. . . I assure you, in a couple of years everyone will consider the possession of a soft, hairy, sweating body to be shameful and indecent. A body needs washing, deodorizing, caring for, and even then it breaks down, while in a prostheticized society you can slap on the loveliest creations of modern engineering, What woman doesn’t want to have silver iodide instead of eyes, telescopic breasts, angel’s wings, iridescent legs, and feet that sing with every step?
The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem has been on my list for a long time, as he’s often mentioned alongside leading lights of New Wave Sci-Fi like Phillip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, and Ursula Le Guin. He also wrote the novel Solaris, which was made into the beautiful film by Andrei Tarkovsky. But I was warded off that novel by reports that there’s no good English translation available. That’s thankfully not the case with The Futurological Congress. I’m in no position to tell for sure, but it seems like something of a miracle on the part of translator Michael Kandel that it reads so well, since it’s stuffed with puns and neologisms.
The story is fairly simple: Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy attends the Eighth Futurological Congress, a meeting of scientific luminaries, at a resort hotel in Costa Rica to discuss (highly unorthodox, to say the least) approaches to world problems, where he soon finds himself in the middle of a battle between revolutionaries and repressive government forces. Since weaponized hallucinogens are a key tactic in this war, this is where the book starts to get weird, before it gets really weird. Tichy is fatally injured, or nearly so, and put in cryonic sleep (which is actually narrated) until a future society arrives with the technology to restore him to health. The rest of the novel is the stranger’s description of the strange land in which he now finds himself.
This is a zany kaleidoscope of a novel. There are so many clever little inventions, on nearly every page: books are digested rather than read, people vote on the weather, linguists attempt to predict the future through an analysis of “the transformational possibilities of the language” (it is explained that the word “robot” would have been a nonsense word in the 15th-century, but if somebody had discovered it, they would have easily predicted automata (Rene Descartes did in fact do this, though in the next century and without the word), so you get scientists imagining possible words (ex: “macrotrashm,” a universe made of garbage) as possible worlds; I believe there’s supposed to be a comment on the art of science fiction here, but if there’s anything to the idea, I’d suggest contemporary futurolinguists get to work investigating Finnegans Wake), and above all a galaxy of specialized hallucinogens which offer fantasies of all possible variety, every kind of heaven and hell, are administered both with and without the consent of the governed.
I looked, petrified at the transformation taking place, realizing in a sudden shudder of a premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer—clearly, its falsification had begun so long ago that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth.
I don’t want to describe too many of the innovations, because the real fun in reading this book is seeing Lem throw out so many ideas, all of them strange but most of them not entirely implausible, and any one of which would have served as the sole driver of a story by a less clever writer. When you step back, however, and consider the novel more globally in terms of its themes and the overall arc of the story, you won’t find anything that hasn’t been previously explored by Aldous Huxley or Phillip K Dick (of course the basic idea is as old as Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes). That doesn’t mean that the book is in any way predictable. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so relentlessly tries to shift the ground from under the reader’s feet. Any new revelation is bound to morph again within a few pages or so. This sounds as though it could be tiresome, but somehow it isn’t. The exception may be the revelation of the final page, which I did guess at ahead of time, yet it still seemed the most appropriate ending.
The question we are left with is the same as Huxley raised in Brave New World, which he described in a later introduction as the problem of “the modern Procrustes” (which Lem slyly references by having a company called Procrustics, Inc.). Procrustes was a villain defeated by ancient Greek hero Theseus (who stalks me in my dreams and is fated to liberate my head from my body), a torturer that attempted to fit victims to an iron bed. Those too short he stretched, those too tall he amputated. This is discovered in the modern era as an image of science, which ought to be our tool but is instead our torturer. How is science going to stretch or amputate us in the future? How much alteration can we take and remain human? Does our survival and happiness depend on us bidding a final farewell to the ideas of nature and reality?
Another theme in this highly imaginative book is the impact that imagination has on the future. Can it help us solve our problems or does it just help us invent new ways to avoid those problems, along with creating new ones? Like the best science fiction, The Futurological Congress awes us not just in the strangeness of its future but the strangeness of the fact that we are living in a future, one that had been at the same time imagined, not imagined, and perhaps unimaginable:
Averroës, Kant, Socrates, Newton, Voltaire, could any of them have believed it possible that in the twentieth century the scourge of cities, the poisoner of lungs, the mass murderer and idol of millions would be a metal receptacle on wheels, and that people would actually prefer being crushed to death inside it during frantic weekend exoduses instead of staying, safe and sound, at home?
That image of the (unnamed) automobile as a lethal “metal receptacle on wheels” is an example of what critics, following Russian theorist Viktor Shlovsky, call “defamiliarization,” or “estrangement,” in which everyday objects and acts are rendered alien through surprising description. Poetry makes the most extensive use of the technique. Wallace Stevens, in “The Auroras of Autumn” describing the appearance of stars at night: “Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.” But it is also everywhere in science fiction (more so, I think, than other fiction, where there is a greater emphasis on mimesis). Phillip K Dick, the most original genius in sci-fi, was especially great in this respect. Usually we experience defamiliarization through the use figurative language to describe ordinary things, as in the Stevens example. But in a very short and funny story, “The Eyes Have It,” Dick uses literal interpretation to defamiliarize typical (that is, cliche) figurative language. The narrator reads a story that he interprets as describing an invading alien species, with detachable eyes that “roved about the room,” and “moved from person to person.” He reads such ordinary phrases as “we split up,” as descriptions of the aliens’ capacity for “binary fission,” and literally understands that characters had “no guts,” or “no brains.”
Habit makes our everyday lives dull, but it takes the imagination, which is nowhere employed more radically than in literature, to remind us how weird our world really is.
I’m getting a little afield of my subject, except to say that imagination, in this novel and in “real” life, is at once our salvation and damnation. We never, in fact leave the imagination. “What is now prov’d,” says Blake, “was once only imagined.” And once it is proved, it recedes into the background, becoming nothing to us. Until the imagination rekindles (or unfreezes) it. Take a look, it’s in a book. This book ends on a completely apt image, of a scientist’s manuscript (a symbol not of the imagination, since it is scientific and not poetic, but rather of humanity’s attempt to attain understanding and thus control of the bewildering cosmos) slipping out of his hands and drifting away into chaotic waters.