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Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress

lem-futurological-congressThe one American science fiction writer that the Polish Stanislaw Lem admired was Philip K. Dick, and this 1971 novella is the most Dickian of the few Lem books I've read. I first read it many years ago, and I remember that I loved the first half but felt it went off the rails. The impulse to reread it came from seeing Ari Folman's loose (very loose) film adaptation, The Congress. I have to say that it's difficult for me to reconstruct my objections to the book now, although I vaguely remember thinking he reduced people to robots. Looked at from my present vantage, I'm guessing that I was put off by his pessimistic attitude toward humanity. These days I find that attitude easier to swallow, even if I'm still an uncertain optimist myself.

It's a slippery book, and I actually started rereading it again as soon as I finished my second reading, just to try to understand the shifting "realities" better. I'm only partway through this second rereading, but I've gotten through the first two sections out of three. There's a lot going on, but a couple of things that have struck me in these readings are the metafictional quality of the story and the amazing play with language (which is given a further eyebrow-lifting dimension by the fact that this is a translation from Polish into English by the great Michael Kandel).

What I can grasp of the plot is this: Astrounaut Ijon Tichy (who was the protagonist of many Lem stories) is invited to an international futurological congress in Costa Rica. This is basically an academic conference, and Lem has great fun satirizing academics. Early on Tichy is exposed to a chemical that causes him to feel happy about everything. He frees himself of the influence, but when rebels attack the city where the conference is going on (Lem is equally adept at satirizing totalitarian states and revolutionary movements), the government begins bombarding the whole city with mind- and mood-altering chemicals. Tichy escapes into the sewer system, and the first section of the book ends with him dining on cold lobster in these Ballardian catacombs. The next section is a series of drug-induced hallucinations in which crazy action-adventure scenes of escape and capture keep resetting when he falls into the sewer water. The third and longest section has him waking up from being frozen in liquid nitrogen and finding himself in a utopian future in which everybody's experience of reality is fully modulated by chemicals -- a chemocracy. The question lurking over all of this (as in many Dick novels) is: What is real?

This description of the plot doesn't capture the manic, surreal, satirical quality of the story. The narrative is in hyperdrive the whole way, spinning off new ideas, political critiques, jokes, and shifting realities on practically every page. There are whole sections dedicated to descriptions of new chemicals and drugs and their effects on consciousness, and the wordplay is astoundingly inventive. I tried to imagine how Lem came up with all this stuff, and I was simply boggled. It reads like some kind of mad poetry -- like Lewis Carroll on acid. And again, the satire of everything under the sun, including both American power and anti-American posturing, leaves the political compass spinning.

The metafictional aspect I mentioned earlier is perhaps the subtlest quality to the book. The futurological congress, with its focus on the problems that humanity faces, from over-population to pollution and war, is at its core an attempt to apply a science fictional imagination to these problems. The crazy shifts in reality that Tichy experiences, including his "time travel" to the utopian future, comprise a science fiction story about these very problems. In short, the book is a science fiction story about how science fiction can imagine the future, and we keep returning to the fact that none of this is real; it's all imaginary, all hallucinatory. Thus it ends up being a satirical critique of science fiction as much as anything else. We might think science fiction allows us to cope with future shock, but Lem suggests it's a kind of crutch or avoidance mechanism instead.

It's also funny as hell, in the pitchblack way of so much Eastern European satire. The self-serving meanness (and self-deluded arrogance) of the human animal is essential to the worldview here. That's probably what pissed me off when I was younger and still fresh from my adolescent years of reading mostly heroic fantasy. Having lived through both Nazi occupation and Soviet annexation, Lem had seen humanity at its worst. At the deepest level of reality in the furthest future in this book (which is still a hallucination), what we discover is an incredibly bleak dystopia -- and a great intellect furiously inventing it with piercing detail. It's a bravura work, much different in tone from the more meditative, melancholy Solaris.

Well, I really do want to see The Congress again, but it's an almost totally different kettle of fish. It does use many elements from Lem's story, but amongst other things it's about a completely different character and a completely different (and more romantic) worldview. It lacks Lem's incandescent savagery.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 31st, 2014 07:44 pm (UTC)
It is a wonderful book. The translations direct from Polish are all good; the ones via Russian, like Solaris or The Invincible just don't work the same way. Have you read The Cyberiad?
Jul. 31st, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)
I haven't read The Cyberiad, although I was just fondling a copy on my lunch break.

I believe the translation of Solaris available in the US is from a French translation of the Polish. Sigh.
Jul. 31st, 2014 08:37 pm (UTC)
I think that's my favorite of his novels.
Jul. 31st, 2014 08:48 pm (UTC)
I was certainly bowled over by it this time. I've also read Solaris more than once, and I love it too. I believe the only other books of his I've read are The Invincible and Return from the Stars, both of which are more standard science fiction, but both of which also impressed me. I'm curious about his book of reviews of imaginary novels as well, but I just need to read more of him in general.

Curiously, from what I've read The Futurological Congress was published as part of the Ijon Tichy collection, The Star Diaries, in Poland, but separated out in the English versions.
Aug. 1st, 2014 02:11 pm (UTC)
I have to say: I saw the film at SIFF and was really disappointed. I thought it was a visually beautiful mishmash that didn't really make much sense. And I'm not sure why people keep hiring Robin Wright. She's beautiful, sure. But every film I've seen her in, I feel like she's Acting and I can tell. Her performances always feel very forced to me.
Aug. 1st, 2014 03:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I saw that you didn't like it, but I liked it quite a bit -- enough that I hope to get another shot at seeing it in the theater. (I'm pretty sure I saw an indication that SIFF Uptown will be showing it again, but probably while I'm away!) One of the things I could have mentioned in my review is that the movie is actually more overtly metafictional than the book. That aspect of it really worked for me, even if I found some other aspects more than a little confusing or even half-baked (such as her son's condition, whatever it was).
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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