'Fables for Robots' was first published in 1964. It became one of Lem’s most popular books, and was included in the required reading lists of primary schools. Most of all, it remained irresistibly funny for generations of readers to come.
Jan Gondowicz expressed his admiration for the book as follows:
Master […], you have remotely beguiled a fourteen-year-old! The explosion of those words made it so that [Poland under the communist regime], with all its shortcomings, ceased to exist. Fables ignored reality more fully than any other literary phenomenon of the time.
Admittedly, right after that, the critic added that Fables for Robots was not pure entertainment and pointed out the allusions to the totalitarian authorities – however, the description of his initial impression remains relevant. In fact, Gondowicz shows two essential properties of the whole series – these short stories are, like true fables, both hilarious and scary (the story of King Murdas, who was killed by an imaginary conspiracy carried out by murdered relatives, is a prime example of this). At the same time, they turn their back on a joyless reality and address it in a very serious manner.
Mankind is the main antagonist of Fables for Robots. The atmospheric story titled Two Monsters defined humans as follows:
They were beings which crawled out of a salty ocean and built machines, mockingly called iron angels, which they held in vicious captivity. Lacking the strength to rise up against the ocean’s offspring, the metallic creatures fled. They hijacked huge vacuum vessels and fled the house of slavery into the most distant archipelagos of stars.
Visions of mankind’s cruelty followed Lem throughout all of his career, and was present in Fiasco and in a collection of essays titled The Predator Race. In Fables for Robots, the terrible pale one, Homos Anthropos, is extremely dangerous for the robots not only because of his thirst for revenge but also because he breathes oxygen and his organism consists of water, both of which cause rusting. The pale one’s viscous body provokes irrepressible disgust in machines. The texts about human revenge on robots (Two Monsters, White Death) often have the feeling of scary, atmospheric fables that end with the annihilation of entire robot civilisations.
Lem’s fables more often tell about the fight against stupidity than the fight against evil. To be more accurate – they treat these definitions as equal. In The Three Electroknights, the protagonist, during an expedition to plunder an ice planet, repeats ‘just try not to think’ to himself again and again because that would make him overheat and, in consequence, drown. His actions are totally nonsensical because the only jewels he can recover on the icy globe are noble gases solidified due to absolute zero temperatures.
Stupidity also characterises all the deceits depicted in Fables. This is how a dignitary wishing to overtake the throne of the underwater kingdom of Aquacia tries to program the monarch’s son to discourage him from remaining in power:
Why have you, your Lordship Minogar, included a pentagonal stool with a diamond- encrusted backrest in the list of items that the prince should detest? Do you not know that this is exactly what the throne looks like?
In Fables for Robots, the positive character is often the constructor or the inventor (only the advisers of King Hydrops put the honest and hapless individual in this role). The actions of this ‘tech wizard’ are depicted imprecisely – what matters are the incredible achievements, not the road that leads to them. This is a sign of regard for the convention of a fable but also the recognition of the limits of science and ‘serious’, technology-heavy science-fiction. In the short story titled King Globares and the Sages, the individual who has just described the cosmos as a grotesque accumulation of mindlessly placed dots (stars), delivers a significant statement:
Science does not occupy itself with properties of existence such as ridiculousness. Science explains the world but only art can allow one to make peace with it.
Finally, Fables for Robots is a text in which linguistic creativity governs the story. Stanisław Barańczak wrote:
With Lem, a neologism of a specific type always constitutes a model of the world depicted in the text – and even the text’s ideology.
In a scholarly manner, the critic names the mechanism characteristic to the series as ‘anachronic contamination’ which simply means combining terms related to advanced technology with archaic vocabulary seen in historiography or fairy tales. Thus, we have creations such as ‘electroknights’, official designations such as ‘his tinniness’ or names ‘Diodes, Triodes, Heptodes’. It suffices to invent a few of such peculiar characters to have a foundation for the narrative, whereas the clash of modernity and fairy-tale-like themes will guarantee sufficient laughter. However, Lem’s humour is not limited to this single device. Some fragments of the book are written in rhyming prose, there are also jokes such as naming a king ‘Hydrops’, which is a Latin term for dropsy.
Word formation is sometimes the basic drive for action in the stories. In The Fable about a Digital Machine Which Fought Against a Dragon, a device placed on the moon is supposed to perform an ‘electrojump’ (‘elektroskok’ in Polish) – however, due to an error in transmission, an ‘electrodragon’ (‘electrosmok’ in Polish) emerges which poses a threat to the entire planet. This story explicitly refers to the fairy-tale theme of a spell which backfired and fits the depicted world very well.
However, fairy tales are not the only literary reference in Lem’s stories. Stanisław Barańczak compares Fables for Robots and The Cyberiad to a mock-heroic – a genre which is a parody of poems about gods and heroes. Following this idea, one could claim that Lem’s comical works are for ‘serious’ science-fiction what Ignacy Krasicki’s Mouseiad (a Polish mock-heroic) is for Homer’s Iliad. Gondowicz, in turn, taking the dark atmosphere of the stories into account, compared them to Polish domestic legends. It makes them seem menacing and serious but is appropriate as Fables for Robots are, in fact, fables about men. Stanisław Grochowiak put it nicely:
In the technological paradise of robots, the everlasting discord of mankind remained – tyrannies, crimes, superstitions and nonsense, the basest instincts and noble qualities.
The volume also includes three stories which foreshadow the yet-to-be-written The Cyberiad: How The World Was Saved, Trurl’s Machine, and The Great Beating. They introduce the characters of the constructors Klapaucius and Trurl who combine technological omnipotence with vanity and malice. One could say that The Cyberiad is an expansion of Fables and it emphasises all its qualities.
Jerzy Jarzębski saw a deeper sense in the mixture of genres and language present in Fables for Robots. According to him, Lem:
[…] filters the reality of a futuristic, unimaginable creation through that which is most traditional and what conserves human memory, emotions and the rules of a fairy-tale world. The output is comical and serious at the same time – because the culture which creates the society is always a bizarre mixture of anachronisms, a place where items from different worlds and axiologies cross.
It turns out that, like in other of Lem’s works, stylistic fun can be freely combined with much serious matters.
Stanisław Grochowiak, Jaki Śmieszny Lem!, Kultura 39 / 1965.
Stanisław Barańczak, Elektrycerze i Cyberchanioły, Nurt 8 / 1972.
Jan Gondowicz, Pan Tu Nie Stał, Wydawnictwo Nisza, Warsaw2011.
Originally written in Polish by Paweł Kozioł, May 2011, translated to English by Patryk Grabowski, June 2019