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The Futurological Congress, Stanislaw Lem, Avon, 1974, 142 pp., translated by Michael Kandel, originally published in 1971
The Futurological Congress is a fast, funny tale, which is brilliant and compressed and highly readable. The book also displays a keen affinity with the works of Philip K. Dick. The story works together smoothly, a nice surprise considering that the typical Dickian twists of reality are not easy to handle, and the moments of hilarity belie Lem's underlying anxieties about existence (again, much the same as Dick). Unlike Solaris, we get no reassurances about what is reality and what is not, even on the very last page. However, in a testament to Lem's writing power, we don't feel cheated; rather we feel the exhilaration of a wild ride.
Ijon Tichy, the hero of a number of Lem's books, attends the Eighth World Futurological Congress in Costa Rica at a 100-story hotel, and encounters quite a number of wild adventures. Is he a futurologist? No. The scientist who invites him to the Congress counters his objections by saying: "hardly anyone knows a thing about pumping, and yet we don't stand idly by when hear the cry of 'Man the pumps!'" (7). This sets the madcap, slightly askew mood of what is to follow. A revolution breaks out, some psychedelic chemical seems to have found its way into Tichy's system, and the sheer chaos of life in an enormous system like a hotel also contributes to his sense of disorientation. The police use various psychochemical means to calm the crowds and this happens to backfire.
After getting shot while hiding out in the sewers, Tichy gets re-animated in the far future. His escapades in the future constitute the latter half of the book, and while not quite as zany and frenetic as the first half, we still get lots of surreal and hilarious moments. Society has changed a great deal; in fact, the people of the future seem to have extrapolated their system from all the hallucinatory excesses of the Futurological Congress and the goings-on in the hotel that hosts it. Several times Tichy wonders whether he is back in reality, and each time he is given an unsatisfactory answer.
Tichy is usually a deadpan character. When a group of publishers has been bombed by LTN (Love Thy Neighbour) gas and asks Tichy (who is wearing an oxygen mask) to beat them for their sins, he says: "I could take no more of this and gave in to their demands at last, much against my will" (35). But sometimes he has emotional outbursts, like the rush of relief that closes the book. Is he interesting in his own right, or does he keep the reader's attention only because of vivid events surrounding him? Lem uses a clever combination of the two, and even when Tichy's reactions are predictable, the very zaniness of the story sustains our curiosity. See especially the sequence in the experimental state hospital (52ff).
A real star here is the translator, Michael Kandel. Lem scatters linguistic innovations throughout the book, presenting translation challenges unique to the science fiction genre. For example, when Tichy is in the future, he is talking to a former colleague of his, Professor Trottelreiner, who has also been re-animated. Trottelreiner is a futurologist, in the sense of the word as understood in the future: he extrapolates ideas about times further in the future based on how he thinks language will develop. Tichy gives him a word, trash, and asks what Trottelreiner can learn from it: "'Very well... trash, trashcan, ashcan, trashman. Trashmass, trashmic, catatrashmic. Trashmass, trashmosh. On a large enough scale, trashmos. And -- of course -- macrotrashm! Tichy, you come up with the best words! Really, just think of it, macrotrashm!'" (108). At Tichy's query, Trottelreiner explains that this possible theory of cosmogony holds that the universe was created to have handy trash disposal units in the form of stars. Tichy declares it nonsense, and it is, as well as being clever satire and a mindboggling thing to translate. Kandel handles this entire conversation with aplomb, as well as numerous other tasks.
In The Futurological Congress, much as in Lem's other books, men are equated with the active and creative, while women are consistently passive and objectified, the possessions of the men. For example, the secretaries of the Society for Liberated Literature are there to act out the fantasies of the professors, the men. Or this: "the bar on my floor had now been seized and occupied by the student protesters-dynamiters and their girls" (17). This dichotomy is bothersome and pervasive.
The Futurological Congress makes most science fiction seem pale and laboured by comparison -- the only word to describe the book would be exuberant. Exuberant in invention, in linguistic innovation, in zany plot twists. Lem writes Tichy's hallucinations with great verve, and if the book itself is a type of drug, there are only pleasant after-effects.
Note: When I originally reviewed this book, the movie The Matrix had not been released. When I re-read The Futurological Congress, I was struck by many parallels between this book and the world of that movie. The Wachowski Brothers have always admitted that they borrowed liberally from the genre of science fiction; in one possibly coincidental similarity, Ijon Tichy is offered a choice of two pills by his girlfriend, one pill to make him forget the relationship and the other to make him commit more fully. The colour of the pills may differ (Lem uses black and white pills, while the famous choice of pills in The Matrix was between blue and red), but the book and the movie share many of the same concerns about reality and the nature of the self against the background of such reality flux.
First posted: May 17, 1998; Last modified: February 1, 2004
Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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