Stanislaw Lem’s 1965 The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age is a collection of humorous science fiction stories. The 1974 English translation is by Michael Kandel. My 1976 Avon paperback has illustrations by Daniel Mróz; I cannot tell if this is true of other editions.
Friends Trurl and Klapaucius are rival “constructors,” always seeking to outdo each other with their marvelous inventions. Their ingenuity is only rivaled by their indifference to unforeseen outcomes.
On the grand scale of works entirely unsuitable for teenage me, The Cyberiad was rivaled only by Jean Mark Gawron’s 1978 Algorithm. All I knew was that Lem was Polish, suspiciously intellectual, and had written Solaris, which I had not read but about which I had heard (somehow). I had heard that Lem was viewed with great suspicion by various SF pundits1. However! Cyberiad’s cover very clearly said this was science fiction and in those days farm kids could not be choosy if they wanted to read any SF at all.
On closer examination, one came away from the stories with the sense that Lem had the temerity not to take SF as a Very Serious Thing Indeed, in an era in which if one had to resort to humour, it was the done thing to start with a marching band to announce the imminent arrival of a joke, then present the joke itself with suitable fanfare, and then conclude with a lengthy and informative discussion of why the joke was funny2. Lem seemed to expect the reader to do all the heavy lifting. Was this communism?
I bounced off the book when I first read it (teen years, specific date lost to the mists of time). This time around, I enjoyed the collection.
This is a collection of amusing little fables, set in a world where almost everyone of note is a robot (despite which societies are steadfastly feudal), a world filled with deliberately meaningless technobabble, a world that gives Trurl and Klapaucius ample room to demonstrate their terrifying creativity and Lem’s delight in word play and absurdism.
Of particular note, Kandel’s translation. While translated SF was not common in the 1970s, it did exist. However, much of what was translated was translated poorly. Jules Verne’s English editions often provided a How Not To for translators; at least with Ace’s Perry Rhodan books, it was unlikely the prose could get worse. In at least one case, the translator’s primary asset appeared to be “availability.” Translating The Cyberiad is especially trickly, because Lem enjoys humour and word play. Humour may not travel well3. Word play in Polish is unlikely to map one to one onto word play in English. Kandel appears to have surmounted the inherent challenges of translating Lem’s fiction (I assume, since I don’t read Polish and cannot compare the texts).
The Cyberiad is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Note that while it is listed at Chapters-Indigo, the edition listed is old and out of stock.
Thumbnail synopses miss the point of Lem and you’re probably better off skipping this part. However, I am a humourless completist and cannot resist writing it.
Please note that Lem’s whimsy extended to titles and tables of contents.
“How the World Was Saved”
Trurl invents a machine that can make anything beginning with the letter “n,” which may not sound like a potentially apocalyptic device. And yet, it is.
Trurl constructs the world’s stupidest computer and very nearly perishes during a discussion of simple arithmetic.
“A Good Shellacking”
The gift of a Machine to Construct Anything yields unexpected benefits.
THE SEVEN SALLIES OF TRURL AND KLAPAUCIUS
“The First Sally, or The Trap of Gargantius”
Asked to provide rival nations with superlative armies, the two constructors fulfill the letter of the request while undermining the intent.
“The First Sally (A), or Trurl’s Electronic Bard”
A perfect electronic muse proves distracting and vexing.
“The Second Sally, or The Offer of King Krool”
Learning too late that accepting King Krool’s assignment means death if they succeed and death if they fail, the constructors must find some third path.
“The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability”
A foray into theoretical dragons produces all too physical results and the question “how can one profit from all this?”
“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”
Trurl facilitates budding romance between royalty of opposing nations with an innovative deployment of weaponized infants.
“The Fifth Sally, or The Mischief of King Balerion”
Presented with a mind-swapping device, King Balerion goes on a mischievous rampage.
“The Fifth Sally(A), or Trurl’s Prescription”
Trurl dispatches an unspeakable thing with cunningly applied paperwork.
“The Sixth Sally, or How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg”
The constructors dispatch the cruel pirate into whose graspers they have fallen by giving him exactly what he asked for.
“The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good”
Trurl’s perfectionism results in a simulation that is all too real.
[due to the page break, I cannot tell if the next two stories were part of the sallies or their own section]
“Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius”
Trurl provides King Genius with automatic storytellers who proceed to deliver a Shahrazad-like sequence of nested stories.
A would-be do-gooder discovers his labors bring only increased misery.
FROM THE CYPHROEROTICON, OR TALES OF DEVIATION, FIXATIONS AND ABERATIONS OF THE HEART
“Prince Ferrix and Princess Crystal”
An infatuated robot prince resorts to a cunning ruse to win the heart of a robot princess who inexplicably prefers human men.
1: I cannot be sure that the Lem Affair preceded my first reading of the Cyberiad. While my copy is dated 1976, that does not mean I bought it in 1976. I am fairly sure that I was blithely ignorant of the kerfuffle; in those pre-Twitter days, most fen would have heard only rumours of high-level squabbles.
The Lem affair in brief, accuracy not guaranteed: before Lem’s work came out in US editions, the SFWA gave him an honorary membership. Lem thought US SF was commercial crap and said so. Lem got a US edition. SWFA withdrew his honorary membership and asked him to pay dues since he now qualified for full membership. Lem believed this was reprisal for saying unkind things about American SF.
2: My editor tells me that she finds Scalzi’s Redshirts a good example of modern SF humour that is meta and sophisticated. You probably have your own favourites.
3: The ephemerality of humor: consider this Sumerian thigh-slapper, which wowed audiences 4000 years ago: [QUOTE] “A dog walked into a tavern and said, “I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one.” [/QUOTE] This incomprehensible jape suggests that that Watergate jokes may no longer be funny in AD 6000.