His Master's Voice
I believe, from having read about his preoccupations, that Lem considered himself a philosopher first and a writer second. His stories were vehicles for his ideas.
In novels such as Fiasco or The Investigation or even Solaris, Lem explores the concept that we never be able to truly understand that which is alien. We may be able to make our interpretations and they may even acquire their own sense of consistency but never will they be more than fables, stories we tell ourselves, like huddled animals around a campfire.
An example, and also a personal favorite, is Lem's metaphysical take on the detective story. A bizarre series of murders has everyone puzzled. They occur simultaneously across the country and bring into play recurring elements: bodies missing from graveyards, suggestive trails, murder scenes with hints of the supernatural. But (and this is key) there are never any witnesses. The simplest explanation occurs to the reader immediately: Corpses are rising from their graves and going on murderous rampages. But this is a supernatural explanation and so unsuitable. Instead, the detectives propose a solution which involves outrageous coincidences: sleep-walking truck drivers, mistaken identities, a rube-goldbergian series of events which do not seem probable in the lifetime of this universe. But, the explanation does not rely on the supernatural and so it is accepted as the only plausible one.
These narratives extend back to how we understand ourselves. In His Masters Voice, the hero Hogarth has read multiple biographies of himself and realizes they are all insufficient. He sets out to write his own tale:
"With sufficient imagination a man could write a whole series of versions of his life; it would form a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common. People, even intelligent people, who are young, and therefore inexperienced and naïve, see only cynicism in such a possibility. They are mistaken, because the problem is not moral but cognitive."
The story of His Masters Voice is that a strange message has been recieved from a distant galaxy and a team of scientists set out to decipher it. In the Universe of Lem the message is yet again another fact about the world which must undergo interpetation and squeezed of meaning. Even if the message is deciphered, how do we know that that mirrors the original intent? Predictably, the story is less about the contents of the message itself than about the debates about its decipherment.
To me, Lem was at his best when he was exploring undiluted ideas, as he manages to do both in A Perfect Vacuum and in The Cyberiad. The former book, Borgesian in character, is a series of reviews of imaginary books. In his review of "De Impossibilitate Vitae and Prognoscendi" Lem writes (as an example of his dedication to this task):
Professor Kouska has written a work which demonstrates that the following relationship of mutual exclusion obtains: either the theory of probability, on which stands natural history, is false to its very foundations, or the world of living things, with man at its head, does not exist. In the second volume, the Professor argues that if prognostication, or futurology, is ever to become a reality and not an empty illusion, not a conscious or unconscious deception, then that discipline cannot avail itself of the calculus of probability but demands the implementation of an altogether different reckoning—namely, to quote Kouska, “theory, based on antipodal axioms, of the distribution of ensembles in actual fact unparalleled in the space-time continuum of higher-order events.” (The quotation also serves to show that the reading of the work, in the theoretical sections, does present certain difficulties.)
There is one review devoted to an actual work: A review of the very book itself. The reviewer did not like it.
In The Cyberiad, Lem employs two constructor-robots in the far future who, through humor and stories, explore the ideas of the limits of technology and the endpoints of our own evolution. In one tale, the robots embark on a visit to the most advanced civilization in the galaxy who have reached the Highest Possible Level of Development (HPLD) but find only dissapointment from creatures who at first ignore them then instruct them that technological sophistication and wealth have still not brought resolutions to the basic problem of happiness.
Although I placed him as a writer, second, that is not an attempt to discredit his writing. As one critic observed in 1983, "If [Stanislaw Lem] isn't considered for a Nobel Prize by the end of the century, it will be because someone told the judges that he writes science fiction," Apparently, someone told one of the judges. In any case, the century is over. And in any case, such an award would be posthumous. Stanislaw Lem died two days ago.
Listen to the MP3 of "Polish Science Fiction Legend Stanislaw Lem is Dead"