Agnieszka Gajewska
Stanisław Lem: Exiled from the High Castle

Decrypting the master

His reading on cybernetics led also to an interest in the topic of artificial intelligence and the development of quasi-animate cells with ambiguous ontological status, designed by calculating machines. Biotechnology has a significant place in his writing; after all, he lived in the era of the discovery of DNA and the rise of huge hopes related to our ability to decipher the human genome. He appreciated the value of genetic discoveries, the fact that they would enable us to fight certain illnesses or make food production more effective. As time went by, his optimism about genetic engineering dimmed: he recognised the dangers posed by big capital business, which commercialised even genomes. Nonetheless, he still perceived the development of biotechnology in a larger context, and his pessimism resulted from a worry about political and financial misuse.

What fascinated him the most about the changes within life sciences was the moving boundary between the natural and the artificial, because he realised that biotechnology would eventually have to challenge these binary divisions. If ever more advanced artificial entities come into being, we must not ignore the possibility that they might develop a consciousness, or at least sensitivity to pain. As one of the characters in His Master’s Voice, Saul Rappaport, put it: “[…] the difference between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ was not entirely objective, not an absolute given, but a relative thing and dependent on the cognitive frame of reference [translated by Michael Kandel, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1999].” The ability to create semi-sentient beings holds a prominent position both in Lem’s essays and in his novels and short stories. In “Prognoza rozwoju biologii do roku 2040” [“A Prognosis for the Development of Biology Until the Year 2040”], written in May 1981, he tried to predict the direction in which techno-biological ideas for evolution would develop, with an unusually optimistic scenario for the future. In this essay, he predicted the modern ontological problems stemming from our ability to design entities partially similar to living organisms, and that it would be philosophers rather than engineers struggling to classify them. “These classification problems will emerge especially when genetic engineering and molecular biology produce a lateral offshoot in the form of materials, often with cellular structure, which will clearly display characteristics of life, but only some of them, for example only self-repairing or self-replicating abilities, or metabolism variants unseen in other species. […] The enormous void between animate and inanimate matter will be filled so thoroughly that any attempts to determine the unambiguously biological or abiological nature of these new creations will become pointless and only testify to our intellectual inertia.” And although Lem didn’t yet use the terms symbionts, liminal life, synthetic life, in silico, in vitro, to describe these physical beings, the perspective of their arrival filled him not with fear, but rather curiosity about how philosophy and legislative practice would handle them.

Excerpt translated by Marta Dziurosz

Agnieszka Gajewska
Stanisław Lem: Exiled from the High Castle

Decrypting the master

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2021
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie,

The High Castle is a distinctive hill in Lviv; it is also the title of Lem’s autobiography in which he described his childhood. Could Agnieszka Gajewska’s most recent biography of the writer, Stanisław Lem: Exiled from the High Castle, have been called anything else if Lem’s whole post-war life – as Gajewska claims – was marked by an escape from Lvovian trauma on the one hand, and on the other by a bitter yearning for the time of childhood innocence, a time it is impossible to revisit?

The author has tackled Lem before: her Zagłada i gwiazdy. Przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema [Holocaust and the Stars: The Past in the Prose of Stanisław Lem] (2016) is a scholarly monograph on his oeuvre. In her present book, Gajewska significantly widens that perspective, emphasizes the previously signposted arguments, paints a vivid picture of the dreary era in which Lem created and lived. Her key to understanding the writer is the issue of his Jewish identity, wartime trauma and memory, which Lem tried to simultaneously efface and salvage throughout his life. This is why he escaped towards the stars. The war years are crucial to Gajewska. This is when Lwów (present-day Lviv) was occupied and Lem’s family had to go into hiding. Out of scraps of documents, reports and memories, the author meticulously reconstructs what happened to young Stanisław back then, what horrors he and his loved ones experienced. The author’s position is that an echo of these tragedies often returned later in Lem’s books, but in images that were seemingly unrelated to World War II. The doubler graveyard in Eden, the scrapyard full of destroyed robots in Return from the Stars, the horrifying events in the life of his character Rappaport, who was forced to transport dead bodies… There were many more such reminiscences in Lem’s writing, it’s just that nobody has connected these premises before. The common omission of that specific aspect of Lem’s writing is also discussed in the book.

Gajewska’s work removes the patina from the monument that Lem’s output has started to solidify into though the years, and refreshes it for the next generation of readers. This is only one of the reasons for which it deserves due attention.

Michał Cetnarowski

Translated by Marta Dziurosz

Selected samples

Urszula Honek
Radek Rak
Mariusz Staniszewski
Paweł Rzewuski
Adriana Szymańska
Kazimierz Orłoś
Rafał Wojasiński
Antonina Grzegorzewska
Józef Mackiewicz
Tobiasz Piątkowski, Marek Oleksicki
Daniel Odija
Bronisław Wildstein
Józef Mackiewicz
Józef Mackiewicz
Witold Szabłowski
Andrzej Muszyński
Wiesław Helak
Bartosz Jastrzębski
Dariusz Sośnicki
Łukasz Orbitowski
Jakub Małecki
אנדז'יי ספקובסקי
Elżbieta Cherezińska
Wiesław Myśliwski
Jakub Małecki
Aleksandra Lipczak
Jacek Dukaj
Wit Szostak
Bartosz Biedrzycki
Zyta Rudzka
Maciej Płaza
Wojciech Chmielewski
Paweł Huelle
Przemysław "Trust" Truściński
Angelika Kuźniak
Wojciech Kudyba
Michał Protasiuk
Stanisław Rembek
Krzysztof Karasek
Elżbieta Isakiewicz
Artur Daniel Liskowacki
Jarosław Jakubowski
Zbigniew Stawrowski
Szczepan Twardoch
Wojciech Chmielarz
Robert Małecki
Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Anna Piwkowska
Dominika Słowik
Wojciech Chmielewski
Barbara Banaś
Rafał Mikołajczyk
Jerzy Szymik
Waldemar Bawołek
Julia Fiedorczuk
Jakub Szamałek
Witold Szabłowski
Jacek Dukaj
Grzegorz Górny, Janusz Rosikoń
Paweł Piechnik
Andrzej Strumiłło


Marta Kwaśnicka
Piotr Mitzner
Paweł Sołtys
Wacław Holewiński
Anna Potyra
Wiesław Helak
Urszula Zajączkowska
Marek Stokowski
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
Jakub Małecki
Łukasz Orbitowski
Małgorzata Rejmer
Rafał Wojasiński
Wojciech Kudyba
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Jerzy Liebert
Wojciech Zembaty
Wojciech Chmielarz
Bogdan Musiał
Joanna Siedlecka
Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski
Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz
Marek Bieńczyk
Leszek Elektorowicz
Adrian Sinkowski
Szymon Babuchowski
Lech Majewski
Weronika Murek
Agnieszka Świętek
Stanisław Szukalski
Barbara Klicka
Anna Kamińska

She climbed her first peaks in a headscarf at a time when women in the mountains were treated by climbers as an additional backpack. It was with her that female alpinism began! She gained recognition in a spectacular way. The path was considered a crossing for madmen. Especially since the tragic accident in 1929, preserved … Continue reading “Halina”

Wojciech Chmielarz

First, Marysia, a student of an exclusive private school in Warsaw’s Mokotów district, dies under the wheels of a train. Her teacher, Elżbieta, tries to find out what really happened. She starts a private investigation only soon to perish herself. But her body disappears, and the only people who have seen anything are Gniewomir, a … Continue reading “Wound”

Anna Kańtoch

A young girl, Regina Wieczorek, was found dead on the beach. She was nineteen years old and had no enemies. Fortunately, the culprit was quickly found. At least, that’s what the militia think. Meanwhile, one day in November, Jan Kowalski appears at the police station. He claims to have killed not only Regina but also … Continue reading “Penance”

Marek Krajewski

The year is 1922. A dangerous time of breakthrough. In the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland, Bolshevik gangs sow terror, leaving behind the corpses of men and disgraced women. A ruthless secret intelligence race takes place between the Lviv-Warsaw-Free City of Gdańsk line. Lviv investigator Edward Popielski, called Łysy (“Hairless”), receives an offer … Continue reading “A Girl with Four Fingers”

Ks. Tomasz Stępień

This question is closely related to the next one, namely: if any goal exists, does life lead us to that goal in an orderly manner? In other words, is everything that happens to us just a set of chaotic events that, combined together, do not form a whole? To understand how the concept of providence … Continue reading “Order and Love”

Jakub Małecki
Szczepan Twardoch
Wiesław Helak
Maria Wilczek-Krupa
Anna Kańtoch
Rafał Kosik
Paweł Sołtys
Dorota Masłowska
Wiesław Myśliwski
Martyna Bunda
Olga Tokarczuk
Various authors
Mariola Kruszewska
Waldemar Bawołek
Marek Oleksicki, Tobiasz Piątkowski
Wojciech Tomczyk
Urszula Zajączkowska
Marzanna Bogumiła Kielar
Ks. Robert Skrzypczak
Bronisław Wildstein
Anna Bikont
Magdalena Grzebałkowska
Wojciech Orliński
Klementyna Suchanow
Andrzej Franaszek
Natalia Budzyńska
Marian Sworzeń
Aleksandra Wójcik, Maciej Zdziarski
Józef Łobodowski

The work of Józef Łobodowski (1909-1988) – a remarkable poet, prose writer, and translator, who spent most of his life in exile – is slowly being revived in Poland. Łobodowski’s brilliant three- volume novel, composed on an epic scale, concerns the fate of families and orphans unmoored by the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war and … Continue reading “Ukrainian Trilogy: Thickets, The Settlement, The Way Back”

Piotr Zaremba
Wacław Holewiński
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