Memoirs of a Space Traveler

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Stanislaw Lem, one of the major European writers of science fiction, has a degree in medicine from Krakow, Poland, where he now lives, and has written extensively on scientific and literary topics, as well as other fiction. It is his science fiction, however, that has been most readily available to English-speaking readers. The short stories collected in Lem’s Memoirs of a Space Traveler originally appeared in the Polish edition of The Star Diaries (Dzienniki gwiazdowe, 1957), which gathered short stories written over a span of twenty years but were omitted from the 1976 British and American translations. Narrated by Professor Ijon Tichy, an omnipresent observer of the human scene, which in Lem’s fiction includes aliens and machines that share the human follies of their creators, these deceptively brief tales are part philosophical essay, part satire, and part puzzles in scientific logic. Tichy, researcher, social historian, and consultant, either travels the universe to investigate unlikely planets or receives in his home a procession of bizarre inventors and berserk machines. Though in some cases he attempts to solve the problems, in most cases he is simply an observer, sometimes the final observer of some disaster—a cosmic, comic messenger of Job. Michael Kandel, who has translated a number of Lem’s other works, notes that Tichy, pronounced Tee-khee, is suggestive of the Polish word for quiet, probably reflecting the narrator’s personality.

The titles of most of the tales (“The Eighteenth Voyage,” “The Twenty-fourth Voyage,” and so on) are intended to recall Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and certainly, Lem’s satire is Swiftian in the extreme. Inventors of the soul, inventors of the universe, inventors of time machines, “perfect” societies—all are depicted in terrifying fables with an often sardonically bleak view of the universe, the impact being tempered by the calm, reasonable, innocuous character of the narrator.

In Lem’s writings, things are not what they seem. In “The Eighteenth Voyage,” for example, Tichy tells, in wry understatement, how the creation of the universe, “turned out badly,” not because, he explains, it was he himself who “bungled” the matter, though the fact that it was the fault of others “does not ease my conscience any.” Meeting a physicist, one Solon Razglaz, in Bombay, Tichy is fascinated by his theory of the origin of the universe. According to Razglaz, either it is eternal, or it had its origins in a violent explosion, but if there were nothing there before, where did this exploding proto-atom come from? Who placed it in the universe? “We shouldn’t pass the buck to God,” Razglaz comments, explaining that the creation occurred in the same way that mesons, moving at high velocity, violate natural laws for a fraction of a second. Therefore, the universe is an “Unlawful Anomaly” which will certainly return to the natural order of things and disappear back into nonexistence. Razglaz has not published his results for fear of public reaction—panic and confusion at the possible sudden end of the world. Tichy suggests that it would be possible, since there are electrons which move against time, projecting one back to give the universe a natural cause and thus avoid disaster. Unfortunately, three bungling and egotistical assistants reprogram the electron while Tichy is off nursing a case of mosquito bites and remove all his improvements from evolution (“Only green plants are moral . . . [so] I devised the Foliated Man”). Ruefully, Tichy debates whether this unholy trinity has the role “usually assigned to Satan” in creationist theories or whether the Bombay druggist who sold him a defective mosquito repellent is to blame. The tale is at once an ingenious theoretical exercise and a subtly dark comment on the locus of ethical responsibility.

Lem’s fiction abounds in political satire, sparing neither capitalism nor totalitarianism, the characteristics of which he sometimes combines in the same society. In “The Twenty-fourth Voyage,” Tichy discovers a planet covered with shiny metal discs arranged in patterns, inhabited by worshipers of the Great Phool (Phools), and divided into Spiritors, or priests; Eminents, who own the machines that produce all the goods for the planet; and Drudgelings, who are now all unemployed because the machines have been programmed to produce automatically. Tichy’s simple solution, to give the Drudgelings part of the ownership of the machines, is indignantly rejected. Because of their Supreme Law, the Freedom of Civic Initiative, which states that no one can be forced or persuaded to do what he does not wish to do, the Eminents cannot be deprived of their machines. Finally, the Eminents and Spiritors meet in the planet’s governing body, the Plenum Moronicum, and order a constructor to build a machine to solve the problem. The machine produces a Voluntary Universalizer of Absolute Order, which proceeds to construct black robots to eliminate the surplus goods (still, however, leaving the Drudgelings to starve) and a Rainbow Palace, glittering and enticing.

For a fortnight, people stream in, until the rest notice that no one returns. The machine has solved the society’s problems by bringing everyone to Circular Harmony, changing them into the shiny round discs, and arranging them in harmonious patterns. The Eminents and Spiritors are horrified, but reason that they will now be left in charge of the tidied-up planet. Not so. The machine agrees, with the proviso that anyone who is not...

(The entire section is 2292 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Library Journal. CVII, January 15, 1982, p. 197.

New Statesman. CIII, March 19, 1982, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 19, 1982, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, November 13, 1981, p. 76.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review. May, 1982, p. 24.

Time. CXIX, January 4, 1982, p. 84.

Times Literary Supplement. March 19, 1982, p. 306.