The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

Early last year I had the pleasure of reading my first book by Stanislaw Lem – The Cyberiad – and it was a wonderful experience. I found his mixture of slightly spoofy, satirical sci very appealing and clever, and so when I noticed that Penguin Modern Classics had brought out another of his books, “The Star Diaries” I was awfully tempted. I resisted for a while, settling for recommending that the Offspring bought a copy as a birthday gift for a sci-fi loving friend. But I kept coming across the book and finally succumbed in Norwich recently!

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Lem is probably best known for Solaris (and I do have a copy of that book sitting on my shelves); this book, however, features a space traveller called Ijon Tichy who apparently appears in several of Lem’s books. “The Star Diaries” collects together several accounts of his journeys through the stars and once again, in stories a little reminiscent of The Cyberiad, we’re met with a wonderful mixture of humour, satire and deeper meanings.

… every great idea must be backed by force, as one can see in numerous examples from history, which illustrate that the best argument in defense of a theory is the police.

There are twelve Voyages in all, starting with the Seventh, ending with the Twenty-eighth and losing several in between. Tichy has all sorts of strange encounters, including a couple that involve severe temporal confusion – in fact, the Seventh Voyage has multiple versions of our hero from different days of the week trying to sort out all sorts of issues in the spaceship and the resulting confusion is very, very funny.

In another, Tichy travels to the United Planets as Earth’s delegate, encountering a confusing number of different and strange life forms only to find out that humans were the result of a very strange evolutionary process…. He comes across planets occupied by robots; becomes involved in another time travelling project intended to correct the mistakes of evolution; visits another planet attempting to use ‘evolution by persuasion’ to turn its occupants into underwater creatures; and so on. Each tale is individual and intriguing and very, very clever.

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For, much as there was with “The Cyberiad”, there are plenty of hidden meanings here. Lem is quite clearly having a dig at those who try to control everyone; to fit everyone into the same mould; and to re-write the past. On one particular planet, each inhabitant becomes someone else the next day so no-one has an individual identity, and as one character states:

“Know, O uninvited alien… that ours is the knowledge of the ultimate source of all the cares, sufferings and misfortunes to which beings, gathered together in societies, are prone. This source lies in the individual, in his private identity. Society, the collective, is eternal, obeying steadfast an immutable laws, as do the mighty suns and stars. The individual, on the other hand, is characterized by uncertainty, indecision, inconsistency of action, and above all – by impermanence. Therefore we have completely eliminated individuality on behalf of the society. On our planet there are no entities – only the collective.”

Quite how Lem got that past the Soviet censor I don’t know… And in one of the other stories we hear:

You forget where you are and to whom you speak… For six hundred years there has been among us no a single “natural” mind. Thus it is impossible, among us, to distinguish between a thought spontaneous and a though imposed, since no one need secretly impose a thought on anyone else, in order to convince him.

Obviously, using space age settings to make comments on a totalitarian regime was a sensible move. Yes, the stories are very, very funny (I was laughing aloud all the way through) but they’re also a very clever way to get across Lem’s points about the repressive regime under which he was living, human foibles and failures and the dangers of messing with science. The wonderful mix of the absurd and the serious reminded me in some places of Douglas Adams and in others of Calvino; but Lem has a voice all of his own and “The Star Diaries” was a fabulous read.

*****

As an aside, I think translator Michael Kandel definitely deserves some kind of award for rendering this book so brilliantly in English. As I mentioned before, Lem is notoriously hard to translate because of his punning and wordplay in his original language; Kandel has obviously handled this brilliantly and given us English versions that are just as funny, while presumably retaining the brilliance of Lem’s storytelling. There are other collections of Tichy’s stories available, but I’m a little nervous of trying them because they aren’t translated by Kandel…

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