Monday, May 5, 2014

Ijon Tichy

The Star Diaries (321 pages)

Ijon Tichy is the hero of this collection of absurd, fantastic, playful, and satirical tales. Many are as cartoonish as the Jetsons or anything on Saturday morning TV. Indeed, one of Tichy's forbears has his head flattened by a steam roller.

Tichy flies about in a jalopy of a rocketship. It has a rudder, and needs new brakes and a paint job. He cooks his meals on the atomic pile, and when he passes too close to a star he climbs into the refrigerator to cool off. When he runs out of fuel he dives his ship into a volcano, causing an eruption which propels him back into space. Someone goes by riding on a meteor.

Some of the supporting cast are robot friars, feral furniture, intelligent potatoes, edible space ships, dogs in spacesuits, and "interstellar vagabonds known as Gypsonians" who hire themselves out for the cleaning of moons, and whose children throw stones at comets.

Time Travel

Voyage 7 – The ship becomes packed with so many versions of Tichy they have to form committees in order to make decisions.

Voyage 12 – He uses a time machine to speed up evolution on a primitive planet, but breaks off a knob and sets it in reverse, causing him to revert to a baby.

Voyage 20 - He is recruited by his future self to head up a project to improve history with disastrous results. Mars is burnt to a crisp.

Strange Societies

Voyage 13 – A political allegory about a repressive regime that convinces people they are fish, and another where everyone wears an identical mask and individualism is forbidden. People are interchangeable right down to the family level, with mothers, fathers, and children trading places every day.

Voyage 23 – The planet of the Whds is so crowded its people reduce themselves to their constituent atoms to order to get some sleep at night, and to travel by mailing themselves in a cassette. "Look out, you’re spilling my daddy," Tichy is warned by a youngster. When he tries the process, there is an error of some sort and he is reconstituted as Napoleon.

Memoirs of a Space Traveller
Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy
(153 pages)

The rather convoluted publishing history of these stories is mentioned in a note at the end of Star Diaries, which appeared in English in two volumes, the second being this one, Memoirs of a Space Traveller. It contains two further voyages as well as several stories of the mad scientist variety.

Voyage 18 - Tichy creates the universe using a chronocannon. Two of the members of his team are Lou Cipher and Eve Addams. The universe, a scientist declares, "is an illegal loan of matter and energy." It is a "Debtor to Nothingness."

Voyage 24 – A planet runs into a multitude of civic problems when machines put people out of work. A Governing Machine is created to restore harmony, which it does by transforming people into "solid beautiful durable forms" and arranging them into "pleasing symmetrical designs."

Mad Scientists

Denser and more serious in tone, these stories are rather like thought experiments about the nature of perception and reality. Tichy visits a number of scientists whose misshapen appearance is representative of their unbalanced attempts at playing god. One creates a synthetic soul, another electronic brains in boxes ("Leibnizian monads") unaware of the true nature of their existence. A third has secretly been replaced by his own clone, and a fourth creates a fungoid creature that begins experimenting on the scientist.

The Washing Machine Tragedy

This story appeared in The New Yorker and describes the development of advanced washing machines. They mend and iron clothes, then progress to doing the children’s homework, interpreting dreams, singing lullabies, eventually becoming less capable of performing their original duties. Some are weaponized and associate with criminal elements. Others end up on the streets panhandling. Illegal parts factories spring up, and self-defence courses teach people how to defend themselves using a canopener or a pair of pliers.

Let Us Save the Universe
Ijon Tichy decries the ill-effects of cosmic tourism -- billboards and space garbage, graffiti on asteroids, comets without tails. Women exceed the speed limit because they will age slower. The impact on fauna in a Preserve is particularly harmful, and the story morphs into an illustrated bestiary of weird creatures whose lives have been disrupted by human contact. One is a bird called the sribblemock:

...the counterpart of the terrestrial parrot, except that it writes instead of talks. Often, alas, it writes on fences the obscenities it picks up from tourists from Earth. Some people deliberately infuriate this bird by taunting it with spelling errors.

The Futurological Congress (142 pages)

According to the translator's note at the end of Star Diaries, this novella was also part of that original collection.

It takes place on Earth and begins in Costa Rica where Tichy is attending a futurological congress. There is much unrest, which is combated by the use of a calming drug in the water of the hotel where he is staying, and which results in a hallucinatory experience involving giant rats.

When he comes to his senses he finds that he has been cryogenically preserved and resuscitated in the future where society has solved its problems chemically. It is a pharmocracy in which people vote on the weather and eat books instead of reading them. Poets use sonnetol and "children learn their reading and writing from orthographic sodas." Tichy is told, "We keep this civilization narcotized, for otherwise it could not endure itself."

Ijon Tichy appears in at least one other book: Peace on Earth.


Tichy's adventures became the subject of a German TV series loosely based on Star Diaries. If you go to Youtube and do a search for Ijon Tichy, you'll find a few episodes with English subtitles. His rocket ship is a coffee press.

Lem's Official Site
Ijon Tichy Raumpilot