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August 23rd, 2016

Underrated SF/F: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

Hello all, and welcome to what’s hopefully going to be a new series for y’all: Underrated SF/F Novels. It’s a bit of an interest of mine, seeing what was written that maybe doesn’t get the same attention as the Fahrenheit 451s and Hunger Games and Left Hand of DarknessesLeft Hands of Darkness? I’m not entirely sure how you would pluralize that.

But anyway, I’d like to take a closer look at the books that never quite made it into the eye of the general public. Whether they’re just a little bit too old to still be in the public eye, they’re new but haven’t made it, or were just a little bit too bizarre to make big public waves no matter when they came out, I want to share them… or at least the ones I know. We are talking about underrated books, and with so many out there, I probably haven’t even read one percent.

And, just in case anyone is being extra wary, there be spoilers in this and pretty much any of these posts. I’ll try to mark them off so you can skip through them, but I’m only human and might miss something. You’ve been forewarned.

So, today I want to take a swing through one of my favorite books. Now, a lot of people know Stanislaw Lem from his novel Solaris. It’s far and away his most popular work, and there was even a movie made of it. But I’m not here to talk about that.

cyberiad cover 75

I’m here to talk about The Cyberiad.

If you know the book, you’re probably very excited to find someone else who’s actually read it. I always am. If you don’t know it… well, here’s the basic rundown: The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories written by Stanislaw Lem about the “illustrious constructors” Trurl and Klapaucius. It’s a universe where the majority of intelligent life is robotic or mechanical in nature, the squishy “Paleface” having died off long ago. It’s a universe where gleaming robo-knights ride mechanical steeds to save princesses made of steel and wire and resistors.

And it’s a world with a new profession: the constructors. Essentially, with enough time and resources, they’re very nearly god-like. But through these tales of electronic men and women, we’re offered the chance explore ourselves as humans. Aging, dying, dementia, injury. We get to look at the entirety of the human condition through these stories.

A bit of brief history: the collection was originally published in Lem’s native language (Polish) as Cyberiada in 1965. In 1974, the first English translation (The Cyberiad – Fables for the Cybernetic Age) was published. And major kudos have to go to Michael Kandel, the translator. I don’t know how he managed to do what he did. Lem wrote in rhyming verse (In Polish), and relied on puns and humor and pseudo-technical jargon, and Kandel managed to translate all of that without losing the unique spirit that made The Cyberiad its own special entity, separate from almost all of Lem’s other works (Although a bit of that whimsy can be found in Imaginary Magnitude, as well.).

Spoilers Start Here

So, without going through each and every story individually (There are a lot of them.), I’m just going to give a bit of a personal highlight reel. There’s not a bad story in the book, but some of them are always going to stand out more for a particular reader than others.

The first story I think of when The Cyberiad comes to mind is The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability. For me, this is quintessentially what the book is about. Why yes, of course dragons exist. Well no, of course you can’t see them. They’re highly improbable. The only reliable way to encounter one is to artificially raise the probability of one existing to a near certainty. It’s full of a lot of mumbo-jumbo about dracometers and such, and includes a wonderful sequence where Klapaucius is raising the probability in the area so high that rocks are floating and passing moths are beating out entire books in Morse code with their wings. It’s inanity on the page.

After that? The Second Sally, or The Offer of King Krool. This one is about the epitome of the fake technical jargon Lem has throughout the book, with an entire chase scene between the beast they intend to create and the titular King Krool… but all done through mathematical equations in order to program the creature. King Krool is a great hunter, and if the beast doesn’t meet his needs, well… that would be the last of our illustrious constructors.

I think the human angle is shown most in The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perception Led to No Good. And it brings up a very fundamental question, one that’s explored often by various science fiction greats: when does consciousness begin? If you craft something, and the programming is so advanced that they feel pain and anguish and joy and sorrow and every other human emotion, who’s to say that they aren’t themselves conscious, sentient beings? And this story best shows off the differences between two otherwise fairly similar characters. Trurl is egotistical and rash, whereas Klapaucius is calmer and thinks less of himself. True, they’re both incredibly intelligent, and think highly of their own intelligence, but it’s subtle differences that keep these two friends/colleagues/rivals from coming too close to each other.

Spoilers End Here

Mix those stories with others, such as Altruizine, A Good Shellacking, Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal, and Trurl’s Electronic Bard, and you have a collection that seems like it should have gone places, at least to me. Perhaps it was a bit too strange for its own good. Perhaps the humor wasn’t all-encompassing enough. Perhaps the moon and stars were out of alignment or the editors sacrificed one too few goats to the Gods of Publishing. Whatever the reason, this book has always languished in the dreaded midlist, even at the height of its popularity. It retains a loyal following, but never enough to skyrocket him to the fame of other SF/F short story writers like Bradury or Pohl.

If you’re looking for something a little bit odd, a little bit funny (Or at times, a lot.), and entirely unique to itself, I can’t recommend The Cyberiad enough. It’s, for me, the book I turn to when I’m feeling a little down and out. It makes me smile, it’s never too heavy or too childish. Like a cybernetic Goldilocks, The Cyberiad is just right.

Now, I don’t know when I’ll see you all again. I’m hoping to do relatively regular posting on here, but how often that is will all depend on how this fits into my own schedule. I have books that need writing, books that need reading, dogs that need tending, and websites that need maintaining. But I promise not to leave for too long.


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