homo Futurus: Eine Analyse der modern SF” Hamburg & Düsseldorf, 1971)
Handke, Ryszard “Polska proza fantastyczno-naukowa. Problemy poetyki” (“Polish SF Prose. The Problems of Poetics”) Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1969
Handke, Ryszard “Ze Stanisławem Lemem na szlakach fantastyki naukowej” (“With Stanisław Lem on Trails of SF”) Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne, 1991
Jarzębski, Jerzy (editor and author of the introduction) “Lem w oczach krytyki światowej” (“Lem in the Eyes of World Criticism”) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1989
Keller, Lech “Annotated and Cross-Referenced Primary and Secondary Bibliography of Stanisław Lem”, Occasional Paper No. 17, Polish Studies, Monash University: Melbourne 2000
Keller, Lech “Visions of the Future in the Writings of Stanisław Lem” (PhD thesis, Monash University: Melbourne 2001)
Krywak, Piotr “Fantastyka Lema - droga do `Fiaska’" (“Lem's SF - the Way to `Fiasco’") Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Wyższej Szkoły Pedagogicznej, 1994
Krywak, Piotr “Stanisław Lem” Warszawa-Kraków: PWN, 1974
Lasota, Grzegorz “O sytuacji w literaturze dla młodzieży” (“About the Situation in the Literature for the Young People”) in “Twórczość” No. 8 of 1951
Lam, Andrzej - Review of “Solaris” in “Widnokręgi” No. 5 of 1962
Łazariew, M. “Otwiestwiennost’ fantasta” (“Responsibility of the Fantastic Writer”) in “O litieraturie dla dietiej” (“On the Literature for the Children”) No. 10 of 1965 (Leningrad: “Dietskaja litieratura”)
Lem, Stanisław “Fantastyka i futurologia” (“Fantastics and Futurology”), Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1989 (3rd edition)
Lem, Stanisław “Imperializm na Marsie” (”Imperialism on Mars”) in “Życie Literackie” No. 7 of 1953
Lem, Stanisław “O współczesnych zadaniach i metodzie pisarstwa fantastyczno-naukowego” (“About the Contemporary Tasks and Methods of SF Authorship”) in “Nowa Kultura No. 39 of 1952
Lem, Stanisław “Science-fiction” in “Twórczość” Nr 2 of 1959, reprinted in “Wejście na orbitę” (“Getting Into Orbit”), 1962
Lem, Stanisław ”Sex wars”, Warszawa: Nova, 1996
Lem, Stanisław “Wejście na orbitę” (“Getting Into Orbit”), Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1962
Scheckley, Robert” “Duch V” in “Fantastyka” No. 4 of 1983 (in original “Ghost V”)
Smuszkiewicz, Antoni “Stanisław Lem” Poznań, Dom Wydawniczy "Rebis", 1995
Smuszkiewicz, Antoni “Stereotyp fabularny fantastyki naukowej” (“Stereotype of the Plot in SF) Wrocław: Ossolineum 1980
Spinc, J. “Na widnokręgu” (“On the Horizon” - reports about the situation in the literature for the young people) in “Twórczość” No. 9 of 1950, No. 8 of 1952, No. 6 of 1953 and No. 3 of 1954
Stoff, Andrzej “Powieści fantastyczno-naukowe Stanisława Lema” (“SF Novels of Stanisław Lem”) Warszawa-Poznań-Toruń: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1983
Stoff, Andrzej - Review of “Solaris in “Twórczość” No. 6 of 1978
Toeplitz, Krzysztof Teodor - Review of “Solaris” in “Przegląd Kulturalny” No. 39 of 1961
Trznadlowski, Jan “Próba poetyki science-fiction” (“An Attempt at the Poetics of Science Fiction”) in “Z teorii i historii literatury” (“From the Theory and History of Literature”), Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1963
Wójcik, Andrzej “Okno kosmosu. Wybrane zagadnienia polskiej prozy fantastyczno-naukowej” (“Window of the Space. Selected Topics of the Polish SF Prose”) Warszawa, Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1980
Wydmuch, Marek: “Gra ze strachem. Fantastyka grozy” (“A Game with the Fear. `Gothic' Fantasy”) Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1975 (an analysis of `gothic' stories subgenre of the fantastic literature)
Zgorzelski, Andrzej “Fantastyka. Utopia. Science Fiction. Ze studiów nad rozwojem gatunków” (“Fantastics. Utopia. Science Fiction. From the Studies on the Development of Genres”), Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1980

An Interview with Lem by “jch”: “Bajkopisarz dla dorosłych” (“Author of Fairy Tales for the Adults”) in “Echo Krakowa” No. 48 of 1956
An interview with Lem in "Echo Krakowa" (Cracow) No. 48 of 1956 and 116 of 1959
An interview with Lem in "Express Poznański" (Poznań) No. 73 of 1957 and 118 of 1960
An interview with Lem in "Express Wieczorny" (Warsaw) No. 3 of 1958.
An interview with Lem in "Trybuna Robotnicza" (Katowice) No. 145 of 1958


1*** The original text was to be published in "Życie Literackie" in a cycle "Nowe lektury szkolne" (“New Reading List for High Schools”). It should be also noted that in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Lem’s socrealistic SF novel "Obłok Magellana" (“Magellanic Cloud”) was a mandatory item on the reading list.
2*** Well-know critics of literature (translator’s note).
3*** Especially to such important languages as (in alphabetical order) English, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish (translator’s note).
4*** A popular resort in Polish Tatra Mountains (translator’s note).
5*** His early (1951) socrealistic SF novel “Astronauci” (“The Astronauts”) was filmed in 1960 as “Der Schweigende Stern” ("Milcząca gwiazda" or “Silent Star”) by Kurt Mätzig and Hieronim Przybył (joint Polish and East German production).
6*** October 1956, when Stalinism (as a ruling ideology) was finally eradicated in Poland.
7*** Such a photograph (most likely made at the studio while filming “The Silent Star”) was published by popular Upper Silesian broadsheet "Trybuna Robotnicza" (No. 145 of 1958). In this period Lem used to be frequently interviewed, for example by popular tabloids such as "Echo Krakowa" (Cracow) No. 48 of 1956 and 116 of 1959, "Express Poznański" (Poznań) No. 73 of 1957 and 118 of 1960 and "Express Wieczorny" (Warsaw) No. 3 of 1958. Those interviews were, as a rule, reprinted in the provincial newspapers.
8*** Original version of “Szpital Przemienienia” was published as late as in 1975. It was translated to the English language as “Hospital of the Transfiguration” (1988) – translator’s note.
9*** Common in post war Poland, where its intelligentsia still could not come to terms with the collapse of the pre-war capitalist Poland, as well as with the total failure of their Weltanschauung, i.e. their world-view (translator’s note).
10*** ”Rightist deviation”, i.e. socialdemocratic tendencies in the communist movement (translator’s note).
11*** At the very end of Stalinism and socrealism in Poland (translator’s note).
12*** Here I have on my mind rather the way, in which theory and practice of socrealism influenced Lem, whose utopian way of addressing the reality is well known. As to the Soviet SF literature: in the late 1940s and early 1950s it rather preferred visions “on the limits of possible”, thus it was a kind of very cautious and avoiding utopian elements “hard” SF (in the original “fantastyka technologiczna” i.e. “technological fantastic literature”). Soviet SF changed its strategy only in the second half of the 1950s, when it steered into the utopia. It was in this period (1957), when Ivan Efremov’s (Yefremov’s) “Andromeda Nebula” was published. Thus it is possible to say, that however strangely it would sound, Lem’s “Magellanic Cloud” (and, in the lesser extent, “The Astronauts”) were the precursors of the Marxian utopian literature on the international scale.
13*** Lem had begun writing “The Dialogues” at the end of 1954. The book was published in 1957.
14*** Lem wrote “The Investigation” between April 1957 and January 1958; the novel was published in1959.
15*** It is worth to compare two statements by Lem:
1. “Realism is a true (i.e. in the agreement with objective reality) artistic reflection of the society’s main currents and trends. Author of contemporary novels shows in his works this objective reality in a direct manner, whilst author of fantastic novels, basing on the actual trends, extrapolates them into the future, and this way, so to say, brings them into relief, and presents them in a significant magnification.” - “Imperializm na Marsie” (”Imperialism on Mars”), “Życie Literackie” No. 7 of 1953.
2. “All slyness in writing a SF novel is based on obliteration of a boundary between the scientific theory and the fantastic fiction… I employ imagination; I create a literary fiction. In SF it is not important, if it is possible to implement some theory, or not. Fantastic books should provide a substitute of the future… SF – it is a kind of fairy tales for the adult’s… main interest of literature is a human being… I do regard SF as a second class literature.” Interview by “jch”: “Bajkopisarz dla dorosłych” (“Author of Fairy Tales for the Adults”) in “Echo Krakowa” No. 48 of 1956.
This, undoubtedly great shift of opinion, which was shown above, is usually disregarded by the lemologists. They do not take under the consideration programmatic texts of Lem-socrealist (“Imperializm na Marsie” and “O współczesnych zadaniach i metodzie pisarstwa fantastyczno-naukowego” – “Imperializm on Mars” and “About the Contemporary Tasks and Methods of SF Authorship”-the latter in “Nowa Kultura No. 39 of 1952), as they (rather conveniently) regard them as “not written in a serious manner”. Their argument is either that (in the Stalinist period) Lem “had to write that, i.e. socrealistic, way”, or that Lem was in the reality, as an author of SF literature, from the very beginning, against the socrealism. The latter argument is based on the fact, that SF literature is, by definition, not a realistic genre, so it cannot conform to the norms of socrealism. Thus they argue, that Lem was always disinclined to the socrealism. Thus, if he was ill disposed to the socrealism, so he could not write those socrealistic manifestos in the honest way (as there is no doubt that both ”Imperialism on Mars” and “About the Contemporary Tasks and Methods of SF authorship” were indeed such socrealistic manifestos).
Obviously, only the second argument, as testable, is worth a polemic. The author of this essay is of an opinion, that utopian SF was indeed supported by the Polish (communist) government in the early 1950s. Maybe this support was not especially strong, but it was, above all, official. SF was supported mostly as a literature that facilitated technical education of the Polish youth, and thus prepared them to design, build and operate the modern machinery, especially the modern weapons, during the time of intensive Cold War. There are direct and indirect proofs of this proposition. There are: a paper by Grzegorz Lasota: “O sytuacji w literaturze dla młodzieży” (“About the Situation in the Literature for the Young People”) in “Twórczość” No. 8 of 1951, reports by J. Spinc in “Twórczość” (No. 9 of 1950, No. 8 of 1952, No. 6 of 1953 and No. 3 of 1954), as well as numerous reviews of translations of Soviet (mostly Russian) SF. It is my opinion that there is no factual difference between the utopian literature and the future-oriented socrealism. Quite contrary: see, for example, Roman Bratny “Propozycje dyskusji o prozie i poezji” (“Propositions to a Discussion on the Subject of Prose and Poetry”) in “Twórczość” No. 11 of 1949. The final argument is the very fact that both “Astronauci” and “Obłok Magellana” were published by the official, state and (communist) party-controlled publishing houses (the former by “Czytelnik” in 1951 and the latter by “Iskry” in 1955). After all, there were the times, when the only kind of literature, which was published in Poland, was that one, which was officially sanctioned by the ruling communist party (the only exception was catholic literature, which had very few titles and rather short print runs). This does not mean than all SF was supported, but the only kind of SF, which was condemned by the authorities, was its American variety. But as Lem did not write neither “Astronauci” nor “Obłok Magellana” in this style (“Man from Mars” was only serialised in 1946, when the communists did not yet had a full control over the publishing industry), so it is rather difficult to seriously write about Lem’s opposition to the socrealism. Therefore one is forced to assume, that those Lem’s manifestos, which so strongly supported socrealism, were indeed the true statements of their author’s opinions and beliefs.
16*** ”Speaks a Voice From the Darkness”, reprinted in his “Wejście na orbitę” (1962, “Getting Into Orbit”).
17*** By neutral narrative perspective it is understood here a kind of “author’s hiding” behind the presented world. This “presenting” is in this case done from the perspective of a non-personal and objective subject. However, this subject is “in this (i.e. presented) world”, so it does not have more knowledge than its other inhabitants do. By personal narrative perspective it is understood here a situation, when the author “hides” behind the image of the world, which is created using the point of view of an entity, which lives in this imaginary world. Obviously, Lem did not use them those terms. The term “narrative perspective” is used here in the meaning according to that, which was coined by Stanisław Eile in his “Światopogląd powieści” (1973, “Novel’s World-view”).
18*** Collected in “Inwazja z Aldebarana” (Invasion from Aldebaran) Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1959.
19*** It was then described in Poland as “an American variety of futuristic fantastic literature”.
20*** I did not invent genological definitions used in this essay. I am especially indebted to the ideas coined by Andrzej Zgorzelski in “Fantastyka. Utopia. Science Fiction. Ze studiów nad rozwojem gatunków” (1980, “Fantastics. Utopia. Science Fiction. From the Studies on the Development of Genres”). Anyway, many of the theses contained here are not mine. See also attached bibliography of works, used in writing this paper.
21*** For example: “Miodowy miesiąc w piekle” (“Honeymoon in the Hell”) in “Twórczość” No. 9 of 1953.
22*** “Science-fiction” in “Twórczość” Nr 2 of 1959, reprinted in “Wejście na orbitę” (“Getting Into Orbit”), Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1962. This essay is a basic source of information about Lem’s opinions on SF in the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
23*** “Wejście na orbitę”, op. cit. pp 16-17.
24*** “Wejście na orbitę”, op. cit. p 33.
25*** To be more precise, I keep on my mind only the skeleton, or a plan of the plot. As a proof I would like to use a story by Robert Scheckley “Ghost V” (published as “Duch V” in “Fantastyka” No. 4 of 1983). This story is based on the same idea as “Solaris”: on a remote planet the cosmonauts witness materialisation of the products of their imagination. However, Sheckley's story was written for the pure entertainment: in a convention of innocent absurd, or as a satire, rather than in the serious and psychological convention of “Solaris”.
26*** S. Lem “Solaris” London: Faber & Faber, 1970 p. 72. Translated from 1966 French translation of “Solaris” by Jean-Michel Jasiensko (from “Solaris” Warszawa: Wydawnictwo MON, 1961) by Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox.
27*** S. Lem “Fantastyka i futurologia” Kraków, Wydawnictwo Literackie 1989 (3rd ed.) vol. II p. 364.
28*** In the original “przywiedlność” –translator’s note.
29*** In the original “długonie” – translated as “extensors” by J. Kilmartin & S. Cox (“Solaris” op. cit. p. 111) – translator’s note.
30*** S. Lem “Fantastyka….” op. cit. vol. II p. 365.
31*** S. Lem “Fantastyka….” op. cit. vol. II p. 365.
32*** Nota bene: the Unknown can be presented only from a point of view, which is defined by a personal point of view, which, in turn, depends on a narrative perspective. Author, incarnated in a narrator or reasoners (mentors), would have to firstly define and classify this Unknown.
33*** Translator’s note: Lem seems to be fascinated with vacuum tubes. For example: in earlier “Astronauci” (1951) he has described in detail personal radio transmitters/receivers based on miniature vacuum tubes, and all this was to happen in the beginning of our (21st) century. In defence of Lem can be only said that vacuum tubes-based amplifiers are still manufactured, and that they are considered by some audiophiles as superior to those based on the solid state technology (transistors, integrated circuits etc.).
34*** “The truth” is to be understood here as a mere collection of facts, not its sense or interpretation, as it is virtually impossible for the humans to find the real motives for the Ocean’s activity.
35*** Concretely in a short story “Topolny i Czwartek”, (“Topolny and Czwartek”) in collection “Sezam i inne opowiadania” (“Sesame and Other Stories”, Warszawa: Iskry, 1954), where one excessively polite and unfriendly young scientist makes fun of himself (and becomes rebuked) when he sees a wooden image of an idol floating in the air (seemingly without any rational reason), and instead of trying to research this phenomenon, he irrationally panics.
36*** In Polish “fantastyka grozy” (translator’s note).
37*** In Polish “czarna literatura” (translator’s note).
38*** In “Nowa Kultura” (No. 39 of 1961) he wrote that in “Solaris” there is an overwhelming atmosphere of “fear, loneliness and torment. It could be said that the atmosphere is `existential’, if this term had still any meaning”. The same judgement was also made by another Polish leading literary critic, Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz (in “Przegląd Kulturalny” No. 39 of 1961). He wrote: “Lem tells his heroes to travel to a remote planet, and to look how the red and blue suns set down – only to, while placing them in this inhuman scenery, show their very human natures”. For Andrzej Lam (in “Widnokręgi” No. 5 of 1962) all of the problems presented in “Solaris” were “dummy, consisting of pure speculation, with only purpose of intellectual gymnastics”. Generally: Polish critics initially did not show much interest in “Solaris”.
39*** S. Lem “Solaris” 1970 ( op. cit. ) p. 48.
40*** S. Lem “Solaris” 1970 ( op. cit. ) p. 145.
41*** In the original “psychologia postaci”. However, as this term strictly means so-called Gestalt psychology (Gestatlpsychologie), so I have assumed that the author of this essay had in mind simply a kind of human psychology (and especially its branch concerned with human personality, or personage) – translator’s note.
42*** Separate analyses of “Solaris” were also made (in Polish) by Edward Balcerzan (in “Teksty” No. 4 of 1973) and by Andrzej Stoff (in “Twórczość” No. 6 of 1978). This novel is also analysed in virtually every work on the subject of Lem or Polish SF.
43*** See p. 315 of first volume of “Fantastyka i futurologia” Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1973 (2nd ed.). Similar ideas were pronounced by M. Łazariew in the middle 1960s on the SF symposium in Leningrad. See: M. Łazariew: “Otwiestwiennost’ fantasta” (“Responsibility of the Fantastic Writer”) in “O litieraturie dla dietiej” (“On the Literature for the Children”) No. 10 of 1965 (Leningrad: “Dietskaja litieratura”).
44*** Such as “Pitavale XXI wieku” (“Crime Chronicles of the 21st Century”) in collection ”Sex wars”, Warszawa: Nova, 1996.
45*** In the Polish original “’klubach miłośników’ hobbystów – fanów” (translator’s note).
46*** Since finishing the first version of this essay it has passed several years, but the situation did not change much. SF writers still do not show greater ambitions in the areas of psychology or aesthetics: they seem to be afraid of formal experiments, which could scare potential readers. Further more: in the 1990s and presently there could be noticed a crisis of the genre. SF has encountered a mighty competitor: the fantasy genre. Finally, it should be noticed, that since 1990 “Solaris” is no longer on the mandatory reading list in the Polish high schools.
47*** This bibliography does not include Lem’s fiction. For details see, for example, Lech Keller “Annotated and Cross-Referenced Primary and Secondary Bibliography of Stanisław Lem” Clayton, Victoria (Australia): Monash University, 2000 (Series: Occasional Papers No. 17 - Polish Studies. Department of German Studies and Slavic Studies).

Author’s note: This essay was published in Polish (in an abridged version) in the collection “Lektury licealisty. Szkice” (“Lectures of a High School Student. Essays”) edited by W. Pykosz and L. Bugajski, Wrocław, Ossolineum, 1986 pp. 137-149. It was originally printed in “Życie Literackie” No. 48 of 1983. This translation will be published soon by Monash University in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) in the next edition of "Acta Polonica Monashiensis.