on April 4, 2003
Ijon Tichy is the calm, but worried and fascinated witness of a world gone astray. In the book's first part, he arrives at the Hilton hotel to participate in the eighth futurological congress, which is soon ruined by the local revolution; the situation degenerates further when the governement awkwardly tries to control it by using various substances. After what appears to be a 40 year-long 'stay' in liquid nitrogen, Tichy has to encounter a world profoundly affected by 'psycho-chemistry'. In all of the worlds - 'real' or illusory - that he visits, Tichy walks in the middle of prisoners (in the Platonic sense) rendered defenseless in the bottom of their cavern; the prisoners are not only the unknowing victims of the illusions, but also the vain and mischievous demiurges who perpetrate them. In such worlds, craving for knowledge has been reduced to a mere search for formulas and chemical products whose only role is to provoke the desired reactions and keep all the citizens in a state of sleep. Tichy is alone in perceiving what is positive about getting rid of complete servitude, but the world Lem depicts in the book is so oversaturated with different levels of illusions that such a hope can only lead to failure. Thus, even though Tichy is one of the sole half-liberated prisoners of the whole book, he remains a prisoner all the same and is ultimately comforted by the least threatening of the various lies. Like the others, Tichy is caught up in a world whose web of illusions he can't totally understand.
on October 29, 2002
My favorite Lem book, after THE CYBERIAD. It's short, eerie, amusing, and has a punch to the storytelling you certainly won't find in, say, SOLARIS. I noticed that a number of the reviews already posted have given away the essential plot twist in the story; I'll try to avoid doing so myself.
For the most part, the story is part of the "Sleeper" (after Woody Allen) genre, like Frederik Pohl's AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT (and, to an extent, Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER), where the main character wakes from cryogenic slumber to the world of the future. After learning to navigate through the new environment, he finds the governments of the world have solved some of the worst social problems that were on the horizon of the 20th century, such as overpopulation, pollution, and urban blight. But things turn out to be not really quite so nice as they appear, once he bothers to look below the surface.
The final, silly twist at the end of the story is far inferior to the major the one that precedes it, and I'm almost tempted to take off a star. But otherwise it's highly recommended.
on October 17, 2002
This book will make you think of the world differently. I guarantee that you will question the value of subjectivity by the time you're done.
Lately, I've been asking friends to loan me books that changed their lives or that have found particularly noteworthy. I asked this in an attempt to broaden my reading background and also to learn more about my friends. I've always considered myself a science/speculative fiction fan but had never heard of Stanislaw Lem until this book was loaned to me. After this wonderful first experience, I will certainly be tracking down a few more copies of some of his other titles.
This book embodies everything that good science fiction should be - using the future to teach us more about our present. "The Futurological Congress" is a heavily layered book that relies on the reader to engage the storyline and draw parallels to the present day. The text (in translation) is spare enough to be clear and move the plot along rapidly, while also being satirical and comical at the same time.
I don't want to go into the plot in too much depth since folks before me have already done an admirable job in that regard, but suffice it to say that reality becomes almost immediately problematized and you will not be able to figure out what is fact or fiction within the world of the book (not that it matters). Ijon Tichy, the main character, goes to attend a conference called the "Futurological Congress", where all sorts of folks discuss the future directions of humanity. During the conference, a popular revolution places the scientists in danger. Drugged by the hotel water supply, hallucinating hotel guests hide out in the sewer. It gets more insane from there...
If you like Philip K. Dick's more mindbending works like "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" or "Ubik," you will love this one by Lem. At a scant 150 pages, you'll truck right on through it and then wonder whether you actually read it.
on June 23, 2002
Written when Poland was under the grip of Communism, "The Futurological Congress" is a powerful parable of a totalitarian state that uses psychotropic drugs not only to subdue its citizens but also to make them believe things are better than they are. The first third of the book reads almost like an adventure story: Ijon Tichy is attending a convention of futurologists in Central America, when he and his colleagues are caught up in a bizarre coup d'etat. When Tichy's cryogenically frozen corpse is reanimated decades later, the entire overpopulated world is hooked on drugs.
Unlike most pieces of dystopian fiction, Lem's novel is funny and brainy rather than depressing and catastrophic, but it is still scarily prophetic. At times, though, the prose threatens to collapse into a pun-laden Physician's Desk Reference for the Year 2039: "they give the children throttlepops, then develop their character with opinionates, uncompromil, rebellium, allaying their passions with sordidan and practicol; no police, and who needs them when you have constabuline. . . ?" (These passages must have been a nightmare to translate and, remarkably, they never lose their fluency.) But Lem keeps the reader's interest by alternating his pharmocological laundry lists with clever plot twists and bizarre visions, and the novel's pace continuously accelerates until its frenzied, over-the-top climax.
on March 18, 2001
"The Futurological Congress" opens on an unremarkable and flaccid note, seeming to be an overlong tract on the freedom of will; then it becomes an impassioned tale about solipsism; quickly it changes into a first-hand account about the drastically different life of the far future, only to expose the visible world to be an extensive, manyfold illusion - Matrix-style, but predating it by a quarter century.
The book opens with the viewpoint character - Ijon Tichy, who has by now become familiar to the reader - attending the 28th Futurological Congress in tumultous Nicaragua. As the Congress opens the floor, a revolution erupts outside. There are a few humorous moments, such as Ijon writhing in the throes of universal love brought about by the chemicals in the tap water, and his occasional run-ins with the representatives of the Liberated Publishing Groups, who advocate total debauchery and fulfillment of bodily urges. Soon it becomes apparent that the revolution is being suppressed by chemical means - the government floods the streets with pacifying gases that cause violent altruism and a deep sense of guilt - and all hell breaks loose.
In the resulting chaos Ijon slips in and out of the real world, totally unsure of its reality - the gas takes its toll on everyone. Soon the reality appears to solidify and he is told that he was earlier nearly destroyed, frozen, and reanimated in the future, in the year 2039. The entire world is an idyll. Knowledge, oblivion, and any emotion can be induced chemically. One can literally go into a bank and take out a free loan for any sum of money - only to be chemically compelled to repay it eventually. But soon deep suspicions rise in Ijon, who is totally alienated from this futuristic, robotic utopia. For example, why is everyone constantly panting? And then he discovers the terrifying truth.
"The Futurological Congress" pulls off the Matrix's premise with startling potency - Lem has no need for rebelling robots - this apparent hell is humanity's last refuge from extinction. So the next time you ride your car to work, think: are you really riding, or is the sensation merely generated by a chemical? Maybe you're not riding, but merely jogging along? Or perhaps even that is an illusion? Perhaps your rotting body is lying in a snowdrift alongside a road, pathetically wriggling its skeletal legs in a pretense of jogging, its heart beating in a plastic box of red-and-blue plasma? Or is even that a mirage, masking an even more horrifying truth?
on December 22, 2000
Here I am sitting on a chair and pecking at a keyboard with a monitor and computer in front of me. At least I think so. But what if the sushi I had for lunch was spiked with a psychotropic drug that makes me believe that this typing at the keyboard activity is real? Especially when, in actual reality, I may be strung up stark naked and upside-down in a subterranean dungeon with rats gnawing at my vitals while happily thinking up what to write about Stanislaw Lem's greatest book, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS.
The reason why I believe that some of the best sci-fi since WW2 came from Eastern Europe (Lem from Poland and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky from Russia) is that the mind set of communism was conducive toward what is referred to as "aesopic writing" (The term comes from Solzhenitsyn.) If you protested anything, you were regarded as a traitor to the state; but if you wrote fables as the Greek writer Aesop did which were not set in a particular unnamed repressive regime at a particular time, you might be able to get away with it scot free.
Lem had a field day by speculating on a congress who members are drugged into thinking they are drugged into acting as if they were drugged ... it goes on and on. The more or less classical beginning descends into multiple levels of questioning every level into reality, until even the most utterly solipsistic stance is questioned. By that time, you are either confused or, if you're like me, laughing your head off. As they say in another context, unreal!
on November 11, 2000
Lem's intrepid protagonist Ijon Tichy, the scientist, space traveller, diarist and sometime saver of the universe, here attends a congress in Costa Rica on What Is To Be Done About The State Of Things On Earth. He is just getting into the proceedings when, as usual, revolution breaks out, forcing the government to bombard the hotel with benignimising drugs. From then on, it's downhill all the way as our stoical hero endures more drugs, umbrella-points, hand grenades, more drugs, radical experimental surgery, death, suspended animation, the future and yet more drugs. Far and away Lem's battiest book, and his funniest after The Cyberiad, The Futurological Congress is a maniacal take on the dangers of complacency, overpopulation and virtual realities of the chemical kind. The translator, Michael Kandel, has done an incredible job rendering the verbal humour into English - all the more incredible in that much of it consists of neologisms (drug names, varieties of robot defect, old words with new meanings) and puns that should be outlawed under the Geneva Convention (religion-inducing drug = quaker oats). There's even a school of "futurologians" who believe they can predict the shape of things to come by theorising about the evolution of language; hence from the word "Myself" we get "I, my, mynd. Thy mynd - thynd. And ego makes wego...we're talking about the fusion of the mynd with the thynd..." Multiple personality dissociation, of course, is a mygraine. (And if you think that's bad, you should see some of the jokes in the Polish version.) This is a hilarious piece of sustained insanity (I've never known anyone, even Lem, to be quite this zany for a hundred and seventy pages together), and an absolute masterpiece of translation.
on March 30, 1998
I have been for a long time a fan of the Stanislaw Lem works. I got acquainted with some of his novels (Solaris, Star Diaries and Eden) when I was a kid, and without any doubt the great master has shaped my world outlook. I have been lucky enough to be able to read the Lem's works in Russian (my native language), which is of course much closer to the original Polish than English. I have heard that the Lem's translations by Michel Kandel to English are simply great. Luckily enough he has also translated this book - the Futurological Congress, which I consider to be one of the best works written by Stanislaw Lem. Futurological Congress is a bright example of the great master's ability to combine "uncombinable": SF spirit, deep philosophy and inflammatory humor. I don't want to retell here the content of the book - it is immeasurably funnier to read the novel itself. I dare to rate the novel higher than for example the celebrated Rendezvous with Rama by A.Clark. The latter is unique in its detailed trustworthiness, but is left far behind by the Futurological Congress' spectrum of adventures for the reader's mind.
on January 12, 1998
I am a list fiend. I make lists of every conceivable form and fashion. One such list is "The Funniest Books I have Ever Read." This one makes that list, finishing in a three-way tie for first with CATCH-22 and John Barth's THE SOTWEED FACTOR (Jerome K. Jerome's THREE MEN IN A BOAT is next in the list). The plot: the future is a very, very bad place to be. Inconceivable overcrowding, deplorable living conditions, shortages of every imaginable form. How to cope? Drug the world! Social engineering and better living through the use of mind altering drugs. Democracy and Socialism have given way to the government of the future: Pharmacocracy! The world isn't a better place; it just seems to be. But when terrorists put LSD into the water supply at the 116-story Costa Rica Hilton during the meeting of the world's foremost futorologists, the thin veneer holding society together becomes flayed.
Lem has written three of my favorite books in the world: this one, THE STAR DIARIES (also featuring Ijon Tichy--I believe in the original Polish these two were part of the same volume), and SOLARIS. The latter is equally superb, but oddly enough, completely without humor. It is almost difficult to comprehend that these works all came from the same writer.
on September 4, 2000
Lem, educated as an physician, presages events well. Many bizarre items appear in this novella set in a near-future global conference of "Futurologists" (Alvin Toffler-types), including a "papelshooter," a gun specifically designed to kill popes, and hors d'oeuvres for enviro-conscious snackers made from the recycled corpses of the recently deceased.
Mood enhancing chemicals also abound making the depressed extremely happy; did someone say Prozac? Although most everyone on the planet appears to live in a state of terrible poverty & ill-health, they don't seem to mind. The chemicals put into their porridge make them think they're living in idyllic splendor & luxury; dining on fine gourmet delicacies whilst ferried about in chauffered limousines.
Reading Lem makes one a wee bit uncomfortable. His vision seems a bit too much like the reality of the present.