In a thrilling excerpt from his new Stanisław Lem biography, author Wojciech Orliński takes a look at “perhaps the strangest thing to happen to Lem in the seventies”. What started as a letter friendship between two of the most acclaimed sci-fi writers of the century turned into serious animosity and ended with Philip K. Dick sending his famous Lem report to the FBI. In it, he denounced Lem as “a faceless group – codename ‘L.E.M.’”, that was supposedly out to infiltrate the world of American science fiction. In tracking down the full story behind the famous Lem-Dick imbroglio, Orliński was given access to previously unpublished letters exchanged between Dick, Lem and Franz Rottensteiner. This resulted in what is likely the first accurate description of the incident, as well as the ultimate explanation as to how the concept of ‘foreign royalties under communism’ is almost as much of a mess as ‘fine dining under communism’ (but not quite as fine a mess).
Perhaps the strangest thing to happen to Lem in the seventies was the row he had with Philip Dick. It is worth recounting here in full.
When a selection of Dick’s letters, including his paranoid reports to the FBI, was published in 1991, news of his denunciation of Lem caused a sensation in Poland. Written in September 1974 (though unclear if and when sent), it warned the authorities about the activities of ‘a faceless group’ – codename ‘L.E.M.’ – with its headquarters in Cracow, that was supposedly out to infiltrate the world of American science fiction. In 1976, as a result of Dick’s plotting against Lem, the Polish author had his honorary membership of the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) – which he had been awarded three years earlier – rescinded.
The entire affair sounds so sensational that one might be annoyed with Lem for not recounting it to either Bereś or Fiałkowski, or for not writing about it in one of his autobiographical columns. Looking at this episode in a wider context, however, it seems that it was of little concern to Lem. He had the more important matters of his health and of censorship to deal with. From my knowledge of him (from letters and the accounts of relatives and friends), he attached more importance to buying a Mercedes than to his correspondence with Dick. And rightly so, for the entire affair was little more than a storm in a teacup.
It all began with Lem’s depiction of Dick – in the third of his great essay collections, Science Fiction and Futurology as little more than a talentless hack. Lem had a poor opinion of almost all American authors, and never thought much of the literary genre of which he himself was an exponent (think of his equally critical view of Pirx the Pilot, for example, or Return from the Stars).
When he sent the book to Franz Rottensteiner – an Austrian with whom he had begun to correspond in 1968 after receiving a fan letter about The Invincibles – the latter remarked that this was an unfair assessment of Dick, based as it was primarily on the novel Now Wait for Last Year, which even the author’s greatest fans would not rate among his best work.
Writing on American science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain, Lem was totally reliant on those books which he was sent, or which were in the library, or which he happened to find in a bookshop during one of his rare trips abroad in the seventies. The bibliography in Science Fiction and Futurology was, willy-nilly, a random selection (though an astonishingly comprehensive one, given the circumstances).
Rottensteiner suggested sending Lem some of Dick’s better work. Lem agreed, of course, and (early in 1972) received a parcel containing a selection of books by not only Dick but also other authors whom Rottensteiner thought worthy of recommendation: C. S. Lewis, Algis Budrys and Ursula Le Guin. Like Dick himself, the Austrian thought his best novel The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history of the Second World War, with the Nazis the victors. Lem was less than impressed. He replied to Rottensteiner saying that he thought this same idea had been better employed by Otto Basil in his Rhapsody in Brown (1966, with the first Polish edition in 1993).
He was full of praise, however, for Ubik, which was ‘unquestionably’ Dick’s best novel. In July 1972, he announced his intention to have the book published by ‘my own dear publisher’, as he referred to Wydawnictwo Literackie in a letter to Rottensteiner (if only the firm’s Director, Kurz, had seen that!). Rottensteiner offered to help secure the translation rights and put the writers in contact with each other.
There was only one problem: Wydawnictwo Literackie was unable to pay authors in foreign currency. Only three publishing houses could do so: PWN, PIW and Czytelnik. It was not that there existed a law or ruling specifying this; it was simply a matter of something of greater importance in the Polish People’s Republic than constitution and codex, namely: bureaucratic inertia. It had always been this way, so any sudden attempt by Wydawnictwo Literackie to tamper with this system would only have resulted in someone else being deprived of their dollars. Since the aggrieved party would then have exacted their revenge at the first opportunity, no-one had any interest in changing the existing arrangement. The entire system functioned in this way.
At first, Lem managed to downplay the problem. Ultimately, he was in a similar position himself, so he knew the solution. An author should simply come to Poland at the expense of the publisher, collect his fees in the local currency and then spend them in the country – as he himself had done in Prague, Moscow and Berlin.
In fact, this was a common solution. The popularity of South American literature in the Polish People’s Republic (widely read by my generation at school) was partly due to the fact that authors from that continent were happy to agree to such terms. They would come to Poland at the expense of their publisher, stay in a good hotel in Cracow or Warsaw, then spend their zloties on whatever they pleased. One bought a horse, another (like some hero out of a comedy by Stanisław Bareja) left the country sporting five sheepskin jackets; yet another blew his entire earnings in one night on prostitutes and booze (and had to ask for a loan the next day to see him through to the end of his stay). Their excesses are recalled to this day by veterans of the publishing world in Communist Poland, whose anecdotes deserve to be published in a volume of their own, one beyond the scope of the present work.
Lem’s plans envisaged a similar solution: ‘Dick has to accept that he can only be paid in zloties,’ he wrote to Rottensteiner in 1971. However, Dick was a more difficult case than the South Americans. In 1971, his latest marriage broke down, and he found himself on the brink of homelessness. Heavily addicted to amphetamines and other drugs, he was also drowning in debt (with the money owed to dealers).
At the same time as Lem was corresponding with Rottensteiner about the possibility of publishing one of his novels in Poland, Dick was robbed. The police suspected that he had faked the robbery in order to justify his non-payment to his creditors. Judging by Dick’s description of his life at this time in the autobiographical Valis and Through a Dark Mirror, this may well have been the case.
In February 1972, Dick was invited as a guest of honour to a Canadian convention on science fiction in Vancouver. He decided not to return to his home in Oakland but had nowhere to stay in Vancouver. Those who invited him to stay in their homes were soon fed up with him: his disruptive routine, day and night; his sudden panic attacks and angry outbursts; the guests he would bring back without asking his host’s permission.
In March, he attempted suicide. Then he began treatment in a rehabilitation centre, where apparently he stayed sober for quite some time; however, the anaesthetic he was given during a dental procedure triggered a new series of hallucinations. These were particularly acute in February and March of 1974.
Dick called it ‘Revelation 2/3/74’. He was convinced that he was being observed by a strange face in the sky. He also believed that the Roman Empire was still in existence and that he was a Christian being persecuted by Nero. He maintained that he was in contact with a form of alien artificial intelligence which he called VALIS.
In short, Dick had more important problems than his correspondence with Lem to worry about at this time – which explains why the subject of his denunciation of Lem to the FBI is usually passed over in biographical accounts. He then was writing to the FBI about various people he had met or with whom he had corresponded, and each account is as surreally incoherent as the last. (As well as the Communist network with the code name ‘L.E.M.’, Dick had also uncovered for example an international Nazi conspiracy which was forcing him to incorporate coded messages into his novels.)
He had a much more pressing issue on his mind. With the publication of his novel (and in a very large print-run) behind the Iron Curtain, he was expecting to make a fortune. He had no interest in travelling to Poland to spend his zloties – he wanted dollars, with which he could pay his creditors and buy drugs.
Lem was well aware of Dick’s addiction. He approached the issue with a doctor’s tolerance, for a doctor views drug addiction not as a sin, but as an illness. ‘He’s sick and needs cash,’ he wrote to Rottensteiner. Maybe if the American were simply to ask if he could get some drugs locally when in Cracow, Lem could write back that it could be arranged – after all, Noema Madeyska had offered Lem himself psilocybin a few years back, and could surely help. And then everything would be sorted without any unnecessary drama.
From letters circulating in the Lem-Dick-Rottensteiner triangle (I know only their Cracow nexus, i.e. those letters that remained in Lem’s archive) it seems that initially Dick expected Lem to enter into an arrangement with him whereby Dick would collect Lem’s US royalties in dollars, while Lem would collect Dick’s Polish royalties in zloties. Such a transaction could have landed Lem behind bars, for currency transactions without the permission of the Ministry were considered a crime in the PPR. But even assuming that he applied for permission, it would be a very bad deal. Dollars were worth their weight in gold in the Polish People’s Republic. People would keep them for a rainy day, for you never knew when you might need food, medicines or car parts, all available only for foreign currency. Lem regularly had to buy coke to heat his house in the sixties with dollars – for it simply could not be bought with zloties.
In late 1972 / early 1973, Lem patiently explained to Dick that there was no alternative: he would have to come to Poland to collect his royalties in zloties in person. Initially, Dick considered doing just that, but when he asked how many zloties would be left after his travel costs had been deducted – and what this would translate to in dollars – nobody could give him an answer, neither Lem nor Kurz. An author’s royalties in the PPR depended on the print-run, which in turn depended on the allocation of paper and ultimately, therefore, on the decision of the ministry. It was not unheard of for an author to receive an advance, but most of the time payment would only be forthcoming after publication (an arrangement Lem repeatedly complained about in letters to friends and got into a row about on more than one occasion).
Dick was unable to understand the situation and did not believe these explanations. It is hard not to sympathise with him. Even a sober and mentally stable observer would have difficulty understanding the economy of the Polish People’s Republic. Even without his paranoia, Dick had the right to suspect that someone was taking him for a ride.
Moreover, it is immediately evident from Dick’s letters that they were written by someone emotionally disturbed. In March 1973, Lem wrote to Dick suggesting that Wydawnictwo Literackie take care of all aspects of his travel arrangements (on condition that he fly with the Polish state airline, ‘Lot’). At the same time, he pointed out that all depended on whether ‘the state of Dick’s health’ would allow him to undertake the journey, which may have been a way of alluding to the subject of drugs. It seems Dick did not understand the allusion. Reminiscent of the behaviour of someone in the throes of a manic episode, when everyone seems to be a dearest friend, his reply (in April) was effusive and gushing: ‘That’s wonderful – your kindness has me in tears.’ As for his health, apart from high blood pressure, he was in fine form. In his response, Lem stressed that he was not yet able to tell Dick the exact amount he would receive. In May, an enraged Dick replied: ‘I take your comments as a personal insult.’
It is not clear what so infuriated Dick. Lem responded with a carefully-worded letter in which he explained that he had a poor command of English and was aware that his letters might sound like gibberish, but that it had not been his intention to offend Dick. The latter’s mood swung again in June, and in another exaggeratedly upbeat letter he expressed the hope that ‘they would remain friends forever.’
However, he continued to ask both Lem and Rottensteiner how much he would receive for Ubik. This time Lem reacted, in July 1974, with an intentionally rude letter. ‘I have no wish to continue our correspondence on this matter’, he wrote; Dick should address all further questions directly to the following address: ‘Wydawnictwo Literackie. Długa 1. Kraków.’ He pointed out that the publisher was a non-profit-making organisation and received nothing apart from ‘a pain in the neck from the letters you write to Mr. Rottensteiner about me.’
Dick threatened to withdraw the permission he had given for the book’s translation in 1972. Now, however, he cited his mental illness (which, in a letter from 1973, he had denied existed, saying that he suffered from nothing more than high blood pressure). He threatened legal action, in which he would claim that he had been forced to sign the contract when not of sound mind.
All of this is happening, of course, while faces in the sky are talking to Dick, and the Roman Emperor Nero is persecuting him with simulacra. As far as I am aware, Dick did not reply to Lem’s letter of July 1974, at least not directly. His reporting of Lem to the FBI in September of that year could certainly be seen as a reaction of sorts.
An interesting feature of Dick’s submission to the FBI was the fact that his signature was completely different from the one in his letters to Lem. These show a sprawling signature consisting of both first name and surname. The FBI document, meanwhile, boasts what looks like the signature of someone illiterate, with the ineptly formed letters reading only ‘K. DICK’. Maybe he had signed it with his left hand? But why? It is as much an enigma as his reasons for reporting Lem to the FBI in the first place.
Lem had no reason to fear the FBI. He had no plans to go to the US. There were indirect consequences for Lem, however, in that Dick spread the word among American writers that Lem had stolen his money. This was easier for others to believe – hence Lem’s unfortunate expulsion from the SFWA. This was regrettable for Lem only insofar as he had the same difficulty explaining to Ursula Le Guin why, once again, her book could not be published (and therefore why she could not receive any royalties). He feared that in the present situation Le Guin might believe Dick’s allegations – and this was one more reason for Lem’s fury with the Communist system in 1978. So outraged was he that he declared that he would no longer work with state publishing houses.
If we look once again at this absurd set-up with the benefit of hindsight and from the perspective of a different political system, how is it possible that two popular novels – one about a pupil in a school of magic, the other about an explosion in a base on the moon – could not be published for bureaucratic reasons? I remember the system myself, but would not be in the least surprised if the present generation – or a foreigner – found the whole affair incomprehensible.
The piece is the eighth chapter of Wojciech Orliński’s biography of Stanisław Lem, published in Poland in August 2017, as “Lem. Życie nie z tej ziemi” (Out of this World: The Life of Stanisław Lem).
Translated from the Polish by Cathal McCabe