The Cyberiad


Stanislaw Lem is a writer who has not been well served by UK publishers or (apparently) translators – a number of his books having been translated into English via other languages. It is therefore a pleasure to discover Penguin Modern Classics releasing The Cyberiad (which was followed this year by The Star Diaries). Both are translated by Michael Kandel who clearly, judging from the amount of word play involved, has a very good grasp of Lem’s intentions. (They are not new translations, however, the English language version of The Cyberiad appearing in 1974, nine years after its Polish publication).

Hopefully the Classics imprint will attract new readers who may previously have been scared off by the pigeon-holing of Lem’s work as science fiction. While it certainly contains many of the elements we associate with the genre (robots, space travel, alien planets) it doesn’t read like any other science fiction I have come across. The writer I was most reminded of was Italo Calvino: the same playfulness, one minute embracing, the next disregarding convention, and an imagination constantly punching through to the next dimension. The Cyberiad is a series of stories centred on two ingenious inventors, or ‘constructors’ as they are called, Trurl and Klapaucius, friends, colleagues and rivals, whose ability to create seems only to be limited by Lem’s imagination. In the first story, Trurl invents a machine which can create anything beginning with n; once satisfied it works he invites Klapaucius to inspect it. His friend sets to work testing the machine eventually asking it to “do Nothing.”

“The constructors froze, forgetting their quarrel, for the machine was in actual fact doing Nothing, and it did it in this fashion: one by one, various things were removed from the world and the things, thus removed, ceased to exist, as if they had never been.”

In the second story Trurl builds a thinking machine but when he tests it with the traditional inquiry as to what two plus two is, it replies seven. Even with Klapaucius’ help the machine cannot be fixed, and when Trurl loses his temper and kicks it, the machine takes offence and is soon chasing them through the town leaving devastation behind it:

“For the machine, in stubborn pursuit, was plowing through the walls of the buildings like a mountain of steel, and in its wake lays piles of rubble and white clouds of plaster dust.”

Throughout the stories it is the constructors very human flaws and reactions, despite their genius, that create much of the humour, whether directed at their creations, or at each other. In ‘A Good Shellacking’ Trurl presents Klapaucius with a “Machine to Grant Your Every Wish.” Suspecting that Trurl has hidden inside the machine in order to spy on him, Klapaucius asks it to create a Trurl whom he proceeds to beat on the basis that it isn’t the real Trurl.

Much of the book consists of a series of ‘sallies’ were the constructors “sally forth” into the universe and offer their services to various rulers. (At one point they rearrange the stars to create an advert). As well as serving these rulers, Trurl and Klapaucius frequently have to outwit them. Beginning with two warring kingdoms, they decide to separate and each offer his genius to one, but agree on a plan to ensure that neither of them has to destroy the other. This is not the only engagement which leads them into danger: a request from King Krool to create a beast worthy of his hunting skills reveals he does not liked to be left disappointed:

“I only know that no-one yet has satisfied me, and the scream of terror they invariably give as they plummet to the bottom doesn’t last quite so long as it used to.”

And so it goes on. The Cyberiad seems to be not so much a celebration of science but of fiction. Trurl and Klapaucius’ machines are creations rather than inventions, relying on imagination not scientific discovery. Their plans rely on the logic of narrative rather than reason. On this basis it seems almost accidental that Lem wrote something that looked like science fiction; whatever genre he chose it seems likely he would have transformed and transcended it.


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11 Responses to “The Cyberiad”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Like you, I was very much reminded of Calvino when I read this – have you read his Cosmicomics? I’m very keen to read more Lem now – I loved this one!

  2. Scott W. Says:

    “…not so much a celebration of science but of fiction

    Though his invention of fascinating conceits, Lem seems a lot closer to Borges and Calvino than to most of his science fiction peers. I distinctly recall first reading him while in high school, when I was immersed in a lot of science fiction, and realizing that here was something quite very different and wonderful – that “Do nothing” story a case in point.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Despite being a fan of the film Solaris (Tarkovsky’s version of course!), I’ve never read anything by Lem. Maybe I should try him at some point, especially as you’ve compared him to Calvino. I love the idea behind that first story with the “do nothing” machine, a sort of mechanical Bartleby in some respects.

    • 1streading Says:

      Whether the whole volume would be your kind of thing or not, you would certainly love that first story! As Karen says, it’s the Calvino of Cosmicomics that comes to mind.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I love Lem. His Tales of Pirx the Pilot (which are the closest to straight SF he ever did) are marvels of comedy. He wrote a detective novel with potentially no crime (The Chain of Chance); and a first contact novel where we pick up a signal from space only to find it’s so alien that we can’t ultimately even determine whether it’s a signal or a natural phenomenon.

    He’s not remotely close to what most people think of as SF (though that’s in part as most don’t have much idea how broad a church SF is), and is an author I think non-SF fans will often find interesting.

    Actually, I would be interested to see what you thought of The Chain of Chance. It’s one of the less outright SF-y ones and philosophically interesting (I think, I last read it 20 or more years ago). Hopefully Penguin will do right by it and bring out a new edition…

  5. The Chain of Chance | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Chain of Chance doesn’t display the imaginative bravura of The Cyberiad, but it does make for an engrossing mystery, and one which, when the solution is revealed, makes […]

  6. a j mnarr Says:

    A sequel fo Cyberiad. 33 original stories with new constructors, names changed to be one step ahead of copyright law!

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