Stanislaw Lem—The Futurological Congress (1971, transl. Michael Kandel, 1974)

The inaugural review! (really I’m not planning to start the quest proper until the week after next, but I read The Futurological Congress on a flight today and I’m excited to talk about it)

So I picked up this novel because I’ve read parts of Lem’s Cyberiad (which I’m planning to read in its entirety for this project) and I enjoy his style, plus all of his concepts are just so dang appealing to me. I considered doing Solaris, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, The Invincible, or even Tales of Pirx the Pilot, but my mind was made up for me when I found The Futurological Congress in my favorite used bookstore.

The novel makes for a decent start to the quest: it’s a fun, good, worthwhile book, but there are still places to go from here.

The book is about visions of the future, reality and illusion, overpopulation, and drugs. Lots and lots of drugs (but more interesting drugs than what you’re thinking!) It starts with the titular Futurological Congress; a bunch of scientists have gathered to propose lofty and theoretical solutions to the problems of humankind, all against a backdrop of violent political crisis and revolution (Lem is great at ironies like this). The scientists end up in the middle of the conflict, and after the government bombs the area with hallucinogenic chemicals, our narrator, Ijon Tichy, goes through a series of visions, gets shot and cryogenically frozen, and then wakes up in a utopian (actually dystopian, obviously) future, where he remains for the rest of the novel.

The first thing about this book is that it’s very funny! If nothing else, Lem is incredibly clever, and a great satirist. My overall impression of the book was that it’s kind of like a Hieronymous Bosch painting; lots of clever details, moments and vignettes, which don’t necessarily form one vivid image; Lem provides us with a stream of concepts, ideas, and parodies of ideas, and while some of these have a payoff to the novel as a whole, some are kind of just there, and some just don’t quite do it for me. Overall, though, these concepts are worth thinking about or appreciating. I almost feel like the book could be read like a series of prose poems or micro essays; you could flip through and read each particular discussion or scene in isolation and get a good kick out of it.

One particular gem is the “papalshooter,” a devout catholic who wants to kill the pope in a fit of religious martyrdom. Another is when Tichy’s friend Professor Trottelreiner explains “futurolinguistics,” the science of predicting possible futures by making up words and then tacking on definitions; this one works particularly well because these kinds of Lewis Carol-esque language games (anyone who enjoys Alice in Wonderland will probably get a kick out of this novel) seem to be the driving force behind a lot of the ideas in the novel’s utopian future. You could even take this as an interesting metafictional moment, with Trottelreiner as a stand in for the author explaining his technique. A reading in which Tichy represents the reader and Trottelreiner the author could produce some interesting results.

(Hats off to Michael Kandel by the way, for translating what may amount to hundreds of coinages from Polish to English. That must have been a nightmare)

Another thing about the novel’s somewhat stream-of-consciousness approach is that it risks being one note. In some ways it is; there isn’t much of a plot, and there is almost no real character development. However, the novel is by no means flat, since it has a good mix of humor, horror, thought experiments, and even some very poignant moments. I found Tichy’s first run in with hallucinogens to be really poetic, disturbing, comical, and philosophically interesting all at once.

As for female characters, this is a point of failure; I think only one or two women are ever even named, and most of the women in the novel are eye-candy or fashion/sex objects. Women are just part of the scenery. To be fair, there are hardly any characters to begin with, but it would have been nice to at the very least have a female scientist or two, just as an acknowledgement that women are here participating in the world.

As for monsters, they’re not really a significant part of the plot, but there was mention of surrealist zoology, which, as a lover of both surrealism and zoology, I found delightful. I agree with Tichy that the luminigriff, a cross between a glowworm, a seven-headed dragon, and a mastodon “seems especially promising,” (96).

I thought the ending was a little disappointing; I suspected it was coming but I hoped I was wrong. Doesn’t detract from all the enjoyable moments along the way, of course.

Overall, The Futurological Congress is clever, funny, and thought-provoking, if not particularly life changing. I’d say it’s worth seeking out a copy for if you ever want an entertaining and engaging way to kill a few hours.

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