Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
OTHER BOOKS BY STANISLAW LEM
The Chain of Chance
The Futurological Congress
His Master’s Voice
Hospital of the Transfiguration
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
Memoirs of a Space Traveler
More Tales of Pirx the Pilot
One Human Minute
A Perfect Vacuum
Return from the Stars
The Star Diaries
Tales of Pirx the Pilot
First published in Great Britain in 1993 by
André Deutsch Limited
105-106 Great Russell Street
English translation copyright © 1977 by The Seabury Press
Introduction copyright © 1992 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Mortal Engines was first published by The Crossroad/Continuum Publishing Corporation.
The first eleven stories were previously published as part of a collection called ‘Bajki robotów’ (‘Fables for Robots’) in Cyberiada, third edition, by Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow, 1972. ‘The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius’ was previously published as ‘Zaklad Doktora Vliperdiusa’ in Dzienniki gwiazdowe, fourth edition, by Spóldzielnia Wydawnicza ‘Czytelnik’, Warsaw, 1971. ‘The Hunt,’ was previously published as ‘Polowanie’ in Opowieści o Pilocie Pirxie, second edition, by Spóldzielnia Wydawnicza ‘Czytelnik’, Warsaw, 1973. ‘The Mask’ was previously published as ‘Maska’ in Maska by Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow, 1976.
C1P data for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN 0 233 98819 X
Printed in Great Britain by
Introduction by Michael Kandel
The Three Electroknights
How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface
The White Death
How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand
Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon
The Advisers of King Hydrops
King Globares and the Sages
The Tale of King Gnuff
The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius
Fifteen years ago Seabury Press, for whom I had translated several books by Stanislaw Lem, gave me the chance to play anthologist and put together a Lem collection of my own, one that had never appeared in Polish. The result was this volume.
My idea: an assortment of Lem’s stories about robots. Some lighthearted, some grim, but all sharing the premise—which is a cornerstone of Lem’s fictional world—that robots, after all, are people too.
The title I found by the time-honored method of browsing through Bartlett’s. It comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, where the Moor, hearing of Desdemona’s infidelity, bids farewell (III, iii, 350—357) to the peace of mind he knew, paradoxically, in his military career. The mortal engines, “whose rude throats / Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,” are thundering cannons, machines of war. In the context of science fiction and Lem, these engines become automata, and mortal takes on the resonance of a pun: mortal sometimes in the sense of death-dealing and mortal sometimes in the sense of subject to death. They are mortal, in other words, as we are mortal.
The robot theme was partly an excuse. A perfectly good theme, fully appropriate to the author—but the truth was, I also wanted to have a little fun: I wanted to translate Lem’s eleven “Fables for Robots,” not because they featured a world peopled entirely by robots (a world, as it were, without a drop of protoplasm) but because they were in that same vein of playful fantasy I had enjoyed so much, both as reader and translator, in The Cyberiad and The Star Diaries. Of all the Lems—the writer of traditional science fiction, the philosopher, the political satirist, the visionary, the moralist, and so on—the Lem I personally liked the best, and still do, was the storytelling humorist: the zany Baron Munchausen Lem.
A few remarks, by way of background, about the robot theme—the cybernetic idea that so obsesses Lem.
The word cybernetic, coined in 1948, was the result of that dramatic and unexpected turn taken by twentieth-century science and technology in information processing: the so-called second industrial revolution. Norbert Wiener, the “father of cybernetics,” presented cybernetics as the study of complex systems that could regulate their own performance or function (output) on the basis of received data about that performance (input)—in other words, systems possessing feedback. Man was one example of this kind of system; a “life-imitating automaton” would be another. The system was the important thing, not the raw material; that could be biological or nonbiological. Thus the distinction between natural and artificial ceased to have relevance. An artificial man, Wiener said, would be better thought of as an analog man. Such a device would actually be an ally of man in the struggle against universal chaos, both machine and man “islands of locally decreasing entropy.”
Socialism, at least the scientific version of socialism, played an important role in introducing the idea of artificial man in the nineteenth century. For some, he (or it) was an ultimate ideal; for others, an ultimate nightmare. Here are two examples, pro and con, both Russian. (For some reason, the Russians, despite their archetypically endless fields, mud, peasants, beards, fleas, and backward technology, have always been very verbal—and quite sophisticated—on the subject of artificial people.) In 1864, Dostoyevski, in his antiutopian Notes from the Underground, saw scientifically defined man as a soulless mechanism, a thing devoid of individuality and independence:
Science will teach man that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something in the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All these human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there will be published certain well-intentioned works in the nature of encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and noted that there will be no more deeds or adventures in the world.
A few years after socialism finally triumphed in the form of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet brave new world, one utopian intellectual by the name of Gastev was moved to write:
The mechanization, not only of gestures, not only of production methods, but of everyday thinking, coupled with extreme rationality, normalizes to a striking degree the psychology of the proletariat, gives it such a surprising anonymity, which permits the qualification of separate proletarian units as A, B, C, or as 325,075, or as 0. This tendency will next imperceptibly render individual thinking impossible, and thought will become the objective process of a whole class, with systems of psychological switches and locks. As these collectives-complexes move, they resemble the movement of objects, with individual human faces gone … emotions gauged not by outcries, not by laughter, but by a manometer and a taxometer. We have the iron mechanics of a new collective, a new mass engineering that transforms the proletariat into an unheard-of social automaton.
It is a coincidence that Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921, the year the word “robot” was invented and first used in a play by Karel Čapek entitled R. U. R. The robots in Čapek’s play are an army of artificial workers; they take over the world, and mankind becomes extinct before the curtain rises on the last act.
The first time Artificial Intelligence was talked about—countenanced—was about forty years ago, when some scientists, in the wake of the birth of the “modern computer” (which still had vacuum tubes), became excited about the possibility of eventually constructing a mechanism capable of thought. Wiener, a mathematician, wrote a popular book on cybernetics; A. M. Turing, another mathematician, wrote a witty philosophical article on computing machinery and intelligence; and Isaac Asimov, a biochemist who little dreamed that someday he would become a science-fiction institution single-handed, published an original and seminal collection of short stories called I, Robot. All this in 1950. At which time Lem, a medical student at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, was beginning to wolf down books in English: science, science fiction, philosophy. These American ideas entered his Polish bloodstream. (The name of Trurl, the well-meaning but sometimes short-tempered constructor of The Cyberiad, who travels the universe solving problems political, mathematical, and even matrimonial, I’m pretty sure comes from Turing.)
In Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” (1893), a chess-playing machine loses its temper after losing a game, with unfortunate consequences for its creator. “There is no such thing as dead, inert matter,” says Moxon, the mad scientist. “It is all alive.” Lem is no Moxon, he is eminently sane; yet basically he agrees with the mad scientist. In his autobiographical essay The High Castle, he writes: “I used to be a philanthropist to old spark plugs, I would buy parts of incomprehensible gadgets, I would turn some crank or other to give it pleasure, then put it away again with solicitude… To this day I have a special feeling for all sorts of broken bells, alarm clocks, old coils, telephone speakers.”
The robots in Lem’s books are the good guys, invariably, even when it doesn’t look that way at first. The worst thing a machine ever did in a Lem novel was pass the buck or bureaucratically cover up the kind of everyday incompetence that can happen to anyone. True, there is a supercomputer called Honest Annie (not in this book) who brought about the demise of a few individuals, but she had plenty of provocation, and it was in self-defense. The most aggressive Lem computer I can think of was the giant calculator Trurl built: it insisted that two plus two was equal to seven and literally pulled itself up out of its foundations and came after the inventor like an enraged fishwife (“machine” in Polish is a feminine noun) when he insisted that two plus two was four and only four and couldn’t be anything else. Lem’s thinking machines are usually on the receiving end, not the dealing end, of villainy. When reading Lem, expect the villain in the piece—the monster in the fairy tale—to be slimily biological. In other words, human.
The robot fables in this volume mix the medieval and the futuristic, taking place in a world where the kings are robots, the scientists and advisers robots, and the villagers and beggars robots. The robot citizens have robot dogs; the robot dogs have robot fleas. Robot maidens are menaced by dragons with gears and feedback. When the prince and princess marry at the end, we are told that they will program their progeny.
In “The Hunt,” a man hunts down a machine; in “The Mask,” a machine hunts down a man. Equal time. No discrimination.
“The Mask,” I think, is a little masterpiece. It has much in common with Lem’s most popular novel, Solaris. The tale, like the novel, is a combination love story and horror story, with more than one turn of the screw.
I tried, in Mortal Engines, to include both sun and shadow. Lem is great fun, great entertainment, but he also knows how to tell a tale in a minor key.
Once there lived a certain great inventor-constructor who, never flagging, thought up unusual devices and fashioned the most amazing mechanisms. He built himself a digital midget-widget that sweetly sang, and he named it a “bird.” A bold heart served as his symbol, and every atom that passed through his hands bore that mark, so that afterwards scientists did marvel to find in among the atomic spectra flickering valentines. He made many useful machines, both large and small, until the whimsical notion came to him to unite life and death in one and thereby accomplish the impossible. He decided to construct intelligent beings out of water, oh but not in that monstrous way which probably first occurred to you. No, the thought of bodies soft and wet was foreign to him, he abhorred it as do we all. His intention was to construct from water beings truly beautiful and wise, therefore crystalline. He selected a planet far removed from any sun, cut mountains of ice from its frozen ocean and out of those carved the Cryonids. They bore this name, for only in the intense cold could they exist, and in the sunless void. Before very long they had built themselves cities and palaces of ice, and, as any heat whatever threatened them with extinction, they trapped polar lights in large transparent vessels and with these illumined their dwellings. He who among them was more important, the more polar lights he had, lemon yellow and silver. And they all lived happily, and, loving not only light but precious stones, they grew famous for their gems. The gems, cut and ground from frozen gases, added color to their eternal night, in which burned—like imprisoned spirits—the thin polar lights, resembling enchanted nebulae in blocks of crystal. More than one cosmic conqueror wished to possess these riches, for all Cryonia was visible at the greatest distance, its facets twinkling like a jewel rotated slowly on black velvet. And so adventurers came to Cryonia, to try their hand in battle. The first to arrive was the electroknight Brass, whose step was as a big bell tolling, but no sooner had he set foot upon the sheets of ice than they melted from the heat, and down he plunged into the icy deep, and the waters closed over him. Like an insect in amber he remains, to this very day, encased in a mountain of ice at the bottom of the Cryonian sea.
The fate of Brass did not deter other daredevils. After him came the electroknight Iron, who had drunk liquid helium until his steel innards gurgled and the frost that formed upon his armor gave him the appearance of a snow giant. But in swooping to the surface of the planet he heated up from the atmospheric friction, the liquid helium evaporated out of him with a whistle, and he himself, glowing red, landed on some crags of ice, which opened instantly. He pulled himself out, belching steam, similar to a boiling geyser, but everything he touched became a white cloud from which snow fell. So he sat and waited for himself to cool, and when the little stars of snow no longer melted on his shoulder plates, he sought to rise and go out into battle, but the oil had congealed in his joints and he could not even straighten his back. He sits there still, and the falling snow has made of him a white mountain, from which only the tip of his helmet protrudes. They call it Iron Mountain, and in its eye sockets gleams a frozen stare.
News of the fate of his predecessors reached the third electroknight, Quartz, who in the day appeared as a polished lens, and at night as a mirror filled with stars. He did not fear that the oil in his limbs would congeal, for he hadn’t any, nor that the ice floes would crack beneath his feet, for he could become as cold as he liked. There was one thing only he had to avoid and this was prolonged thought, for it made his quartz brain grow warm and that could destroy him. But he resolved to protect himself and gain victory over the Cryonids by the simple expedient of not thinking. He flew to the planet, and was so chilled by his long voyage through the eternal galactic night, that the iron meteors that grazed his breast in flight shattered into shivers with a tinkling sound. He set down on the white snows of Cryonia, beneath its black sky like a jug of stars, and, resembling a transparent glas
“Uh-oh,” Quartz said to himself, “not good! That’s all right, just don’t think, and it’s in the bag!”
He resolved to repeat this single phrase no matter what happened, for it required no mental effort and therefore would not heat him up at all. So Quartz proceeded through the snowy wild thoughtlessly and at random, in order to preserve his coolness. He walked thus, till finally he came to the ice walls of the capital of the Cryonids, Frigida. He charged and struck the battlements with his head, until the sparks flew, but that accomplished nothing.
“Let’s try it differently!” he said to himself and considered how much two times two would be. Reflecting upon this, his head became a trifle warmer, so he rammed the glittering walls a second time, but made only a small dent.
“Not enough!” he said to himself. “Let’s try something harder. How much is three times five?”
Now his head was surrounded by a sizzling cloud, for in contact with such intense mentation the snow instantly boiled, so Quartz stepped back, gathered up speed, struck and went straight through the wall, and through two palaces behind it, plus three houses of the lesser Counts of Hoar, fell upon a great staircase, clutched the stalactite banister, but the steps were like a skating rink. He jumped up quickly, for now everything about him was melting and in this way he could go tumbling down through the entire city, down into the ice abyss, where he would be forever frozen.
“That’s all right! Just don’t think! It’s in the bag!” he told himself, and sure enough, he cooled off at once.
So he went out of the tunnel of ice which he had melted, and found himself in a great square lit up on every side by polar lights that winked in emerald and silver on their crystal pillars.
Then towards him issued forth, sparkling and starry, an enormous knight, the commander of the Cryonids, Boreal. Quartz pulled himself together and leaped to the attack, and the other closed with him, and there was a crash, as when two icebergs in the middle of the Northern Sea collide. The gleaming right arm of Boreal fell away, sheared off at the socket, but, nothing daunted, he turned, so that his chest, broad as a glacier (which in point of fact it was), faced the enemy. The enemy meanwhile gathered up momentum and once again rammed him savagely. And, since quartz is harder and more dense than ice, Boreal split with a roar like an avalanche moving down a rocky slope, and he lay, all shattered in the glow of the polar lights, that witnessed his defeat.