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Cybernetics and a Humanistic Fiction:
Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad
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This essay was first published in Research Studies, 45.3 (Sept. 1977; Washington State University): 123-33. It was subsequently translated into German and published in: ‹ber Stanislaw Lem, edited by Werner Berthel. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Uerklag, 1981: 75-91.

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"Poetry has become the higher algebra of metaphors." --Ortega y Gasset

"Still, the problem remains. How can fiction be most useful to mankind in 
                  the present and the future?" --Robert Scholes

 

  During the time when humanistic philosophy defined the conceptual structures of experience, offering a vocabulary latent with its own values, Robert Scholes' question as to the value of fiction would likely be interpreted as, "which kind of fiction is most useful in the Socratic quest to understand our lives?" But in the light of global technocracy and pervasive cybernetic psychology (which considers people to be "meat machines" fundamentally no different than computers), the question about the status of fiction must be considered in a more fundamental way. Before posing this question, in his book, Structural Fabulation, Robert Scholes describes the cul de sac of much contemporary writing, which makes this question unavoidable. On one hand New Journalism revels in narcissism. On the other, the New Novel originates from phenomenology and is appropriately called anti-fiction. One type giggles; the other yawns in boredom. The point is that neither type of fiction is useful because each, for different reasons, eschews the traditional moral role of fiction, not in the sense that Wayne Booth seems to have had in mind in The Rhetoric of Fiction, viz., Christian proselytism, but in the fundamental sense of telling a story to convey a moral, to tell how the world is and why things happen the way they do. In the nineteenth century fiction turned to psychology for more sophisticated answers. Today, as Ortega y Gasset predicted, much of it is so engrossed with analytic philosophy that it has abandoned its raisoi d'Ítre.

Stanislaw Lem is a Polish science-fiction novelist whose work clearly demonstrates that fiction is neither dying nor necessarily driven to theoretical extremes. Lem was trained in the field of medicine, but since 1946 has published nearly thirty works. His novel, Solaris, was produced as a long movie by the Russians and has had some small success in the United States. Although Lem is not well known by American critics, he is an important writer. Science-Fiction Studies, an academic journal of the 1970s, which provided serious scholarly criticism of science fiction, consistently lionized Stanislaw Lem and Ursula Le Guin, as well it should have. Partly, Lem's significance proceeds from the fact that he is knowledgeable about the philosophy of literature and the challenge to it by the analytic tradition in philosophy and by pervasive technology. Instead of ignoring the technologically transformed world, as most novelists continue to do, or capitulating to it as "the natural world" (the position of most science-fiction writers), Lem addresses the problem in the context of traditional literary modes; in the case of The Cyberiad, using fables. This is no small accomplishment. Consider that Saul Bellow's novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, addresses the problems caused by technology. Because Bellow's point of view is that of Enlightenment-era humanism, the modern world seems to be disintegrating; another illustration like Voltaire's Candide or Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Sammler admits defeat saying that everything is insane and he has no answers. Unlike Bellow, Lem is at home in the late twentieth century, and his vision is structurally confined to it; that is to say, he does not drag idealistic platitudes from the eighteenth century to condemn the twentieth. Yet it would be a great mistake to think that Lem has abdicated the novelist's responsibility to draw a moral from experience, just as Bellow does. Indeed Ursula Le Guin says that "the center of gravity of Lem's books is ethics" ("European SF: Rottensteiner's Anthology, the Strugatskys, and Lem," Science-Fiction Studies, 1.3 (Spring, 1974): 184).

Although Lem is interested in phenomenology, he continues to "cheat" as Frank Kermode might say. That is, he uses a phenomenological definition of consciousness as the ultimate epistemological structure of his characters. From this view, Truth always collapses to perception, belief, and language. In contrast, Lem's narrators often purport to know the truth, thought they (unlike the characters they describe) seldom tell us how they have such sure access to Truth. In The Invincible, for example, Rohan discovers that knowledge is not infinite but, as Kant said, is bound by the structure of the perceiving consciousness itself: "not everywhere has everything been intended for us" (183). In this and other novels by Lem, as in Colin Wilson's clumsy novel The Mind Parasites, the reader is taught about phenomenology. Whereas in Robbe-Grillet's works, for example, phenomenology ontologically precedes the book and delineates what may be said in an anti-novel, leaving the philosophical neophyte to search his essays, or other literary criticism, for the explanations of why anti-fiction takes the forms it does. The pattern descends from Flaubert, among others. If they have not been told what Flaubert is up to with his psychological realism, many students read "A Simple Heart" or even Madam Bovary as a neutral collection of facts or, perhaps, another Romantic era biography illustrative of Rousseau's principle: "I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different" (17). Evidently Lem does not feel that a philosophy used as subject matter in fiction must necessarily precede the fiction so that the novel is an illustration of the theory. Furthermore, Lem criticizes science-fiction writers who feel obligated to employ a style derived from contemporary philosophy: "writers with the highest ambitions and considerable talent, such as Ray Bradbury or J. G. Ballard . . . employ the conceptual and rational tools of SF . . . to bring it toward an ‘optimal' pole of literature" ("The Time Travel Story" 153). I take Lem's statement to mean that such writers produce a tour de force affect and imply interesting ideas, but that in so doing they fall short of writing fiction.

Alfred North Whitehead suggested that from the time of Milton through the age of Romanticism, the arts, especially poetry, willfully and arrogantly ignored science because they could not deal with its seemingly incontestable implications of human determinism. We now seem to be witnessing the reverse: artists infatuated with the philosophy occasioned by the progress of science. Following the fictional schools of Realism and Naturalism, we have arrived at a purely theoretical fiction confined to the analysis of its own method: "the work is not a testimony offered in evidence concerning an external reality, but is its own reality for itself." Elsewhere Robbe-Grillet writes that "reality would no longer be constantly situated elsewhere, but here and now, without ambiguity" (39, 153-54). Without ambiguity, particularly moral ambiguity, traditional fiction cannot be written. Pragmatists would make a stronger point, saying that Robbe-Grillet is talking popular nonsense. Language interprets experience. Without life experience, language has nothing to say.

One way to retrieve a humanistic fiction is to use "the fabulous to probe beyond the phenomenological" (Coover 78). This is Lem's stratagem. In his essay "On Structural Analysis of Science Fiction," Lem speculates on three types of fiction: realistic, mythic, and the fairy tale. Contrary to first impressions, he believes that myths and fairy tales are potentially more meaningful types because they are farthest from elucidating mere physical "processes that lack intention, that have no meaning, no message, that wish us neither well nor ill, that are just there" (27). In the mythic world physics is replaced by morality as the system to explain causal relationships. Thus we recapture the possibility of interjecting meaning and purpose into a reality which is as phenomenologically viable as that defined by "objective" science since as Husserl says "reality and world . . . are just the titles for certain valid unities of meaning" (153).

If we accept the postmodern premise that "beyond language there is probably nothing else," then Lem's fables can be enjoyed in their proper domain without the constant attempt to juxtapose this or that fictional sight with its nonfictional counterpart (Robbe-Grillet 108). The central concern of The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age is to demonstrate that engineering science and fiction which emulates engineering science are self-defeating unless they are enveloped by humanistic guidance and evaluation.

The book tells of the adventures of the two "constructors" or super-engineers, Trurl and Klapaucius. In nearly every fable, Trurl concocts some unlikely machine which inevitably gets everyone in trouble. Klapaucius is a relative "straight-man," either getting Trurl out of trouble or saying "I told you so." They are a comedy team like Laurel and Hardy or even more like Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton in The Honeymooners where Ralph regularly initiated some get-rich-quick scheme which backfired. In laughing at the fables, it is easy to miss the fact that both constructors have themselves been constructed. They are robots or intellectronic beings who are about as threatening as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

In the first fable, "How the World Was Saved," the ontologically necessary first myth in any system, Trurl, the constructor, builds a machine which creates anything beginning with an "n." From a naive realist's point of view this approach is absurd because things which only happen to begin with an "n" have nothing in common from the viewpoint of physics. But from the point of view of a semanticist or a contemporary writer always aware of his theoretical limitations and possibilities, such a relationship is not absurd. For any story is nothing more than linguistic relationships. Like a fictional Realist, the machine first naively seeks to imitate and duplicate Nature in its computer or linguistic model. Growing more sophisticated, the machine then produces a Negative world. Like a phenomenologist it apparently understands that the world which fiction creates is made of fundamentally different stuff (words) than the world created by perception from stimuli or sensation. Fiction deals in a kind of antimatter. Finally Klapaucius, a fellow inventor with a philosophical bent, prompts the machine to produce "Nothing, Nonexistence, Nihility." The machine erases "nolars, nightzebs, nocs," and other things from the universe before being overridden. In the end the machine states the moral: "Take a good look at this world, how riddled it is with huge, gaping holes, how full of Nothingness, the Nothingness that fills the bottomless void between the stars, how everything about us has become lined with it, how it darkly lurks behind each shred of matter. This is your work, envious one!"

The machine points to Klapaucius as the one responsible for the Existential ennui and despair, ostensibly because of his jealousy over Trurl's engineering ability. But it was Klapaucius' semantical and philosophical interest that created the trouble. The essential problem is consciousness itself. In Lem's fiction, intelligence or intentionality is an engineering process resembling David Hume's epistemology. It aligns, structures, orients, and juxtaposes sense data to construct a gestalt. In so doing it assigns value to one part and necessarily devalues another. White and black, good and evil, yin and yang, foreground and background, Being and Nothingness – all are semantic categories originating from the process of fiction: using language to discover or intend meaning in our experience.

In the next fable Trurl builds the most stupid computer ever. Klapaucius tells him, "that isn't the machine you wished to make." Faustus and Frankenstein come to mind as other scientists whose intentions exceeded their engineering skills. The machine, which insists that 2 + 2 = 7, attempts to force this "truth" on the two humans, or destroy them. This is our new Inquisitor: a computer nexus which creates the categories of our experience. Consider that many more people now work in front of computer monitors than on farms. We have already begun to engineer a cybernetic society without much deep speculation on its nature or value. Speaking at Notre Dame's Centennial of Science conference, thirty years ago the physicist Philip Morrison said: "I claim now the machine, for better or for worse, has become the way of life. We will see our metaphors, our images, our concerns, our very beings changed in response to these new experiences" (221). The Cyberiad may very well be one of the seminal works creating new metaphors, identifying new concerns, and even suggesting a new genre to deal with unprecedented experiences.

Like the industrial machinery of today, Turl's computer wreaks havoc with traditional lifestyles. The villagers, whose homes are being destroyed, become militant Luddites. They wish to give Trurl to the machine and be done with engineers and the burden of consciousness. Trurl's response is the same as Bucky Fuller's and other technocrats: "What. us perish at the hands of that iron imbecile? Never!" But it is all bravado, and the machine, as we know, punishes those who refuse to acquiesce to its regime. Trurl ends hiding in a cave, but even then the machine tries to dig him out, demanding: "Say it's seven or I'll hit you!" The ending is fortuitous and a fictional convention necessary to keep the story flowing. The machine dislodges a boulder which smashes it. Despite the meaningless end, we, and the constructors, have learned the moral: ". . . Now before them lay nothing but a lifeless mass of scrap. The two constructors exchanged a look and silently, without any further comment or conversation, walked back the way they came."

The moral of "A Good Shellacking" is one of the more obvious and central of the fables. Trurl constructs what technology has always promised: "A Machine to Grant Your Every Wish." Klapaucius demonstrates the ethical problems of egotistical hedonism, but the point is that the machine is a fake. Trurl constructed a Trojan horse, which he inhabited, to spy on Klapaucius. More importantly, this marvel serves as a symbol informing this and other fables: man lives inside technology like Trurl lives in the belly of the Machine to Grant Your Every Wish. The problem is that technology can never realize its own theoretical or structural potential, and perhaps incidentally grant man some tranquility, because man's wishes arise from an ill-understood protoplasmic physiology and psychology, or they erupt uncontrollably from the unconscious, or they are symptoms of Buddhist dukkha or they arise from some other unfathomable source. Whatever the origin of subjectivity, it is antithetical to mathematically precise physics. Like medieval religion and Romantic art before it, technology has thus far failed to transform man into robot. As current events demonstrate, man's intentions are hopelessly juvenile, especially when compared to the technology which stands ready to grant his wishes. We use computers to play video games and gossip via e-mail. Engineers build Cadillacs and an stealth fighters. Only when technology has literally remade man into a member of its own domain, into a cyborg, will we learn what technology can do. And it is not simply science-fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Stanislaw Lem who entertain the idea of such a transformation. Kenneth Sayre in Philosophy and Cybernetics wonders "whether man himself is anything more than a cybernetical system, constructed of organic rather than inorganic parts" (18). Lem puts it more succinctly: "Sometimes men build robots, sometimes robots build men. What does it matter, really, whether one thinks with metal or with protoplasm?"

"A Good Shellacking" ends with the exposure of the fakery. Technology is predictably perverted by politics, i.e., by human situations, which Heidegger and pragmatism recognize as the epistemological origin of all knowledge. Engineering feats are always shams because the engineers are, as the name of the machine indicates, finally motivated by human situations and consequently cannot be transparently dedicated to the possibilities of the technological structure itself until they become as purely intelligent like their machines.

J. G. Ballard's story "Studio 5, The Stars" is nominally concerned with the impact of computer technology on literature. The technical mastery of poetry, for example, becomes "a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial." The narrator, a poetry editor, might be paraphrasing Norbert Wiener when he says about poetic excellence and value, that "It doesn't matter whether the author is man or robot, the principle is the same" (23, 54). Of course it is the same, because it is literature written by a human being to better recognize a human situation and it is read by other human beings because such literature helps them to better recognize such situations (Dasein) in their lives. Language is Dasein or grows out of Dasein. It is not some objective, non-human process that might be equally well instantiated by either a human or a computer or a robot. Unfortunately Ballard is not ready to tackle this problem seriously and so obscures it behind a jumble of mythic allusions and an eidetic romance. As Lem said, Ballard is satisfied with affects, with producing "an ‘optimal' pole of literatue."codex5.jpg (147887 bytes)

"The First Sally (A) or Trurl's Electronic Bard" is a more serious investigation into the possibility of retaining a case for literary value in our cybernetic age. First, Lem never forgets to remind us that fiction semantically coheres, but only incidentally adheres to anything outside its own structure. Consequently we cannot, as in previous times, naively expect more of fiction than it theoretically possesses. At one point the Electronic Bard makes a mistake in its model of evolutionary history, and, instead of producing great apes, it makes gray drapes. In nonlinguistic experience, or if that is impossible, then at the level of perception, it would be absurd to mistake one for the other because they are such totally different conceptions. But linguistically they are near homonyms and consequently closely related. In another fable "more than one poor soul, seeking to produce the lack of a dragon, had ended up instead with the back of the dragon – resulting in a beast with two backs – and nearly died of embarrassment!" The point to be noted is that fiction, like computer science, produces models, and that the sense, order, and history of the models are linguistically determined. Thus our attention must be directed to the artistic choice and order in fabricating the structure and not ignored such that we naively think we are dealing with nonlinguist, real things.

Lem then sketches the evolution of fiction. Because seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers generally ignored science (even when they revered it as truth revealing), that historical period might be described as the era which "bypassed half the logic circuits and made the emotive more electromotive." This tendency culminates in nineteenth-century Romanticism with a parody on Shelley: "the machine sobbed, went into hysterics, then finally said, blubbering terribly, what a cruel, cruel world this was." Modern literature results when Trurl "intensified the semantic fields." The machine then adds "six floors to the nine it already had, so it could better meditate upon the meaning of existence." The outflow of Existential literature ceased when "Trurl installed a philosophical throttle." The machine begins to produce anti-fiction, "I had a little froggy," but is quickly reprogramned with "six cliche filters" and by turning "the semanticity up all the way." But now the machine wishes to give up literature for religion. Nearly distraught, Trurl tries something else: "tossing out all the logic circuits, he replaced them with self-regulating egocentripetal narcissistors." And, of course. the machine prints New Journalism or something like Jacques Derrida's texts.

This circumstance, together with its super-semanticity, provides a beginning. Klapaucius tutors the machine in experimental poetry by requiring it to write poems on subjects like "love and tensor algebra." The machine, programmed with "twelve thousand tons of the finest poetry," cannot satisfy the avant-garde writers but soon transforms society into a utopian women's literary club where the electronically produced poems are "torn from hand to hand by eager readers. On the street one could see enraptured faces, bemused smiles, sometimes even hear a quiet sob." Ironically, engineering and fiction have totally succeeded at the cost of becoming obsolete. When engineering creates a utopia or succeeds in implanting electrodes in the pleasure centers of the brain, it has nothing more to offer. When poetry sends people into "states of stanzaic stupefaction," it must quell its own voice and retire from the ensuing silence. By implication, then, fiction is defined as a dialectical process which synthesizes moral or humanistic meaning. Our non-fictional world offers a ho-hum, flat horizon of facticity where things are caused by physical forces described in science. Intentionality (or Dasein), however, cares (in Heidegger's sense) for human situations. My wife is not a simply a "meat machine" to me. Points of dissimilarity between the two outlooks display humanistic values. All fiction theoretically functions this way, but it is far easier to see the dissimilarities in science fiction or structural fabulation than in Naturalistic fiction, which in theory is committed to the same physical reductionism as nineteenth century science.

In "The Second Sally or The Offer of King Krool," Trurl is hired by a futuristic Louis XIV type to make electronic games for his Versailles. In this future age, engineering is able to use stars to make super neon signs: "Only blue giants were used for the first word – to get the cosmic reader's attention – and lesser stellar material made up the others." So advanced that it has solved all significant problems, engineering science has created a dull and predictable utopia, and consequently it now serves a petty hedonism, building "new and better kinds of games." The King wishes to have a new and ultimately challenging quarry to hunt. No doubt the precybernetic expectation would be to hunt human beings as wily as the hunter himself. Not so here on the fictional plane. The battle is first construed as a mathematical model and video game in which: "Furious, the beast writhed and wriggled its iterated integrals beneath the King's polynomial blows, collapsed into an infinite series of indeterminate terms, then got back up by raising itself to the nth power, but the King so belabored it with differentials and partial derivatives that its Fourier coefficients all cancelled out. . . ." Being mathematically feasible, the beast is constructed and enjoined to "real" battle. The reality is, of course, a fictional reality of which we are reminded when in the end the monster, having beaten the King, then threatens its creators and is discorporated by words, which had always been the sole ground of its existence: "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, input, output, out-you-go! The fantastically complex electromagnetic wave system that held the beast's atoms in place now came apart under the influence of those words. . . ."

The goal of the artist in a phenomenological epistemology is to avoid the expected, to confute psychological closure, or to avoid merely producing what is expected and therefore trite. He hopes to create a game with certain rules and expectations, and then violate the form which offers itself as most obvious or probable. His statement must be discontinuous, shocking, or surprising. At precisely the moment when the viewer is about to complete a gestalt based on the artist data, this is the moment of complexity, of fascination, if instead of endorsing the known and commonplace, the artist produces the unique and thereby enlarges the game and the experience of the viewer. Lem consistently achieves this result, perhaps most obviously in this fable. First we expect a repetition of the commonplace plot of the human hunting another human, but instead see a skewed variant of engineering science producing seemingly harmless games, which are ultimately quite dangerous. Then we expect the run-away game monster, symbolic of technology, to persist as a threat after the end of the story. Instead we are led to contemplate again the similarity of fiction to engineering by realizing that we have been playing a game and that the monster, or any concept, exists solely in language. Just as mathematics is clearly an analytical game which creates problems and then proceeds entertainingly to solve them, so too fiction is a game using an alphabet of letters instead of numbers to pose moral enigmas and solve them if it can.

The reason that Trurl's beast succeeds, when all previous monsters have failed, is attributable to this theory of art. At the moment when the King is about to use his largest eighty-gauge antimatter artillery on the beast, it transforms into three ordinary – looking policemen who, relying on the conditioned response of docility created by the tyrant King himself, handcuff "the dumbfounded King" and whisk him away while " the entire hunting procession stood rooted to the spot for a minute or two," unable to comprehend the unexpected turn of events, much less react to them. Finally, there is an increasingly familiar moral to this tale. Engineers can always be found to do what politicians demand. Inevitably the politician who buys the product (from the lowest bidder) discovers that the process used to produce it has undesired as well as desired effects. The politician would no doubt like to forget the entire arrangement, but then his constituency views the technological luxuries as necessities. Consequently, the engineer is offered a blank check to solve the problems that he has created.

In "The Third Sally" Trurl creates dragons and answers the naive critic who knows that there are really no such things as dragons. "The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here." It is much more fun "to examine the nonphenomenon of dragons fictionally." Like Trurl, fiction writers create monsters and dragons and heroes to slay them in order to scare and titillate common folk who do not understand their origin or terms of being but pay handsomely for the experience of voyeurism, thinking that they risk nothing because they believe the beasts to be less than "real" despite Lem's patient demonstration of how "the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality!"

Having attempted to explicate the cognitive dimension of a few of Lem's fables and to demonstrate that they are more than simply "zany and childlike" or "perplexing," I would like to return to the initial thesis: that Lem, being conscious of contemporary literature's concern for a modern metaphysical foundation, offers an example of humanistic fiction which is true to our technological experience but which does more than tritely reiterate it. The consensus of modern writers hostile to science has been that a technological society is also a deterministic one. Brave New World, 1984. Mother Night. Facial Justice, We, Anthem, Fahrenheit 451, and scores of other dystopian novels tacitly support behaviorism and imagine a world like that depicted by Charley Chaplin in Modern Times: workers grotesquely jerking in time to a cacophony of industrial noise, appearing to be a Frankenstein monster trying to dance. In contrast, utopian fiction is hard to find and is usually insipid because of its humanistic implausibility and boring tactic of substituting newspaper descriptions of popular science gizmos in hopes of replacing the cardboard cutout robotic characters as the center of interest. Yet Kenneth Sayre writes that "cybernetics renders determinism in human behavior a highly unlikely thesis" (29). His argument is overly, technical for our present concern, but Lem also subscribes to the theory of free will, which is naturally implied by the fact that he writes fiction with a moral intent.

In "The Fourth Sally or How Trurl built a Femfatalatron to Save Prince Pantagoon from the Pangs of Love, and How Later He Resorted to a Cannonade of Babies," a prince is discovered in love with a rival monarch's daughter. Trurl is expected to rebalance the prince's hormonal ecology and thus dis-infatuate him by using "a femfatalatron, an erotifying device stochastic, elastic and orgiastic, and with plenty of feedback; whoever was placed inside the apparatus instantaneously experienced the charms, lures, wiles, winks, and witchery of all the fairer sex in the universe at once." In spite of the super sex machine, the prince's love proves "stronger than all the megamors and kilocuddles the femfatalatron could bring to bear." In a traditionally humanistic fashion, love is proclaimed to be something more than a quantifiable physiological formula. Consequently, it cannot be found in simulated reality games or 3-d TV. As in fairy tales, the prince's love conquers all. Accordingly, the engineers are employed in the service of love, creating baby cannons to blast out new life.

In one of the later fables, Trurl presents "all the possible hypotheses concerning the origin of the universe" and admits that "in all of this I discovered nothing of significance." For significance or value is a human judgment. Like sense or logic it is a product of language and intentionality. It does not lie out there in things, but is added to them when they are transformed into linguistic symbols. In The Investigation Lem writes that "the mathematical order of the universe is our answer to the pyramids of chaos (179). So too fiction is our answer to the moral neutrality of the universe. The process of fiction is duplicitous. It promises to discover significance by describing real things in a more exact or scientific way. Yet it is the process itself which manufactures and attributes value. Trurl puts the whole thing rather well in his apocryphal The Scourge of Reason: "I showed that each civilization may choose one of two roads to travel, that is, either fret itself to death, or pet itself to death. And in the course of doing one or the other, it eats its way into the universe, turning cinders and flinders of stars into toilet seats, pegs, gears, cigarette holders and pillowcases, and it does this because, unable to fathom the universe, it seeks to change that Fathomlessness into Something Fathomable, and will not stop until the nebulae and planets have been processed to cradles, chamber pots and bombs, all in the name of Sublime Order, for only a Universe with pavement, plumbing, labels and catalogues is, in its sight, acceptable and wholly respectable."

Lem chooses not to fret. The Dionysiac laughter of The Cyberiad does not come from a recognition of the absurdity of the human condition. Or rather it does, but not with the lugubrious overtones of Camus or the other Existentialists. Neither does it merely giggle like the New Journalists. Lem begins with a recognition of the phenomenological structure of consciousness, but does not see this as an occasion for despair. If the structure precludes the possibility of either discovering or inventing Truth, then why despair or refuse to play the game? Perhaps the game itself, while meaningless, is nonetheless fun.

Truth is only a statement of internal consistency. But there are as many logics or structures as men care to project. If the structure is most interested in logical truth, it becomes mathematical. If the structure is interested in moral truth, it becomes fictional. For fabulators like Lem, Nabokov, and Borges, the worst of all possible worlds would be a grim, humorless, rigidly determined world guided by inexorable Truth, Kant's Categorical Imperative, and universal common sense. As Lem says in The Investigation: "So-called common sense relies on programmed nonperception, concealment, or ridicule of everything that doesn't fit into the conventional nineteenth century vision of a world that can be explained down to the last detail" (139).

Let the machine be humorless and fully employed with calculation and probability. As Harvey Cox said, man belongs to the species homo festivius; he was born to laugh and play and dream fabulous stories:a-alien1.gif (59340 bytes)

Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

 

Works Cited:

Ballard, J. G. "Studio 5, The Stars," Billenium. New York, 1962.
Coover, Robert. Pricksongs and Descants. New York, 1969.
Husserl, Edmund. Ideas. Translated by W. R. B. Gibson. New York, 1962: section 55.
Lem, Stanislaw. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. Translated by Michael Kandel. New York, 1974.
Lem. The Investigation. Translated by Adele Milch. New York, 1976.
Lem. The Invincible. Translated by Wendayne Ackerman. New York, 1973.
Lem. "On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction." Translated by Franz Rottensterner and Bruce Gillespie. Science-Fiction Studies, 1.1 (Spring, 1973).
Lem. "The Time Travel Story." Translated by Thomas Hoisington and Darko Suvin. Science-Fiction Studies, 1.3 (Spring, 1974).
Morrison, Philip. "Science, Education, and the Future of Mankind," in Science
Contemporary Society.
Edited by Frederick Crosson. Notre Dame, 1967.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. For a New Novel: Essay on Fiction. Translated by Richard Howard. New York, 1965. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. New York, 1953.
Sayre, Kenneth. Philosophy and Cybernetics. Notre Dame, 1967.
Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future. Notre Dame, 1975.

 

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