Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review of The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

“Mighty King, here is a story, a nest of stories, with cabinets and cupboards, about Trurl the constructor and his wonderfully nonlinear adventures.”
I can think of no better introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada in the original Polish) than the line above taken from the text.  Capturing the atmosphere of storytelling, the quirky, entirely singular imagination behind it, and the meta-human perspective suffusing every word, thought, and concept innate to the stories, the quote is a mini-excerpt of one of the most timeless, creative, and insightful collections science fiction has ever produced.  There is nothing like the constructors Trurl and Klaupacius in literature, and never will be.

Imagination oozing off the pages and pooling on the floor, The Cyberiad is a collection that continually tops itself.  Each story containing another fresh, original idea, it bursts with humor, wisdom, and unquantifiable things between; Lem is in touch with both the gravitas of humanity and its foibles.  Two robot constructors the stars of the show, the tales of Trurl and Klaupacius are at turns absurd, pitiful, happy, adventurous, clever, egotistic, salvatory—everything that makes us human but they not.  The pair being master constructors, most every story sees them whisked away to some location—with and against their will—to create for some deluded being the fulfillment of their dreams.  One king, for example, requests the “best hiding place ever” while another the ultimate quarry; a multi-eyed robot found living on an abandoned asteroid demands the knowledge of the universe, while in another story the greatest poet ever is built of machine parts. (In the end, the electronic bard proved immortal; every time someone tried to dispose of it, the machine would write a poem so pitiful the person couldn’t bring themselves to go about their duty).  

And there are other types of stories to the collection. The Cyberiad opens with Trurl constructing a machine that can create anything beginning with the letter n and ends with a story wherein a robot dresses himself up like a human to pass a reverse Turing test.  At other turns, so-called soft-science fiction takes the forefront.  King Thumbscrew the Third and his pursuit of perfection in mind and body; how Trurl accidentally created AI in the Black Nebula; and Chlorian Theoreticus the Proph, the world’s least heeded philosopher of science. All these stories delve into epistemology, ontology, behaviorism, and metaphysics more than math or physics.  The backbone of the collection is thus philosophical musing on the significant aspects of what comprise this thing we call life, life.  At turns adventurous, and at turns humorous, Lem constantly keeps one eye on the underlying reality, making the collection a cerebral treat. So despite that one machine desires love and another to have his dreams come true in a dreamatron, the fun had in the story possesses an ethereal undercurrent which speaks to the human condition in genius fashion.  

The stories so chock full of such imagination, it may be possible to quote at random:

So they sent it off, universal, reversible, double-barreled, feedback on every track, all systems go heigh-ho, and inside one mechanic and one mechanist, and that’s not all, because just to be on the safe side they stuck a scarechrome on top.  It arrived, so well-oiled you could hear a pin drop—it winds up for the swing and counts down: four quarters, three quarters, two quarters, one quarter, no quarter! Ka-boom! what a blow! See the mushroom glow! The mushroom with the radioactive glow! And the oil bubbles, the gears chatter, the mechanic and the mechanist peer out the hatch: can you imagine, not even a scratch.
If you noticed a rhythmic, poetic quality to the quote than you’re right.  Though not continually present, there remains throughout every story a strong focus on the tenor of words chosen.  Like a sci-fi Alice in Wonderland, the collection is pure pleasure simply from a linguistic point of view.

And as can be seen, translation is just simply superb.  Michael Kandel squeezing every bit of life from the original, the feat may in fact be superhuman given the number of non-existent words and puns Lem placed in the text.  The ideas always abstract and the humor most often of the eccentric variety, Kandel should be lauded for his work.  The illustrations by Daniel Mroz scattered throughout likewise go a long way toward enhancing the text.

Simply put, The Cyberiad is the joy of reading.  Featuring word games, puns, unpredictable stories, continually clever outcomes, and the blood, sweat, and tears of humanity (in robot form!!), anyone who enjoys the literary side of science fiction should simply run to get this book.  As unique as unique can be, each story glitters in a million different colors, inciting happiness and wisdom as the reader pores over the words.  In fact, it may cause them to reevaluate the literature read to date—not in a reflective manner, rather that it’s still possible for an entirely singular piece of literature to appear in the genre.  Such is the magic of The Cyberiad.


  1. Have you read Lem's amazing book reviews of non-existent books collected in A Perfect Vacuum? Highly, highly, highly recommended -- very Borgesian.... And of course, it has an introduction about the art of writing introductions.... Lem at his metafictional/pseudo-academic best.

    1. I have read it, and indeed it is as you state: meta-fictional to the nth degree. I will get around to writing a review of it someday as I think Lem is one of the most brilliantly unrecognized authors in sci-fi today--and certainly in the blogosphere. Each of his works contains such pertinent imagination, I'm bowled over with the reminder every time I pick up one.

    2. Well, A Perfect Vacuum just went onto my reading list. I hope the expectation I laid for you with my my review was met. As you said, "Can't wait to see if the promise you've created fulfills itself - no pressure!"

    3. I think my favorite of his SF novels is His Master's Voice (60s but translated into English much later).... Definitely his most "philosophical." Did enjoy his comments about the desert in Nevada -- it made me giggle. He thinks it's like the sand dunes in the Sahara...

    4. 2theD, Cyberiad came through in spades. The quantity, quality, and relevancy of the imagination Lem invested is unparalleled.

      Joachim, I have also read His Master's Voice. It's been awhile since I read it, however, and desert descriptions are not ringing any bells. I was also a lot younger, so perhaps the 'philosophical' content escaped me. In short, it's in need of a re-read. To find a cheap copy, hmm...