The Cyberiad

February 14, 2015
Stanislaw Lem

Stanislaw Lem's classic The Cyberiad is a collection of fables involving robots. Although sometimes classified as science fiction, it falls far outside the typical tone and spirit of sf: All the "science" is barely-disguised magic, and the exposition about it is deliberately and deliciously absurd. Only marginally less surreal than Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, they're written in essentially the same tone.

The short stories are centered around Trurl and Klapaucius, two Constructors. And Construct they certainly do. Over the course of the stories, they build an automatic poet, a machine that can create everything starting with an N (which inadvertently nearly destroys the universe), a baby-launching cannon, a probability dragon, a very small civilization, and a device that abolishes war by making military personnel more inclined to discuss the finer points of postmodern philosophy than fight.

Along with every major character of the book, the two are robots. They were themselves Constructed by older Constructors, and there is lively academic debate about whether the civilization of robots was once created by earlier, simpler organic organisms (which exist on certain planets), whether they evolved naturally from simpler naturally-occurring mechanical contraptions, or whether the entire universe was brought into being by The Great Programmer.

The main event of the book is a series of seven travels undertaken by the duo, shortly after completing their education as Constructors. Along the way, they meet a variety of kings, hermits and overeducated pirates, to whom they offer their services as Constructors, sometimes tearing down entire social orders by accident or design — and usually getting rewarded with astronomical amounts of gold and precious stones in the process. They live in an essentially feudal universe, with kings, princesses, knights, dragons and all the other fixtures of medieval fantasy, and the stories largely have the feel of a kind of cybernetic fairy tales.

Many of the stories involve generous helpings of violence, with characters being beaten up, thrown into pits, launched into things, having things launched into them and getting tortured in a variety of imaginative ways. However, since all the characters are robots and cannot feel physical pain (a fact which they readily acknowledge), this seems more like the kind of violence you'd see in an old Looney-Tunes cartoon than anything actually disturbing.

Every page was full of puns, wordplay, alliterations and other creative use of language, but given that I read it in an English translation, I have no idea how much might have been lost in translation from the original Polish — I don't speak Polish. At any rate, the translation I read, by Michael Kandel, seemed masterful. Many of Lem's works were first translated to French, and then from French to further languages (mainly English), leading to degraded quality. Kandel's Lem translations are all translated directly from Polish.

I loved these stories; they were whimsical, sometimes deep and usually incredibly funny. I almost wish I knew a suitably nerdy child to read them aloud to — especially after a Polish friend of mine told me that as a child, she taught herself to read specifically to read these stories (her mother had read some of them aloud to her). Nonetheless, being technically an adult, I found these stories absolutely wonderful reading on my own.

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