Monday, December 18, 2006

FACT group discussion of Stanislav Lem's "Cyberiad"

In May of 2006 the FACT reading group discussed "Cyberiad" by Stanislav Lem. Most of the attendees (~ 6-7 of them) liked the book. A few of them had read Lem before, mostly his novel "Solaris".

It was noted how well "Cyberiad" held up from the technological standpoint. "Cyberiad" was written 40 years ago, but its scientific / technical ideas don't appear obsolete. It is about computers and machines but doesn't have specific technology that dates it. One reader compared it to "White Light" by Rudy Rucker, saying Rudy Rucker's mathematical science fiction has some of this flavor.

I myself was also impressed by how Lem had found a way to write science fiction that is not threatened with becoming obsolete in the next decade or the next five years. That's because "Cyberiad" is already very obviously a farce, and nothing in it should be taken literally. As illustrated by the passage (page 147): "By now the stars have vanished in the general gloom, so the two proceeded gropingly, till suddenly their ship lurched, and all the furniture, pots and pans went flying". The characters of his tales, the two robots, are so smart they can construct machines that simulate entire civilizations, yet the ship they fly in is furnished with pots and pans. Not to mention that being robots, they presumably don't need to eat, much less cook. But in this farcical manner he explores very interesting questions about human nature, and the nature of the mind.

A flipside of this lack of technological explanations is that more than one person felt the stories in "Cyberiad" would be best characterized not so much as science fiction but as fairytales. Some saw it as a positive, and others as a negative.

Reader 1. "I have to be hog-tied to read fantasies and modern fairly-tales, because there so much fo its is... there's suspensions of disbelief, and then there is hanging it by its neck until its dead. Despite that, I am enjoying [the Cyberiad]. It's not dating itself because it's totally ignoring technological explanations."

Reader 2. 'I'm gonna take a somewhat different tack. I was impressed by translation, it's an easy read, but I don't see any science in it. It's a mechanistic fairy-tale. Having done some AI work, [I can say] it has nothing to do with computer science AI." He quotes the book: "'Postulate everything with letter N' -- it's not how computers work. It didn't bother me, but it early on told me that it's not science." He gives another example: "[how can you say that] one planet is behind another? "

He deemed the science in "Cyberiad" to be completely unscientific, and thought it was primarily a framework for a social commentary.

And this brings us to another of the book's characteristics, widely noticed by the readers: that its main purpose was to be a political satire. Or so the readers perceived it. Stanislav Lem wrote "Cyberiad" in the socialist Poland, where literature, art, and all public discourse were heavily controlled by the communist government, to keep out the ideas they considered threatening to the communist ideology. Several of the FACT readers pointed out various methods Lem employed in order to get his message past the censors.

Reader 3. "It's very interesting that he's using the early Greek myths as a backdrop for doing this kind of thing, making it very fun. His descriptive style is very much as an early socratic dialog. It fits very well with what he's doing. Lem employed Socratic dialogs in Cyberiad to get past censors. "

Reader 2 comments on how Lem had to shape Cyberiad to fit the mold of socialist realism, as was required of writers in a communist society. "I thought Cyberiad was a framework for a social commentary. All the strawman bad guys are monarchs, because it is acceptable to say bad things about monarchs. In a society where fantasy has a bad rap, a mechanistic fairlytale [is the best framework]." He brings up an example of the story where the soldiers' intelligence combines and everything stops fighting. "I think that combining things for a better result is a very communistic idea."

Reader 4. "Lem is Hegelian in his thesis and antithesis, which I think is one thing socialist realism liked. All of Lem had to have socialist realism, because that's what the state said was literature. He liked Strugackys and Bulgakov and others. If you set your story elsewhere, since it wasn't set in Poland, you could say something Polish readers would agree with, but censors would allow. "

Readers admired Lem's style, his language and his sense of humor. Everybody enjoyed Lem's way with dialog. A few people noticed influences of Greek philosophy on Lem.

Reader 5. 'I read it 30 years ago and I loved it. But I was an undergrad in physics. But today it seems like a different book, because of how much Greek I studied since then. You are right: these are fables. They always have a point. You are supposed to learn something from each story. Epigram is probably a Greek word I'm searching for. Every story is a parable, and it seems too Greek to me. "

Reader 6. "In a good way."

Reader 1. "I think it's got a realy incisive quality. "

She mentions the strange, nonexistent words starting with letter N, which are listed in the first story.

Reader 6. "You wonder why those words are not familiar, and then you find out there is a reason for it."

One will need to read the first story of Cyberiad to find out why they are not familiar, though.

Everybody admired how well the translator of "Cyberiad" did what must have been a tremendously difficult job. People were impressed that a lot of Lem's jokes came through in English translation, and appreciated the effort it must have taken to translate the poetry.

Reader 5. The amount of effort those 6 lines (the Samson poem) took, probably was days.

(Here is what he is talking about. Imagine having to translate this into a foreign language. Every word needs to start with letter S.

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.)

I'm sure the famous "Love and Tensor Algebra" must have been just as difficult to translate.

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