|The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age / Stanislaw Lem|
|Reviewed by Tal Cohen||Wednesday, 01 April 1998|
But alas, all these are gone for good. The cause for this is a machine, created by Trurl the constructor. Oh, the machine is not to blame: it did only what was asked of it. It was a mighty machine that could create anything starting with n. At Trurl's request, it created noodles, nuclei, neutrons, noses, nymphs and other kinds of nonsense. But when Trurl's friend Klapaucius was offered a chance to test the machine, he did not care for such non-challenging nibbles. First, he asked the machine to create Nature, and the machine complied by filling Trurl's front yard with naturalists, arguing, publishing their works in many volumes, and tearing the works of others. Then Klapaucius, never satisfied, asked the machine to create Negative, which Trurl thought was tricky and unfair but the machine easily did by generating antiprotons, antielectrons, antineutrons, and other anti-particles in such a vast amount that a small anti-matter world was created before the constructors' eyes.
Still not satisfied, and aiming to prove that Trurl's machine really isn't worth that much, Klapaucius's next challenge was for the machine to create Nothing. At first, the two thought that indeed, the machine is doing nothing, which Trurl said was exactly what was asked of it, but Klapaucius countered by claiming that the machine was asked to do Nothing, but it isn't doing anything...
As the bickering between the two became more and more bitter, the machine suddenly interfered, explaining that it really is creating Nothing. Slowly, by removing things that are. Already there were no targalisks or pritons. Within a short time, there will be no worlds, no people... only Nothing will remain, as per Klapaucius's request.
By the time the two constructors came to their senses and stopped the process, the gruncheons, the thists, the worches and many other things were gone for good, never to be seen again.
This is the outline of “How the World Was Saved,” the first story in Stanislaw Lem's fabulous collection The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. The book contains fifteen stories from the lives and adventures of the famous constructors Trurl and Klapaucius, in Lem's unique, witty way.
As the first story shows, The Cyberiad is certainly not hard-core science fiction. Lem allows himself to ignore some aspects of the physical universe which are not interesting; the mischievousness of the stories is much more absorbing.
However, this does not make the book a science-fiction parody, or even a simple lightweight science-fiction work. With all the jokes, puns and playfulness, Lem discusses serious issues in the philosophy of science, in a highly thought-provoking way. And while teen-agers might enjoy some of the humor, there's a considerable amount of laughs saved for those versed in mathematics and physics. For example, the story “The Sixth Sally, or How Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg” does not appear in all its glory unless you are familiar with the concept of Maxwell's Demon, and the (serious) debate it created among physicists. (In these days of information overload, though, the story gains some whole new meanings.)
The stories take place in a universe inhabited by intelligent robots. Trurl and his friend are in fact robots themselves. The robots have their own stories about how they came to be, apparently long after humankind (the “paleface” race) is gone:
Among the issues Lem discusses (between the lines of the hilarious fables) is the question of artificial intelligence, moral questions relating to man-made sentient beings, and many more.
The Cyberiad was originally published in 1967, in Polish. The English translation first appeared some seven years later. The translator is Michael Kandel, who does a marvelous job of preserving Lem's unique sense of humor. With all the puns and rhyming, this certainly isn't a simple task. Consider, for example, the story “The First Sally (A), or Trurl's Electronic Bard”, in which Klapaucius challenges the Bard to compose a poem --
To the surprise of both constructors, the machine delivers exactly that, in a wonderful pearl of poetry. But while the machine's effort is fictitious, Kandel's work most certainly isn't.
In conclusion, somewhat like that poem, the book is a noble, timeless piece indeed, highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good, intelligent read.
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