Found in Translation: ‘The Cyberiad, Fables for the Cybernetic Age’ by Stanisław Lem

Last year, a friend of mine dropped this quite unusual collection of short stories in my lap, and I am grateful that they did: Stanisław Lem’s 1965 collection of bizarre, funny and thoughtful tales was a greatly enjoyable read.

Lem’s short stories, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel, run counter to the general stereotypes of literature from beyond the ‘Iron Curtain’. Certainly, there are no overt declarations of the superiority of the Soviet system or eulogies to Marx and Engels. The political allegories in the stories are subtle and playful. Although The Cyberiad was published in a less dangerous environment than Lem’s first works, which date from the 1940s and early 1950s – when Stalin was still alive, and Communist states still murderously repressed unorthodox literature – it  still has to cloak some of its meanings in fantastical tales. While many of the collection’s mad kings can be seen as parodies of monarchy, they could equally well refer to the excesses of any dictatorial rule, including that of Communist parties. That being said, some of Lem’s tales seem to fit very well with Communist theories and ideas. In ‘The First Sally of Trurl and Klapaucius’, two inventors avert a war by causing the soldiers of the armies to enter a collective consciousness and explore the many problems of philosophy. This solution mirrors the idea that a future Communist society, considered to be based on reason and philosophy, would solve the world’s problems.

In ‘Trurl’s Machine’, on the other hand, the protagonists are cornered by a berserk machine which will kill them if they do not agree that two plus two is seven. Trurl’s adamant refusal is a reformulation of George Orwell’s declaration in 1984: ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows’. Lem  almost certainly made this argument independently: Orwell’s work was not legitimately available in the Eastern Bloc until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Photograph by the author
Photograph by the author

The primary characters in this collection, our knights in shining lab-coats, are Klapaucius and Trurl: semi-robotic, wizardly ‘constructors’, each equipped with Diplomas of Perpetual Omnipotence and able to build fantastical contraptions and machines to solve (or accidentally create) the problems they encounter on their wanderings. At times their characters are rather weak, acting as little more than narrative ciphers, but they are likeable and endearingly flawed. For instance, in ‘The Sixth Sally’, they are enraged by rumours of two adventurers who are every bit as brave and skilled as they are: immediately they rush off to challenge these two upstarts, only to find, of course, that the rumours relate to none other than themselves. Lem uses them perhaps to suggest that pomposity and jealousy will always be with us, but that friendship and fellowship will endure and see us through.

Interestingly, almost all of the characters in the stories are robots, creatures of steel and circuitry. This seems to be more a method of distancing the tales from political reality than an investigation into ideas of transhumanism, or a warning that technology will rob us of our humanity. It is telling that the stories are never presented as being set in Earth’s future, unlike much English-language science fiction literature of the period, thus further distancing the setting from ‘real-world’ concerns – in appearance at least.

This is not to say that the style of the stories is unapproachable. Instead, there is a fairy-tale quality to them, with an accumulation of little details and seemingly irrelevant tangents: ’There are but two caravan trails that lead south from the Lands of the Upper Suns. The first, which is older, goes from the Stellar Quadriferum past the Great Glossaurontus, a most treacherous star…’ Although this can perhaps disguise the serious intent behind some of the stories, they make the stories quite delightful to read and preserve the atmosphere of fantastical adventure.

Lem’s writing is also very funny. This humour comes in a huge variety, from puns, parodies of scientific language and method, to absurd situations and sly social commentary. There is a simple and slightly demented joy in discovering the bonkers technical terms scattered throughout the text: we learn, for instance that ‘the School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist’ and has therefore given itself up to the study of dragons and other admittedly non-existent phenomena. The absurdity of this contrasts nicely with Lem’s scientific and philosophical explorations.

The Cyberiad is charming, engaging, often very funny and very thought-provoking. It provides a very different perspective on what might be seen as the traditional tropes of science fiction and adventure stories. As someone who grew up reading my Dad’s copies of Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham, to find these stories, similar in some ways, but very distinct and individual, was a glorious and fascinating feeling.

Christopher Finn

‘The Cyberiad’ is published by Penguin, RRP £9.99.

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