When visiting another land, there is no better souvenir than a book representing the literature of that place. So finding myself with free time in Krakow, I visited the largest bookstore I could find and started to flip through various Polish authors for a book to bring home. Milosz and Sienkiewicz both looked promising, but it was Stanislaw Lem that won the day. I might have ignored him as typical sci-fi, with the robots and astronauts on the covers, but the fact that his works were in a Modern Penguin Classics edition made me suspect there was something more going on.
For all the robots and the fantastic use of scientific terms, the book reads more like Gulliver’s Travels or The Phantom Tollbooth than anything by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. The stories follow the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two “constructors”, and their machines which often get them into trouble. An early story involves a machine which can make anything that starts with the letter n. Everything starts well with it making neutrons and nuclei, and noses and nymphs. But then someone requests that it produce Nothing, and it starts to dismantle the entire cosmos…
The translation of the work itself is no small wonder, with all the many rhymes and word-games which appear in English, that could easily have been discarded along the way. For example, there is a poem-writing machine which takes in any criteria and then produces a perfect poem. “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 before any objections can be made, we hear:
Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Some savage, spectacular suicide.
Even in the midst of these silly poetic exercises, Lem reflects on the meaning of poetry for mankind as he depicts robots worrying about who the greatest poet is.
That Lem is well-studied in both sciences and arts appears in each story. The title Cyberiad is an homage to other epic titles and I was pleased to learn that he wrote a work called Summa Technologiae—the title suggesting at least a familiarity with the works of Thomas Aquinas. Although he is an atheist and materialist, he does not discard human questions, but looks at them in light of his theories, even if this means arriving at something absurd or unsatisfying. There is an integrity in his approach that is refreshing, and he pokes fun at so many things that one never feels on the receiving end of a political tirade. There is also something beautiful about a world full of sentient robots using Latin to dignify their speech.
A fun-fact: Apparently the popular video game SimCity was inspired by a story in this book where the constructors make a miniature kingdom for a tyrant in order to satisfy his desire to tyrannize while saving his actual kingdom. A discussion ensues about how oppressing a tiny civilization is any better than oppressing larger one.