‘Gigamesh by Patrick Hannahan’ by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

I’m not sure if this is a short story at all, although God knows what it is if it isn’t. Basically, A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of imaginary books. Some of them are intriguing, some of them are preposterous and some are quite clearly impossible. ‘Gigamesh’ is one of the impossible ones.

I first came across A Perfect Vacuum when it was packaged along with the novels Solaris and The Chain of Chance in a King Penguin edition back in the eighties. Obviously it was Solaris that I was mainly after and the utter madness of A Perfect Vacuum came as a complete and delightful surprise extra.

As with Borges, I could have picked any one of the ‘stories’ in A Perfect Vacuum, because they’re all equally entertaining and intellectually challenging in their own way. The novel ‘Gigamesh’ purports to be an attempt to out-Joyce Ulysses by describing the final thirty-six minutes in the life of the gangster ‘GI Joe’ Maesch in bizarre and allusive detail. In the course of it, the novel – plus copious notes that run to twice the length of the original text – supposedly explores all the various hidden meanings implied by the name.

I think the following quote gives a flavour of Lem’s ‘review’:

To continue, Gigamesh is a GIGantic MESS; the hero is in a mess indeed, one hell of a mess, with a death sentence hanging over his head. The word also contains: GIG, a kind of rowboat (Maesch would drown his victims in a gig, after pouring cement on them); GIGgle (Maesch’s diabolical giggle is a reference – reference No 1 – to the musical leitmotif of the descent to hell in Klage Dr Fausti [more on this later]); GIGA, which is (a) in Italian, ‘fiddle’, again tying in with the musical substrates of the novel, and (b) a prefix signifying the magnitude of a billion (as in GIGAwatts), but here the magnitude of evil in a technological civilization. Geegh is Old Celtic for ‘avaunt’ or ‘scram’. From the Italian giga through the French gigue we arrive at geigen, a slang expression in German for copulation. A different partitioning of the name, in the form Gi-GAME-sh, foreshadows other aspects of the work: GAME is a game played, but also the quarry of a hunt (in Maesch’s case, we have a manhunt). This is not all. In his youth Maesch was a GIGolo; AME suggests the Old German Amme, a wet nurse; and MESH, in turn, is a net – for instance, the one in which Mars caught his goddess wife with her lover – and therefore a gin, a snare, a trap (under the scaffold), and, moreover, the engagement of gear teeth (e.g., ‘synchroMESH’).

If that kind of thing takes your fancy, I would thoroughly recommend A Perfect Vacuum. It’s genuinely unlike anything else I’ve encountered.

First published in English in A Perfect Vacuum, Secker and Warburg, 1979

‘The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard’ by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

Pulling together my own personal anthology of short stories made me think for the first time in a really long time about the world literature textbook I had in my first year of high school, which is when I first started reading literature from a lot of different places and not just those interminable books about boys and their dogs they make you read in middle school (Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller). It was in this textbook, which I loved, that I came across Stanislaw Lem, through his story ‘The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard’. I thought it was so hilarious that I immediately borrowed The Cyberiad from the bookstore where I worked. (I was surprised they had it, because it was a bookstore in a suburban mall full of Oprah’s picks and true crime and Christian books.) I was more into the absurd as a teenager than I am now, but I have a lot of nostalgia for the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two robotic engineers who go on adventures across the universe. And literature-writing machines, the subject of this story, have been on my mind since I read John Seabrook’s piece in the Oct 14 New Yorker, ‘The Next Word: Where will predictive text take us?

First published in Polish in 1965. First published in English in The Cyberiad – Fables for the Cybernetic Age, Secker and Warburg, 1975. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2014

‘The Mask’ by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

‘The Mask’ stands out for its eerie prescience, even among the plentiful parables of artificial intelligence and its relation to our fractured human consciousness composed by Poland’s science-fiction maestro. The inorganic “female” entity who narrates the story wrestles with the puzzles of her origin and destiny, and of her possible relations with another kind of being. As so often in Lem, scientific advance coexists with a feudal, backward social order. A fantastic or futuristic scenario enables him to delve deep into our present dilemmas of autonomy, freedom, conditioning and choice.

First published 1976; collected in Mortal Engines, Penguin Modern Classics, 2016

‘The White Death’ by Stanisław Lem, trans. Michael Kandel

Stanislaw Lem wrote robot fairy-tales. These are stories that feel like myths, built on teetering hypotheticals and imparting cryptic robot morals. Robot kings send robot knights on madcap quests; engineer-cosmogonists construct competing universes. In ‘The White Death’, Aragena, ruler of the Enterites, confines his people within their crater-pocked planet, for fear of cosmic invasion. The planetary interior is a vision (“with a system of pipes they pumped light into the heart of the planet… they had their choice of dawn, or noon, or rosy dusk… they even had their own sky, where in webs of molybdenum and vadium flashed spinels and rock crystal”) – but this is a story of hubris and nemesis, modelled, surely, on Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), wherein Prince Prospero’s opulent apartments prove no barrier to a terrible plague. Here, the ‘white death’ is a mould that arrives on a spaceship and brings rust to the Enterites’ planet. The king’s engineers destroy the ship (an extraordinary passage tells of how they “smashed it on anvils of platinum… immersed the pieces in heavy radiation, so that it was reduced to a myriad of flying atoms, which keep eternal silence, for atoms have no history”) – but a single spore escapes, and a “brownish leprosy” consumes the Enterites and their works.

First published in 1977. Collected in Mortal Engines, Penguin, 2016