Stanislaw Lem

Most of the early writers of science fiction seemed to be either amateurs who began writing sf when they knew of no market for it, or professional writers on mostly quite other themes, who jumped over to science fiction for its freedom of plotting. Then it became more and more true that the larval stage of the sf writer was the fan, beginning with a scant handful of deeply committed fans who graduated to making the stories others would read.

Two of the earliest to make the transition were Poul Anderson and me. Both of us even married female fans, when such creatures began to appear. I have to admit he did a better job of it than I, though. My first fan marriage lasted only a bit over three years; Poul’s, to Karen, survived until his death, from cancer, in 2001

What both of us learned from early fan activities is that everybody should take his turn in the barrel, which is why we both served a term or two as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Poul’s was constructive and unmarked by major disruptions. Unfortunate, because as a result of one of the thoughtful and kindly things Poul did, mine wasn’t.

It happened that a SFWA member named George Zebrowski had suggested to Poul that it would be a well received gesture if he conferred an honorary membership on the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. SFWA hadn’t done much conferring of honors on anybody at that time, but Poul knew that Lem had been enthusiastically taken up by the American literary establishment for his satirical science fiction, and obligingly wrote a letter to Lem to tell him he was an honorary SFWAn, saw that news of the ennoblement appeared in appropriate publications and then crossed that matter off his To Do list.

Time passed. Poul honorably completed his time in the barrel and I was elected to replace him. Along about that time Philip José Farmer and others got upset about some highly critical things Lem had said about American sf in general and Farmer’s books in particular, and Philip K. Dick announced that he believed that Lem had somehow conspired to divert some of the zlotys from the Polish translation of Ubik to himself, for which reasons they demanded that SFWA revoke Lem’s honorary membership at once. That was a nuisance to me personally, since it meant that I, as president, would have to do the revoking.

Fortunately an at least vestigially honorable escape turned up. On consulting SFWA’s bylaws, which someone should have done earlier, but didn’t, it turned out that they expressly forbade granting honorary memberships to any person actively qualified for regular voting membership by reason of substantial publication in American media. Lem certainly was so qualified, and therefore his appointment was void.

As then president I wrote a letter, as uncontroversial as I could make it, to Lem, advising him that for the reasons already mentioned his honorary membership had to be withdrawn, but reminding him that he was eligible for regular, active membership. Since there was a theoretical possibility — though an unlikely one in view of his books’ success in the American markets — that, as a Polish citizen, he would be barred by his Marxist government’s laws from sending money abroad, I said I would be glad to pay his dues out of my own pocket.

He wrote back, very politely saying he did not wanted to join SFWA, and with that I assumed the matter was closed. It wasn’t. For several years thereafter, at SFWA business meetings, someone would usually demand that SFWA reopen the question of Lem’s honorary membership, but the matter never got much support from the voting members.

9 Comments

  1. Esoth says:

    Grace and manners not apparently being criteria for election, is that where the Lem matter stands? I love the old stories here about the early masters, particularly the personal interactions among the “Club” members which are always so graciously and generously recalled on this site. But if the SFWA would exclude a figure of Lem’s stature, with or without his consent and regardless of how churlish he might have been or be, it undermines the honor in the first place. And it seems silly that Lem should require an honorary back door admission at all events. I’d like to think the honor would ultimately rise above the honoree’s pettiness.

  2. Mariusz M. Leś says:

    Thank you for this post. Lem vs. SFWA is a famous case here, in Poland. Best wishes!

  3. Tony says:

    Very much enjoy all that you can share about the early days of SF, Fred, because (drat!) I missed them … owing to being born a couple of decades too late. (Gave me a huge backlog in the 60s)

    After hearing about that Ubik caper, I’m glad I was never a Lem-ming. (Did like the Solaris music that Tomita did tho.)

    Regards!

  4. Yannis says:

    Pohl’s handling was fine but I think it was too much to oust Lem because of his opinion about American SF (as several such as PJF proposed). Maybe there was an issue about Ubik’s translation but that should go the legal way. In any way Dick was being harsh towards Lem (didn’t he think he was a KGB agent or something?) although Lem praised Dick (and I say this as a fan of Dick that doesn’t really like Lem).

  5. Karen Anderson says:

    To all who think Stanislas Lem was “excluded,” I can tell you that it was very much not the case. He was welcome to join as a regular member.
    I’m Poul’s widow, and I was very much there.
    You see, we had created the status of honorary membership for persons who had a pecuniary relationship to the field without actually being writers — namely, the widow of one member and the daughters of another. Clearly SFWA’s work in protecting authors’ rights mattered to them.
    Please notice what Fred says: Lem refused to accept regular membership, even with Fred paying his dues. He required that SFWA *honor* him. Well, the way to be honored by SFWA is to win a Nebula. We don’t hand out knighthoods or keys to the city of Metropolis, either. — Karen Anderson, still an Active Member.

  6. Nestor says:

    Finally got through… what I tried to post 5 times with no luck was that I wondered if the accusation had any proof? It’s sad to hear one’s heroes squabbling like that, but I suppose that makes them human.

  7. Enrico says:

    A big thanks to Karen Anderson for posting here and giving more information about this story. I am far too young to have seen the glory days of the 50s and 60s in SF, but now I feel like I am reliving them here on this blog, through Fred’s posts and the occasional visit from another luminary like Karen.

  8. Esoth says:

    Ms. Anderson, I hope you didn’t take offense. I enjoyed and admire your late husband’s work, and Mr Pohl’s recounting of the dispute makes clear that Mr. Anderson handled a difficult situation with decency and grace. If Lem’s statements over the years made his receiving a Nebula unlikely, that was his own doing. I could see where a man of his temperment would’t want to pay dues to an organization that took pains to strip him of his status. Your post shines a light on why the Honorary Membership was inappropriate, given the flap over Ubik. I’d heard PKD’s charges against Lem, but tended to attribute them to PKD’s troubled mental state but the underlying issues are clearly important ones. I still consider Lem the writer worthy of honor, even if he sometimes lacked manners. As much as FP represents what SFWA is about, Lem’s devisive and very negative public views about his fellow authors makes him an uncomfortable choice at best. I apologize if I insulted the memory of Mr. Anderson, which was not my intent. Thank you for the post.

  9. Jayaprakash says:

    Lem is honoured by those who read and appreciate his work, then and now. Everything else is icing on the cake.