Review: The Cyberiad

Written by Stanislaw Lem

Translated by Michael Kandel

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories, “fables for the cybernetic age”. Appropriately, then, they star cybernetic beings. One of the peculiarities of the book is that the characters are robots – a fact never forgotten, and often used, by the author. (In one story the king gives orders that he be buried to his favorite song, “Old Robots Never Rust”). I first learned of The Cyberiad about a year and a half ago. My brother was reading it while I was staying with him, and I read a few of the stories. Later I bought a copy of my own.

Stanislaw Lem is a Polish science fiction writer. His works are widely translated, and Michael Kandel did an excellent job of translating The Cyberiad into English. It takes skill to carry over humor and style from one language to another, especially a style so unique and engaging as Stanislaw Lem’s. Here is a sample:

Not far from here, by a white sun, behind a green star, lived the Steelypips, illustrious, industrious, and they hadn’t a care: no spats in their vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, no trouble from matter or antimatter – for they had a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect.

There is an almost Seuss-like cadence to this.

All of Lem’s stories are original and clever, and most are played for humor. There were a handful I did not really care for; one betrayed, depressingly, the author’s Darwinian philosophy. But The Cyberiad has far more good stories than bad. The first story, “How the World was Saved”, struck me as a sci-fi version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (of which I have always been fond). The second tells hilariously the story of the world’s stupidest thinking machine, and “A Good Shellacking” has the great literary virtue of an unexpected and satisfying ending.

After this trilogy comes the Seven Sallies of Trurl and Klapaucius (actually nine), the main body of the book. Another three follow, but oddly enough, most of what I find distasteful in the book is clustered in these. The last two stories were initially interesting, but by the time I reached the end I did not like either one. “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines” actually contained a number of stories, some of which were good and a few of which were less so. The Fourth Sally is also in the “less so” category.

But the rest of the Sallies were as good as gold. The last, “How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good”, was a serious one, giving the readers this nugget to mull over:

Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality!

The rest of the Sallies were adventurous, with a bent toward humor. All of them were unfailingly clever and well-told. I can’t let “Trurl’s Prescription”, or “Trurl’s Electronic Bard”, go without mention. The first is particularly pleasing in style (the earlier quotation comes from it), and the second is one of the most ingenuously funny stories I have ever read. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi should give The Cyberiad a go.

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