Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Stanislaw Lem, Poland's premier science fiction author, writes science fiction in much the same way Kurt Vonnegut writes science fiction. He uses many of the tropes and buzz words of science fiction in a way which makes little internal sense in order to satirize contemporary society. Moreover, Much of Lem's writings, particularly his tales of Pirx the Pilot and Ijon Tichy, blend his satire with theater of the absurd. This strange, but functional, mixture can easily be seen in Lem's 1974 novel, The Futurological Congress, which follows Ijon Tichy on another of his myriad implausible adventures. Tichy was introduced in English in 1971 in Dzienniki Gwiazdowe (The Star Diaries), which chronicled twelve of Tichy's odd voyages. His Polish debut occured several years earlierin the 1950s.
In the same year, Lem published Kongres futurologiczny (The Futurological Congress), which detailed Tichy's journey to a meeting of futurists in Costa Rica. When a coup breaks out, Tichy finds himself drugged, shot, frozen, and awoken in the year 2039. Although the indiginous inhabitants view their society as practically utopic, Tichy views the world as anything but. Lem's New York of 2039 is built on the remains of the American capitalist system, something which strikes fear into the hearts of good socialists, as Tichy's character is.
More interesting is the role drugs play in the twenty-first century. Writing at a time when chemical research was giving the world LSD, Valium and similar widespread medications, Lem posits a future in which people can change their outlooks, personalities, etc. or get their educations via drug ingestion. In many ways, the reliance of drugs in The Futurological Congress presages the way many characters use software to augment themselves in modern cyberpunk novels. Tichy's reluctance to experiment with the various drugs, and his abhorence of their effects, serve as Lem's warning about the drug culture which was flourishing at the time he wrote the novel. These warnings, made nearly thirty years ago, still hold true for any addictive substance, whether drugs or technology.
As much to be creditted with this edition of The Futurological Congress as Stanislaw Lem, is Lem's long-time translator, Michael Kandel. Lem's book frequently resorts to the neologisms which Lem has created to help portray his odd-ball future. Kandel manages to translate these words well into English, frequently incorporating puns and double entendres into the work in keeping, I presume, with the feel of the original Polish text.
Even with Kandel's translations, Lem's writing is not the easiest in the world. Since he is using science fictional trappings without really writing science fiction, he frequently resorts to ideas which don't really have internal, let alone external logic. Because he is writing a novel of the absurd, events are not strictly tied to causes, and vice versa. Nevertheless, Lem writes with a humor underlined by his commentary on the way the world is, and he does so in a manner that The Futurological Congress is as appropriate in 1998 as it was in 1971.
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