Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem: They Might Be (Literary) Giants

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I do not consider myself a fan of science fiction, but please don’t hold that against me. I’m not a genre reader – I read good writing, in all its forms. I have read some of the classics, like ‘Fahrenheit 451’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’…I’m already reaching.sphere-163623_1280

As it happens, two of my favorite writers are considered to be writers of science fiction. Stanislaw Lem wrote many books, and some of them deal with astronauts and space travel. But what attracts me to Lem’s work is the psychology of his stories and characters. Lem began writing ‘science fiction’ because the communist regime didn’t take it seriously. He could express ideas in that genre that would have been censored or gotten him imprisoned. Lem’s book ‘The Chain of Chance’ features a former astronaut as it’s protagonist, but his mission is to find out whether a colleague’s fall from a window here on Earth was murder or suicide. Lem’s ‘Solaris’ has been made into feature films twice (Once in the USSR by Andrei Tarkovsky (The ‘other’ great science fiction film of the late ‘60s with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’) and more recently in the U.S. by Steven Soderbergh).

Philip K. Dick is better known to the general public, since several of his books have been made into feature films (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ is perhaps most well known). Most recently, Amazon Video produced a series based on the Hugo Award-winning novel ‘The Man in the High Castle’. Dick also aspired to write beyond the genre, even going so far as to say he didn’t care if it took him 30 years to achieve any success at it. ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is the perfect example. The book is an alternate history of the United States, positing what might have happened had the Axis forces won World War II and taken over our country as the spoils of war.

These two writers have some other things in common, not the least of which (To me) is that I had ‘Ships passing in the night’ experiences with both men. In the late ‘70s I wrote for the student newspaper at the community college I attended in Long Beach, California. During our Thursday afternoon review of the week’s issue I discovered a small story about Lem visiting classes on campus. Lem was from Poland and his opportunities to travel outside the country were few. That a door had opened in the Iron Curtain allowing him to briefly come to my town on the other side of the world was a miracle. But, like I said…ships in the night.

After college I lived in Tustin, in Orange County, California (Fans of ‘Lost’ will know this as the location of John Locke’s box factory). I learned after I’d moved that Phil Dick had lived right around the corner from me and I didn’t even know it. I could have stopped by his apartment on my way to get a Slurpee at the 7-11. If only I’d known who he was then.

Rick Kleffel, of the Agony Column (www.agonycolumn.com), introduced me to these and many other excellent writers. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, but Rick has helped direct my exploration of both literature and film). If you ever see me in the science fiction aisle of your used book store, Phil Dick and Stanislaw Lem are the reasons I am there.

In addition to my reading, I also like to research the artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians/composers who have inspired and influenced me. I was very surprised to discover that there was a connection between the two writers of which I had been totally unaware.

Apparently Lem had high regard for Dick’s writing and had been responsible for getting some of Dick’s work translated and published in Poland. He also made sure that Dick was paid, albeit nominally, for the work.

Those familiar with Dick’s history of mental health know that – he had issues. He made the aluminum foil hat, but he made his with a satellite dish in order to receive the communications. This became the subject of the ‘Valis Trilogy‘, which is Dick turning his mind inside out.

To learn that Dick had issues with Lem wasn’t so surprising. Dick came to believe that he was being shorted on his royalties from the Polish editions and he blamed Lem. In fact he didn’t believe that Lem was a person at all. He had come to the conclusion that Lem was a facade for a committee of the Communist Party bent on mind control, even going so far as to write a letter to the FBI stating this.

For more information on Stanislaw Lem, visit his official website at www.lem.pl. For more information on Philip K. Dick, put on your aluminum foil satellite dish. His official site has shut down and the domain is for sale. But check out www.philipkdickkfans.com for discussion forums and updates on all things Dick.