“The Cyberiad” by Stanislaw Lem

This is basically a collection of short stories, each starring one or both of a famous pair of “constructor robots,” named Trurl and Klapaucius, who can build machines to do pretty much whatever they want.  Frequently their creations have unintended consequences.  Here’s a list of some of the more memorable / clever stories:

  • “How the World Was Saved” – Trurl creates a machine that can produce anything beginning with ‘n.’  Disaster narrowly avoided when Klapaucius asks it to create “Nothing…” for true Nothingness cannot exist while anything else does.
  • “The Trap of Gargantius” – Atrocitus and Ferocitus are rival kings.  Our two constructor robot heroes separately enter the employ of one of the kings.  Their plan for peace is to network all the machines and soldiers of each army, basically creating a single, gigantic consciousness.  The kings think it is great – no more unnecessary delay and confusion due to too many cooks stirring the pot; maybe finally this will give them the edge they need to crush their enemies!  But finally, when the two giant army-consciousnesses meet on the field of battle, they want to do anything but fight.  Funny how it is easier for two individuals to come to peace but so difficult for nations….  [First of all this story reminded me of the Army’s recent FCS program – maybe it’s a good thing that didn’t work out too well!  Second, it is reminiscent of the Christmas Day truce and other such incidents from WWI and I am sure other conflicts – the soldiers on either side generally have more in common with each other than either side’s soldiers do with their own politicians back home who command the fight.]
  • “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” – Trurl’s machine must simulate the entire history of the universe in order to create decent poetry.  [That poetry is the product of the whole chain of events in the universe leading up to the present moment says a lot about the difficulties of creating thinking machines.  Also interesting to me as one who has done a bit of modeling and simulation – simulating the universe is an amusing fantasy that would likely require more resources than the universe itself contains.]
  • “The Mischief of King Balerion” – funny story about a half-crazy king who likes to play hide-and-seek and a device which permits its wearer to switch bodies with anyone else.  Hilarity ensues, obviously!
  • “How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good” – A cruel king has been exiled to an asteroid and is very bored.  Even though his punishment is just, Trurl feels sorry for him and so creates a simulated civilization-in-a-box to rule.  But his simulation is so perfect it amounts to sentencing the whole population to enslavement.  When Trurl realizes this and hurries back to the asteroid, the people have already rebelled.  [Thoughts about video games – at what point is murder of an AI in a game morally wrong?]
  • “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius” – Lots of layers; stories within stories and at least one of those about dreams within dreams.  “We should like the first to tell stories that are involved but untroubled, the second, stories that are cunning and full of fun, and the third, stories profound and compelling.   In other words, to (1) exercise, (2) entertain and (3) edify the mind.”  [I like that kind of classification … maybe I should choose books to read in the future in such a fashion…]  One story “profound and compelling” is that of Mymosh, a robot who spontaneously comes into being on an abandoned scrap heap planet due to a highly improbable but random configuration of junk.  Quickly immobilized, but with a mind fully formed, Mymosh imagines a whole civilization, populating generations upon generations.  Finally, after many years, rust breaks through to his ad hoc processing unit, water shorts his circuits, and it is all over in an instant.
  • “Altruzine” – Klapaucius creates a machine to simulate the universe [hmmm sounds familiar] in order to interrogate a member of the H.P.L.D. civilization – the Highest Possible Level of Development.  All the H.P.L.D.’s do is sit around doing nothing – for nothing is left to prove or strive for.  But why don’t they help others?  They relate many instances of trying and always failing due to imperfection of mortals.  As an example, they give him formula for Altruzine and tell him to see for himself.  The potent drug causes one’s own emotions to be transmitted telepathically to all those within a certain radius.  The goodly intention is to cause universal peace and brotherhood, since rational individuals would only treat others very well, since they themselves would experience the emotions of those whom they interact with.  However, instead of peace and goodwill, the opposite occurs – for example, when a cook burns his finger, a nearby soldier cleaning a gun causes it to discharge, killing his wife and kids.  The soldier’s grief is so strong that a neighbor burns down the whole building just to be free of it all.  Which doubtless creates further ripples of disharmony and discord.

Entertaining stories which make you think.

The translation from Polish must have been monumental task – good job, Michael Kandel.  There are an incredible number of coined words and wordplay like alliteration and rhyming — all pretty difficult to translate.  Here’s an example passage, describing members of a particularly well-off civilization:

…<each> sat in his palace, which was built for him by his automate (for so they called their triboluminescent slaves), each with essences anointed, each with precious gems appointed, electrically caressed, impeccably dressed, pomaded, braided, gold-brocaded, lapped and laved in ducats gleaming, wrapped and wreathed in incense streaming, showered with treasures, plied with pleasures, marble halls, fanfares, balls, but for all that, strangely discontent and a little depressed.

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