Really Good Books: The Cyberiad

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Stanislaw Lem has a reputation as a depressing and difficult writer. Luckily I didn't know that to begin with, or I might never have tried to read The Cyberiad. Instead, I started coming across bits of it through a FreeBSD Unix program that spits out random quotes. There was a bit of poetry, such as:

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a(squared) cos 2ϕ!

And then there were a couple snatches of text like this:

When the universe was not so out of whack as it is today, and all the stars were lined up in their proper places, so you could easily count them from left to right, or top to bottom, and the larger and bluer ones were set apart, and the smaller, yellowing types pushed off to the corners as bodies of a lower grade...

When I finally got my grubby mitts on a copy, it turned out to be a collection of short stories about the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two constructor robots, builders of machines with spectacular powers, such as the electronic bard which writes the mathematical love poem quoted above, and, sometimes, spectacular faults. One early story deals with Trurl's struggle with a machine with a construction error that bestows on it both a belief that two plus two equals seven, and a deadly nasty temper that comes out when he tries to set it straight.

The stories are mostly in the fairy-tale mode, with Trurl and Klapaucius playing the part of traveling wizards to a bountiful supply of robot kings who ask them to start or stop wars, build mechanical advisers or adversaries, slay dragons (real dragons, brought into being with the invention of a device that can conjure them up by raising the probability of their existence), and so forth. The setting allows ideas to be pulled in from both the scientific and fantastic worlds to have new and bizarre spins put on them. Even a moment of technical digression is given drama, when our heroes are simulating the behavior of a hunting quarry they are being force to build for one particularly unpleasant king:

But the King, nothing daunted, put on his Markov chain mail and all his impervious parameters, took his increment Δk to infinity and dealt the beast a truly Boolean blow, sent it reeling through an x-axis and several brackets-- but the beast, prepared for this, lowered its horns and-- wham!!-- the pencils flew like made through transcendental functions and double eigentransformations, and when at last the beast closed in and the King was down and out for the count, the constructors jumped up, danced a jig, laughed and sang as they tore all their papers to shreds, much to the amazement of the spies perched in the chandelier [...]

It would take forever to explain the mathematics, but Lem lets you know what.s really happening.

Most of the stories have a light or humorous tone, but there is room for a few serious points, most notably "Altruizine", which does a good job arguing that universal empathy may not be such a terrific idea after all. All through, though, they're inventive and wonderfully entertaining.

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