I’m playing catch-up a little with reviews, as I got somewhat behind over the Christmas period. And despite reading quite a lot, it’s been long books (like Dickens!). Nevertheless, I aim to get up to date as soon as possible and so here goes with an intriguing recent read!
Actually, it’s odd that I should follow my review of “Flatland” (ooh, weeks ago!) with the next book I read also being a sci-fi title of sorts – despite the fact I don’t read an awful lot of that genre. However, I think “The Cyberiad” is not so straightforward that it can be dropped into a single category, as will be revealed.
First, a few words about author Stanislaw Lem. Born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, he of course spent much of his life living and working under the Soviet (Stalinist) regime, and he managed to publish many books – sci fi, of course, philosophy and satire (in fact, I’d be inclined to argue that this volume covers all three genres!). His most famous work is “Solaris”, which was filmed notably by Tarkovsky and remade by Hollywood, but “The Cyberiad” is also a well-known title. According to articles I’ve read online, he’s suffered from having bad translators at many points in his life, and because of his punning and poetry and scientific terms he’s reckoned to be hard to render in other languages.
However, the consensus of opinion is that with this particular edition, translated by Michael Kandel, Lem found a linguist worthy of the task and it comes highly recommended. I had to marvel here at the translator’s art – this book is a case of author and linguist creating a wonderful work of art together. “The Cyberiad” is a series of short pieces, telling the tales of the adventures of the two constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, who seem to be capable of inventing and putting together just about anything. They seem to be motivated by a mixture of pride, scientific curiosity and a love of acclaim and rewards, and so they’re constantly setting off on sallies to see what they can build and what they can be recompensed with! The adventures range from dealing with the foolish king of a planet who oppresses his people with parlour games; a PhD pirate who holds people up in space and demands knowledge instead of gold; and a very sinister machine that can create anything that starts with the letter “N”, an escapade that ends up being particularly dangerous. Trurl is the more panicky, flight and arrogant of the two and often gets into scrapes from which Klapaucius has to rescue him. And the world they inhabit is a strange mix of futuristic and historical – so much so, that you might find yourself thinking that Lem invented Steampunk, if it wasn’t for the fact that the historical bits are more mediaeval than Victorian! Nevertheless, it’s an engaging mix and stops the scientific stuff from being too overwhelming.
The book is a wonderful read, full of strange and obscure terminology; not being a scientist I can’t tell what’s real or not, although with many of the names I’m sure they’ve slipped into parodic territory! But despite the humour and the silliness, the author throws up dazzling ideas which keep you thinking for days and weeks after finishing it. Of course, it goes without saying that there is another level here; the book was written under Soviet rule and in much the same way as the Strugatsky brothers used sci-fi as a way to sneak in social commentary, Lem is doing the same here. It’s quite obvious to the modern western reader where the parody is, and it often beggars belief that the censors didn’t pick it up!
In one pivotal passage, Lem reveals the philosophy that informs all of the stories:
Individuals it’s impossible to make happy, and civilisations – civilisations are not to be tampered with, for each must go its own way, progressing naturally from one level of development to the next and having only itself to thank for all the good and evil that accrues thereby. For us, at the Highest Possible Level, there is nothing left to do in this Universe, and to create another Universe, in my opinion, would be in extremely poor taste.
The collective is seen to be imperfect and not the solution for everything, and yet in one of the stories, when the cheeky inventors create interlocking armies for two opposing rulers which should technically be unbeatable as they create a huge unit, it is the unified armies that realise they hold control within their power and overthrow the tyrants – obviously an allegory for what the Soviet-controlled societies could achieve if they worked together.
You mustn’t think, said Trurl, that your way of thinking is altogether new to me. Indeed, it’s well known that whatever comes in sufficiently large quantities commands the general admiration. For example, a little stale gas circulating sluggishly at the bottom of an old barrel excites wonder in no one; but if you have enough of it to make a Galactic Nebula, everyone is instantly struck with awe. Though really, it’s the same stale and absolutely average gas – only there’s an awful lot of it… I do not share your faith in the glory of great numbers when there is nothing more to them than what may be counted.
Of course, the monolithic Soviet system was perpetuated very much by bureaucracy, and in one story, a hostile machine is defeated by that very entity:
Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B; for, as the Cosmos is the Cosmos, no-one’s licked it yet.
It would be easy to read the tales here as simply an entertaining mixture of scientific bumbling and political commentary. However, it’s always worth bearing in mind the harsh regime under which the stories were written; Lem sold millions of books and has been hailed as the most famous Polish writer, but during his lifetime his stories were dismissed as mass market, lowbrow works which probably helped him to slip under the radar of the censors. There is much here about the human condition, about the way people will behave when survival is at stake and about how human beings are not fit for the perfect world – if we had everything what would we aspire to?
There was no need, of course, for him to tell me that plenitude, when too plenitudinous, was worse than destitution, for – obviously- what could one do, if there was nothing one could do?
In its imaginative sweep and breadth of vision, “The Cyberiad” reminds me of nothing less than Calvino’s wonderful Cosmicomic fables, and both works share a philosophical wish to make human beings think about the way they live and the cosmos they live in. Reading “The Cyberiad was an exhilarating experience and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work.