The Cy­be­riad Sto­ries by STANISŁAW LEM

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

Pen­guin (2014) RRP $19.40 FIRST PUB­LISHED IN Pol­ish in 1965, The Cy­be­riad is a se­ries of short sto­ries about two ‘con­struc­tor’ ro­bots named Trurl and Kla­pau­cius.

Author Stanisław Lem plays fast and loose with physics, cre­at­ing a world that rev­els in tech­no­log­i­cal may­hem and still feels fresh, yet strangely grounded, to­day. He has lots of fun with eastern Euro­pean lit­er­ary tra­di­tions; there are echoes of Kafka and Go­gol here, and per­haps a nod to Czech writer Karel Capek, who first coined the word ‘ro­bot’ in 1920.

The mod­ern ap­peal of The Cy­be­riad might lie in the quiet in­flu­ence it has had on other science-fiction au­thors – Asi­mov was a huge fan, for in­stance. But Lem’s lit­er­ary bold­ness shares much with con­tem­po­rary writ­ers in dif­fer­ent fields.

There are sim­i­lar­i­ties in tone and style to ab­sur­dist drama­tists, such as Beck­ett and Ionesco. One story, Trurl’s Ma­chine, re­volves around an “eight-storey think­ing ma­chine”, trimmed in laven­der but lack­ing a “men­ta­tion muf­fler”. When asked to cal­cu­late two mul­ti­plied by two, it an­swers, af­ter a long wait, “seven”. Cor­rectly or not, it seems a dis­tant an­ces­tor of Dou­glas Adams’ Deep Thought.

The Cy­be­riad is no historical cu­rios­ity, how­ever. It is ar­rest­ing and bizarre and bril­liant. A trea­sure.

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