Monday, July 24, 2006

Once upon a time there were two robots

One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. When it was ready, he tried it out, ordering it to make needles, then nankeens and negligees, which it did, then nail the lot to narghiles filled with nepenthe and numerous other narcotics. The machine carried out his instructions to the letter. Still not completely sure of its ability, he had it produce, one after the other, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads, and natrium. This last it could not do, and Trurl, considerably irritated, demanded an explanation.

So begins Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (1967), and so it continues, through tale after tale of the constructor robot, Trurl, his friend Klaupacius, and their frequently vexing creations. As my previous exposure to Lem was limited to his best-known novel, Solaris (1961), I was surprised by the tone of The Cyberiad. Light, playful, drunk with the possibilities of words (Kings Atrocitus and Ferocitus, a religion called Pneumatological Dracolatry, gallivamps, libidinators, and cossetoria—I can’t begin to imagine the headaches translator Michael Kandel faced.), and featuring stories within stories and enough beatings to satisfy even Cervantes, it’s far closer in tone to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965) or Borges’s stories than to the deep seriousness of Solaris. Lem’s robots take commissions from untrustworthy kings, attempt to outdo each other in making robots (storytelling robots, machines to grant every wish, eight-story thinking machines), and drink mulled electrolyte from Leyden jars. It’s great fun throughout.

But the farther I got into The Cyberiad, the more I realized how much it is like Solaris. In that book, Lem relates the entire history of academic and scientific dispute about the planet Solaris and its apparently sentient ocean, theories posited and refuted, careers made and lost as each exploratory mission adds to the sum of knowledge about the planet. The novel has shades of Borges’s masterpiece, “Tlon Uqbar, Orbus Tertius,” as if Lem has found in some dusty library a whole room of scholarship about this unknown planet Solaris. There’s a palpable sense of excess, a sense that Lem has explained only what he absolutely must in order for us to understand his story.

The same holds true for The Cyberiad. At first, it appears that Lem may have violated the first rule of fantasy writing—namely, that though a fantasy writer is creating a new universe not bound by our laws, that universe must, regardless, have laws, or there is no hope of tension, drama, or plot. Trurl and Klaupacius, after all, seem able to create just about anything. But I soon realized that, while possibility in this universe seems nearly endless, and the robots don’t seem to be bound by the laws of physics, they’re strait-jacketed by slightly skewed laws of logic.

So, for example, a machine that can make anything starting with the letter “n” can only work in one language, or it would be a Machine That Could Do Anything in the Whole Alphabet. If one makes for an untrustworthy king a Perfect Advisor, but buries within it orders never to harm its creator, then one has failed to make a perfect advisor and is liable to prosecution. And, if a region is plagued by dragons, a sensible solution would be to fire an improbability ray to decrease the already small probability that dragons might exist. We are in a distinct universe, and Lem is telling us about whatever bits of it Trurl and Klaupacius wander through.

It’s as if Lem has swallowed Saint Anselm, Descartes, and Frege and presented them to us in parables starring robots who take their cues from the Three Stooges. If that sounds like fun, The Cyberiad is for you. Why I didn’t start reading Lem a dozen years ago when I was discovering Borges and Calvino I don’t know, but I’m glad to have finally gotten to him. As he puts it at the book’s close,
Even if the story isn’t true, it does have a grain of sense and instruction to it, and it’s entertaining as well, so it’s worth the telling.

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