“Bringing his twin gifts of scientific speculation and scathing satire to bear on that hapless planet, Earth, Lem sends his unlucky cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, to the Eighth Futurological Congress. Caught up in local revolution, Tichy is shot and so critically wounded that he is flashfrozen to await a future cure. Translated by Michael Kandel.”
The Polish Sci-Fi writer Stanislaw Lem is best known for his novel ‘Solaris’, which has been adapted for the big screen twice, first in the early 70’s by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovski and thirty years later by Steven Soderbergh. If ‘Solaris’ was all you knew of Lem’s work you could be forgiven for thinking his brand of sci-fi was not only more philosophy than phasers, but fairly serious, dry stuff as well. That would be a misleading impression as a number of his other books display a cutting satirical edge as well as Douglas Adams like, almost Wodehousian, comic sensibility - sensibilities that are displayed in his 1971 novella “The Futurological Congress’.
Structurally, ‘The Futurological Congress’ is a mess. The opening twenty or thirty pages are set in a Costa Rica struggling to hold a scientific congress on the population explosion, at the same time as a violent revolutionary uprising is doing it’s best to alleviate the problem. The writing here is Lem at his most impish, with the humour becoming quite farcical, to the point where the plot becomes so subservient that you almost lose sight of it.
However, it is once the main character, Ijon Tichy, has been shot, frozen, and then revived in the year 2039, that all semblance of story is cast to the wind. From here on in, the book becomes a maze of ideas, some more serious than others; as Tichy finds himself in a world the inhabitants view through the prism of psychotropic drugs supplied by a totalitarian state. As Tichy learns more he discovers the population exist in a false reality of an artificial world, feeling artificial emotions, and speaking an artificially enhanced language.
So far this is fairly standard stuff, quite reminiscent of something like ‘The Matrix’. Given this book was written in 1971 it may well of been an inspiration for that film, although probably via the well-read Grant Morrison, whose comic strip ‘The Invisibles’ was one of the Wachowski Brothers most obvious ‘influences’. But Lem goes much further and deeper with his ideas than could be expressed in a Hollywood film, as further layers of doubt and artifice are added, till the possibility that Itchy has never left the present day starts to emerge. As you near the end, you start to question everything you have read and wonder how many of the ideas Lem has introduced are part of the books reality and how many are mere smoke and mirrors.
‘The Futurological Congress’ is a book rich in ideas and humour, but is structurally unsatisfying, and with some of the wordplay surrounding the development of language descending into a conveyor belt of puns. But the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad, for a writer who is sadly overlooked, even by fans of the genre – a recent trip to ‘Forbidden Plant’ revealed just one book by Lem in stock.
As an interesting footnote, having been written in the early 70’s, Lem depicts the future as being several degrees cooler. “The New Ice Age” having been the predicted ecological disaster at that time.
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