The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem
What a book this was! I was blown away by the breadth and depth of imagination of the author. Written in 1965 by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, “ The Cyberiad “ is a collection of stories that happen in a distant future, when space travel between galaxies is a simple affair.
The book chronicles the adventures of two master-engineers, called constructors, named Trurl & Klapaucius, who could build anything that they set their mind to. The constructors create civilizations, thinking machines, dreaming machines, philosophical machines, machines that can create machines, move around planets, create dragons, then dragon-hunting machines, mind-altering machines to save kingdoms and machines to help them to escape from ruthless kings.
Though classified as Science Fiction, I will put the book under “Fantasy Fiction” & “Philosophy Fiction”. Initially, you don’t get it, but as you keep reading, you get a feel of the brilliance of the author and understand that the tons of scientific sounding words from Astronomy, Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence are there to be humorous and to be philosophical. The book was originally written in Polish but has been skilfully translated to English with the humours making their way, which normally gets lost in translation. The translation featured numerous arcane English words, I had to frequently call upon Kindle’s built-in dictionary to explain them, but it was not easy, I had to figure out which were real English words and which were made-up words (of which there were a plenty).
I will now give a summary into each of the short stories in the book. Though I will not share the ending, I may be revealing a part of the mystery in each story, if you don’t miss out on the fun of discovering it on your own reading, please skip the remainder of this review.
1. How the World was Saved: Trurl builds a machine that could create anything starting with n. When Klapaucius comes to try it, he gives a ’n’ word (not the one you are thinking) to create and calamity strikes.
2. Trurl’s machine: Trurl builds an eight-story thinking machine, asks it how much is two plus two. The machine answered Seven, how much ever trurl tried to fix, it was stubborn on the answer and thus started a danger for Trurl’s life.
3. A good shellacking: Trurl gifts a machine to Klapaucius, that can grant every wish of him. And Klapaucius asks it to build him a Trurl (clone), did it or not?
4. The First Sally or the Trap of Gargantius: “ The universe was not so out of what as it is today, and all the stars were lined up in their proper places, so you could easily count from left to right, or top to bottom…”. After the constructors got their Diploma of Perpetual Omnipotence they set out on a voyage. They found a planet with one continent, which had two neighbouring kingdoms (it is always Kingdoms and Kings in this book) and they decided to help each one with their skills, they split and decided if anything goes wrong they will use the Gargantius Effect. Trurl goes to King Atrocitus, a miser, who even had every condemned citizen to be beheading himself. Klapaucius goes to King Ferocitus, who was enlightened and a generous lord. There he explains to the King on how leaders gave the orders: “ The discipline of an army consisted in the precise execution of orders. Ideally, we would have a thousand hearts and minds moulded into one heart, one mind, one will. Military regimens, drills, exercises and manoeuvres all served this end.”, instead, “ into each recruit (he explained) a plug is screwed in front, a socket in back”. What happened next and how did the two constructors from the kings who wanted them killed?
5. The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard: Trurl decides to build an ultimate poetry machine. He figures out that “ The program found in the head of an average poet, after all, was written by the poet’s civilization, and that civilization was in turn programmed by the civilization that preceded it, and so on… Hence to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning”. “ Next, Trurl began to model Civilization, the striking of fires with flints and the tanning of hides, and he provided for dinosaurs and floods, bipedality and taillessness, then made the paleopaleface (Albuminidis sapientia), which begat the paleface, which begat the gadget, and so it went, from eon to millennium, the endless hum of electrical currents and eddies”. The machine goes on to author beautiful poems:
The Petty and the Small,
Are overcome with gall
When Genius, having faltered, fails to fall.
Klapaucius test the machine to author a poem with many conditions, did it succeed? If yes, why did the electronic bard was packed off by Trurl to a distant asteroid?
6. The Second Sally or the Offer of King Krool: Once Trurl and Klapaucius advertise their availability and are approached by King Krool to build him “ a new model of beast, something wild and rapacious enough to present a challenge” for a hunt. Now the two constructors are in a soup, if they do their job too well, the King will get killed by the beast and they will be executed; or if they do a poor job, it won’t be a challenge to the king and the king will have them executed. To escape they devise a clever plan of impeccable detail. There is enough material in this one story for a full-length Hollywood thriller.
7. The Third Sally or the Dragons of Probability: Trurl and Klapaucius went about building a real dragon using the theories of statistical probability and then a probability amplifier. But things do go as per their plan. “ They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years.”
8. The Fourth Sally, or How Trurl Built a Femfatalatron to Save Prince Pantagoon from the Pangs of Love, and How Later He Resorted to a Cannonade of Babies: Once an electroknight from the sister globes of Aphelion and Perihelion, approaches Trurl to build a machine to cure the love their prince has over a princess who is unattainable. Trying multiple times, Trurl fails, instead he builds a machine which defeats the princess’ kingdom bloodlessly.
9. The Fifth Sally or the Mischief of King Balerion: “ Not by being cruel did Balerion, King of Cymberia, oppress his people, but by having a good time. And again, it wasn’t feasts or all-night orgies that were dear to His Majesty’s heart, but only the most innocent games-tiddlywinks, mumbledypeg, old maid and go fish into the wee hours of the morning, then hopscotch, leapfrog, but more than anything he loved to play hide-and-seek.” To satisfy the King, Trurl gave him a new kind of machine: “ Trurl opened a small box he had brought with him, took out the necessary device and showed it to the King. This invention actually had nothing to do with hide-and-seek, but could be applied to that game wonderfully well. It was a portable bilateral personality transformer, with retroreversible feedback, of course. Using it, any two individuals could quickly and easily exchange minds.” As you imagine this was a dangerous machine and it threatens Trurls life, which had to be saved cleverly by Klapaucius.
10. The Fifth Sally (A) or Trurl’s Prescription: “ Not far from here, by a white sun, behind a green star, lived the Steelypips, illustrious, industrious, and they hadn’t a care: no spats in their vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, no trouble from matter or antimatter-for they had a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect. And they lived with it, and on it, and under it, and inside it, for it was all they had-first they saved up all their atoms, then they put them all together, and if one didn’t fit, why they chipped at it a bit, and everything was just fine.” To this place comes an awful looking lady comet comes and threatens to destroy the place. Trurl is called for help, instead of building a machine, he employs a bureaucratic procedure to help the, he explains it by “ I’ve yet to see the remittance due and payable in full fail”. While it is underway, “ The mailman runs back and forth all day like one possessed; Trurl notarizes, issues directives, the typewriter chatters, and little by little an entire office takes shape, rubber stamps and rubber bands, paper clips and paper wads, portfolios and pigeonholes, foolscap and scrip, teaspoons, signs that say “No Admittance,” inkwells, forms on file, writing all the while, the typewriter chattering, and everywhere you look you see coffee stains, wastepaper, and bits of gum eraser.”
11. The Sixth Sally or How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg: “ There are but two caravan trails that lead south from the Lands of the Upper Suns.” Our constructors decide to check out the dangerous trail and they are caught by a monstrous pirate Anonymoid. To escape from it, they build a “ own Demon of the Second Kind, which is magical and thermodynamical, nonclassical and stochastical, and from any old barrel or even a sneeze it will extract information for you about everything that was, is, may be or ever will be.”. The machine used the principle “in every smidgen of air, the joggling and jostling of atoms does indeed produce deep truths and edifying dicta, yet it also produces statements that make not the least bit of sense, and there are thousands of times more of the latter than there are of the former. And therefore the whole trick lies in building a selector, which will, in the atomic rush and jumble, choose only what has meaning.”. What happened to the Pirate after the machine was built?
12. The Seventh Sally or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good: “ One day Trurl heard distant reports of two mighty constructor-benefactors, so wise and so accomplished that they had no equal; with this news he ran to Klapaucius, who explained to him that these were not mysterious rivals, but only themselves, for their fame had circumnavigated space.” Once Trurl was asked by an exiled King on an asteroid to get him back his kingdom. Instead Trurl builds him a miniature kingdom and presents it to King Excelsius to rule over.
13. Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius: This is a story about Trurl building for King Genius, who loves stories, three story telling machines which can exercise, entertain and edify his mind. This one chapter contains several independent stories inside it and is almost 77 pages long in a book of 296 pages.
13.a.) The first story machine told the story of King Mandrillion, his Perfect Adviser built by Trurl, who later destroyed it too. Multitudians lived in that planet, and they were innumerable. They are like little transformers who join to make a large single machine. Having built a perfect adviser, Trurl gets in trouble, to help him, he builds a first-rate lawyer, but that fails too. So he plays a smart trick to outsmart the King who refused to pay his fees.
13.b.) The second story machine told several small stories which Trurl was narrating to King Thumbscrew the Third, the ruler of Tyrannia wanted to learn the means of achieving perfection of both mind and body.
13.b.i.) Trurl, the Great Constructor was visiting Legaria, stayed in Inn where everyday a group of people were building a fifth person and trashing him to death, to repeat the same the next day.
13.b.ii.) Once in the planet Ninnica, Trurl was able to see the results of progress predicated on the perfectionistic principle.
13.b.iii.) Next was when the detractors of King Zupperupus, the Levorotarory sent a cybernerian named Subtillion who is adept in mental engineering to build three machines of dreams with the idea to get the King trapped inside one of the dreams. The dreams were many, including a breakfast with maidens and music, (avoiding) fighting for the fair princess Ramolda, next was marvelous mattress of Princess Bounce, Rendezvous with Princess Octopauline and saved due to his greed, the Virgin queen of the Mynamoacans where dream and reality crossover wrongly, The Wedding Night of Princess Ineffabelle, and the last one was Mona Lisa.
13.c.) The third story machine told the story of how the Great Constructor Trurl, with the aid of an ordinary jug, created a local fluctuation and with that accidentally emerged out of a garbage a creature called Mymost the Selfbegotten, who was son unto himself, for his father was Coincidence and his Mother was Entropy. His chance of existing was about one in a hundred billion jillion raised to the zillionth power. In his mind, he creates his own world.
13.d.) The last story from the machines was when Klapaucius meets Chlorian Theoreticus the Proph, who was the ultimate philosopher and pundit par excellence. He wrote volumes over volumes of the secrets of the universe and civilization, but got no attention. He shared to Klapaucius: “ similarly, in the Universe there must exist a civilization that has achieved the Highest Possible Level of Development. Its inhabitants, the H.P.L.D.”
14. Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal: How a beautiful prince wanted to marry only the most ugliest creature in the universe (Paleface) and how Prince Ferrix tricked her to marry him.
Originally published at https://venkatarangan.com on September 5, 2020.