Lem’s Things

9 September 2021

Acclaimed authors are about more than just words – they also present a carefully honed image and reach for iconic items. Some go as far as setting their entire way of working around them. John Steinbeck only wrote in pencil – the Palomino Blackwing brand – and he started every day by sharpening a whopping 24 of them. Agatha Christie sipped cream from a huge cup with “Don’t be greedy” written on the side. Some had trademark outfits: Terry Pratchett wore a large black hat, Leopold Tyrmand favoured brightly-coloured socks, and Joan Didion sported sunglasses. So what do we associate Stanisław Lem with?

Let’s start with his desk. Although his mind was constantly racing to the future by speculating on prospective new technologies, his workplace was entirely analogue. He never converted to using a computer – perhaps because by the time they really entered the market in Poland he was of quite an advance age – and remained loyal to his trusty typewriter. When he was 12 years old, his father gave him an Underwood model, and Lem used it to write his most important works. He was in the habit of getting up early and sitting down to work at a large, paper-covered desk lit by a draughtsman’s lamp. When he wasn’t happy with his drafts, he went right back to the beginning – at times his room was aflutter with typewritten notes… It’s clear that computers aren’t essential to express one’s vision of the world in the digital era. In fact, perhaps this distance honed his observational skills?

Stanisław Lem and his wife moved into a small house in the Kliny district on the outskirts of Kraków in 1958, where they surrounded themselves with antique furniture, memorabilia, hundreds of books, international press – his major weakness – and, in later life, articles printed off from the internet. Preserved photos depict a cosy interior filled with furniture from “all sorts of fairytales”, from the antiquity to contemporary chairs, and a vast library. The controlled chaos in his study reflected his insatiable thirst for knowledge. His son Tomasz recalls the room as a kingdom of “thingummies”, a cabinet of curiosities filled with old pens, blunt pocket knives, magnets, screws, lighters, stuffed toys and car models, including a miniature of James Bond’s iconic car. There was also a huge globe, an electrostatic device he liked to wind up to strike sparks, a squeaky banana and a wind-up robot. In fact his granddaughter Anna reveals that there wasn’t just one robot but a whole team inhabiting a large glass jar in the wardrobe…

In his biography Lem. Life Out of This World, Wojciech Orliński writes that the author loved gadgets and clever devices. He designed and built machines since childhood, and frequently returned to his passion. He mainly worked on paper, inventing extraordinary devices for his son such as a carriage driven by cats and dogs, as well as building a model of a cable car. His first trip abroad took him to West Berlin, and he brought back “an electric railway set, three locomotives, passenger and cargo carriages, semaphores, switches, intersections, tracks (…), an electric coffee machine for [military] squadrons: huge, two-litres’ worth”, and a “portable tape recorder, the most expensive item, almost 700DM including a mic, tapes and all the other kit”. He used it to make experimental voice soundtracks and create recordings of his own texts, for example the anti-Stalinist satire Roots. He also made amateur films using 8 mm celluloid, revealing – confirming! – his penchant for humour: in one, he imitates the lion mascot of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. In later years, he fell head-over-heels for foreign gadgets. Tomasz recalls that every time his father returned from Berlin, he would bring back toy aeroplanes, invisible ink, magic string and squeaky balloons.

His passion for motoring and tinkering with cars is also well know. When he was a teenager during the Second World War, he worked as a mechanic. Motoring themes feature extensively in Lem’s correspondence with Sławomir Mrożek – the latter lived in Italy and frequently helped out his friend with spare parts, which came in handy. Lem drove a Wartburg, a Fiat 125p and Fiat 1800 which all insisted on breaking down – his friends joked that he was cursed – until he sat behind the wheel of a Merc, and never looked back. In 1981, he bought a Mercedes 280SE in West Berlin, and the size and pea-green colour of the beast turned heads all over Kraków! He used it to smuggle the Parisian literary-political magazine “Kultura” into Poland. In 2008, his family auctioned the car for charity.

And let’s not forget that the visionary author had a very human weakness: he simply adored sweets. His favourite cakes came from the patisserie at Cracovia Hotel. He is fondly remembered as a huge fan of marzipan, which he cut up solemnly with his pocket knife, and halva – Turkish, naturally. Although doctors advised him to avoid sugar, Lem continued to sneak favourite treats and hid wrappers behind the cupboard. Michał Zych, Lem’s nephew, recalls that he always took his own basket when going grocery shopping.

But since we’re talking about an iconic SF author, we should mention objects he predicted as well as real-life items. Lem took great delight in technological speculation, described myriad machines of the future, and turned out to be extraordinarily prescient – many of the devices we use today are eerily reminiscent of inventions described in his stories. The Opton, described in Return from the Stars (1961), is an early version of an e-reader. “The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded content,” we read. In fact the same novel mentions Lectons – a presage of today’s audiobooks. We find an archetype smartphone in The Magellanic Cloud: “How many times has every one of us reached for our pocket receiver and called upon Trion Library central, naming the desired work which, within a second, appeared in front of us on the television screen”! The Trion Library certainly brings to mind the internet – “Trion can store not only luminescent images, reduced to a change in their crystal structure, that is images of book pages, but all kinds of photographs, maps, images, graphs and tables”. Lem was also a couple of decades ahead of mainstream cyberpunk authors, introducing the idea of a phantomaton in his Summa Technologiae – a machine capable of generating alternative realities. Phantomatics are now known as virtual reality. It’s no accident that the leading theme of the Year of Lem is “I Saw the Future”. (Olga Drenda)

When researching the article, I reached for Tomasz Lem’s recollections published under the Polish title Awantury na tle powszechnego ciążenia, Wojciech Orliński’s biography Lem. Life Out of This World, the article Lem on The Way to Mars by Michał Olszewski, Renata Radłowska and Stanisław Mancewicz (“Duży Format” weekly, 2006), and an interview with Lem’s granddaughter Anna Lem published on nadwyraz.com.

Olga Drenda – author, essayist and translator. She graduated in ethnology and cultural anthropology from the Jagiellonian University. She has been published in “Polityka”, “The Guardian” and “Tygodnik Powszechny”; winner of the Gdynia Literary Award 2019, author and co-author of books on the intertwining of the worlds of things and people.

The text published in the 3/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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