‘The White Death’ by Stanislaw 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