Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mortal Engines

A robot-themed collection (hence the title) selected by the translator, Michael Kandel, who in the intro divides Lem's work into three categories:

  comic-satirical fantasy
  realistic SF

About half the stories in this volume come from the Polish collection, Fables for Robots, which fall into the first category. They are light and silly reading, with titles like:

“Three Electroknights”
“How Erg the Self-Inducing Slew a Paleface”
“Tale of the Computer that Fought a Dragon”

They're sprinkled with whimsical terms: thinking powder, a knot in space, an ultradragon, an antimatter blunderbuss, a supernova extinguisher.

Characters plug their heads together to wrestle with a problem, and make remarks such as, “Something feels wrong inside, I must have blown a tube.”

The stories are very similar to those in The Cyberiad, though without (at least not in this edition) any of Daniel Mroz's delightful illustrations.

Consciousness Is Suffering

In the intro Kandel refers to his editorial strategy as being “a general progression from light to dark, from comic to tragic, from robot to human.”

This progression begins with the final three stories in the group mentioned above. They are more a little more weighty than the rest:

 "Automatthew's Friend”
  King Globares and the Sages”
 "The Tale of King Gnuff”

The next two stories, “The Sanatorium of Doctor Vliperdius” and “The Hunt” reunite us with two of Lem's favourite characters, Ijon Tichy and Pirx. “The Hunt” is a refreshing change of pace, as it not only falls into the category of realistic SF, but also features Pirx's distinctive voice. (It also appears in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.)

The final story, “The Mask,” is the longest at nearly 50 pages, and together with “The Hunt” takes up more than a third of the book. Elements in it reminded me of Zelazny and Kafka, Alien and Terminator. I found it rather heavy going despite some fine turns of phrase. The ending is ambiguous, unsettling, and therefore typically Lem.

It is the most clearcut example of Kandel's remark that Lem is similar to Dostoevsky in the belief that “consciousness is suffering.”