A friend of mine (Hey, Zane) lent me a book, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, because of its parallels to The Fish Fox Boys. The Cyberiad is a collection of somewhat related short stories concerning two inventors, Trurl and Klapaucious and nearly every story is an allegory for philosophical mind experiments, a political satire or a treatise on the human condition.
Unlike other allegorical writers, Lem’s approach is hilariously heavy handed and very intentional. From the Introduction by Christopher Priest:
“Lem […] always intended that these stories could be read on two levels […]. On the surface, they are amusing and intriguing, full of novelty and wordplay, but they also contain many moral ambiguities and reflect Lem’s personal philosophy.”
And apparently, he was very frustrated with his American contemporaries, and saw the sci-fi genre as a pulpy excuse to simply make beer money (with the notable exception of Philip K Dick, who repaid this appraise by reporting Lem to the FBI, barring him from the United States). On the topic, again from the Introduction:
“[…] he had a deeply sceptical [sic] attitude to commercial science fiction, and wrote an essay in which he described American writing as ‘ill thought out, poorly written, and interested more in adventure than ideas or new literary forms.'”
But Lem also understood that there was a practical reason for allegory: subversion. While I’ll make a subtle parable out of a Fish Fox Boys chapter to disguise a philosophical idea as absurdity on the sly, Lem had to get his works through state censors– work that contained agnostic, anti-Communistic messages. So, Lem shrouded his work– amusingly– in the sci-fi genre:
“[…] Lem was beginning to understand, that functionaries of a totalitarians state are never as intelligent as all that. Lem was starting to learn that the abstract metaphors of science fiction were one way of confounding the doltish Party men with their blue pencils. They simply lacked the subtlety, the imagination, to see past the words on the page.”
What’s particularly striking about that, is that the veil is relatively thin– but also happens to include a lot of fantastical technical jargon (that’s not a typo. Again, it is as fantastical as it is deeply technical which makes it, uhm, challenging to say the least) that pummels the reader with clever word play and puns, but is essentially non-essential to the plot. Lem himself even winks at this in “The Sixth Sally,” by creating a “Demon of the Second Kind,” which drowns a pirate demanding facts by writing down inconsequential information on an endless roll of ticker tape. (The mechanic of which, I believe, was explained to be literally grabbing facts out of stagnant air particles). This also seems to allude to Lem’s belief that “information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information,” which is not only a relevant and apt criticism of the Internet age, but is also particularly amusing to me as it illustrates my first college essay which drew parallels between Toqueville’s Democracy of America and the society influence of Facebook.
What’s that? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. My Auto-Horn-A-Tootinator was screaming.
Back to The Cyberiad.
There’s a certain flippancy to this style. The characters have been given the god-like power to construct anything asked of them and the effect is one of aggressive anti-realism (which again is poked at in a story about how dragon’s don’t exist. I’m going to paraphrase it the best I can and apologize for any lapse in logic. The probability of a dragon’s existence is about 0%, the certainty of dragons not existing is about 100%, meaning that there is about a 100% chance of non-existing dragons, which increases the probability of dragons having had to have existed and as such a dragon materializes. My brain hurts.) which allows for a certain sense of freedom in his storytelling– in a crafted world where you can make anything happen, you can literally tackle everything as your subject matter. And Lem does. It’s a nice reminder that fiction doesn’t need to be necessarily formulaic to be interesting. It can just be interesting. And poignant.
In this anti-realism, there is a complete bucking and subversion of traditional storytelling conventions. Frame narrative, for example, gets a lot of abuse. In a story about Trurl inventing story telling machines for a king, the machines tell a story about Trurl telling a story to a second king, and in that story a dream-maker captures a third king in a long series of dreams, the ultimate being a dream of having a dream. I’m pretty sure there are actually more layers than that. Predates Inception by 45 years. Just saying.
Here’s what this can accomplish: by putting form on the back burner, one can more directly attack the subject of satire. In one episode, there’s a planet that’s pestered by a ship outside of its orbit who won’t leave. They launch a nuclear bomb at it to no avail. Trurl sails by on his rocket and instructs them to send a letter and wait for the response, only to respond with an assault of ceaseless forms and requests for licenses until the alien ship becomes frustrated to the point of leaving voluntarily. It’s the classic “pen > sword” parable, but in a more modern and global sense, it’s the crushing intimidation of bureaucracy, which might be favorable to nuclear annihilation– and then in a further sense, it illustrates how diminished the threat of the bomb is when it’s easily nullified, and how we resort to petty global politics to achieve our nation’s wants.
When Lem wants to discuss the callousness of Stalin’s Communism, he writes about The Multitudinous– a borg-like conglomeration of many, who feels nothing when scores of itself dies or becomes enslaved– and even commits those crimes against itself for its own amusement. When Lem wants to discuss religion, he invents a drug called Altruizine, which makes the users feel automatic empathy for those around them– which of course ends in alienation, murder, grief and voyeuristic sex crimes. When discussing existentialism, Lem writes a story about a robot who came into existence the pure happenstance of an airborne jug knocking some wires and body parts into a puddle of electrolytic fluid, spending eons to become conscious only to drown shortly after the realization of self-awareness. This versatility lends itself well to discussing human absurdity. I’ll quote from the final chapter of The Cyberiad, in which a robot disguises himself as a human to win over a robot princess and explains the daily habits of human life with rigid, robotic objectivity:
“In the morning, they wet themselves in clear water, pouring it upon their limbs as well as into their interiors, for this affords them pleasure. Afterwards, they walk to and fro in a fluid and undulating way, and they slush, and they slurp, and when anything grieves them, they palpitate, and salty water streams from their eyes, and when anything cheers them, they palpitate and hiccup, but their eyes remain relatively dry. And we call the wet palpitating weeping, and the dry– laughter.” (284)
Part of the reason why I found Stanislaw Lem so refreshing is that the aesthetics in modern sci-fi are so up its own ass, actual novelty in the storytelling has fallen by the wayside. There are exceptions, certainly, but the mainstream obsession is focused on how complete a certain world looks, not necessarily the message behind it. In The Cyberiad, all of the worlds are generally placed in a feudal, medieval setting, regardless of the planet, as if to say, after all of this technology and possibility, there hasn’t been much progression in human (and robotic) behavior.
But the thing that struck me as the most profound was Lem’s awareness of the function of story. Mirroring the sentiment of the first quote of this post, Trurl escapes certain death by creating storytelling machines that relay narratives that are compelling and perceptive of the nature of being. The awareness speaks of a deep understanding of how the human mind will resist foreign ideas, but might be accepting of the narrative vehicle in which the idea travels. To quote King Genius who allowed the constructor of the storytelling devices to live:
“Go then in Peace, my friend, and continue to hide your truths, too bitter for this world, in the guise of fairy tale and fable.” (243)
5 thoughts on “How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory”
You do great credit to Lem. I have this book TBR, having only made inroads into Mortal Engines, a recommendation from a friend, and Highcastle, which is highly unrepresentative. I find this fascinating:
>information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information,” which is not only a relevant and apt criticism of the Internet age, but is also particularly amusing to me as it illustrates my first college essay which drew parallels between Toqueville’s Democracy of America and the society influence of Facebook.
It has me wondering about writing something API-based that could help generate something fictionally game-showish – though whether that’s sci-fi, I don’t know. That’s what I like about Lem – as your essay avers, he taps into already extant abstractions that apply across cultures and situations. What mattered in the Soviet Union in his time, I guess he wagered, will probably be relevant elsewhere on the globe and in the future, such as bureaucracy. Looking forward to Cyberiad now, thanks!
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Thanks for the kind words! Lem is certainly clairvoyant in a lot of relevantly modern ways. Speaks to his understanding of the structures behind institutions (which he used as allegorical fuel). Your API project sounds interesting and I think the genre of sci-fi is wide enough to incorporate it as one of its own. I’ll be the devil on your shoulder: do it.
Aye, well I have used Tocqueville as source material – I wonder at the possibilities in generating text from social media feeds. Ha ha – I could even try both together! Depends on which social media.
What would Lem make of the bots that scrape websites today? Perhaps he would give them personalities? As you say about his avoidance of detailed description, he would presumably concentrate on things like the work that bots do, who for, and their lives as travelogues. And then there’s the trolls.
I think he’d call them daemons of the third kind and they’d spout foul twitter insults. 🙂