REVIEW: THE CYBERIAD – FABLES FOR THE CYBERNETIC AGE / AUTHOR: STANISLAW LEM / PUBLISHER: PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
In the west, Stanislaw Lem is probably still best known for the adaptations of his works – chiefly Solaris, made for the screen no fewer than three times. The narrowness of his reputation is a shame as his work stands among the very best of science fiction.
Of that very best is The Cyberiad, a collection of fifteen stories that describe the (mis)adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two ‘Constructors’ of dazzling inventiveness who create mind-boggling machines to amuse themselves and antagonise one another. They inhabit a bizarre world that fuses a feudal system with interplanetary travel and combines science fiction creativity with the fiat of ancient fables.
The collection is subtitled ‘Fables for the Cybernetic Age’, a descriptor that becomes more familiarly appropriate with every turn of the page. The Cyberiad is the softest of soft SF, with precious little concern for the mechanics of invention or indeed for the hard psychology of the impact of technology on human lives. Instead, it reads more like a treasure trove of twentieth century fairy tales, with background details reduced to the barest minimum required to serve as a vehicle for the cautionary (and occasionally violent) tales within.
The presence of capricious monarchs and Blytonesque names such as A Machine To Grant Your Every Wish adds texture to the fairy tale quality but the second part of that subtitle, ‘the Cybernetic Age’ is no less important. Hints, sometimes heavy, are given to the time and space in which Lem crafted his tales. One story concerns a planet on which two powerful and opposing forces face one another. Each is oppressive of its people, but one mounts its tyranny coldly, by removing all penalties but death and ‘nationalising high treason’. That state’s foe, led by an ‘autocrat libertarian’, decrees ‘Universal Happiness’, subjugating his people through amusement. It’s an allegory that should be no less lost on Lem’s modern readers than it was on those who devoured his pages at the height of the Cold War and this collection remains as compelling to twenty-first century eyes as it did to his original readers.