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: The Futurological Congress

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 3, 2001

The chemicals of evil were beginning to resist and push back the chemicals of goodness; I was still prepared to devote my life to charitable acts, but no longer without hesitation. Of course I would have felt more secure to have been a thorough scoundrel, if only for a while.

Stanislaw Lem is a brilliant author, and “The Futurological Congress” is perhaps his most prophetic work.

AuthorStanislaw Lem
Length149 pages
Book Rating8

Published some time before 1974, this book deftly describes a future world that very much resembles the world that virtual reality is heading towards. The traveler is Ijon Tichy, of “The Star Diaries” and others. He ends up going from the “Eighth World Futurological Congress” to a world where new drugs are invented to do anything, to make anything happen by changing perceptions.

If you’ve read “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” or “The Cyberiad” you probably would expect such a setting to provide ample material for Lem’s social satire. You won’t be disappointed. The story begins in Costa Rica, where the Futurological Association is having their eighth world congress. Costa Rica is undergoing a revolution. While the United States ambassador gave a short speech during the opening ceremonies, “six muscular plainsclothesmen” kept their guns trained on the audience. A misunderstanding occured “when the dark-skinned delegate from India standing next to me had to wipe his nose and reached for the handkerchief in his back pocket. The sight of a man at your side crumpling to the floor under heavy fire is not among the most pleasant, even if it is the result of a simple misunderstanding, which ends with an exchange of diplomatic notes and official apologies.”

His hotel room on the one hundredth floor was furnished with the latest in personal safety devices: a crowbar, a camouflage cape, a sack of hardtack, and an enormous spool of rope, and a room “guaranteed bomb-free”. When the lights go out, either the management, the government, or the rebels douse the hotel water with benignimizers, removing any anger over the inconvenience.

The convention’s theme is overpopulation, which also gave Lem a few good jokes, such as revising the penal code so that fertilization was high treason.

When the revolution spreads to the convention hotel, Ijon Tichy finds himself frozen and then restored to life in the far future, where overpopulation has reduced the world to a nearly unliveable mess. But the inhabitants don’t care, because they have psychem drugs to make life appear beautiful. Losing your faith? Need religion? Head down to the Theological Apothecary for theopathine, genuflix, absolventina, orisol. Drugs act exactly like the virtual realities of cyberpunk worlds, changing not the world, but the viewer’s perception of the world:

Practically every day now I drop in on the Symingtons. He’s something of an introvert--long silences--and she’s a living doll. Literally. Changes her outfit all the time too: hair, eyes, height, measurements, everything. Their dog is called Mirv. It’s been dead for three years now.

And, trying to block out futuristic “inane pop” music: “I’m all out of disacousticine, but cotton in the ears works just as well.”

Written before any inkling of virtual reality perception modifiers, “The Futurological Congress” manages to explore the dangers of perception modification more deftly than anyone since. It is also a deft critique of anyone who wants to correct the failings of others to “save society”.

Stanislaw Lem writes in Polish. “The Futurological Congress” is translated by Michael Kandel, who also translates many other of Lem’s works. I can only assume that he is a masterful translator, as the phrasing and pacing of the English translation is first-rate. This work, like Lem’s other satires, is very humorous science fiction. But this is not the humor of Douglas Adams. Lem’s humor is sharp and pointed, very, very serious.

This is a brilliant book about what happens when we gain full control over what we see, but no control over what actually is. I strongly recommended it.

The Futurological Congress

Stanislaw Lem

Recommendation: Purchase