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Authors: Stanislaw Lem

Mortal Engines

BOOK: Mortal Engines
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The Chain of Chance
The Cyberiad
The Futurological Congress
His Master’s Voice
Hospital of the Transfiguration
Imaginary Magnitude
The Investigation
The Invincible
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
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
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
WBC Bridgend


Introduction by Michael Kandel


The Three Electroknights

Uranium Earpieces

How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface

Two Monsters

The White Death

How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand

Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon

The Advisers of King Hydrops

Automatthew’s Friend

King Globares and the Sages

The Tale of King Gnuff

The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius

The Hunt

The Mask


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
It comes from Shakespeare’s
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
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
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
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;
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.

Both Dostoyevski and Gastev, on either side of the ideological fence, believed that there was no essential difference between the scientific “explanation” of human beings and the literal “engineering” of human beings.

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.

BOOK: Mortal Engines
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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