Numerous are the stories in science fiction in which populations have been brainwashed to believe an ideal, most often the opposite of what we hold dear. A sub-genre in itself, advertisements have been used (The Space Merchants), narcotics (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), propaganda (We), technology (Brave New World), emotions (The Giver), totalitarian control (The Telling) and on and on go the tools used to twist society’s collective mind into a new dimension of reality. Lesser known than the majority of these works, Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 The Futurological Congress is fully imaginative story deserving of mention in the same breath.
Ijon Tichy is a recurring character in the tales of Stanislaw Lem, and in The Futurological Congress the cosmonaut finds himself on Earth—Costa Rica to be exact, attending the Eighth Futurological Congress. Though arcane science is his main interest, Tichy notices that things become a little too peculiar when getting a drink from tap in the hotel. The walls going funny and his emotional state taking an unexplainable swing, he pops a pill and brushes it off in order to attend the lectures. The news full of rebellions and riots in the world at large, the Congress’ attendees pay no heed to the violence outside, that is, until the fight is brought to the hotel itself. Bombs going off and strange chemicals suddenly in the air, Tichy heads to the canals beneath the hotel to escape. Eventually finding a manhole to open air, he discovers his troubles are only beginning.
A mescal tab laid on a hit of LSD topped off with a fine powder of psychedelic mushrooms would be a good way of describing the evolution of The Futurological Congress’ plot. The bombs going off around the hotel more than just shrapnel and gunpowder, the chemicals which saturate the air plunge the reader into the rabbit hole of Tichy’s mind. Surreal to say the least, it takes some time for the cosmonaut to shake the cobwebs and adapt to the realities he finds himself in.
Possessing the full degree of Lem’s prodigious creative power, the middle section of The Futurological Congress immediately calls to mind the bizarrely fantastic, eccentric lateral thinking of Cyberiad. Trurl and Klaupacius’s reality not our own, neither is Tichy’s, yet he can find no escape. The cosmonaut’s time in the hotel at the outset, and the stages of hallucination he passes through, likewise possess all the imagination of a writer with an expanded mind yet in full control of the text expositing the visions and concepts. Not surreal like J.G. Ballard or twisting, turning like Philip K. Dick, Lem was one of a kind, and Tichy’s trip through the chemocracy of a psychemized society is an example why.
In the end, The Futurological Congress is an endlessly imaginative novel that, in the tradition of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell, looks at a way (dream?) in which a brainwashed society goes about a twisted quotidian life, none the wiser. Packed to the gills with visuals and concepts, Tichy’s reaction to the truths he encounters, while not as severe as John the Savage’s, speaks volumes about Lem’s intentions. Giving the conclusion purpose, readers will find much food for thought and delightful imagination in the preceding pages. Though strange bedfellows, Jack Vance’s gleaming Eyes of the Overworld features an intriguingly similar device to Lem’s story. In Vance’s story, when a certain lens is placed before the eye, even the most depressing of sights becomes a vision of paradise. The lens of Lem’s story something entirely different, the resulting vision remains the same.
A side note: Ari Folman’s adaptation of Lem’s novel, called simply The Congress, deviates much from the text but produces an equally brilliant story on screen—enough so that the reader/viewer can uniformly compare and contrast the two mediums. Folman roots his film in a meta-story (the life of actress Robin Given) while Lem’s is based on the adventures of the fictional Ijon Tichy. But the travails and realities each character ultimately explore are fruits from the same tree. I dare say Folman’s is more fantastic and Lem’s more science-fictional, yet they both arrive at the same point, and are each wonderfully created in their own right. There are some script problems at the outset of The Congress, but once everything settles into place and events start rolling (quite literally in a Porsche for those who have seen the film), the psychedelics on screen and the conclusion possess just as much impact as Lem’s on page.