Balloon to Solaris

Polish speculative fiction has been developing for over two hundred years, although it was only sixty years ago that science fiction began to be treated as a separate segment of the publishing market, with its own publishing series, authors, and critical apparatus. As in the case of Polish culture more generally, extraliterary eventsboth historical and politicalhave had an enormous influence on the genre’s form, achievements, and reception in the stormy last two centuries of this part of Europe. The following sketch presents in brief the history of the genre in Poland, pointing out the most significant authors and discussing the specific character of Polish speculative fiction (both artistic and commercial), with particular consideration given to the literary work of Stanisław Lem.

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We find the beginnings of Polish speculative fiction at the end of the eighteenth century, when clergymen were responsible for its birth. In 1776, Bishop Ignacy Krasicki–fabulist, poet, and satirist–published the novel The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom, the hero of which finds his way to the nonexistent island of Nipu, which is occupied by a utopian society. In 1785, another priest, Michał Krajewski, published a work entitled Wojciech Zdarzynski—Life and Adventures of Himself Describing, in which he depicted a cosmic balloon journey to the "Silver Orb" and described the functioning of various lunar states. Both works, strongly rooted in Enlightenment traditions of the travel tale and the dystopia, brought new ideas and narrative structures into Polish literature, although they clearly operated within the established literary tradition and did not create a new genre.

This conventionality continued into the nineteenth century. In 1795, as a result of partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria, Poland would lose its sovereignty for more than one hundred twenty years. The most eminent writers of this period were concerned above all with national and social questions. They wrote historical novels (like the Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz), romantic dramas and poems (like Adam Mickiewicz), and contemporary novels of manners (for example, Bolesław Prus). Speculative fiction in these works, if it appeared at all, fulfilled a secondary function with respect to the other political and social contents. Nonetheless, these writers did occasionally use science-fiction motifs. In the most eminent Polish nineteenth-century novel of manners, The Doll (1887), which essentially describes the conflict of the old, impoverished nobility with the new class of merchants and industrialists, Bolesław Prus also introduced the character of the genius scientist Professor Geist. The fantastical motif is in keeping with the canon of what we consider to be classical science fiction. The scientist invents a material lighter than air, looks for sponsors for his research, and conceives a vision of the future in which flying vehicles, mighty buildings, and new machines are to be built from the mass-produced new material.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the novels of Jules Verne were reaching Poland, and an increasing number of home-grown works were appearing. Many of these are speculative fiction of a "closer range," like Umiński’s To the Pole by Balloon (1894), which describes the first expedition to the South Pole in a craft resembling an airship. Novels with educational elements for young people also began to appear. For instance, in Erazm Majewski’s Doctor Flycatcher (1890), the main character shrinks to the size of an insect and travels through the microcosmos.

The most outstanding achievement, as it were bringing the first period of development in Polish speculative literature to a close, is Jerzy Żuławski’s lunar trilogy: On the Silver Globe (1901), The Conqueror (1908), and The Old Earth (1910). Epic, modern for their time, profound in their taking up of scientific, psychological, and social motifs, for decades these novels set the standard for this kind of literature in Poland. Later generations of authors were raised on the trilogy, among them Stanisław Lem.

On the Silver Globe depicts a Vernean expedition to the Moon. However, the craft crashes and the selenonauts are forced to make their way to the dark side of the Moon, where they expect to find liveable conditions. There they establish a colony. They raise children and a new society arises, trying to adapt itself to the new world while using remnants of the old knowledge. The selenonauts become the figures of legend. The power of the novel is founded upon Żuławski’s extraordinary vision of the Silver Globe, the complicated psychological relations of the voyagers, social analysis, and, finally, the adventure motifs of the robinsonade. The action of The Conqueror takes place several hundred years later, when a new voyager arrives on the Moon. He discovers the descendants of the Earthlings, is recognized by them as a messiah, and then, in a Biblical allegory, he is killed. Here Żuławski concentrated on an analysis of how messianic myth comes into being, but he also described in interesting fashion the relations between people and the "aliens," the original inhabitants of the Moon. In The Old Earth we have the reverse situation: descendants of the old selenonauts come to our globe. They observe a developed civilization, but one mired in emotional and scientific stagnation. They find new social divisions and the apparent mental regression of whole social classes living in relative (and consumerist) prosperity. The trilogy as a whole has a pessimistic tone: people sin, and societies, even those founded on healthy principles, degenerate.

The series also demonstrates a characteristic feature of Polish science fiction literature. More than in the scientific discovery itself, Polish science fiction is interested in the invention’s effect on society. Narrative and plot are used to present certain political and social views. The cosmic setting hides some very "terrestrial" contents.

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In 1918, Poland regained its independence. In the brief period of the two decades between the wars, there was vigorous growth in literature and the literary press. Many writers use fantastical motifs, but science fiction does not emerge as a separate, artistically and commercially defined, genre. Works in this area are written by authors in competition on a daily basis with poetry and various other kinds of prose–thrillers, adventure stories, young adult fiction, and travel prose. We might make mention here of Antoni Lange (short stories about amazing inventions), Ferdynand Ossendowski (an extraordinarily popular writer and traveler), Mieczysław Smolarski (author of the dystopian City of Light, published in 1924, who actually claimed that Huxley’s Brave New World plagiarized his work). Also popular were the catastrophist novels, often representing future wars with the Chinese or with communist Russia (for example, Hurricane from the East by Wacław Niezabitowski).

The most important writer of this period is without doubt Stefan Grabiński, author of novels and stories written within the conventions, broadly speaking, of "terror." He sought the sources of fear and emotional tension within the traditional domains of horror, such as in legends or occultism, but also in the products of human technology. For instance, he was fascinated by the railways: the force inherent in powerful machines and the complex logistics of the system. He also tried to approach phenomena from the area of parapsychology as if it were a new scientific domain, not yet investigated or analyzed by scientists. He published many short stories (for instance, in the collection The Motion Demon, 1919) and novels (for example, Salamander,1924). Several of his works have been adapted for the screen.

However, the work of most of these writers has not survived the test of time. The language, style, and ideas turned out not to be especially striking for future generations. The political events to come would have a destructive influence on the transmission of this literary tradition into the future.

The commencement of the Second World War in 1939 led to the extermination of the prewar world. Nazis and Communists murdered the Polish intelligentsia and closed universities and editorial offices. Many authors emigrated, and, as a result of wartime operations, many private and public libraries were burned (it is estimated that approximately 80% of book collections assembled before the war were destroyed).

After 1945, the process of cultural reconstruction commenced, but under the strict supervision of the Communist Party and the censor. Private publishing houses were liquidated or taken over. "Improper" authors were wiped out of the collective memory (for instance, the books of Ossendowski, a critic of communism and Soviet Russia, were removed from libraries and not reissued until 1989). In accordance with the directives coming from Moscow, writers were ordered to create works supporting the construction of communism. American popular culture was viewed as a propaganda weapon of the West and practically did not reach Poland. This applied to films, jazz music, and comics, as well as to literary science fiction, defined by Gernsback and at that time going through its "golden" and "silver" ages in the USA.

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Change came in the middle of the 1950s, along with the death of Stalin and the relaxing of the communist dictatorship, but also with the beginning of the space race between the USA and the USSR. The authorities now looked with a more favorable eye on literature accompanying the development of science and technology and able to represent visions of future successes in the communist paradises.

In 1951, Stanisław Lem’s first science fiction novel appeared. Entitled Astronauts, it describes a space expedition to Venus. The novel contained everything which needed to be found in a book of that time–both praise for the future successes of communism and a warning against nuclear war. In 1953, Krzysztof Boruń and Andrzej Trepka published Lost Future. On a closed space station, hurtling away from the Earth (which the communists now rule) and inhabited by escapees from the USAcapitalists exploiting workers and African Americansa revolution is brewing. In fact, these novels, just like Lem’s later Magellan’s Cloud, apart from the fact that they were forced to pay the necessary propaganda tribute to the authorities, were also pieces of captivating adventure prose, involving great stories that fascinated teenagersthe future generations of writers. To this day they constitute the genre’s canon.

In 1955, Young Technician, a monthly magazine addressed to young engineers and scientists, started regular publication of science fiction stories. Its creator, Zbigniew Przyrowski, began to advertise competitions for young authors; he also tried to formulate definitions of the genre. In 1958, the anthology Rocket Trails came out, for the first time bringing prose from contemporary Anglo-Saxon authors (among others, Heinlein, Kornbluth, and Asimov) to Poland. By the beginning of the 1960s, publishing houses were starting to establish science fiction book series. The first novels of Bradbury, Asimov and Clarke found their way to Poland. A lot of Russian prose was also reaching Poland, including the excellent books by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

We might say that, by the second half of the 1950s, science fiction was regarded as a separate type of literature and that it had gained its own space in the publishing market. And then the Master appeared: Stanisław Lem.

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The 1960s and 1970s were the era of one writer. Lem set the boundaries of the genre; Lem defined the genre; all young writers reflected Lem and competed with Lem. How could one author so completely dominate an entire literary category? It’s simple: he was quite simply a genius, with a mind that could fully display its powers precisely within the domain of science fiction.

First of all, he was very accomplished in the literary sense: he was able to tell stories, to build tension, to fascinate readers through narrative, suspense, and surprising denouements. Examples of this classical form are the Tales of Pirx the Pilot, or the novels Eden and The Invincible. These are good, hard science fiction, including space travel, contact with alien beings, and dangers brought by future technologies. Lem was equally capable of building other moods and atmospheres, for instance, terror (The Investigation) and romance (Return from the Stars).

Second, Lem had a magnificent command of language. He was able to describe both dynamic action and extraordinary cosmic landscapes (a masterly description of the march of a mecha across the icy wastes of Titan in Fiasco). But he also played with words, transforming them, writing absurd cyber fairy tales and rhymes (The Cyberiad), and ranging through various linguistic conventions (science and technology, myth and poetry, colloquial language).

Third, Lem was comprehensively educated. He grasped the achievements of contemporary science, from cosmology, through medicine and cybernetics, to philosophy. This erudition is apparent in the background setting of his works, but it also constitutes the basis of Lem’s analytical and futurological reflections concerning the development of civilization, the progress of technology, and social changes.

All of these elements led to him becoming the most frequently translated Polish prose writer, published and analyzed in the USSR, the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, and also, thanks to the translations of Michael Kandel, in the USA. It is interesting that Lem himself did not particularly wish to be counted within the circle of science fiction writers, expressing increasingly negative opinions about it. He was particularly critical of Anglo-Saxon speculative fiction, accusing it of infantilism and of satisfying the tastes of a teenage audience at best. By degrees, he also gave up prose writing, deeming that he no longer had the time or desire to create stories and to think up the various twists and turns for his heroes. His last novels from the end of the 1980s (Fiasco, Peace on Earth, Observation on the Spot) are already lectures masquerading as fiction. The writer’s killing off of Pirxthe hero of a cycle of stories from the 1960s, which a whole generation of science fiction devotees in Poland had grown up withwas perhaps symbolic.

It is worth noting here that Polish readers from the 1960s to the 1980s did not find themselves in such a bad situation. On the one hand, we lived in a state of permanent shortage when it came to new titles, which were usually produced in print runs that were too small (a black market in science fiction books even operated, in which new books were sold for several times their original price, because the official publishers did not want to make additional copies or were unable to for lack of paper. Here was the communist economy at its best). On the other hand, the mostly young people reading speculative fiction had contact with a select literature of the highest quality. We had our own master, in Lem. A great deal of Soviet prose was coming out, often of the highest standard (for example, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Kirill Bulychev). There was very little Anglo-Saxon speculative fiction, but for this reason it was carefully chosen. The treasure on the shelf of any collector was The Martian Chronicles by Bradbury, or The Man in the High Castle by Dick, or individual novels by Aldiss, Clarke, Le Guin, Silverberg, and van Vogt.

On these foundations a new genre was developing and new authors were appearing. Many stories were being published, several periodicals ran permanent science fiction columns, and many publishing houses supported science fiction series. Hard science fiction dominated: stories of space journeys, contact with aliens, and new scientific discoveries. The genre attempted to avoid the politics so strongly influencing the prose of the 1950s. Pressures from the authorities were easing and authors themselves were usually clear on the fact that a future world under possible communist rule would not be a pleasant place to live. Therefore, the vision of the future humanity’s political organization was somewhat ambiguously defined. For instance, the international composition of the space crews described in these novels suggested a kind of unification of the human races (for example, under the aegis of the UN), or simply strong cooperation between the two political blocks, the USA and the USSR. Scientific optimism continued to dominate. Even if the progress of technology would not be able to solve all the problems of humanity, progress was to continue, the next frontiers of space were to be discovered, and earthly problems would be solved. Many writers were active, making their debuts in the 1960s and 1970s, and already in a certain sense "post-Lem"among others, Wiktor Żwikiewicz, Marcin Wolski, Marek Oramus, Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg, Konrad Fiałkowski, Andrzej Sawaszkiewicz, Bohdan Petecki, Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński, and Janusz Zajdel.

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Changes came toward the end of the 1970s, and, like many phenomena in Polish culture, these changes were partly associated with politics and partly with the general fluctuations of social trends and moods.

The communists governing Poland in the 1970s, more enlightened than their predecessors, also needed Western money and technology. Culture gained a little bit more freedom. And it was in Poland in 1980 that the largest opposition movement in captive Eastern Europe came into being: Solidarity, at its peak counting ten million members. For a year, many of the rules which had previously been inviolable in this dictatorially governed country were subject to a kind of suspension. It was possible to openly criticize the government and to publish books which not long before would have been banned. It was easier to leave for the West and to organize together.

These changes also affected our own fantasy backyard. More translations appeared, the first clubs for devotees of speculative literature came into being, fandom was born, and fanzines were published, making it easier for new writers to make their debuts. New literary fashions reached us. We read Latin American magic realism; Tolkien’s trilogy awakened interest in fantasy; samizdat editions of Orwell’s 1984 circulated. The idea of speculative fiction had broadened. More was permitted by the censors and writers eagerly took advantage of this. Within Polish speculative fiction, several novels came out almost simultaneously to create the so-called "sociological trend." The most important author in this wave was Janusz Zajdel.

He had debuted as far back as the 1960s and for two decades had been a popular and very well-respected author of classical science fiction. However, the novels he published from 1980 to 1984 brought him particular acknowledgment–among others, Limes Inferior, Paradise, the World in Orbit, and The Whole Truth About the Planet Xi. In these novels, Zajdel described societies subject to dictatorial rule, under the control of men and computer systems. He tried to reconstruct the process of creating authoritarian rule by exploiting slogans of universal happiness. He analyzed methods for maintaining governments by means of propaganda and terror, but he also investigated, in a literary manner, people’s reactions to this overpowering system–collaboration, resignation, and rebellion. These books came out officially; all the motifs were masked by the setting and by storylines constituting lively and effective speculative fiction. They made for great light reading. Nonetheless, readers were able to discern within them analogies and metaphors for their lives and for the world outside their windows. Zajdel’s prose had an impact on the younger generations of writers, ensuring that social and political subject matter are still strongly present. Janusz Zajdel died in 1985; his name now marks the most important prize in Polish speculative fiction, which is awarded annually, on much the some basis as the Hugo Awards, for best novel and short story.

One of the most important events in the history of Polish science fiction was the release in 1982 of the first edition of the monthly magazine Fantastyka, published to this day and in its best years selling two hundred thousand copies monthly. Ever since, devotees of the genre have had their own magazine. On its pages, Anglo-Saxon short stories and novels were published, and columns were opened up to fantasy and horror, as well as to oneiric prose, the grotesque, and speculative fiction of ambiguous genre. Comics and films were presented, the achievements of earlier Polish literature were recalled, and a great deal of sociopolitical commentary was published. The next generation began to come to the fore, many members of which are active to this day and now occupy the most important places on the contemporary map of Polish speculative fiction.

In 1985, the novice writer Andrzej Sapkowski submitted the short story "The Witcher" for a competition in Fantastyka. Sapkowski introduced the western-style character of his lone hero, a contract killer of monsters. In the background, he sketched an interesting fantasy world, which he expanded in subsequent stories and novels. The series gained enormous popularity in Poland, as well as in the neighboring Czech Republic and Russia, and it is now being successfully published in English, Spanish, and German. It has been adapted into a comic, a film, and a computer game, also called The Witcher, which is the largest production in the history of the Polish game industry. Sapkowski is without doubt the biggest international star of Polish speculative fiction. After the Witcher cycle, he created the Hussite trilogy, a historical series with magical elements set during the wars of fifteenth-century Central Europe. In 2009 he published a novel, The Viper, about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The next significant author is Jacek Dukaj, who debuted in Fantastyka in 1989, at the age of just fourteen, with the mature and visionary short story "The Golden Galley." Dukaj is perhaps the writer who is closest to Lem’s thinking about science fiction. Dukaj is erudite and very well informed on contemporary science, drawing on extraordinary ideas from the cognitive frontiers of our knowledge in physics and cosmology. He also doesn’t shun history, philosophy, or psychology, and he includes linguistic experimentation in his novelistic narration. A multi-award-winning author, he is at the same time a difficult writer; many young fans of speculative fiction, preferring fantasy and horror, never reach his prose. An animated film adaptation of his short story "The Cathedral," directed by Tomasz Bagiński, was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Dukaj’s latest novel, Ice (2008), is a monumental work which describes an alternative history. In this new version of events, the Tunguska meteorite, which hit the Siberian taiga in 1908, not only brought new raw materials to Earth, but also a new metaphysics. The Russian Empire of the Romanovs has subsequently not fallen. This epic saga strongly invokeseven stylisticallythe motifs of nineteenth-century Polish prose.

The first half of the 1980s marked the height of popularity for the speculative fiction genre in Poland. First-time writers sold copies running into the tens of thousands, many translations were published, and illegal publishing houses even came into being, printing pirated copies of Anglo-Saxon writers (including Ellison’s Dangerous Visions). Science fiction continued to fascinate generations of adults raised on Lem’s books, and among younger readers the popularity of fantasy was growing. These were partly substitute passionsin Poland very few thrillers and crime novels were coming out and so many readers simply found in speculative fiction books the pleasure of coming into contact with popular prose.

Apart from Dukaj and Sapkowski, several writers making their debuts in the 1980s (then often still in their teens or twenties) are active to this day and occupy significant places on the map of Polish speculative fiction: Ewa Białołęcka, Jarosław Grzędowicz, Marek Huberath, Krzysztof Kochański, Jacek Piekara, Andrzej Ziemiański, and Rafał Ziemkiewicz. But an even younger generation is now coming to the fore, having entered the literary market in a free Poland.

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In 1989, Poland regained its independence and censorship disappeared, as did the limitations on paper allotted by the officials. Private publishers, booksellers, and distributors began to appear like mushrooms after the rain. Many of these sprang out of the earlier fandom of speculative fiction devotees. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Polish market was literally flooded with hundreds of imported titles, which were hurriedly published, often without editorial care. Suddenly, we were convinced that Lem had been right and that 90% of Anglo-Saxon science fiction (and probably of every other literature too) was lowbrow and humdrum, mediocre at best. Years of contact with selected authors, and the novels of Dick and Bradbury, had distorted our vision of the genre. On the other hand, books by writers who had once been banned (for example, Heinlein) were beginning to reach us, and new authors were gaining popularity (Norton, Pratchett, Card). Fantasy began to take over the position of science fiction. The rules for the functioning of older Polish publishing houses and authors had also changed completely; the great majority of them simply couldn’t cope in the new times and so they disappeared from the market. New magazines and new names appeared in speculative fiction.

However, at the same time, circulation numbers fell. This was influenced by the huge supply of new titles, as well as by the loss of many readers to other varieties of popular fiction (for example, thrillers), fantasy entertainments (for example, role-playing games), and electronic media.

This upheaval continued throughout the 1990s. At the time, an active group of writers regularly published new short stories and novels, but practically none of them were able to support themselves from prose writing alone. We worked as journalists, teachers, and publishers. Print runs of books amounted to two or three thousand copies. The author’s fee for a novel was less than a decent monthly salary for a corporate employee.

Over the last several years we have been observing another reversal in trends. A great number of Anglo-Saxon translations continue to appear, but we have caught up and are now up-to-date with this kind of prose. Translations from Russian and Czech are now being published more and more frequently. Finally, the interest in home-grown prose is growing significantly. Many authors have achieved commercial success. Andrzej Pilipiuk has written several dozen books, including an extraordinarily popular comic cycle about a moonshiner exorcist named Jakub Wędrowycz. Jacek Komuda is creating fantasy in the historical reality of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Poland was a Central European power. Jacek Piekara is, among other things, the author of a series about the adventures of an inquisitor in an alternative world in which Christ has descended from the cross and wiped out the opponents of the new religion. Anna Brzezińska is also writing interesting fantasy with a deep historical and cultural background. Jarosław Grzędowicz moves with ease between horror and traditional science fiction. Each year around three hundred fifty to four hundred books that can be considered speculative fiction hit the Polish market, of which 30 to 40% are home-grown products. Magazines dedicated to speculative fiction are appearing and a good many conventions are taking place, the largest of which are attended by two or three thousand people. A great deal of Polish speculative fiction is being translated into Russian and Czech. Each year, science fiction fans select the winner of the Janusz Zajdel Award. In 2008, for the first time, the prize was awarded to two authors who had made their debuts after 1989: Rafał Kosik for the science-fiction novel The Chameleon and Anna Kańtoch for the mystical science fiction short story "Dante’s Worlds."

What characterizes this newest wave of young Polish speculative fiction? Fantasy and horror dominate. Very often the action of these works takes place in Poland and concerns Polish questions. Aliens, demons, or scientists no longer have to attack America. Local flavor is in demand. We have a great number of alternative histories, either showing a different course of events or introducing fantastical motifs into the past. Nostalgia and a fascination for the times when Poland was a strong and independent country are sometimes evident. Writers are touching upon subjects that, through the decades of communism, were forbidden or manipulated for propaganda purposes. The elements of sociological and political speculative fiction continue to be strong. On the other hand, a great number of "trashy novels" are also appearing, written in language that is barely literate and including fast-paced, unsophisticated action capable of satisfying the tastes of the younger reader. Wit Szostak, Michał Guzek, Maja Lidia Kossakowska, Magdalena Kozak, Łukasz Orbitowski, Jakub Ćwiek, and other new writers are creating different literary worlds and are playing more and more important roles on the Polish speculative fiction scene.

Hard science fiction finds itself in the reverse situation. First, cosmic and scientific themes are generally less popular at present than magic and vampires. Second, the achievements of Lem, and to some extent of Dukaj, seem to paralyze writers coming into this area. It’s difficult to find an intellectual place for oneself alongside two such extraordinary literary personalities.

Print runs of books are still not large, on the order of two or three thousand copies. The most popular authors start at the level of twenty thousand, and sometimes even more. They are read not only by fanatical devotees of the genre, but by a wide range of readers. Like Lem in years past, today Dukaj, Pilipiuk and Sapkowski function as important elements of the home-grown publishing market. At the same time, generic speculative fiction as a whole is still often considered as a lower literature, less valuable (than psychological prose, for example), and addressed to a less sophisticated reader.

Of course, outside the specialist publishing houses and series, within contemporary Polish prose, many interesting books are coming out into the literary mainstream with fantastical, fairy-tale, and magical elements (for instance, Olga Tokarczuk). But this is a subject for a separate article.

Prospects for the future are good. At last we have the situation we had been dreaming about for decades: a free market of ideas, media, and publishers, along with all the consequences of this. The future looks promising, although even the best writers of science fiction can’t foretell this with any certainty.

Translation of "Balonem na Solaris." Copyright 2009 by Tomasz Kołodziejczak. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Stanley Bill. All rights reserved.