Stanislaw Lem – The Star Diaries (1957)

the star diaries1

8/10 comedic SF from behind the Iron Curtain

These are the adventures of Ijon Tichy. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Tichy is Stanislaw Lem’s hero astronaut who, as a representative of Earth, travels the universe in his rocket. Tichy pens his travels down as short stories, which end up on Earth, apparently authored by a human named “Lem” but that is a misunderstanding. The introduction to the book invites us to disregard this rumor, and as new Tichologists to study these mysterious manuscripts with a fresh look.

The adventures of Ijon Tichy are whimsical, comedic tall tales about space travel to strange planets. Tichy meets alien ambassadors, robots, gets stuck in strange time loops and more like that. Lem’s comedic style has been compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. But where Adams’ strength lay more in striking turns of phrase and going for greater absurdity, Lem has a stronger feeling for alliteration and wordplay, and revels in cooking up faux-scientific nonsense. Lem has more in common with Italo Calvino and his Cosmicomics. Lem’s wordplay can be complex, and kudos must go to the translator, Michael Kandel.

The stories have numbers, and are listed as The Seventh Voyage to The Twenty-Eight Voyage, but many numbers are missing; only 12 stories appear here. The numbers have no relation to the sequence in which Lem wrote them. Some omitted stories appear in other collections and others have never been properly translated from Polish and others… never even existed. Some of Lem’s stories are social satire from communist times disguised as science fiction. Tichy also appears in Lem’s The Futurological Congress, which is basically a Tichy novella.

the star diaries2

It is the opposite of hard-SF. The focus is not on technology but on frivolity and story-telling flair. The style is very comparable to Lem’s other collection The Cyberiad, about the adventures of two robots, Trurl and Klapaucius. If you liked the Cyberiad, you’ll probably like this one as well. The Cyberiad is better though, in my opinion. It is more outlandish and whimsical. The Star Diaries are a bit less inspired, it seems, a bit more generic. Lem is also heavy on description and we often get characters that give lengthy explanations of things, while the plotting itself is held back.

Some of the stories go on for longer than their own good. They often focus on a single joke or a single idea that Lem wants to communicate, but Tichy’s experiences are repeated so often that the story turns stale. For example, there are stories about time loops where the loops keep on repeating long after we get the joke. Or characters are running down an argument for too long where they go down lists of points that they are making. With a little trimming here and there, the stories could have been sharper and funnier.

To summarize, while all of the stories are worth reading, only a couple of the 12 stories are quite brilliant. Some are chaotic, others a bit longwinded or thin in plot. The opening story is a good representation of what Ijon Tichy has to offer, and some of the longer stories (like the Twenty-First Voyage) are nicely chewy on philosophy. It might be best to occasionally read a story from this collection in between other books than to read all of them one after the other.

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