The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw LemReview: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (Mariner Books, 2002)

Recently I posted a review of Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, lauding it as a prime example of how non-Western sci-fi is very often far more insightful and daring than that to which we are often exposed. It sparked off a Facebook conversation in which I was reminded of Polish legend Stanislaw Lem (one of my interlocutors had apparently translated some of his works) and vowed to read more as I had, shamefully, only got around to Solaris by that point. So here is the first of what should be the first of several Lem review over the coming months.

The Cyberiad is not a novel per se, rather a collection of short stories chronicling the intergalactic adventures of Trurl and Klaupacious, Constructors extraordinaire. In this futuristic realm the galaxy is populated by all manner of races, among them robots like our protagonists, and these races face no end of problems. Despite their travails usually being of their own making, the rash, ebullient Trurl and his long-suffering friend and rival consent to using their extensive knowledge to provide solutions.

The situations in which they find themselves are wide and varied. At the book’s outset they simply rib each other and square wits, exemplified by Klaupacius’s desperate attempts to confound Trurl’s newly created electronic bard, charging it with delivering ever more fiendish and complex compositions. The results are truly a beauty to behold. Before long the pair take to the stars in search of souls to save, such as the beleaguered king who simply cannot find prey worthy of his hunting skills. Hoodwinking the Constructors into entering is palace he informs them that they must forge a mighty beast, proficient enough to finally challenge him – on pain of death. Knowing that they could easily build a beast which could destroy the king in seconds – they are after all the greatest Constructors in the galaxy – their true challenge lies in creating the illusion of challenge.

The Cyberiad is billed as a collection of ‘fables for the cybernetic age’ and certainly lives up to the description. Much of the writing has an almost childlike feel to it, yet this is purely superficial and hides layer upon layer of hidden meaning, nearly every page rewarding a second read. On top of this the translation is simply wonderful, sufficient to have me forgetting it was written in another language. For evidence of this look no further than the aforementioned Bard’s tale. To describe such an insane scenario in English would have been inviting disaster for most authors but the translator, Michael Kandel, manages such a deft re-wording that he almost deserves co-author status.

As to the underlying morals behind the tales of The Cyberiad, such as all good fables must contain, Lem manages to make his point when he needs to without becoming heavy-handed or losing the dreamlike thread of the stories, at other times simply leaving it up to the reader to create their own meaning. An example of the former would be the wonderful anti-war tale (…) in which two opposing nations seek armies with which to annihilate the other. By a  twist of fate Trurl ends up recruited by one side, Klaupacius on the other. Being equally talented Constructors they both hit upon the same ruse of tricking their employers into connecting the mind each soldier with every other, supposedly to ensure obedience, group unity, swift and precise execution of orders and so on. The nations set about their war, each envisioning a glorious victory, when things go swiftly awry. It seems that interconnected beings sharing each other’s consciousness vastly prefer peace, love and understanding to conflict. The descriptions of the scenes which ensue had me almost falling off my chair with laughter.

While The Cyberiad might not be for everyone – some may find its quirkiness too extreme, its superficial aspects too childish – it is certainly a must-read for any sci-fi fan. Whether devoured in a single sitting or enjoyed tale by tale at a leisurely pace it is a book to ponder and discuss at length. Even for those who are not so heavily into the genre it is worth reading simply as a book of modern fables. For that matter I challenge anyone, of any tastes, to pick up this particular translation and not be amazed at how such playful, imaginative and intricate prose can be carried across language barriers and still display such beauty. One for literature buffs of every stripe.

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