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Author: Stanislaw Lem (1921- )

First book publication: 1965

English translation: 1974

Type of work: Short stories

Time: The indefinite future

Locale: A fairy-tale cosmos

The droll and hunorous, usually satirical capers of a pair of friendly rival robot “constructors” who build various machines for inevitably treacherous kings and princes

          Principal characters:

                    TRURL, a robot

                    KLAPAUCIUS, a rival robot

Early in his career, Stanislaw Lem began creating several different literary worlds characterized by a consistent attitude, a single philosophical viewpoint, and a distinct mode of expression. Thus, Pirx the pilot is an unheroic but courageous astronaut who has various problems to solve, each one more difficult than the previouse one; and Ijon Tichy is a cosmic Münchhausen, a narrator of tall tales who goes through outrageously improbable adventures that serve to show the ridiculousness of human institutions, certain science fiction ideas, philosophical doctrines, and even the biological make-up of the human body and its evolution.

Most original and stylized to the point of artificiality, however, are the robotic fairy tales in the “Fables for Robots” (in English in the volume Mortal Engines, 1975) and its sequel The Cyberiad (Cyberiada, 1965). These tales are twice removed from realistic prose, purported as they are to be fables that robots might write for other robots. They presuppose a literary universe in which the robots have finally escaped from the yoke of mankond into the cosmos, and have founded their own communities there. In robot legends, man figures only as a clammy tyrant, a cosmic joke, or a monster; in several of the earlier robot fables and especially in “Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal,” man is described as a foul and obscene thing, the result of “the general pollution of a certain heavenly body,” spawned out of “noxious exhalations and putrid excrescences.” Hardly anywhere, not even in Swift, is there a more loathsome description of man's monstrosity than Lem's “paleface.”

The early stories are close to traditional fairy tales (including a robotic version of “Sleeping Beauty” in “How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface”), but in the later Cyberiad, Lem has found an original form that he varies with infinite resourcefulness: the cosmic capers of two friendly robot constructors, who offer their services to various kings, and solve intricate engineering problems. These kings, who go by funny names such as Thumbscrew, Atrocitus, Ferocitus, Krool, are invariably incorporations of the principles indicated by their names – cheats and scoundrels trying to cheat the constructors of the rewards of their work, and frequently threatening to rob them of their lives.

As the series progresses, the stories tend to get more complicated, from the bland jokes in “How the World Was Saved,” “Trurl's Machine,” and “A Good Shellacking” (which is as elegantly plotted as anything in Boccaccio), through “Seven Sallies of Trurl and Klapaucius,” “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius” and “Altruizine,” to some elaborate later stories in which Lem explores problems such as the amelioration of the world and universal happiness. In the best anti-Utopian and satirical tradition of the contes philosophiques, these noble experiments go all wrong; and the more noble the intention was that inspired them, the more cruel is the outcome (“bestowing happiness by force, is found to produce from one to eight hundred times more grief than no interference whatever”).

The cosmos of The Cyberiad is totally artificial, governed by a stringent literary convention that the reader will find either enchanting or thoroughly belabored and strained. The stories defy any attempt at summarization, there are so many unexpected turns of plot, ironies, and hidden pitfalls, with Lem's imagination taking off in quite unforeseeable directions, that it is always possible to discover, on rereading, something new and worth quoting in them. There is an outrageously mad, utterly whacky and out-of-bounds perspective in these tales that borders on genius. The first sentence in the first Sally of the book illustrates Lem's delightful style:

When the Universe was not so out of whack as it is today, and all the stars were lined up in their proper places, so you could easily count them from left to right, or top to bottom, and the larger and bluer ones were set apart, and the smaller, yellowing types pushed off to the corners as bodies of a lower grade, when there was not a speck of dust to be found in outer space, nor any nebular debris – in those good old days it was the custom for constructors, once they had received their Diploma of Perpetual Omnipotence with distinction, to sally forth ofttimes and to bring to distant lands the benefit of their expertise.

This quotation gives a good indication of Lem's way with words (and the obstacles his translator, Michael Kandel, has had to surmount), and it pinlights the ultimate message of the book: language and semantics serve merely as magical formulas in this world, while the similarity between words, rhythm, alliteration, and sound are more decisive factors than causal relationships. The universe of The Cyberiad is a purely literary one, divorced from the gravity and natural laws of Earth; Lem employs, with great facility, a cybernetic vocabulary (litanies of “input,” “output,” “feedback,” “programing,” “black boxes,” “ergodic,” “stochastic,” “matrix,” “algorithm,” and so on) as well as jokes, wordplay, punning, and verbal fencing. In one story, for example, soldiers forsake “naval operations” for “navel contemplation”; an error in programing changes “great apes” into “gray drapes”; the “lack of a dragon” becomes the “back of a dragon”; and so on. The ultimate reality is the word, and a changed word means a changed world.

Related to the concept of verbal reality is the idea that everything is a code, a message masked by another message. This is thematized in one of the stories, in which the lack of any hidden message is used to engineer the downfall of yet another cruel tyrant. In the first episode of “Tale of the Three Story-Telling Machines of King Genius,” the king's distrust of a perfect adviser built by Trurl, and used in turn to cheat its builder of his reward, is fostered by a simple message designed to appear as a guise for a more sinister message: especially sinister because it is in fact entirely innocent, with no hidden meaning – something which no policeman's mind is willing to accept.

There is much nose-thumbing in the stories at human institutions, that are parodied in the exuberant superabundance of the quasimedieval robot fairy and, which in its boundlessness suggests both The Thousand and One Nights and the works of Rabelais.

There is also in The Cyberiad a touch of Don Quixote, one of Lem's favorite books. Lem's heroes are not simply all-powerful wizards using the word magic of cybernetic science, they are also comic knights-errant engaged in galactic quests to set the world right and conquer evil. Their schemes often backfire, and seldom are they able to foresee the full consequences of their actions. They are not above human weaknesses, such as vanity, envy, and greed; “I love gold, I just love it,” exclaims Trurl in one of the tales. The conditions Trurl dictates to the tyrant, King Krool, are somewhat childish, and at the same time cruel in their disregard for the feelings of others. What they do is at times hardly less atrocious than the deeds of the tyrants they undertake to punish. The whole point of The Cyberiad is, of course, that there is really nothing to recommend robotkind over the abused “palefaces”; the robots are not a more refined, nobler version of humanity, but an exaggeration of everything that is vile and contemptible in mankind. In these tales there is nothing of the pathos of so much science fiction that either glorifies feudal states or sentimentalizes robots into a better mankind. The rulers in The Cyberiad are cruel, vicious, treacherous, guilty of lying and cheating; their principal passion is killing, torturing, and maiming their poor subjects; and aside from traitors, spies, informers, sycophants, secret police, and soldiers, there are almost no other characters in the stories. The Cyberiad provides a mocking mirror of all-too-human fallacies, although there are also some gentler tales, such as “Trurl's Prescription,” which in its simplicity of language and charm suggest a Nursery Tale – even though it, too, takes a satiric shot at bureaucracy.

Everybody professes to be against red tape, however – even the bureaucrats themselves; and The Cyberiad would not be very important if it did nothing besides poke fun at bureaucracies. But Lem's stories operate on several levels. On the one hand, there is the farcical, glittering, punning surface, in which the author gives free reign to his fancy. There is knockabout comedy and wild hyperbole which reaches absurdly funny heights; there is hilarious action resulting in endless chases. On the other hand, there is some serious thought beneath the comic surfaces. “The Dragons of Probability,” for example, under the guise of a dragon hunt, contains in jocular form so much solid scientific theory about the laws of probability and the properties of subatomic particles, that scientists have applauded it. The Sixth Sally, “How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg,” offers an analogy to Maxwell's thermodynamic demon, based on a theory of the cyberneticist Ross Ashby. The pirate of the tale, who is interested in knowledge more than in valuables, meets with a horrible punishment: he is drowned in a paper ocean of random information, all as true as it is perfectly trivial and useless. His fate reflects one of Lem's major concerns - that civilization may suffer a similar destiny when there is too much information for the valuable to be separated from the worthless.

Another strikingly original story is “The Trap of Gargantius,” in which the military way of thinking is shown to be the lowest form of intelligence, for “the cosmos as a whole is totally civilian.” In the story, a plan is devised to increase the efficiency of armies by plugging the soldiers together so that they act as one. The plan functions only up to a certain point, since, when consciousness has passed a certain level, military problems appear trivial, and the units turn to the contemplation of philosophy.

The Seventh Sally, or “How Trurl's Own Perfection Led to No Good,” raises the disturbing ontological question of creation, of what is real and what is mere simulation. Trurl builds for a cruel tyrant a small model world where he can indulge his sadistic fantasies; the question is whether the suffering of the toy beings who inhabit this planet is real or simulated. In the story, the problem is solved for Trurl's conscience when the tiny subjects of the doll-world break out of their box and dispose of their tormentor, who becomes a satellite circling their world. But meanwhile, a philosophical question has been raised which offers a disturbing challenge to the traditional view of the benevolent creator. As Lem's translator Michael Kandel has suggested, the story implies the blasphemous notion that the act of creation is irresponsible, and that to create consciousness, with all the suffering that it necessarily entails, may be the ultimate crime. If this were true, God would be the ultimate criminal.

The Cyberiad is a wholly original and bold attempt to fuse social satire, humor, and scientific thinking with myth and fairy tale, retaining all the charm and eloquence of older fairy tales while simultaneously indulging in clusters of neologisms and invented names. These stories are veritable firework displays of wit, the products of a remarkable imagination; they are consistent in their underlying themes, yet richly varied and informed by the author's conviction, persuasiveness, and intellectual power.

Franz Rottensteiner


Sources for Further Study


Rothfork, John. “Cybernetics and a Humanistic Fiction: Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad,” in Research Studies. XLV (1977), pp. 123-133. Rothfork relates Lem's novel to the burgeoning field of cybernetics.



Book World. March 7, 1976, p. 8.

Choice. XI, October, 1974, p. 1128.

Kirkus Reviews. XLI, November 1, 1973, p. 1231.

Library Journal. XCIX, August, 1974, p. 1989.

New York Times Book Review. August 29, 1976, p. 1.

Publisher's Weekly. CCIV, December 10, 1973, p. 31.

Times Literary Supplement. December 5, 1975, p. 1439.

Wilson Library Bulletin. XLIX, September, 1974, p. 38.


Survey of Science Fiction Literature. – Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1979. – P. 457-461.


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© 1979 Rottensteiner Franz, текст