Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, June 27, 2013

1965: The Cyberiad (Lem, Stanislaw)

Tireless themes of absurdity, satire and philosophy (5/5)

I’ve only read Lem’s Solaris (1961), so my expectation for The Cyberiad was definitely skewed towards an eeriness or introspective slant. Regardless of George Clooney gracing the cover of Solaris, the novel was chock-full of fluxing emotions, lapsing moods, and shifting paradigms. I suspected that The Cyberiad, penned only four years later in 1965, would have had a similar ambiance on the pages. Little did I realize, and much to my pleasant surprise nonetheless, that The Cyberiad is composed of (1) the humor of absurdity, (2) the satire of technological progress, and (3) the philosophy of knowledge.

(1) If you can’t find humor in The Cyberiad, check your pulse. The protagonist constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, are a dynamic opposition at times, but also a synergetic alliance at other times. Their aloof attitude towards each other’s achievements creates a personality clash which usually ends in a few chuckles for the characters and for the reader. From cockamamie poetic devices to poppycock bureaucracy, Trurl and Klapaucius are robot life partners whether they are meant to be together or apart; they are two sides to a coin, a thumb for a finger.

(2) Robots create robots that perform poetry, manifest dragons, entice a woebegone prince, spin endless threads of data, and encapsulate a civilization; these ideas of what a simple machine can go is explored to the nth degree. Lem doesn’t just show the reader what the constructors can do, but also how they accept the responsibility for producing such mechanical heaps of balderdash; where one’s ideas of a weapon of war can be another’s dream of peace or where granting a tyrant full reign over an artificial civilization can be synonymous with the subjugation of real people, Lem understands that technology is wondrous but also dangerous when in the wrong hands.

(3) Caves are apparent in a least three of Lem’s stories: “Trurl’s Machine”, “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius”, and “Altruizine”. When taken into the context of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, those within the cave are ignorant of the objective reality outside the cave and are content with the subjective reality they see in their own minds; ignorance is the enemy as much as selfish withdraw is the call-to-arms. Lem takes this allegory one step further and introduces the theme of isolation: “The Fifth Sally” with a reclusive king in his kingdom, “The Fifth Sally (A)” with an indestructible behemoth perched on a solitary hilltop, “The Sixth Sally” with an isolated data pirate in deep space, and “The Seventh Sally” with an dethroned king on an asteroid. Each of these isolated characters cuts themselves off from society to indulge in their own respective delusions of selfishness, invulnerability, desire, and power; this hermetical reclusion of self-satisfaction always ends in self-destruction. Therefore, with the themes of Plato’s Cave and hermetic selfishness, Lem pens the stories with the idea of knowledge as a dangerous thing—something to be shared in the open, talked about, and debated about rather than ensconced in ignorance and self-denial.


Rear cover synopsis:
“Stanislaw Lem: author of Solaris, and one of Europe’s most popular, prolific and articulate writers. His work has been translated into almost thirty languages and he is now being recognised throughout the English-speaking world as a brilliant and powerful writer. He has been compared to Jonathan Swift, H. G. Wells, Lewis Carroll and Michael Moorcock; but Lem is unique. Satirist, scientist, philosopher, critic—and one of science fiction’s greatest writers.

The Cyberiad is a brilliant satire on the genius and the futility of man’s capacity for technological innovation, as his rival heroes vie with each other to produce ever more improbable machines for ever more lunatic purposes.”


How the World Was Saved (1964, shortstory) – 5/5 – In all his genius, Trurl creates a machines that can prodce anything that starts with the letter “n”, including noodles, nimbuses, and even night. He invites over his fellow machine/robot constructor, Klapaucius, who tests the machine with three simple queries: first “nature” is created though its manifestation debated, then “negative” materializes in the form of an anti-world, and finally “nothing” begins to occur, scaring both constructors. 6 pages

Trurl’s Machine (1964, shortstory) – 5/5 – Trurl’s eight-storey sall machine is given a simple test to check its mathematical logic: two plus two. It’s answer of “seven” is disputed by Trurl who kicks the machine and insults it, which only infuriates the illogical contraption. Thence, it uproots itself and stalks after its creator through populated villages and dense forest foliage to where to their final standoff at the mouth of a cave. 11 pages

A Good Shellacking (1964, shortstory) – 5/5 – Klapaucius receives a gift from his constructor friend Trurl—the Machine to Grant Your Every Wish. Its limits of creation hardly pushed, Klapaucius asks for only paint, a screw, and sandpaper, but he then requests the ultimate duplication—a copy of Trurl himself! Out pops Trurl, who Klapaucius immediately assails for being an inferior clone, and thereby ensues a cascade of follies and accolades. 7 pages

The First Sally (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – Upon a voyage into the universe, our  constructor protagonists discover a planet with a single continent divided by a single red line. Wishing to make contact with the royalty of each kingdom, each constructor takes half of the continent in order to peddle their mechanizations which utilize the Gargantius Effect. Both kingdoms wanting all-powerful weapons, each seize the opportunity and confront each other with unified mobilizations. 12 pages

The First Sally (A) (1965, shortstory) – 5/5 – In order to build the perfect poetry machine, Trurl has his creation simulate the universe from the dawn of time all the way through the era of great apes and modern times to the future. It’s this simulates evolution of poetry which enables the machine to express itself emotionally and abstractly to such a high degree that master poets from around the world suicide in despair; banishment is its punishment. 14 pages

The Second Sally (1965, novelette) – 4/5 – Summoned to the planet of King Krool, the “two distinguished constructors” find themselves in a fix—the must create a formidable prey for the king of predation, or face death. Their ideas are numerous and absurd, but none match the wild list of items needed for their outlandish construction. Tooth and claw, snarl and roar have no contest to the fear of red tape in the kingdom. 26 pages

The Third Sally (1965, shortstory) – 3/5 – Dragons are very improbably creatures that the likelihood of their existence is next to nil. However, recent research has shown that the mathematical probability of dragon manifestation can occur and does occur. When soothsayers/dragon-slayers request bounty for the vanquishment of said dragons, one must realize that the ill coincides with the remedy—not all acts of healing are benevolent. 17 pages

The Fourth Sally (1965, shortstory) – 3/5 – His Royal Highness Pantagoon is infatuated with Amarandina Cybernella, the only daughter of the ruler of the neighboring state of Ib, yet is prohibited from seeing her. Trurl is once again summoned to the planet in order to create a vivacious, libidinous, and pulchritudinous vixen to derail his hapless obsession.  However, the construct fails to appeal to the man’s senses of loins, so Trurl concocts a plan to have Ib feel the strain. 9 pages

The Fifth Sally (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – A mischievous king found of puzzles yet loves the game of hide-and-seek more. The childish king offers a handsome prize for the person who can find the best hiding place for him. Our clever constructors devise a min transferring hat, which enables the king to transfer his mind with Trurl’s, thus resulting in a series of mind swaps that leaves the castle and the village in a broad yet shallow chaos. 17 pages

The Fifth Sally (A) (1965, shortstory) – 5/5 – The Steelypips, even with all their mechanical prowess, can’t budge the burdensome behemoth perched upon one of their mountaintops. Along comes Trurl who offers a form of assistance which is near and dear to him. Typing out an eviction notice with fabricated statutes, Trurl thus begins a bureaucratic process with its notices, forms, notarizations, receipts, injunctions, and sapping of the soul. 8 pages

The Sixth Sally (1965, novelette) – 5/5 – Our intrepid constructors chase a myth found on a scrap of paper, yet fall into the trap set by Pugg. The pirate, “not your usual uncouth pirate, but refined and with a Ph.D., and therefore extremely high-strung” (184), is only interested in data rather than gold or possessions. To satisfy the pirate’s curiosity, Trurl produces a Demon of the Second Kind which pulls data from the air, a steam of endless, captivating data. 20 pages

The Seventh Sally (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – Trurl passes a desolate rock while cruising in his spaceship and discovers a dethroned king. With no kingdom to reign over, the despondent king begs Trurl to create a miniature kingdom for him to rule. The cuboid contraption is set with parameters for the subjects to adore the king and to run at a vastly accelerated frame of time. Upon telling Klapaucius of his good deed, the two debate life, civilization, and consciousness. 10 pages

Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius (1965, novella) – 4/5 – Contacted by the ambassador to King Genius, who has sealed himself in a cave without want for contact or companionship, Trurl is enlisted to create three electronic bards which spins specific stories to suit the king’s intelligence: one to exercise the mind, another to entertain the mind, and the last to edify the mind. The mise en abyme and morality of narration challenge the king to undo his hermetic selfishness. 75 pages

Altruizine (1965, novelette) – 4/5 – Bonomius abandons his solitude of pious meditation to discover a more selfless world and encounters the illustrious constructor Klapaucius, who tells him of his experience with the race of Highest Possible Level of Development and his effort to simulate the dejected race in order to understand their rise to HPLD and their general despondency. His artificial construction retells the tale and offers a drug to enable peace among “palefaces”. 30 pages

Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – In order to woo, court, and wed the fair daughter of King Armoric, Princess Crystal, her suitor must be a fleshy paleface. Donning the guise of a human with its collection of effluents, Ferrix is convinced of his own slimy subterfuge and seeks the audience of the renowned princess. His various seepages and reactions convince the princess insofar as nothing beastlier comes by. 13 pages


  1. Ok, this book is on the shelf. It will now be read. Can't wait to see if the promise you've created fulfills itself - no pressure! :)

    1. Ah! Long time no see Jesse! Lem spins some magic with The Cyberiad. Looking at Amazon, the book has always been well received, a prompt for me to be extra critical, but I happened to actually agree for once! If you can stomach the repetition of the two constructors visiting kingdoms nearly every story, you should be able to appreciate the absurdity and, much later, the philosophy. Dig in!

  2. Ok, I've just finished The Cyberiad and I must agree; it's utterly, f#$%ing brilliant. Unique imagination, fun and interesting philosophical musings, and a world of wisdom, your review is spot on. Thanks for the motivation to finally pluck this one from the ever growing to-read shelf!

    1. The Third Sally was the most out of place but still not all that bad. Glad you enjoyed it! Look forward to your own review!

  3. I've started to re-read and read new Lem and he doesn't disappoint. I had a copy of The Cyberiad with that same cover and it captures the spirit of Lem and his mischievous but gentle giant of an intellect. The Escher inspired circle of a human hand creating the robot hand creating the human hand it underpins our debates about AI and what makes us human. I also love Philip K. Dick and I love that he did not believe Lem existed and warned the FBI that Lem represented a committee of communist writers trying to undermine American society and its professional Science Fiction writers.