Red Dwarf. Futurama. These are the science fiction franchises that come to mind when I consider Stanislaw Lem’s story collection Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. This book, like those shows, presents a number of surreal scenarios based upon familiar sci-fi tropes to make a philosophical point about human nature.
Like the title suggests, Memoirs of a Space Traveler is a sequel. I haven’t read the first book in the series, but judging from the satirical second story of this collection I’m guessing that Ijon Tichy is like a Soviet Space-Age counterpart to Lemuel Gulliver. That is, he’s a narrator who journeys to strange worlds and whose adventures illustrate something about his home society.
Ijon Tichy only goes into space once in this book, spending most of it listening to misunderstood geniuses talk about their spectacular failures. We have a scientist creating brains in tin boxes, another clones, and a sad little man with a box that can travel through times. Someone could complain that Lem using Tichy as a framing device for these futuristic fables borders on formulaic, but I find the astronaut such a likeable narrator that it works for me. From this text, I infer that Ijon Tichy is basically the shoulder-to-cry-on for the marginalized scientists of his community. The primitive apparatuses and the wonders they create in these stories recall the things that went on in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, and Borge’s fiction to a lesser extent.
The first story of the collection involves Tichy creating the universe, which Lem ingeniously justifies by reasoning that if neutrons can go back in time, why not the universe? I’m scratching my head, trying to remember if Lister did this in Red Dwarf. The next story is the most Gulliverish one in the book, about alien Phools being undone by their unwillingness to nationalise their factories which logically results in all of them being killed by the robot they created. The story The Washing Machine Factory is about an arms race between two washing machine manufacturers, involving the development of clothes-dryers that resemble beautiful women – I’m certain this influenced the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life, which mentioned somebody’s wife getting intimate with a sentient armchair during some comedic exposition. The last story is simply a letter where Tichy gives examples of how callous tourists have ruined some of the galaxy’s beauty spots, with pictures.
If you like Futurama, Gulliver’s Travels or Red Dwarf you’ll probably enjoy Memoirs of a Space Traveler. I think this book also has something to offer people who worry about whether they’re really a brain floating in a jar or who have an interest in artificial intelligence.
One last thing: this book’s from Poland, the same country where The Magician of Lublin was set. Maybe I should look further into this whole Poland thing.