The Cyberiad: The joy of reading

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem science fiction book reviewsThe Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

“Mighty King, here is a story, a nest of stories, with cabinets and cupboards, about Trurl the constructor and his wonderfully nonlinear adventures.”

I can think of no better introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada in the original Polish) than the line above taken from the text. Capturing the atmosphere of storytelling, the quirky, entirely singular imagination behind it, and the meta-human perspective suffusing every word, thought, and concept innate to the stories, the quote is a mini-excerpt of one of the most timeless, creative, and insightful collections science fiction has ever produced. There is nothing like the constructors Trurl and Klaupacius in literature, and never will be.

With imagination oozing off the pages and pooling on the floor, The Cyberiad is a collection that continually tops itself. Each story containing another fresh, original idea, it bursts with humor, wisdom, and unquantifiable things between; Lem is in touch with both the gravitas of humanity and its foibles. Two robot constructors, Trurl and Klaupacius, are the stars of the show and their tales are at turns absurd, pitiful, happy, adventurous, clever, egotistic, salvatory — everything that makes us human but they not. The pair being master constructors, most every story sees them whisked away to some location — with or against their will — to create for some deluded being the fulfillment of their dreams. One king, for example, requests the “best hiding place ever” while another the ultimate quarry; a multi-eyed robot found living on an abandoned asteroid demands the knowledge of the universe, while in another story the greatest poet ever is built of machine parts. (In the end, the electronic bard proved immortal; every time someone tried to dispose of it, the machine would write a poem so pitiful the person couldn’t bring themselves to go about their duty).

And there are other types of stories to the collection. The Cyberiad opens with Trurl constructing a machine that can create anything beginning with the letter n and ends with a story wherein a robot dresses himself up like a human to pass a reverse Turing test. At other turns, so-called soft-science fiction takes the forefront. King Thumbscrew the Third and his pursuit of perfection in mind and body; how Trurl accidentally created AI in the Black Nebula; and Chlorian Theoreticus the Proph, the world’s least heeded philosopher of science. All these stories delve into epistemology, ontology, behaviorism, and metaphysics more than math or physics. The backbone of the collection is thus philosophical musing on the significant aspects of what comprises this thing we call life. At turns adventurous, and at turns humorous, Lem constantly keeps one eye on the underlying reality, making the collection a cerebral treat. So despite that one machine desires love and another to have his dreams come true in a dreamatron, the fun had in the story possesses an ethereal undercurrent which speaks to the human condition in genius fashion.

The stories are so chock full of imagination, it may be possible to quote at random:

So they sent it off, universal, reversible, double-barreled, feedback on every track, all systems go heigh-ho, and inside one mechanic and one mechanist, and that’s not all, because just to be on the safe side they stuck a scarechrome on top. It arrived, so well-oiled you could hear a pin drop — it winds up for the swing and counts down: four quarters, three quarters, two quarters, one quarter, no quarter! Ka-boom! what a blow! See the mushroom glow! The mushroom with the radioactive glow! And the oil bubbles, the gears chatter, the mechanic and the mechanist peer out the hatch: can you imagine, not even a scratch.

If you noticed a rhythmic, poetic quality to the quote, then you’re right. Though not continually present, there remains throughout every story a strong focus on the tenor of words chosen. Like a sci-fi Alice in Wonderland, the collection is pure pleasure simply from a linguistic point of view.

And as can be seen, translation is just simply superb. Michael Kandel squeezes every bit of life from the original. The feat may in fact be superhuman given the number of non-existent words and puns Lem placed in the text. The ideas always abstract and the humor most often of the eccentric variety, Kandel should be lauded for his work. The illustrations by Daniel Mroz scattered throughout likewise go a long way toward enhancing the text.

Simply put, The Cyberiad is the joy of reading. Featuring word games, puns, unpredictable stories, continually clever outcomes, and the blood, sweat, and tears of humanity (in robot form!!), anyone who enjoys the literary side of science fiction should simply run to get this book. As unique as unique can be, each story glitters in a million different colors, inciting happiness and wisdom as the reader pores over the words. In fact, it may cause them to reevaluate the literature read to date — not in a reflective manner, rather that it’s still possible for an entirely singular piece of literature to appear in the genre. Such is the magic of The Cyberiad.

Published in 1967. Trurl and Klaupacius are constructor robots who try to out-invent each other. They travel to the far corners of the cosmos to take on freelance problem-solving jobs, with dire consequences for their employers. “The most completely successful of his books… here Lem comes closest to inventing a real universe” (Boston Globe). Illustrations by Daniel Mr—z. Translated by Michael Kandel.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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  1. Great review. Haven’t read this one by him and clearly that was a major oversight

    • A lot of people blow off the Cyberiad as robot fluff. But beneath the surface of every story is something worthwhile. Hope you enjoy it, too.

  2. This sounds amazing. I already own it and will move it up the list. Thanks, Jesse!

    • Audiobook? I guess this one would work. (I’m working with the assumption some books are better read than listened to. For example, books whose narratives are structured along non-linear lines and feature a lot of indirect exposition tend to fall flat as audiobooks for me. I struggled mightily with Catherynne Valente’s wonderful Radiance and eventually just bought a used paper copy – and it was so much better, after.) But Cyberiad, for as lexically acrobatic as it sometimes gets, is pretty straight-forward, even if there are a few passages that will require special attention to get the full meaning. Enjoy!!

      • Yep, audio. I’ll let you know.

        I have Radiance on audio but haven’t tried it. Thanks for the warning.

  3. This book along with The Stars Diaries and The Futurological Congress have all been on my target list for many years, and this sounds wonderful. Like Kat, I have picked these up on audio (I just don’t have time to read physical copies, though I realize the realize experience is harmed in some cases), and also will move them up the list.

    The other European author who delves into the genre but is not considered part of it is Italo Calvino, and I want to try Invisible Cities, Baron in the Trees, and Cosmicomics by him someday. What’s your take on his work?

    • I would consider Calvino more in line with writers like Borges or Bulgakov, particularly for their “fantastical” rather than “science fictional” approach to literature. Lem is relatively unique in this regard. (If you have not read Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, run, run, run…) I have read only a couple books by Calvino, but what I’ve read comes highly recommended, provided you can appreciate literary stylings. I know you have your hang ups with Wolfe, and for that Calvino may pose some problems. I started with Baron in the Trees, and I guess I would recommend it as a starting point for you, as well.

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