Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “No, I will not give you to the executioner now,” said the King. “I sincerely and honestly crave something novel. You sought to anger me, but I can curb my anger till the proper time. I say to you: Speak, and you will save perchance not only your own self. The tale you tell may border even on lese majesty, which indeed you have already permitted yourself, but this time it must be an affront so monstrous as to become a compliment, and a compliment of such dimensions as to constitute in turn an outrage! Try then at a single blow both to elevate and humiliate, both to magnify and mortify your King!”

  A silence fell. Those present made small motions, as if seeing how firmly their heads still rested on their shoulders.

  The third sage seemed plunged in thought. At last he said:

  “O King, I shall carry out your wish, and reveal to you the reason why. I shall do this thing for the sake of all those present here, for my own sake, yes and for yours also, in order that it not be said in years to come that there lived a king who by his caprice destroyed wisdom in his kingdom. Even if that is the case at this moment, even if your wish has little importance or none at all, my task is to impart value to that passing whim, to turn it into something meaningful and lasting—and therefore I shall speak…”

  “Old one, enough now of your introduction, which once again borders on lese majesty, and without coming anywhere near a compliment,” said the King angrily. “Speak!”

  “O King, you abuse your power,” replied the sage, “yet your abuses are nothing compared to those which became the lot of your remote ancestor, unknown to you, who was also the founder of the Eparid dynasty. This great-great-great-grandfather of yours, Allegoric, likewise abused his royal power. To give you some idea of the enormity of what he did, I ask you to look out upon yon night horizon, visible through the upper windows of the palace hall.” The King gazed up at the sky, starry and clear, and the old one continued slowly:

  “Behold and hearken! Everything that is, is ridiculed. No station, however high, is proof against ridicule, for there always will be ones who mock even the majesty of a king. Laughter strikes at thrones and realms. Nations make fun of other nations, or of themselves. It even happens that fun is made of what does not exist—have not mythological gods been laughed at? Even things grimly serious and solemn—tragic even—ofttimes become the butt of jokes. You have but to think of graveyard humor, the jests concerning death and the deceased. And the heavenly bodies themselves have not been spared this treatment. Take for example the Sun, or the Moon. The Moon is now and then depicted as a skinny character with a drooping fool’s cap and a chin that sticks out like a sickle, while the Sun is a fat-faced, friendly humpty-dumpty in a tousled aureola. And yet, though the kingdoms of both life and death serve as objects of ridicule, and things both great and small, there is something at which no one yet has had the courage to laugh or jeer. Nor is this thing the sort which one might easily forget or fail to notice, for I am speaking here of everything that exists, in other words the Universe. Yet if you think upon it, O King, you will see how very ludicrous is the Universe…”

  At this point, for the first time, King Globares experienced surprise, and with growing interest listened to the words of the sage, who said:

  “The Universe is composed of stars. That sounds serious enough, but when we look into the matter more closely, it is hard to keep from smiling. In actual fact—what are stars? Spheres of fire, suspended in the everlasting night. A compelling image, it would seem. Compelling by its nature? No, purely on account of its size. But size alone cannot decide the significance of a phenomenon. Do the scribblings of a cretin, transferred from a sheet of paper to a broad plain, become thereby momentous?

  “Stupidity multiplied does not cease to be stupidity, only its ludicrousness is increased. And the Universe, what is it but a scribble of random dots! Wherever you look, however far you go—this and nothing else! The monotony of Creation would seem to be the most crass and uninspired idea one could possibly imagine. A dotted nothingness going on and on into infinity—who would contrive such a witless thing if it had yet to be created? Only a cretin, surely. To take, if you please, the immeasurable stretches of emptiness and dot them, over and over, haphazardly here and there—how can one attribute order to such a structure, or grandeur? It fills one with awe? Say rather with despair, in that there is no appealing it. Indeed it is only the result of self-plagiarism, a self-plagiarism done from a beginning that was in turn the most mindless of acts possible, for what can you do with a blank sheet of paper before you and pen in hand when you do not know, when you haven’t the faintest idea where to begin? A drawing? Bah, you must first know what there is to draw. And if you have nothing whatever in mind? If you find yourself without a grain of imagination? Well, the pen, placed upon the page as though of its own accord, unintentionally touching, will make a dot. And that dot, once made, will create—in the mindless musing that accompanies such creative impotence—a pattern, suggestive by virtue of the fact that besides itself there is absolutely nothing, and that with the littlest effort it can be repeated ad infinitum. Repeated, yes, but how? Dots, after all, may be arranged in some design. But what if this too is beyond you? Nothing remains but to shake the pen in frustration, spattering ink, filling up the page with dots blindly, any which way.” With these words the sage took a large piece of paper and, dipping his pen in an inkwell, spattered ink upon it several times, after which he pulled out of his robe a map of the firmament and showed the first and the second to the King. The resemblance was striking. Millions of dots appeared across the paper, some larger, some smaller, for at times the pen had spattered copiously and at times had gone dry. And the sky on the map was represented exactly the same way. From his throne the King regarded both sheets of paper and was silent. The sage meanwhile went on:

  “You have been taught, O King, that the Universe is a structure infinitely sublime, mighty in the majesty of its star-woven vasts. But observe, is not that venerable, all-pervading and eternal frame the work of the utmost stupidity, does it not in fact constitute the very antithesis of thought and order? Why has no one noticed this before?—you ask. Because the stupidity is everywhere! But its omnipresence all the more stridently cries out for our ridicule, our distancing laughter, a laughter which would at the same time usher in revolt and liberation. How very fitting it would be to write, in just this spirit, a Lampoon of the Universe, in order that that work of supreme inanity receive the rebuff it deserves, in order that from then on it be attended not with a chorus of worshipful sighs, but with hoots and catcalls.”

  The King listened, dumbfounded, and the sage—after a moment of silence—continued:

  “The duty of every scientist would be the writing of such a Lampoon, were it not for the fact that then he would have to put his finger on the first cause, which brought into being this state of things that merits only derision and regret, called the Universe. And that took place when Space was still completely empty and awaiting the first creative acts, while the world, sending forth buds from less than nothingness through nothingness, had produced barely a handful of clustered bodies, on which reigned your great-great-great-ancestor, Allegoric. He then conceived a thing impossible and mad, for he decided to replace Nature in its infinitely slow and patient work! He decided, in Nature’s stead, to create a Cosmos abundant and full of priceless wonders. Unable to accomplish this himself, he ordered built a machine of the greatest intelligence, that it might carry out the task. Three hundred years were spent in the construction of that Moloch, and three hundred more, the reckoning of time however was different then. Nothing was spared, neither in effort nor in resources, and the mechanical monster reached proportions and power all but boundless. When the machine was ready, the usurper of Nature gave the order to turn it on. He had no inkling of what exactly it would do. It was, as a result of his limitless arrogance, by now too large, and consequently its wisdom, towering far above the greatest minds, exceeding the culmination, the pinnacle of genius, tumbled down into a to
tal disintegration of intellect, into a jabbering darkness of centrifugal currents, that tore apart all content, so that the monstrosity, coiled up like some metagalaxy and laboring in frenzied circles, gave up the ghost at the first unuttered words—and from that chaos, seemingly thinking with the most terrible exertion, in which swarms of still unfinished concepts all turned back into oblivion, from those struggling, straining, useless convulsions and collisions there began to trickle down to the obedient print-out subsystems of the colossus only senseless punctuation marks! This was not, now, the most intelligent of intelligent machines possible, the Cosmocreator Omnipotens, but a ruin begotten of a heedless usurpation, a ruin which, destined for great things, could only stammer dots. What happened then? The ruler eagerly awaited some all-fulfilling execution of his plans, the boldest plans that ever thinking being devised, and no one dared to tell him he was standing at the source of a meaningless yammer, a mechanical agony that entered the world in its very death throes. But the lifelessly obedient hulks of the print-out machines were ready to carry out any command, and so, in time to the transmitted beat they began from the material clay to manufacture that which in three-dimensional space corresponds to the two-dimensional image of a point: spheres. And in this way, repeating endlessly one thing and always the same, till heat appeared and set each mass ablaze, they hurled into the chasms of the void round after round of fiery spheres, and thus in a stutter did the Universe arise! Your great-great-great-grandfather was, then, the creator of the Universe, yet at the same time the author of an absurdity whose magnitude nothing now will ever equal. For the act of destroying so aborted a piece of work would certainly be much more sensible and—the main thing—desired and consciously intended, which indeed you cannot say about that other act, Creation. And this is all I have to tell you, O King, descendant of Allegoric, the builder of worlds.”

  When the King had sent away the sages, showering them first with gifts, and the oldest especially, who had in one stroke succeeded in rendering him the highest compliment and the greatest insult, one of the young scholars asked that sage, when at last they were alone, how much truth there was to his tale.

  “What am I to tell you?” answered the old one. “That which I said, did not come from knowledge. Science does not concern itself with those properties of existence to which ridiculousness belongs. Science explains the world, but only Art can reconcile us to it. What do we really know about the origin of the Universe? A blank so wide can be filled with myths and legends. I wished, in my mythologizing, to reach the limits of improbability, and I believe that I came close. You know this already, therefore what you really wanted to ask was if the Universe is indeed ludicrous. But that question each must answer for himself.”

  The Tale

  of King Gnuff

  After the good king Helixander’s death, his son, Gnuff, ascended the throne. Everyone was unhappy about this, because Gnuff was ambitious and cowardly. He decided he would earn for himself the epithet of Great, yet he was afraid of drafts, of ghosts, of wax, for on a waxed floor one could break one’s leg, of relatives, in that they might interfere in his governing, and most of all—of having his fortune told. Immediately as he was crowned, he ordered that throughout the kingdom doors be shut and windows not opened, that all the fortunetelling consoles be destroyed, and to the inventor of a machine that got rid of ghosts he gave a medal and a pension. The machine was truly good, for not once did Gnuff see a ghost. Also he never went out into the garden, for fear of catching cold, and took walks only in the castle, which was very large. Once, while strolling through the corridors and suites of rooms, he wandered into the old part of the palace, which he had never visited before. In the first hall that he discovered stood the household guards of his great-great-grandfather, all wind-up, dating from the days before electricity. In the second hall he saw steamknights, also rusted, but this was not of interest to him, and he was about to turn and leave when he noticed a small door with the inscription: do not enter. It was covered with a thick layer of dust and he would not have bothered with it, but for that sign. The sign outraged him. What was this—someone dared forbid him, the King? He opened the creaking door, not without difficulty, and a winding stairway led him to an abandoned tower. And there stood a very old copper cabinet; it had little ruby eyes, a wind-up key and a tiny hatch. He realized this was a fortunetelling cabinet and again was angered, that despite his order it had been left in the palace, but then he thought, why not at least try it once and see what the cabinet does? So he went up to it on tiptoe, turned the key, and when nothing happened, banged on the hatch. The cabinet gave a husky sigh, the mechanism started grinding, and looked at the King with a ruby eye, as if askance. That sidewise glance reminded him of Uncle Cenander, his father’s brother, who formerly had been his tutor. He thought, it must be Uncle who had the cabinet put here, to spite me, for why else would it give that look? A funny feeling came over him, and the cabinet, stuttering, very slowly began to play a dismal tune, as if someone were striking an iron tombstone with a shovel, and out through the hatch fell a black card with bone-yellow rows of writing on it.

  The King took fright in earnest, but could not now overcome his curiosity. He grabbed up the card and ran to his chambers. When at last he was alone, he took it from his pocket. “I’ll look, but just to be safe, only with one eye,” he decided, and looked. On the card was written:

  Now strikes the hour, now strike the kin,

  A family war is ushered in.

  Aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces

  Hack each other into pieces;

  Cousin does in second cousin,

  Digs a grave, then digs a dozen;

  In-laws fall and offspring drop,

  Stepsons will at nothing stop;

  There, daughters quartered with a laugh,

  Here, a half brother cut in half;

  The ax for gramps, the ax for granny,

  The ax for sister and her nanny;

  Brother murders brother, mother,

  One good turn deserves another.

  Relatives have certain worth,

  But they’re more certain in the earth.

  The hour strikes, now sound the knell,

  Bury your relations well;

  You yourself must hide and bide

  Everywhere, yet stay inside,

  The ties that bind go very deep,

  Beware of treason in your sleep.

  So badly was King Gnuff frightened, that everything grew dark before his eyes. He repented of the lack of caution that had led him to wind up the fortunetelling cabinet. It was, however, too late now, and he saw that he must act if the worst was to be avoided. Not for a moment did he doubt the import of the prophecy: he had long suspected that his closest relatives were a threat to him.

  To tell the truth, it is not known whether all of this took place exactly as we have related here. But in any case sorry things—even grisly—happened after that. The King had his entire family put to death; only his one uncle, Cenander, managed to escape at the last minute, disguising himself as an upright piano. This failed to save him, he was shortly apprehended and surrendered his head to the block. On this occasion Gnuff was able to sign the sentence with a clear conscience, for his uncle had been seized while attempting to start a conspiracy against the Monarch.

  Orphaned with such suddenness, the King went into mourning. He was now much easier in his mind, though saddened too, for at heart he was neither wicked nor cruel. The King’s peaceful mourning did not last long, it occurring to Gnuff that he might have relatives about whom he knew nothing. Any one of his subjects could be some distant cousin several times removed. So for a while he beheaded this one and that, but the beheadings did not set his mind at rest, for one could hardly be a king without subjects, and how could he kill them all? He became so suspicious that he ordered himself riveted to the throne, so no one could topple him from it; he slept in an armored nightshirt, and thought continually of what to do. Finally he did something extraordinary, so v
ery extraordinary that he probably did not hit upon the idea himself. They say it was whispered to him by a traveling peddler dressed as a sage, or perhaps a sage dressed as a peddler—there are different accounts. The castle servants reportedly saw a masked figure, whom the King admitted to his chambers at night. The fact is that one day Gnuff summoned all the court architects, all the master electrologists, platesmiths and tuners, and announced that they were to enlarge his person, and enlarge it to extend beyond all horizons. The commands were carried out with amazing speed, as the King appointed to the post of director of the Planning Commission his trusty executioner. Processions of electricians and builders began carrying wires and spools into the castle, and when the built-up King had filled the entire palace with his person, so that he was, at one and the same time, in the vestibule, the cellar and the wings, they turned next to the residences close at hand. In two years Gnuff covered the downtown area. Houses not stately enough, and therefore unworthy to be occupied by the monarch’s mind, were leveled to the ground; in their place were erected electronic palaces, called Gnuff’s Amplifiers. The King spread little by little but inexorably, many-storied, precisely connected, enhanced with identity substations, till he became the whole capital city, and did not stop at its borders. His mood improved. He had no relatives, and now no wax or drafts to fear, for he didn’t need to take a step anywhere, being everywhere at once. “I am the state,” he said, and not without reason, for besides himself, a self that inhabited the squares and avenues with rows of electrical edifices, no one any longer lived in the capital; except of course the royal dusters, sweepers and household wipers-off of grime; these tended the King’s cogitation, which flowed from building to building. Thus there circulated throughout the city, for miles and miles, the satisfaction of King Gnuff, for he had succeeded in achieving greatness temporal and literal, and in addition was hidden everywhere, as the prophecy required, for indeed he was all-present in the kingdom. And what a pretty picture it made at dusk, when the King-titan through a soft glow winked its bulbs in thought, then slowly dimmed, sinking into a well-earned sleep. But that darkness of oblivion, after the first few hours of night, gave way to a fitful flickering, now here, now there, erratic flashes blinking on and off. These were the monarch’s dreams beginning their swarm. Turbulent streams of apparitions coursed through the buildings, till in the murk the windows lit up and whole streets exchanged alternate bursts of red and violet light, while the household sweepers, plodding their way along the empty sidewalks, sniffed the burnt smell of the heated cables of His Royal Majesty and, sneaking a look inside the light-flooded windows, said to one another in low voices:

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