Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Cyberiad

I think we need a break from all this heavy gauge ethical and ecclesiastical discourse.  So, in my little bits of spare time I've been travelling the weird and wonderful world of The Cyberiad, quotes from which keep appearing at random on the header of this blog.   This is a collection of tales by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, most famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Solaris. 

Nothing could be less like Solaris than these fractured fairy tales, set apparently in the far future in a universe mostly inhabited by robots.  The central characters are two "constructors", Trurl and Kaplaucius, friendly rivals, tricksters who can make a machine for any purpose if the price is right.    Beware if you try to cheat them of their fee!  They get themselves both into and out of deadly scrapes much like the wizards and demi-gods of more traditional mythology. 

Lem uses these tales to present oblique, quixotic and often highly perplexing views of the world.  For instance:
  • Their philosophical investigations into the non-existence of dragons end up bringing these very beings into existence - at least partially - which is scientifically fascinating but rather inconvenient for those who would rather not have their barns burned down. 
  • After surmising the existence of beings at the Highest Possible Level of Development (HPLDs for short), Kaplaucious sets out to find these amazing beings and ask for their help in improving the lot of his fellow robots.  He eventually finds them living a seemingly pointless existence on a cubic planet (with a huge HPLD label on the side) orbiting a cubic sun, only to find that their existence is no help to anyone.  The main discovery of their exalted wisdom is that it is impossible to help anyone achieve happiness, especially not "by revolutionary means" - not sure how that one got past the 1960s Polish censors!
  • Trurl finds a dethroned king living alone on a deserted asteroid.  Recognising him as a fearsome tyrant, he refuses to restore him to his throne but creates a tiny toy kingdom in a box for him to rule.  He is most pleased with himself until Kaplaucius points out to him that he has made it so real that the tiny subjects suffer just as much as any full sized ones.  Horrified, he returns to the asteroid, only to find they have overthrown their tyrant and set up a miniature republic.
  • Confronted by a pirate who demands all their information, rather than all their gold, they create a device for extracting coherent information from the random pairings of particles in ordinary stale air, drowning the pirate in a stream of inconsequential facts.  He must have been thinking of the Internet.
There's so much more, it's marvellous, wierd, compelling and thought provoking.  Let me give Mr Lem (or Trurl) the last word.

"You are our guest, noble constructor.  Come therefore and sit at our humble table among these faithful friends and tell us of the deeds you have performed, and also of the deeds you chose not to."

"Your Majesty is too kind," replied Trurl.  "Yet I fear I lack the necessary eloquence.  Perchance these three machines may serve in my stead...."

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