Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Cyberiad

Tales for the Cybernetic Age

In this collection of whimsical nonlinear tales, vanity gets a pair of friendly rivals into a number of ridiculous predicaments, often at the expense of a good shellacking.

Trurl and Klapaucius are "constructors," but everything they build has unforeseen effects or does not work properly. Some of their contraptions are:
-an electrobard
-a kingdom in a box
-a probability amplifier for summoning up dragons
-a machine that can create anything beginning with the letter n.

While not all the tales are equally good, the language throughout is imaginative and fun. There are photon schooners, ion crumpets, antimatter sabres, and three Voltaic brothers. There is also a Battery Age and an Empire of the Cold Welders. Someone wears a semi-permeable cummerbund. Another is "innocent as a brand new fuse."

As the stories progress it becomes apparent that Trurl and Klapaucius are robots, and gradually a serious, if not bitter, undertone creeps in. In the penultimate story a philosopher describes the utter failure of robotkind's godlike powers to bring peace and happiness to the universe.

The last tale in the book (and the only one that does not include Trurl and Klapaucius) concerns a princess who spurns "every suitor who seeks her radioactive hand." She will marry no one but a human. Infatuated, a neighbouring prince dons a disguise that is "flaccid, drooping, doughy." His description of human customs is hilarious.


The Cyberiad was first published in 1967. This edition was translated by Michael Kandel, and illustrated with delightful line drawings by Daniel Mroz. There is no introduction or afterword, which could have illuminated some of the challenges in translating Lem's prose, which contains many made-up words.

The book's subtitle might easily have been Don Quixote in Space, for the tales take place in an "age of electric errantry." Indeed, Lem uses the same word as Cervantes when he describes these adventures as "sallies."

The author, a famous and prolific Polish writer of SF, passed away in 2006. His work has been compared to that Kafka, Vonnegut, and Douglas Adams.

Official website