Stanisław Lem, Cyberiad

Information and Questions for Reading

Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age

Lem's Cyberiada (1967) was beautifully, amusingly, brilliantly translated by Michael Kandel (who puts his PhD in Slavics to the best possible use in his inventive and impressive work on Lem, and I hope he can wallow in the royalties - though I don't mean to dis the other translators); it has been in print ever since it first appeared in English in 1974. Note also the wonderful original illustrations by Daniel Mróz (some still labeled in Polish), sprinkled throughout the volume.

To a reader in English, The Cyberiad may seem 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 stronger in English than in Polish.

Note, again, 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. (I repeat, because it's WRONG on the cover of the translation.)

There is an official site at www.lem.pl - 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 see the statistics for the "elections" as a whole. There are several interviews with Lem on YouTube - though I wasn't able to find any with English subtitles - so if you love him and want more it's not hard to find more.


Questions for reading:

  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. How long does it take you to notice that Trurl and Klapaucius (Klapaucjusz in Polish, as one of the illlustrations shows) are not human beings?
  3. Note the many talking names (King Atrocitus), portmanteau names (Bartholocaust), and other wordplay. It's worth writing a paper just about that.
  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. How much do you know about folklore? Where does this work engage with various kinds of folklore? (How would that element compare with the Stalker lore we saw a bit in Roadside Picnic?)
  6. How do the fabulous or medieval elements in the stories mesh with what we've been saying about Marxist laws of historical and social development?
  7. How and where does Lem engage with socialism, seeming to support it or to critique it?
  8. How do these stories compare, if at all, to Solaris? If you didn't know it was by the same author, what if anything might hint to you that it was?
  9. What kind of history and universe emerge from the gestalt of all the stories?
  10. What is the role (waht are the roles) of love and sex, and what sort of gender relations do the stories depict?
  11. How does the mood of the stories, and the character of our constructors, change and develop over time?
  12. In what ways does Lem engage our sympathy for his characters? To what extend does he not bother to do so, and how does the reader feel about the characters through the book?
  13. To what extent is the science in these stories verisimilar? How much is it NOT?
  14. What stage of robotic and computer technology do the stories reflect, and what is the effect of putting something like vacuum tubes in the distant future?
  15. If you were a Stalinis censor or a Vulgar Marxist critic, what might you object to in this book?
  16. Aside from robots, space flight, etc., what image of humanity does the book create?
  17. What do you make of the multiple, sometimes competing versions of the History of Intelligent Beings in the various tales?
  18. Consider the role of stories and story-telling in the book. Where does the narrative become more sophisticated (or confusing), and how does that interact with the plot(s)? Is it typical for SF works to be written in this way?
  19. Have you read other picarequse novels? What does this one share with them?

one of the cartoons from Cyberiad