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After All: Cheered up by a Munchausen of the space era

Image credit: Rex Features

To beat the ennui of the partial lockdown, our columnist opens a virtual book club for E&T readers and would love for you to join the conversation.

Let’s face it: Covid-19 is not going away any time soon, and the only thing we can do under the circumstances is to keep living our lives as close to normal as possible.

In my ‘After All’ columns in April-July 2020, when we all had to endure forced immobility, I invited you to resort to armchair travels of memory and imagination by offering some of my own peripatetic recollections and inviting you to share yours.

Your response exceeded all expectations, which made me think that my simple gimmick had worked.

The continuing lockdown (even if partial, so far), however, made me start looking for yet another way of escaping the oppressive pandemic reality. I considered for a while and then discarded a strong drinks option, which could indeed deliver a short period of escape (read: oblivion), but only until the following morning. In the end, I opted not for the booze, but the books solution, for lockdown is an ideal opportunity to catch up on your reading. From the onset of the pandemic, a couple of my friends have been busy ploughing through the full collection of works by Dickens and striving to complete the sixth (and last) volume of the seemingly endless ‘War and Peace’ epic (I have reason to believe that Tolstoy himself did not read it to the very end).  

But let’s bring in the reading matter bound to be particularly attractive to engineers. I am talking about the so-called ‘techno literature’ (a term that I have just invented), or, to be more specific, ‘techno satire’ (ditto), and would define the latter as works of literary fiction which satirise humankind’s problems using technology, engineering and science as their subject matter.

The most famous perpetrators of that genre are probably Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and the unforgettable Douglas Adams, whose expression “Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet” is often misattributed to Oscar Wilde.

In some of my future columns, however, I want to introduce you to several lesser-known ‘techno satirists’, who never fail to cheer me up in the times of crises. Well, it works for me, so it should work for you too, or so I hope...

I will try to focus on one or two books per column, making sure that they are available in the UK in English translation, and will eventually expect to hear your opinions about them.

So, while everything around us is closing, I am happy to open a ‘Let’s Beat the Lockdown Virtual Book Club’, no less!

Our first ‘session’ is devoted to ‘The Star Diaries’ by Stanislaw Lem, an acclaimed Polish philosopher and science-fiction writer, whose witty and meaningful stories I have adored since childhood.

By the age of 12 I had read a lot of science fiction, but this book, borrowed for me by my physicist dad from the local ‘House of Scientists’ library, literally swept me off my feet. I lay on the sofa for hours on end devouring ‘The Star Diaries’ (in a Russian translation, no doubt), my frequent outbursts of laughter leaving my parents seriously concerned about my sanity.

Such was Lem’s popularity in the Soviet Union that a university mate of mine had specially learned Polish to be able to read some of the writer’s original books, which were published in Poland but failed to pass the rigorous test of Soviet censorship.

My father loved Lem’s ‘Solaris’ – a powerful futuristic tale of an intelligent ocean on the distant eponymous planet, the ocean capable of reading and recreating the astronauts’ innermost desires and dreams. Andrei Tarkovsky, a brilliant Russian film director, made ‘Solaris’ into a stunning dystopian movie, raising such momentous human issues as love, loss and eternity.

Just like the seemingly ubiquitous and all-permeating Covid-19, Lem’s ‘intelligent ocean’ was sinister and treacherous: it drove people insane by recreating their innermost dreams and thus taking over their internal world.    

As for ‘The Star Diaries’, the book’s protagonist, Ijon Tichy, was a loquacious fabricator adventurer of the future, a Baron Munchausen of the space era, so to speak.

A cheerful and nonchalant space pilot, fond of hanging his wet spacesuit out of the porthole to dry, he was seemingly capable of surviving the most astounding ordeals: from being disintegrated into his constituent elements to flying through a series of ‘gravitational storms’ that twisted time and being endlessly reduplicated in a time loop. He ended up arguing on Friday with his previous self from Thursday about which one of them got the spacesuit that he needed to wear on Saturday, not to mention which day of the week’s self stole the chocolate from the spaceship’s dwindling supplies.

Hilarious and unputdownable, the book nevertheless raises some very serious existential, environmental and political issues, including those of totalitarianism versus democracy. In one of the journeys, Tichy visits the planet Abrazia, the whole economy of which is run by one huge dragon – a rather transparent allegory of the Soviet Union.

Once, in 1996, I came close to interviewing Stanislaw Lem face-to-face. I was making a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Polish ‘Wodka’ in Krakow, the city where Lem then lived, and our Polish fixer got hold of his home telephone number. Lem’s wife, who answered the phone, told me in stilted English that “Mr Lem was not very well” and added that he didn’t speak any English at all, but would see me and give me a short interview in German. With just one useful German sentence: “Ich spreche kein deutsch!” at my disposal, I had to politely refuse her offer.

Several days later, already back in London, I suddenly remembered that Lem also spoke fluent Russian (I had heard his interview to a Moscow radio station while still in the USSR). I should have suggested that, of course! But it was too late.

One of my life’s biggest disappointments will always be the failure – due to my own stupidity – to meet the great Stanislaw Lem, who passed away in Krakow in 2006. 

‘The Star Diaries’, by Stanislaw Lem, is published by Penguin Classics and available from Amazon. Share your thoughts and views on this book at engtechmag@theiet.org, mentioning ‘After All’ in the subject.

 

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