Lem at Amazon

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Stanislaw Lem - Who He?
Andy Sawyer

[...] Much of Lem’s own fiction has that rather overwritten style. The science fiction spaceships and robots are there, and there for a purpose – they mean something rather than being simply banged in for the goshwow factor – but the meat of the story is elsewhere. With Dick, it was often the uneasy tension between order and chaos, the real and the unreal. In Lem, science fiction is a way of exaggerating and mocking human idiocy, but there is also a love of the grotesque, of imagistic and linguistic excess, which makes him a master of the baroque. The descriptions of the ‘mimoids’ in Solaris or the picture of robots with medieval feudal societies in the Cyberiad are perfect examples. If ever there was a writer of the ‘wide-screen baroque’ it was Lem, but he was also a writer who (perhaps unlike Dick in his more unfortunate moments) avoided kitsch – that glamorous and ornate but essentially tasteless and derivative version of the baroque that feeds off art rather than creates it. Not understanding Polish, I can have no idea how the linguistic virtuosity of passages in The Cyberiad work in the original, but Michael Kandel (the translator of this and many others of Lem’s books, though not Solaris) is frequently praised, and they work well in the English, apart from Klapacius’s ‘zits’, without which life loses all its charm. But we will come to them later.

Lem’s variety can be shown by taking a brief look at some of his most interesting works. The Star Diaries (1957), featuring the intrepid space explorer Ijon Tichy who also appears in a number of other works, have a light touch: in the ‘Seventh Voyage’ a series of ingenious time paradoxes arise when Tichy attempts to fix his spaceship by enlisting the help of his ‘selves’ from different days of the week. The ‘Eleventh Voyage’ has Tichy involved in the destiny of a robot civilisation which acts like a parody of a feudal medieval court. In the process of this, he has to pass as a robot himself and saves his life only by agreeing to serve as an informer (as have, in turns out, the majority of the population who are also ‘mucilids’, or humans). In the ‘Thirteenth Voyage’ Tichy discovers a civilisation, Acquatica, ruled by a dictator who insists that the people learn to live (and breathe) underwater. In the ‘Twentieth Voyage’, we learn that the entire course of human development has been formed by Tichy’s attempt to clear up and rationalise history and the clumsy, bumbling buffoons such as Harris Doddle and Pat Lado who end up exiled to ancient Greece as punishments for their screw-ups, only to produce more screw-ups in their turn. Another agent manages to discredit twentieth century futurologists ‘by turning out all sorts of rubbish (called Science fiction).’(185)

The Cyberiad, in its fusion of cybernetics and fairytale, outdoes Douglas Adams in farce. Trurl and Klapaucius are ‘constructors’ whose works often get snarled up in paradox. In the book’s first story, Trurl invents a machine which can create anything beginning with the letter ‘n’. As the story unravels, Klapaucius instructs the machine to create Nothing (which, of course, is not the same thing as not doing anything). As things are removed from the world and cease to exist, Klapaucius realises his error: the result is a world without brashations, plusters, laries and ‘no trace of the glorious worches and zits that had, till now, graced the horizons!’ (7). He begs the machine to at least please return his ‘gentle zits’, but because of its original programming all the machine can do is create things beginning with the letter  ‘n’. Which is why, in our world today, we have nonsense, narrowmindedness, nausea, necrophilia, nefariousness, and noxiousness... but no zits. English-speaking readers will need no reminding, however, that we do in fact still have acne infestations on our faces as we go through puberty; perhaps a better word might have been chosen there!

Later, longer stories in the sequence, such as ‘The Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius’, or ‘Altruzine’, are wonderfully playful fables. In the latter, for instance, the hermit robot Bonhomius goes on a quest for the H.P.L.D.s, the beings who have reached the Highest Possible Level of Development, and finds a star which is a perfect cube.

In contrast to Tichy, Pirx, the hero of a collection of stories published in 1968 and translated as Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1979) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1982) is perhaps Lem’s most conventionally science-fictional character; somewhat reminiscent of the competent young men of Heinlein’s juveniles although with more of a comic twist. Pirx starts off as a young cadet, and in ‘The Conditioned Reflex’ he solves the mystery of deaths on the Moon which turns out to be due to a mechanical glitch, but also the way the humans have reacted to that glitch, A similar situation is resolved in ‘On Patrol’. ‘The Test’ is the first appearance of the young Pirx, who has to deal with a tough examination in piloting which is made more difficult by the presence in his cabin of two flies...