I remember several episodes in TOS where the crew got easily overpowered by the aliens, and they were cryptic and truly alien.
It was in TNG where the 'guy in a mask' alien became commonplace.
The story ties in with the Strugatsky's "Noon universe" explored in several other books, such as Beetle in the Anthill , which explores the same purported aliens, the Wanderers, which seem to operate invisibly behind the scenes, subtly manipulating humankind. The aliens may or may not be same ones that caused the Zone in their masterpiece Roadside Picnic.
Lem himself said pretty much exactly this, in one of the essays in the collection “The Mask.” Humans in Western SF had distinctly colonial tendencies: they went to space and bent whomever they met to their will.
(Not sure if the collection is translated to English, the eponymous short story is among the stories in the book along with the essays. The book might even have been compiled by an editor for the Russian market.)
The Wikipedia article is curiously full of original motivation and sentiments of the ‘New Wave’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Wave_science_fiction
> With negligible exceptions (Wells, Stapledon and who?), nearly every science-fiction writer up to a very few years ago made one very hidden—and indefensible—assumption. They assumed that science changed; that the world changed; that everything you could imagine changed, except one thing. They assumed that the human race did not change at all.
— Frederik Pohl, 1965
Wells and Stapledon happen to be exactly the two whom Lem cited as his primary idols, and he lamented that later authors didn't live up to that impressive start of the genre.
(Personally I keep getting irked by the term ‘science fiction’ for writings that predominantly have nothing to do with science and everything to do with space cowboys and dramatic robotics―such that people had to invent the qualifier of ‘hard SF’. Russian, and possibly other Slavic languages, call it simply ‘fantastica’, which IMO describes the genre much more accurately.)
But if you read it through the lens of 1960s communist-era Poland, it adds a layer of poignant political and philosophical commentary.
TLDR: under post-WW2 communism there was a huge emphasis on the superiority of socialism, and a narrative of evolution and conflict that will inevitably bring the advancement of society and the victory of communism - and that this struggle was a necessary crucible to forge this victory (e.g. dialectical materialism , etc).
But The Invincible throws a different light on it. Yes, you can have evolution, you can have wars, but all this doesn't have to lead to anything better. It can just produce a swarm of automatons that do their thing thoughtlessly, just following simple rules that have been programmed into them, and reflexively harming anything that gets in their way.
And the only way for a human being to survive in those conditions is to shield their thoughts, and pretend to just go with the flow, in order to avoid being targeted by the swarm.
This is a striking metaphor of life under communism, and what it takes for a human being to survive in it - the kind of a metaphor of which Lem was a master.
Or any large capitalist corporation. Survival is a stretched term in both cases. (We should not confuse the general idea of communism with periods of brutal purges, that many/most "communist" countries went through). If you stand against any large system, guess who is likely to win.
A Perfect Vacuum is my pick for his best, as it's heavily inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' works.
This is almost exactly like a Star Trek episode where they search for crew members abducted by the borg. I see shades of the Matrix in there too.
No doubt a great influence!
I also much recommend his books starring Ijon Tichy, the only books that make me laugh out loud - "The Star Diaries" and "The Futurological Congress":
--"Have it compose a poem — a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter S!!"
--“And why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such idiotic — ”
But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the hall with the following:
“Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Some savage, spectacular suicide.”*
Singularity/AGI from early 80's (computer AIs improving themselves): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV
Ebook readers from the 60's predicted stunningly - http://i.imgur.com/e1x76Nz.jpg
Summa Technologiae from 60's (SETI, AIs, Virtual Realities, Machine Learning): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summa_Technologiae