Friday, January 31, 2020

The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Heavily medicated humor
Polish author Stanislaw Lem is one of the most widely read and widely translated science fiction writers in the world. Best known as the author of Solaris, he enjoyed a productive and successful literary career spanning roughly half a century. His novel The Futurological Congress, published in 1971, is narrated by the scholar and space explorer Ijon Tichy, a recurring character in several of Lem’s works. Unlike Solaris, the Ijon Tichy stories are mostly satirically comic tales, as evidenced by The Futurological Congress, in which nearly every sentence drips with delightful black humor. The story Tichy tells is not only laugh-out-loud funny but also an oddly thought-provoking piece of speculative science fiction.

The subject of space travel is only mentioned in the first paragraph, as Tichy returns to Earth from who knows where in order to attend the Eighth World Futurological Congress in the fictional city of Nounas, the capital of Costa Rica. Scholars of many nations check into the Hilton to attend the delivery of countless papers theorizing upon the future of life on Earth. The conference takes place at an unspecified time in the near future. Thanks primarily to overpopulation, Earth’s problems—violence, crime, pollution, disease, energy shortages, hunger, etc.—have all escalated to horrific proportions. Tichy and his colleagues, however, seem to take each new misery as merely another everyday matter of course. Lem lampoons the stuffy, academic atmosphere of scholarly conferences while satirizing the lofty, futuristic utopian visions of the sci-fi genre. Tichy’s Earth is a third-world world where mayhem, filth, and bad taste are comically rampant.

The fact that armed rebels have threatened to disrupt the conference is viewed blasély by Tichy and his colleagues as an expected inconvenience. Only when the government bombs the hotel is the monotonous delivery of arcane scientific papers interrupted. Tichy suspects that the tap water in his hotel has been spiked with a chemical designed to inflict a more cheerful and benevolent demeanor upon him. When soldiers start hurling smoke bombs into the Hilton, Tichy discovers it’s not tear gas they’re slinging but more of these mood-changing “benignimizer” drugs. The myriad consciousness-altering possibilities of such “psychem” drugs soon becomes the primary focus of the book. Lem depicts a world where every mood, thought, and vision can be conjured through pharmaceutical means. The exaggerated absurdities compound when Tichy gets a glimpse into a future that the Eighth World Futurological Congress would never have predicted.

Translator Michael Handel deserves a medal for his work on the English edition of 1974. Much of the novel’s humor arises from Lem’s use of puns and invented words, including the names of dozens of fictional drugs such as opinionates, rhapsodines, or amnesol. This book must have been a nightmare to translate, but Handel’s English version reads beautifully with clear, lively prose that smartly delivers the laughs that Lem intended. Because of all the drugs involved, it is often quite difficult to figure out whether what you are reading is Tichy’s reality or simply a hallucination. While this in itself is one of the book’s funnier aspects, sometimes the jumping back and forth between the two can get a little tiresome. Lem relentlessly satirizes the conventions of science fiction by negating the gravity of his own narrative. Nevertheless, the future that Lem has constructed functions well as both a cautionary dystopia and a ridiculous farce. I enjoyed this book very much and look forward to reading the further adventures of Ijon Tichy.
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