BOOK REVIEW: “The Star Diaries” by Stanislaw Lem (1971)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 12/17/09

You know, I think I might be getting smarter. Well, realistically, that’s not possible - my neurology is pretty much locked-in at this stage in life, and in fact I’m loosing cells, but I’m better educated than I was, say, 15 years ago. I know more. If I’m not actually smarter, at least I’m thinking better - that’s got to count for something, right?

The reason I bring this up is that this is my second time reading Lem’s “The Star Diaries.” The first was about 15 years ago, give or take, and I flat out didn’t like it at that time. Yeah, it was funny-ish and thought provoking-ish, but it also offended the living hell out of me, and it’s pretty densely written, with stunning wordplay stacked atop stunning wordplay. It kind of wore me down, and I finished the book (I always finish books, even if I don’t like ‘em. That’s the benefit of being OCD), but I didn’t like it.

I finished it again last night, and I really can’t comprehend what sort of an idiot I must have been fifteen years back. Seriously, what struck me as an overwhelming and offensively comedic screed back then struck me as a jaunty and rewarding intellectual exercise in 2009. The dense literary style was charming and clever, and I found the bulk of it very entertaining and thought-provoking.

Obviously, I’ve grown quite a bit in the interim.

The book is basically a collection of twelve comedic short stories involving Ijon Tichy, a widely-traveled space explorer from the future, who wanders around the universe having various adventures. Lem began writing these stories in the 1940s and got bored with them in the late 1960s. Though the stories are numbered, and arranged in numerical order, the numbering is actually random and tacked on once the story was done. “The Seventh Voyage” was written in 1964 while “The Fourteenth Voyage” was written in 1957, “The Twenty-Second Voyage” was written in 1954, and so on. There’s deliberately little or no continuity between most of these stories, and much that happens in one deliberately contradicts everything in the others.

This actually works out to the book’s advantage, but more on that in a bit. Let’s take a look at the stories themselves:

“The Seventh Voyage” finds Tichy the victim of a broken rudder on his space ship, so he can’t change course. Fortunately, as his ship careens in to deep space, he goes through a region of temporal anomalies, and meets up with versions of himself from his own future, and versions of himself from previous pages. Rather than actually fix the rudder - which takes two people - they get in to repeated arguments about free will, the fixed nature of time, and an increasing number of fistfights over who gets the bacon and the last of the chocolate. As the temporal perturbations get worse, he’s confronted with a Schrodinger’s assortment of possible alternate future and alternate past versions of himself, which just necessitates the need to develop parliamentary procedures so that all the versions of himself can have their say, and to prevent the ever-increasing number of dustups between versions of himself. When all of this is resolved, Ijon says “I would prefer not to dwell any longer on these unpleasant memories; a man who for an entire week does noting but hit himself over the head has little reason to be proud.”

Depending on one’s tastes, this story is either screamingly hilarious or endlessly tedious, since we end up reading the same events over and over again from different perspectives. My first time through, when Clinton was president, I found it tedious. Nowadays, I find it hilarious, particularly when he’s trying to out-think and cheat time, and when they give up all pretense of causality in the second part.

“The Eighth Voyage” is the one that really turned me against the book lo those many years ago: Ijon is selected to be earth’s delegate to an alien galactic federation to discuss our possible membership in it. Once in the alien UN, he discovers a riot of different forms of life, and the comedy starts right in when, “What I had taken for a soft drink vending machine turned out to be the deputy chairman of the Rhohch delegation in full regalia.” An alien race who look a bit like pretzels (“He took a seat to the left and right of me”) have sponsored our potential membership for unclear reasons, and one of these sponsor aliens is trying to get Ijon to tell him something positive about Earth, to make it look good for the assembly. Typically, our wars-and-rumors-of-wars history looks pretty piss-poor, but eventually Ijon starts rattling out random platitudes, “We believe in universal brotherhood, in the triumph of peace and concord over hatred and war, we consider that man should be the measure of all things”
“Why man?” the alien sponsor asks, “Still, your catalog is negagive: the absence of war, the absence of hatred - by all that’s nebular, have you no positive ideals?”
Ultimately, it turns out we kinda’ don’t. We’re goofy that way.

The big twist comes when a delegate from another race says that humans from earth are *not* a new species, but already been scientifically chronicles as Monstroteratoru Furiosum, or “The Stinking Meemy.” Turns out that the assembly is offended by our carnivorous nature, by our very biology, though they do think Neanderthals would have fit in nicely, since they’re clearly superior to us.

The next big twist comes when one of the other races exposes the real reason our membership was sponsored by the pretzel-folk: It turns out THEY created life on earth, accidentally, when some of their cooks were dumping rotted trash on our otherwise-lifeless orb some billion years ago, and if they can get us membership the they won’t have to pay the hefty environmental impact fee.

This story turns out to be a dream sequence in the last paragraph, but back in the day it’s open blasphemies - which would make Douglas Adams blush - really turned me against it. I have somewhat thicker skin now, but it’s still pretty offensive in places.

“The Eleventh Voyage” finds Tichy volunteering to investigate the disappearance of a space freighter, “The Jonathan II,” which went missing quite a few years before. The last bit of known information was a space telegram that said:

Kempootar gun bzirck ass ho ass junyjantu

The radio operator, we’re told, “Was practically illiterate and in addition had a speech impediment.” They’re pretty sure the message was an SOS, however. Evidently the ship’s computer mutinied, found a planet, and set up shop there, creating a whole bunch of robots to rule.

Dressed as a robot himself, Tichy infiltrates the robotic civilization, which is disturbingly medieval and disturbingly violent (The freighter was carrying some books on the Marquis de Sade and some books on archaic grammar when the mutiny happened), and he’s quickly found out. Rather than kill him, however, the computer allows him to continue living so long as he swears fealty, and will out any other human spies. He quickly finds other human spies, who, of course, have already been outed, and who try to turn him in. But the whole robot society can’t just be humans in suits can it? Can it? The ending is a bit of an homage to The Wizard of Oz, only funnier. The moral of the story? “It’s comforting to know, when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard.”

“The Twelfth Voyage” (Sic) finds Tichy crash-landing on a stone-aged planet, following a hilarious run-in with some “Space Gypsies.” Owing to an unfortunate accident with a machine that speeds up time, Tichy is rendered more-or-less immortal while civilization grows up on the planet around him in cut time. There’s a fairly hysterical (and short!) parody of the march of history, which Tichy throws in to reverse when it goes in directions that don’t suit Tichy.

“The Thirteenth Voyage” involves Tichy leaving earth to find the famed “Master Oh,” the greatest sage the universe has ever known. While en rout, Tichy encounters a storm which magnetizes everything in the ship, including the iron bits on his shoes. “Rooted to the steel floor, I couldn’t take a step to reach the cupboard where the food was. The prospect of death by starvation loomed before me, but I remembered that I had a copy of The Astronaut’s Handbook in my pocket, and, pulling it out, read that in such situations one ought to remove one’s shoes. This done, I returned to my studies.”
This done, he’s captured by a civilization of land-dwelling humanoids who are, for no adequately explained reason, attempting to evolve in to fish. They insist on pretending they can breathe water, they live in under-sea cities with their rooms half-filled with water, and when Ijon complains, he’s sent to a political prison, only to be later freed by a political coup, and then arrested again by a countercoup. There’s some very spot-on criticisms of Soviet-Styled communism here, and frankly I’m surprised Lem got away with it. (He was living in Communist Poland). Eventually escaping there, he’s immediately captured by yet another Communist-parody planet, this one founded on interchangeability and the utter destruction of the ego. This one actually really freaks out the normally easy-going Tichy (Who can generally find something positive to say about nearly any species), and upon finding out that this planet was considered Master Oh’s greatest work, he instantly is repulsed by the sage and heads home.

“The Fourteenth Voyage” has Tichy visiting a planet he read about to go hunting. It’s a planet of blobs. At the customs office: “Are you a mammal, sir?“ Tichy allows as how he is. “Oh, very well then! Happy Mammaling!“ A certain word - scrupt - keeps coming up in conversation, but even the encyclopedia doesn’t know what it means, and none of the locals will tell him, as it has *something* to do with marital relations. His attempts to find out result in security being called on him every time. Eventually he goes hunting “Squamp,” a local creature that can only be killed from the inside, and gets himself eaten, only to discover the blobs evolved as intestinal parasites in these creatures. Once again, as in the previous story, the nature of identity is raised when people keep getting killed and are replaced by exact duplicates with all their memories intact.

“The Twentieth Voyage” once again finds Ijon meeting a future version of himself - a time traveler from the 26th century, who says that Ijon must take his time travel machine and head in to the future. Reluctantly Ijon does so, leaving the future version of himself in the present. In the future, Ijon discovers he’s been made the head of a massive temporal refurbishment project who’s goal is to ‘straighten out’ history and otherwise fix all those mistakes and wrong turns of history before they ever got started. This, of course, goes horribly wrong almost immediately, with technical malfunctions rendering most of the newly-created solar system uninhabitable (Athena, a duplicate earth, broke up in to the asteroid belt, the moon, which was supposed to be a pleasant oasis, inadvertently got bombed, Mars ended up being too small to even hold on to an atmosphere, and is of no use whatsoever…) and things get even worse when they get around to recorded history, with various department heads fighting over their pet projects, usurping their authority, and then being banished to periods of history as various historical figure. “Aristotle” is “Harris Doddle,” for instance, and Bosh included a picture of a 12-seat time traveling bus in his painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” in the center of the “Musical Hell” Triptych. (See if you can find it here http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f2/GardenED_edit1.jpg ). Tichy later explains this whole thing thusly, “The fangs and claws of evolution, then, simply reflect the infighting that went on in the department….This is why we have so many blind alleys in the kingdom of living things.” Ultimately, he gets booted from the job, and is sent back in time, where he has to convince himself to take the job in order to avoid a paradox.

This story is the kind of thing that’s a whole lot funnier if you’re an atheist than if you’re a believer. Indeed, a lot of it is really hilarious - Ijon’s plans for the solar system - but the notion that he ended up more or less creating humanity and history is the kind of thing that isn’t intended to be taken seriously, but still will offend many. Indeed, it offended me back in the day, though now I was able to enjoy a lot more of it simply because I’ve matured to the point where I can just take it in the spirit in which it’s intended.

“The Twenty-First Voyage” picks up where the previous one left off, in one of the rare bits of internal continuity in the series, and finds Ijon landing on a planet of people who were once indistinguishable from us, but who discovered biological engineering, and thence transformed themselves in every way possible. This story is extremely philosophical, serious, offensive in places, thought-provoking, and not a damn bit funny. Most of it finds Ijon talking to some robot monks living in the sewers of a ruin on the planet.

They tell him that, “The mind has fashioned for itself in history many different models of God, holding each in turn to b the one and ony truth, but this is a mistake, for modeling means codification, and a mystery codified ceases to be a mystery.”
Shortly thereafter they reveal that the advance of science inevitably means civilization will reach a point where “There is no distinction whatever between natural and artificial; that now lies behind us.”

They later say that, “The vision of heaven as a bank account and hell as a debtors prison represents a momentary aberration in the history of the faith. Theodicy is not a course in sophistry to train defenders of the Good Lord, and faith doesn’t mean telling people that everything will work out in the end.”

Though these people have no need for religion, and have reached a point where eternal life is available just by going to the store and buying it, the Robots state that “Faith is, at one and the same time, absolutely necessary and altogether impossible.” The Robot Monks are persecuted by the authorities, because, “Belief is the only thing that cannot be taken from a conscious entity, so long as that entity consciously cleaves to it. The authorities could not only crush us, they could reprogram us completely out of our belief; they do not do this, I am sure, through contempt or else indifference. It is mastery that they want, pure and simple, and any gap in that mastery must represent to them its diminution.”

That’s a pretty solid criticism of most government and political movements, frankly!

Later on they discuss the nature of faith and the nature of evil, saying a few things that are very interesting and worth discussion, but probably not on this site. Then they go on to discuss the effect of instant biological engineering and duplication on human emotions. “When it is possible to duplicate the one you love, there is no more loved one, only a mockery of love.” My favorite line from the story is this: “When it is possible to become anyone at all and hold whatever convictions you like, then you are already no one and can hold no convictions.”

More quotes:

“There are gifts of God we can accept without resistance and gifts we are unable to assume.”

“There are no demons, if you do not count the demon of freedom”

“The guarantee of [God’s] existence represents an oasis, a place of rest, an easy chair for the spirit, and it is precisely in volumes of religious history that you will find, above all else, a constant, age-old, desperate, all-out effort of the mind bordering on insanity, to accumulate arguments and proofs for His existence and, when those inevitably crumble, to take the bits and chips and raise them anew.”

“You believe by doubting, and doubt by believing”

Ultimately, he leaves, a very changed man.

“The Twenty-Second Voyage” has Tichy loosing his penknife on a planet somewhere, and then going on a mad dash through an alien solar system looking for it, where he encounters various short Swiftian adventures, culminating with a tale of a Catholic priest who was attempting to convert the heathen aliens, and kept talking about martyrdom so much that the aliens - good hosts, after all - decided to kill him, since it clearly was what he really wanted.

“The Twenty-Third Voyage” involves visiting a planet where a form of Transporter is in common usage, and has caused all kinds of weird changes in society.

“The Twenty-Fifth Voyage” tells the tale of how Tichy attempted - and repeatedly failed - to meet his friend Tarantoga for the frist time. We’re given some more Swiftian vignettes, about a freighter that crashed on a planet carrying Potatoes. The cargo survived, prospered, developed a form of space flight, and began to prey on passing spacecraft. There’s lengthy epistemological arguments as to whether the potato pirates actually exist or not, and schools of philosophy develop around it, but no one ever really bothers to go and check it out for a ludicrously long time. Eventually, a plan is developed, but “The whole plan hinged upon the natural curiosity of potatoes.” There’s another pretty funny one about a race obsessed with astronomy, another about a race who perform “Smell Symphonies” with a full orchestra of “Nasologists”, and a weird little aside about creatures living on a molten planet who argue that life couldn’t arise on earth because it’s too cold, and there’s not enough ammonia in the atmosphere. They also discuss their love lives - they have five genders - and the situation that unfortunately arise when you don‘t have a full five some: “We call it the tragic quadrangle, or unrequited love.”

This is a pretty sloppy and disjointed early story, with practically no ‘connective tissue’ between the vignettes, and the vignettes themselves are little more than gags. Also, Tarrantoga has been in numerous earlier stories, though I suppose with all the time travel involved we can just ignore that continuity error. In fact, it’s probably deliberate.

“The Twenty-Eighth Voyage” is the least satisfying of the collection, and the most convoluted. It reads more like an Italo Calvino story, really. Bottom line: Ijon is on a long space voyage by himself, gradually loosing his mind, and attempting to record his family history as a ‘message in a bottle’ which he’ll later throw overboard in the unlikely case someone finds it. His entire family history, of course, is a collection of insane people and cannibals, including one uncle who felt that reproduction was too important to be left up to lust, so he invented a powder that not only turned off ones’ sex-drive, it made it actively unpleasant, as though being scalded, to have sex. It does, however, offer one of my favorite lines from the entire book, “The best argument in defense of a theory is the police. Regrettably, he didn’t have his own and hence came to a bad end.”

Ultimately the story degenerates into an increasingly incoherent account of his own father loosing his mind on a long trip and attempting to combat this by creating imaginary friends and family, which Tichy later writes down, suddenly realizing that either he or his father is fictional, but unsure which.

The End.

There’s a lot of great stuff in here, the author is funny, smart, erudite, and insightful, but being a Polish Jewish Communist Atheist, obviously a lot of that brilliance is shaped in to barbs aimed squarely at my own beliefs. That said, he also bites the hand that feeds him on occasion, and while he’s squarely on the other side of the fence, he is at least introspective enough to question his own commitments quite thoroughly. For instance, the episode with the monks has the character of a man who’s trying actively to figure out what sort of God he can believe in, even if he needs to invent One for himself. There’s a lot of soul-searching, much more than one generally finds in an atheist, and many of his religious insights in that one story are…well, if you’re interested in religion like I am, and you’ve occasionally been a member of other religions like I have, then it’s utterly fascinating. If, however, you are not now, nor have ever been a heretic, I would strenuously avoid reading it, because it’s the kind of thing that would make most people loose their faith, and parts of it would likely make ‘em loose their lunch.

Yeah, yeah, I know there’s those of you who’ll take that as a dare, I was one of those too, but I’m really not trying to reverse-psychologically trick you in to reading a blasphemous book, this is a legitimate warning. Unless you’re the kind of guy who - like me - has lost and found several faiths at several different times in your life - and let’s face it, that’s pretty damn rare, so the odds are you’re *not* like me in this regard - I’d say that if you’re a Christian, you should stay away from it.

I’d like to say a few words praising the translator. Lem was, of course, writing in Polish, a language that’s not at all related to English, and yet the translator - Michael Kandel - does a masterful and brilliant job not only of telling us what Lem said, but giving us a feel for how he said it. There are all manner of plays on words, clever double entendres, subtle shifts of meaning. Seriously, it’s the best translation of anything from another language that I’ve ever read, and Kandel deserves no end of praise for that.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Atheists might enjoy it, but Social Conservatives and Religious Conservatives should probably stay away.

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