Review: The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel

originally published in Poland: 1957; expanded 1971

my edition: Harcourt (June 26, 1985)

286 pages


As you know, I’ve set myself the very enjoyable task of reading all of Stanislaw Lem’s speculative fiction that’s available in English. And since I love doing things chronologically, I’ve started with The Star Diaries. You can follow along here as I make my way through his oeuvre. It’s going to be a wild ride, people.

*           *           *

*oh, and spoilers

The Star Diaries is, indeed, the story of “that hapless Candide of the Cosmos,” Ijon Tichy, as the back cover copy calls him. Flying all around the universe in his beat-up rocket, encountering strange civilizations and even stranger practices (like reducing oneself to atoms at night and reconstituting oneself during the day), and even moving back and forth through time, Tichy ultimately tells us more about our own species than any other. After all, The Star Diaries can be read as one long, though extremely entertaining, diatribe against the human race- its penchant for brutality and cruelty, its obsession with the “new,” its naively arrogant belief that it knows best how to shape its own destiny and change history “for the better.” This shouldn’t be surprising, given Lem’s own experience as a child in Poland during World War II. His use in The Star Diaries of alien civilizations, temporal transportation devices, and other science-fictional elements is perfect for making us look at ourselves in the mirror without even realizing it. Add to this his wry, ironic humor, which Michael Kandel captures brilliantly in his translation, and you have a collection of stories that get to the heart of what makes us human and make us stop and think about how other species might see us, if they even bothered to swing by the boring backwater outpost called Earth.

Of the twelve voyages collected here, the Eight, Eleventh, and Twentieth have to be my favorites. I may have found the first of these particularly interesting because it reminds me so much of the very first episode of Star Trek: TNG: “Encounter at Farpoint.” Remember when Q drags Picard and some of the crew into a raucous “courtroom” and tries to make him take responsibility for all of the evils of the human race? Well, Lem’s story (which came first) is a more detailed, complicated, and hilarious version of that. Ijon Tichy, at first honored to act as Earth’s delegate to the United Planets, soon finds himself in a gigantic hall filled with tentacles and unintelligible languages and, above all, a palpitating hostility. One by one, alien species stand up and read from books that mention the bit of cosmic splatter known as Earth. Humans, and their planet, are seen by many as beneath recognition, brutal, violent, greedy, disgusting, and not worthy of membership in the United Planets. Us readers could have seen disaster coming, anyway, on the very first page when Tichy explains that his first encounter with another delegate at the conference included him mistaking the deputy chairman of the Rhohch delegation in full regalia for a soft drink vending machine. At the end, he realizes that it might have all been a dream. Maybe.

The Eleventh Voyage, equally dark and hilarious, recounts Tichy’s journey to a planet supposedly ruled by a mutinous computer intelligence. Having abandoned its spacecraft and settled on an uninhabited planet, the computer built robots from spare parts (somehow) and declared the planet’s independence. Because of territorial and insurance squabbles, however, Earth ultimately intervened and tried to take the planet back.  By the time that Tichy is sent there, disguised as a robot, to scout out the place, Earth had already sent over two thousand people to try and take possession of the planet. What Tichy realizes, after suffering in his robot suit and getting arrested multiple times for suspicion that he’s a prying human, is that, in fact, the only robots on the planet are the humans who had been sent there to put down the robots. Everyone rats out everyone else as a human and walks around in a robot suit, terrified that someone else will rat them out to the computer. And when Tichy finally smashes his way into the computer’s presence…well, I’ll let you read that for yourself.

Finally, the Twentieth Voyage: a story so twisted upon itself and so darkly funny that I sometimes just had to put the book down and let it sink in. Here, the unfortunate Tichy is accosted in his home by, well, himself, from the future. This future self informs him that the Research Committee of the Temporal Institute wants him to be the General Director of THEOHIPPIP (Teleotechronistic-Historical Engineering to Optimize the Hyperputerized Implementation of Paleological Programming and Interplanetary Planning). That is, Tichy must help the “enlightened” future humans “adjust” their own past so that it isn’t so…unsavory. After Tichy finally accepts the job, he winds up struggling to keep everything running smoothly and is forced to banish wayward assistants and employees to random centuries, where they wind up messing around with history (since they are from the future) and, ironically, making it so that the history of humanity is- wait for it- our actual history. According to the logic of this story, all of the remarkable and horrific moments of human history, and everything in between, are the result of a convoluted bureaucracy, incompetence, and error. Hmm.

And of course, who can forget the predatory potatoes??

Stay tuned for more reviews of more Lem tales. Did I mention that I love him so much???

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