Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age
Information on the Writer | Questions for Reading | If you liked this book...

photo of Lem with some futuristic toys

Stanisław Lem (1921-1996) was born in Lwów, Poland (which after WWII became Lviv, Ukraine), but after the Second World War his family settled in Kraków. He studied medicine and developed a strong interest in mathematics and other sciences. Although his early novels were rather traditional science fiction, his individual style and philosophy were in full bloom by the 1960s. Lem is extremely various in his styles and genres, and towards the end of his life he even objected to being called a science fiction writer - though he really had gotten to be a cranky old man by the end of his life. His work often stresses the disharmony between technological possibility and human intentions. He attracted some bad press because of (carelessly? or justifiably?) critical remarks about the quality of North American science fiction, which one might discuss in the context of the different roles of the genre in East and West over the past many years. Lem was both well-respected and a popular and widely-read writer — note the large nummber of his books in translation, and their relatively reasonable prices! (Back when the Web was new, Lem had more hits than almost any author, because so many of his fans were math and science geeks who knew how to create web pages.)

Lem's Cyberiada (1967) was beautifully, amusingly, brilliantly translated by Michael Kandel (whose PhD in Slavics is put to the best possible use in his inventive and impressive work on Lem, and I hope he can wallow \ in the royalties - not to dis the other translators), and it has been in print ever since it appeared in 1974. Note also the wonderful original illustrations by Daniel Mróz

The Cyberiad may be meant to have a phonetic association with “Siberia,” that famous penal region of Russia and then of the USSR that is linked with Polish history, as Poles who participated in various uprisings against the Tsarist Russian Empire, or who were simply nationally conscious intellectuals, were sent into exile there, but the association is much stronger in English than in Polish.

Note that the “ł” in Stanisław (but not the “L” in Lem) has a cross-bar that makes it pronounced something like the English “w,” and that Polish names are always stressed on the penultimate syllable: Stan-EE-swav.

Some other books by Lem:

Works about Lem:

Lem has his own official site at - you can choose to view the page in Polish, English or Russian, and there's a nifty area where you can vote for your favorite book by Lem and then view the

a more recent photo of Lem *** and another

Questions for reading (and what could be more fun than reading science fiction that is also funny!):

  1. To start with, what is the effect of having such odd and difficult-to-pronounce names for our heroes? Never mind that they aren’t human beings.
  2. And how about the many talking names (King Atrocitus), portmanteau names (Bartholocaust) and other wordplay?
  3. At what point does it become clear that Trurl and Klapaucius (Klapaucjusz in Polish, as one of the illlustrations informs us) are not human beings?
  4. What kind of stories does the subtitle ("Fables") suggest? What is fable-like, or fabuluos, in Cyberiad? Would you expect to find kings and dragons in a science fiction story alongside the robots and rockets?
  5. If you have read a lot of science fiction, what other works do these stories remind you of?
  6. If you have not read a lot of science fiction, what do these stories suggest about the genre, and to what extent can they be read in the context of the works you have already read in this season? What do they suggest about human society, science, history, language, etc.?
  7. What kind of history and universe emerge from the gestalt of all the stories?
  8. What is the role (waht are the roles) of love and sex, and what sort of gender relations do the stories provide?
  9. How does the mood of the stories, and the character of our constructors, change and develop over time?
  10. In what ways does Lem engage our sympathy for his characters? To what extend does he not bother to do so, and what are the results of our estrangement from the characters (if any) as the reader progresses through the book?
  11. How may a science fiction plot, with the things that are possible or verisimilar in a slightly or largely different world, differ and diverge from the plots of “realistic” literature?
  12. If you were a Stalinis censor or a Vulgar Marxist critic, what might you object to in this book?
  13. Given what you know about life and literature under socialism, what ideas might you have about the place of science fiction there — either before 1989, or today?
one of the cartoons from Cyberiad

If you liked this book...

Lem is the best-known East European author of science fiction, and there's really no one like him. Harold B. Segel's Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945 (Columbia UP, 2008) suggests some other recent authors of fantastic or speculative literature: Romanian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), best-known as an authority on myth, folklore, and religion; Vasile Voicalescu (1884-1963) is another talented Romanian, an author of fantastic stories and a poet who published "translations" of "Shakespeare's lost sonnets." Several of the best Eastern European authors od science fiction and fantasy have not yet been much translated! However, several post-modern sci-fi novels by Zoran Živković are available in English, and Serbian author Milorad Pavić (born 1929), though neither funny nor a science fiction writer, had a big hit in the 1980s with Dictionary of the Khazars and then Landscape Painted with Tea.

If the science fiction axis is more compelling than the E European one, you might compare Lem’s work to books and stories by Isaac Asimov (who emigrated to the US from Russia in 1923, at the age of 3) or Roger Zelazny (born in Ohio, but with an obviously Slavic surname). Other interesting comparisons would be with EE authors such as the Strugatsky brothers (Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky); or compare Lem’s novel Solaris with Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film, or Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake. Douglas Adams's stories also make an interesting and apt comparison!

Return to the main page of readings for the Alumni Reading Group.