Published for the first time in 1965, The Cyberiad is a creative development of Fables for Robots, which was released one year earlier. Both of these prose cycles by Stanisław Lem are a collection of mutually complementary stories, thematically linked by two unstereotypical characters – the brilliant ‘constructors’ Trurl and Klapaucius. They are humanoid robots with inexhaustible inventive power and construction skills, capable of creating anything that they or their mighty clients can dream of.
Both protagonists form an alliance, competing against each other in attempts to solve all the problems of the universe and its surroundings. Trurl is an inpatient practitioner and rapidly throws himself into action. Klapaucius, in turn, is a sceptic, accepting emerging proposals with moderate enthusiasm – it allows him to approach the arising issues with stoic calmness, which in effect allows him to sneer at the inevitable failures of his friend.
The point is in the immoderate aspirations of the rulers of the surrounding heavenly bodies. The fame of the achievements of both geniuses – who are also grandmasters of marketing: they advertise their services by arranging stars into a universally visible slogan – reaches the farthest depths of space. Various hegemonies, including charlatans and tyrants, try to use their abilities for their far-fetched, dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful undertakings.
Trurl and Klapaucius are increasingly held hostage by capricious and unobjectionable satraps. However, despite their inevitable failure and the ultimate fiasco their actions cause, both protagonists – thanks to the extraordinary perspicacity of their minds, combined with their knowledge of the psychology of their despotic hosts – always manage to escape the traps set for them. They are also able to enforce the payment of the agreed remuneration, with scammers and cheapskates losing the most because on such occasions their remuneration is received, per fas et nefas, with a large surplus.
It happened that they were invited by an exceptionally wise, knowledgable, and highly cultured ruler, who did not want anything other than the well-being of all his subjects. In such situations, the hired engineers (of human souls?) eagerly swing into action. However, the result was always far from expectations.
The reason for the failure of outside intervention lies in a mechanism well-known to humanity for millennia, which can be most easily summarised in the form of a popular saying: ‘too much of a good thing can be harmful’. Any relief in suffering, or excessive effort, invariably led to an excess of pleasure, which in turn caused indolence and excess in the subjects (as ‘plenitude, when too plenitudinous, was worse than destitution’), culminating at last in an explosion of accumulated dissatisfaction. The lack of activity and the ensuing boredom caused dread, as well as fratricidal battles, which ended up turning the order of things on this or that heavenly body at given point into a total mess – because ‘if, say, a religious war were raging on some planet and each side dreamt only of massacring the other’, it cannot be otherwise.
It is easy to notice that The Cyberiad is solidly founded on myths, legends and folk tales known since ancient times. Since the beginning of the centuries, all literature has had its local variations of roguish and picaresque tales, in which poor and uneducated heroes from the common people backed the world’s wealthiest into a corner. In traditional stories, the facts presented were generally from ‘a long, long time ago…’ and did not go beyond the earthly plane.
In Lem’s case, on the contrary, the action takes place in an undefined future, when only traces of self-destructive havoc are left of the Earthlings, and the protagonists – coming from a generation of highly developed robots – are perfectly educated. And although they are not at the helm of power, they are so resourceful that they undertake the actions dictated by the star monarchs in the farthest reaches of space only for the sake of scientific experimentation and expected earnings. Unfortunately, the anachronistic Earthlings have left (in their genes?) a cursed legacy – the inhabitants of successively visited stars have eternal tendencies towards neighbourly conflicts, transforming into wars, devastating not only the defeated, but also – to a large extent – the victorious, and even the genius of the pair of clever scientists is not enough to prevent this.
In the Constellation of the Wringer there was a Spiral Galaxy, and in this Galaxy there was a Black Nebula, and in this Nebula were five sixth-order clusters, and in the fifth cluster, a lilac sun, very old and very dim, and around this sun revolved seven planets, and the third planet had two moons, and in all these suns and stars and planets and moons a variety of events, various and varying, took place, falling into a statistical distribution that was perfectly normal, and on the second moon of the third planet of the lilac sun of the fifth cluster of the Black Nebula in the Spiral Galaxy in the Constellation of the Wringer was a garbage dump, the kind of garbage dump one might find on any planet or moon, absolutely average, in other words full of garbage; it had come into existence because the Glauberical Aberracleans once waged a war, a war of the fission-and-fusion type, against the Albumenid Ifts, with the natural result that their bridges, roads, homes and palaces, and of course they themselves, were reduced to ashes and shards, which the solar winds blew to the place whereof we speak.
To avoid multiplying these equally eloquent sentences, I will only add that a clay pot thrown out by Trurl ended up in this garbage dump, which, as a result of several favourable circumstances, became the leaven of a newly created capacitor, and this, in turn gave rise to subsequent astonishing phenomena, which, by chance, ultimately resulted in the creation of new life. In this way, ‘Mymosh the Selfbegotten, who had neither mother nor father, but was son unto himself, for his father was Coincidence, and his Mother—Entropy’ was born.
It is easy to see, by the example of such or similar interstellar experiences of both scientists, each improvement they consciously introduced quickly transforming into denial of it, each utopia into an anti-utopia, and this in turn – into dystopia. The episode titled Opowieść Pierwszego Odmrożeńca (‘The Story of the First Defrosted’) is particularly eloquent, as it contains a bold criticism of tyranny (with an indication of the practices of the Eastern Bloc). Here, art was only simulated so that the brainless guardian of the system could, from time to time, pick another victim out of the underfunded orchestra musicians to be eaten alive, paralysed by fear, and trying to play on out-of-tune instruments. Fortunately for the author, the censors of the ‘silly’ science-fiction literature in the Poland under the communist regime did not treat it with due attention, that is to say, too thoroughly.
Western readers could find fragments that might have seemed pure grotesque to them, although the author possibly knew them from personal experience and for him, they did not seem so abstract.
… quadrilaterals in formation gave out shouts of admiration on command.
‘Glory to the being’, an older one roared. In response, a synchronised choir with epaulettes and bunchuks, exclaimed:
‘Glory, joy and honour!’
As in all of Lem’s books, in The Cyberiad one can also find a wealth of excellent verbal and intellectual games (such as ‘Niterc’, ‘degeneral’, ‘intellectrician’, ‘Cybernerian’, ‘cyberserking’, ‘old cyberhag’). They make his prose equally engaging and difficult to translate into other languages. Almost every one of the 500 pages of Trurl and Klapaucius’ adventures is full of quotations, references, neologisms or metaphors, easy to read by people immersed in Polish heritage, although others will also find quite a few traces referring to the centuries-old cultural tradition of Europe, in the form of characters such as Billion Cykespeare or Bromeo.
It happened a few times that I bought some works or writings of thinkers who indulge in pleasures and riches, simply to see what kind of contents these are. They were about the difference between the ancestor and the backside, about the marvellous construction of the monarchical throne and its righteous legs, treatises on polishing one’s charms, detailed descriptions of this or another thing, and nobody actually boasted, somehow it all came together that Struntzel looked up to Pacior, and Pacior to Struntzel, both receiving tribute from Logarites. The three Wyrwacki brothers also rose in fame – Wyrwander elevated Wyrwacy, Wyrwacy – Wyrwislaw, and he, in turn, gave praise to Wyrwander. Then, as I studied these works, some madness came upon me, I threw myself at them, I smothered them, tore them down, even chewed them… until the whimpering ceased, tears dried up and I started writing…
The above was written by one of the protagonists of Lem’s short story but the author himself also gave us, in the form of The Cyberiad, a book which new generations throw themselves at without the need for a special incentive. They know what they are doing.
Seabury Press, New York, 1974
Translator: Michael Kandel
Number of pages: 295