How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

A friend of mine (Hey, Zane) lent me a book, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, because of its parallels to The Fish Fox BoysThe 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)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the translator Michael Kandel, who, through some miracle was able to translate The Cyberiad into English and Daniel Mróz, whose illustrations added an extra whimsical flavor, featured in the header

Comedy and 2017: It Was A Dark and Stormy Year…

Comedy and 2017: It Was A Dark and Stormy Year…


Spoiler alert for Louis CK’s next special, probably.

I had the pleasure of seeing Louis CK perform in Portland, Oregon on January 19th, 2017– the day before Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. I am extremely grateful for the experience, especially on the precipice of an ominous historical event.

CK’s set was dark. The first subject was abortion. His second was suicide. He later talked about Christianity’s domination of history and the futile ways we attempt to mend broken relationships. He spoke of racism, incest, of the foibles of political correctness, the strange courting rituals we enact as teenagers, killing dogs, masturbating during Christ’s crucifixion, the nightmare of motherhood, what it would be like to fellate the most perfect penis in the world as a straight man, and the sad lives of those who drive tan cars.

My throat feels like it is made out of razor blades because I laughed hard enough shake my soul loose.

Comedy exists as the parallel to tragedy. That’s why it’s most effective material comes from delving directly into the most taboo topics available, foiling its counterpart. For the audience, the experience is cathartic. The weight of the world has a tendency to bear down on us and laughter provides the exhaust valve for that anxiety– laughter is closely related to the fear response, after all.

But the content of the set, while very dark in subject matter, was delivered in a mode of subtle empathy. As much as CK drives home the point that owning a tan car is a badge of poverty, he wants you to understand that particularly sad life, as well as mock the significance– because the people laughing the hardest, own tan cars. As much as he disparages marriages and all of the petty baggage that accompanies it, he still offers a message of believing in love, despite its inevitable deterioration. Even when discussing suicide, after listing off a long list of benefits, he notes how amazing it is that human beings actually have the choice to be, or not to be, and the overwhelming choice is life with all of its caveats– otherwise, nobody would be here.

Taboo and empathy are nothing new to the comedy world. Or to the Psychological; laughing at inappropriate things is a symptom of a neurological disorder called PseudoBulbar Affect. I bring that up, not to diminish those who suffer with PBA, and also because it’s interesting, but to bring attention to when– and with a skilled comedian, along with a crowd of similarly anxious people– inappropriate and depressing topics can be utilized with a comedic element to create a transcendent experience, which is a mentally healthy exercise and an increasingly necessary one.

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you probably believe this to be true: that either we need to make America great again (implying that it is currently not), or that America has just fallen to the rocky bottom of a well in a hell-bound hand basket, the pervasive theme of America’s psyche is modern cynicism.

Which is why Louis CK’s set hit me so hard. Because it wasn’t cynical (not in modern terms, although, perhaps in its classical sense). It wasn’t even necessarily pessimistic, despite the tone. The overall message was one of classical realism. To quote the wiki page:

Human reshaping puts forth that the world can become a ‘better’ place through incremental changes made by humans through enlightened self interest. Humans can change their environments only through much difficulty and slowly.

The difficulty is on stage. The slowness is the digestion of the joke within the audience.

Louis CK jabs around a concept and lets you sink in the squalor of it, really let’s you stew in it, before moving on. The concepts he throws at you are dark and difficult to wrap your head around, but he isn’t asking you to solve them. These are just concepts. Then he brings things into himself, notably an example of white privilege overreach in a hotel, and puts the audience there with him, knowing that there’s sympathy for the customer service people he describes, as well as guilt for the similar behavior he tells of. It’s in the laughter, the release. The effect becomes empathy via self-interest, as the audience makes CK himself the pariah, and the audience becomes ashamed of how he’s portraying himself in the vignette. All the while fascinated with the dangling carrot of being better people dangling in its golden self-righteousness.

The audience doesn’t get to reach it.

And that’s when Louis expends it out on the audience, telling a different, more aggressive and antagonistic joke, this time against the audience, forcing us to acknowledge our own racist, sexist, and homophobic reactions, and bringing us to his level. And we do so, willingly, laughingly.

He gives us a window into our dark reality and delves into the psychology of experiencing that reality, never asking why, poking at how, but not definitely– and it’s funny.

Part of me wants to say that “If you can laugh at the darkest parts of life, then the rest will come easy,” but that’d be a copout, because I know that isn’t true. A further point is this: don’t view comedy as an escape, because there is no escape. What comedy provides is a subconscious means to touch the darkness of the world (and within ourselves) and walk away changed, but unharmed. It’s not unlike all narrative structure. Comedy ingratiates us into misery in a way that we can understand. It’s a gateway to reality, personal, social, environmental, whathaveyou.

And in that reality, there’s some laughter to be had, despite everything else.