The Cyberiad

Posted by : atcampbell | On : May 2, 2006

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

In May of 2006 the FACT reading group discussed Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Most people who were present at the discussion (~ 6-7 of them) liked the book. A few of them had read Lem before, mostly his novel Solaris.

It was noted how well Cyberiad held up from the technological standpoint. Cyberiad was written 40 years ago, but its scientific / technical ideas don’t appear obsolete. It is about computers and machines but doesn’t have specific technology that dates it. One reader compared it to White Light by Rudy Rucker, saying Rudy Rucker’s mathematical science fiction has some of this flavor.

I myself was also impressed by how Lem had found a way to write science fiction that is not threatened with becoming obsolete in the next decade or the next five years. That’s because Cyberiad, in my opinion, is a farce, and nothing in it should be taken literally. As illustrated by the passage (page 147): “By now the stars have vanished in the general gloom, so the two proceeded gropingly, till suddenly their ship lurched, and all the furniture, pots and pans went flying”. The characters of his tales, the two robots, are so smart they can construct machines that simulate entire civilizations, yet the ship they fly in is furnished with pots and pans. Not to mention that being robots, they presumably don’t need to eat, much less cook. But in this farcical manner he explores very interesting questions about human nature, and the nature of the mind.

A flipside of this lack of technological explanations is that more than one person felt the stories in Cyberiad would be best characterized not so much as science fiction but as fairytales. Most people saw it as a positive, but one reader saw it as a negative. He said: “I’m gonna take a somewhat different tack. I was impressed by translation, it’s an easy read, but I don’t see any science in it. It’s a mechanistic fairy-tale. Having done some AI work, [I can say] it has nothing to do with computer science AI. [He quotes the book:] ‘Postulate everything that starts with letter N’ — it’s not how computers work. It didn’t bother me, but it early on told me that it’s not science. [He gives another example of a seemingly nonsensical statement found in Cyberiad:] One planet behind another? ”

He deemed the science in Cyberiad to be completely unscientific, and thought it was primarily a framework for a social commentary.

And this brings us to another of the book’s characteristics, widely noticed by the readers: that its main purpose was to be a political satire. Or so the readers perceived it. Stanislaw Lem wrote Cyberiad in the socialist Poland, where literature, art, and public discourse were heavily controlled by the communist government, to keep out the ideas they considered threatening to the communist ideology. Several of the FACT readers pointed out various methods Lem employed in order to get his message past the censors, for example, Greek myths. A reader says: “It’s very interesting that he’s using the early Greek myths as a backdrop for doing this kind of thing, making it very fun. His descriptive style is very much as an early Socratic dialog. It fits very well with what he’s doing. Lem employed Socratic dialogs in Cyberiad to get past censors. ”

Another reader comments on how Lem had to shape Cyberiad to fit the mold of socialist realism, as was required of writers in a communist society. “I thought Cyberiad was a framework for a social commentary. All the strawman bad guys are monarchs, because it is acceptable to say bad things about monarchs. In a society where fantasy has a bad rap, a mechanistic fairlytale [is the best framework].” He brings up an example of the story where the soldiers’ intelligence combines and everything stops fighting. “I think that combining things for a better result is a very communistic idea.”

Somebody else added: “Lem is Hegelian in his thesis and antithesis, which I think is one thing socialist realism liked.” And, “If you set your story elsewhere [like Lem did], since it wasn’t set in Poland, you could say something Polish readers would agree with, but censors would allow.”

Readers admired Lem’s style, his language and his sense of humor. Everybody enjoyed Lem’s way with dialog. Judging by the number of times it was referred to in the discussion, one of the most memorable stories, and one that best illustrates Lem’s sense of humor is the story that lists a bunch of strange, nonexistent words starting with letter N. You wonder why those words are not familiar, and as you read further, you find out there is a reason for it.

Everybody admired how well the translator of Cyberiad did what must have been a tremendously difficult job. People were impressed that a lot of Lem’s jokes came through in English translation, and appreciated the effort it must have taken to translate the poetry.

— Elze Hamilton