Sunday, May 14, 2017

Staff Review: The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem
I’m glad I decided to check out this little book of short stories called The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem. I’ve read Lem’s The Futurological Congress and rate it as one of my favorite books, so felt optimistic going in that these further adventures of Ijon Tichy, the space traveler and hero of The Futurological Congress, would be just as outlandishly cartoonish yet frighteningly plausible.

First off, I don’t know how translator Michael Kandel does it. These stories are masterfully translated from the original Polish. The force of the language — the beauty, the puns, the made-up jargon — comes through clearly in the English translation. Only a truly gifted translator could do this. I’ve read the English version of Lem’s most well-known work, Solaris, notoriously translated from a poor French translation, and had to force my way through it. The Star Diaries tales are mind-melting, playful, satirical, and sometimes dark. None of the fun creative wordplay came through in Solaris.

Lem’s been likened to Bach for the artistry with which he constructs his stories and to Einstein for his sweeping intellect — comparisons certainly ripe for scrutiny. I can say that Lem’s mind works on a different level from many of us mere mortals. Tichy’s adventures are a vehicle for Lem’s scientific and philosophical speculation. He often uses other planets and life forms to illustrate an outsider’s view of human behavior or to show how similar intelligent beings evolve far in the future, seamlessly bringing to light many of our foibles. Understanding the scientific jargon or made-up words (both of which are liberally used and often mixed together) isn’t essential to enjoying the stories. The stories are dense, but completely readable and a lot of fun. There are puns-a-plenty thrown around and each re-reading brings about more snorts and chuckles.

To show what one is in for, I’ll share bits from two of my favorite stories. Time slips are always ripe for good humor. The first story in the book is probably the funniest of this kind that I’ve ever read. Ijon Tichy finds himself having to fix a rudder on his one-man rocket ship, a job that takes two. After going through a gravitational field Monday, he’s awakened by the Ijon Tichy from Tuesday. Several time slips later, things turn to chaos as the ship fills up with Tichys from various days of the week and they quarrel over fixing the rudder. It’s not really even necessary to keep things straight as the story moves maddeningly and hilariously forward.

In one of his more satirical/philosophical stories, Tichy finds himself on a distant planet, whose dominant life forms bear many similarities to homo sapiens. Most of the revealing and interesting information about this world comes from the history books being read by our protagonist. One example, illustrating humans’ endless desire for ‘more,’ deals with the inhabitants’ physical “enhancements.” When science has advanced so that people can have whatever appearance they wish, naturally people get restless (see Lem’s humorous illustration of an “Octabod”— a skeleton with 8 legs). The physical and monstrously cartoonish characters that eventually inhabit the planet no longer resemble us, but are eerily within the realm of reason.

These fantastic stories, written in the late 50s through early 70s, will muster up questions pertinent to technological issues we face today. They can be simultaneously frightening and hilarious. In terms of style, Lem has been compared to Borges, Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick, among others. His stories share elements with these authors but are still entirely Lem. This book is definitely not for everyone, but fans of satire, scientific speculation, and unconventional stories should love it.

~Ben, Adult Services

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