Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 5, 2001

I have no idea how long I sat there. The old man gave an occasional snort in his sleep, but that couldn’t rouse me from my stupor. Several times I got up and went to see Major Erms, and it always turned out to be a dream. Then the thought occurred to me that I could simply sit there, just sit there--they’d have to do something about it eventually. Except what about those long, long hours I had spent in that horrible reception room? No, they’d let me rot first...

Hidden beneath the Rocky Mountains, a long-lost civilization worthy of anything from Edgar Rice Burroughs toils in its paranoid mission to fight the communist anti-building.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
AuthorStanislaw Lem
Year1973
Length200 pages
Book Rating9

“A nightmare vision of the ultimate bureaucracy,” is what the inside front cover says. After an accidental holocaust in which all paper, and thus all civilization, is destroyed, the Pentagon still lives in a building deep beneath the mountains, safe from harm and still carrying out its war of words against “the enemy”, the “anti-Pentagon”. Even though “the enemy” probably doesn’t even exist. It doesn’t matter, because you can manufacture the enemy more easily if you start from scratch. Everything up to and including the stars is fair game:

And the spiral nebulae?! Well?! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! SPY-ral!! and the expanding universe, the retreating galaxies! Where are they going? What are they running from? And the Doppler shift to the red!! Highly suspicious--no, more! A clear admission of guilt!!

This was my introduction to Stanislaw Lem, and it remains in my mind, his best work. Lem constructs a place where paranoia is the ruling mindset, where everything is code, even code is in code, and the most precious item you can have is a straight razor.

A civilian wanders into the Building, but the bureaucracy has no idea what to do with him, so they turn him into an agent, giving him a “Special Mission”--but it quickly becomes clear that his real mission is penetrating the multiple layers of secrecy in order to find out what his Special Mission actually is. No one has clearance to give it to him. And those who do have clearance keep moving him off the track of his search. Slowly, his own vision of the world gets sucked into the paranoid world-vision of The Building.

We’re never quite sure what the protagonist and story-teller is in the building for. He’s a civilian. He has a pass, but the room number on his pass doesn’t exist--or at least, no one’s able or willing to tell him where it is.

Stubborn, I went from room to room and pestered people with questions, though the answers were invariably wrong. I was still on the otuside, still excluded from that ceaseless flow of secrecy that kept the Building strong.

Finally, he goes past a door labeled “By Appointment Only,” another one labeled “Knock Before Entering”, and through one labeled “Closed”, where he meets General Kashenblade, the Commander in Chief of the Building. Kashenblade takes his pass, pretends never to have seen it, and, when the wanderer stands his ground, hands him a Special Mission to be carried out for the Common Good.

The Polish version of this book was published in 1971, the English translation (by Michael Kandel) in 1973, the beginning of the death throes of the cold war. Nixon had just gone to China (or was just about to). The United States was about to enter a decade of soul-searching over the Vietnam war. Computers were just beginning to see major use throughout government and business. “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” taps into the fears of all these things: the rabid red-baiting, the escalating bureaucracies, the increasing separation of the military and government itself from the people they protect and represent.

But Lem’s novel is not just about the cold war taken to an unbelievable level. It’s also about our journey through life, our desire to feel that what we do is special, that we are being watched for greater things, that what happens around us has special significance, even if not obvious on the outside. But life is really nothing of the sort, not in the Building. It is just a random collection of random entities all thinking that everything else is trying in code to tell them something of significance about the future.

Over a bottle of cognac, Professor Dolt explains the problem of codes to Lem’s protagonist:

From earliest times man did little else but assign meanings--to the stones, the skulls, the sun, other people, and the meanings required that he create theories--life after death, totems, cults, all sorts of myths. The meanings shaped and regulated human life, became its substance, its frame and foundation--but also a fatal limitation and a trap! The meanings grew obsolete in time, were eventually lost, yet how could the following generations discard their heritage, particularly when so many of their worthy ancestors had been crucified for those nonexistent gods, or had labored so long and mightily over the philosopher’s stone, phlogiston, ectoplasm, the ether?

It sounds like the problem of the Building itself, grown “obsolete in time”. But the professor’s solution: demisemiotics, “the taking away of meaning. Meaning must be disposed of!” Every solution must be worse than the problem it solves; this is simply human nature. The Building itself is a bureaucractic pyramid of solution upon solution--an upside down pyramid, each succeeding layer larger and heavier than the ones beneath it, pushing them into the sand. Eventually, as Professor Dolt explains, there is only one solution: destruction.

This was the first Lem book I ever read, and is the one I go back over most often. I strongly recommend it.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Stanislaw Lem

Recommendation: Purchase Now!