Futurological Congress, The by Lem, Stanislaw, 1974

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Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress (from the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy) is one of those books that unfolds so slowly and deliberately that it just may fool a reader into thinking that it does not have much to say. But I shake my head in sorrow to the person who throws this book away before getting at least one-third through it. It is a near future utopia/dystopia piece that has a tremendous amount to say about human nature, particularly our propensity towards pharmacological paradise, and to fool ourselves about what is really happening right in front of our faces.

The book is told largely in essay, but Lem also uses the diary format to tell the tale. There is very little dialogue or plot, and although itís lay out is mono-block with no chapter breaks there are three distinctive parts to the narrative. It is the story of Ijon Tichy, a Polish delegate to the Eighth Futurological Congress in Costa Rica. Tichy arrives to a very modern hotel in Costa Rica. The host country's military junta is in the process of putting down insurrection in the city outside the hotel. The rebels get bolder though, and fighting spreads everywhere, including the inside of the mammoth hotel. So the government saturates the area with chemicals designed to placate people. Tichy accidentally ingests some of the "benignimizers" that were put into the water, then breathes lots of the hallucinogenic gas that was pumped into the air. Tichy and a few of his fellow futurologists are told that the combat is escalating, so they escape to the sewers below the hotel. While under the hotel Tichy went through three vividly realized hallucinations, each of which ended in his death by government troopers. After the third hallucination the group was approached by another group of soldiers, and Tichy was shot. His wounds were so bad that he was taken to the U.S. Over the course of several months healing Tichy refused to acknowledge that he was not fantasizing, so the doctors put him into suspended animation until his psychosis could be cured.

Years later, in 2039, Tichy was awakened by the government and reintegrated into a vastly changed society, and it is here that Lem really starts picking up his pace. The changed world is amazingly described and absolutely absurd. In short, itís fantastic! Although Lem tells the story in an excited voice with a barbed wit, he hurries through his ideas so quickly that you hardly have time to digest one before you are in the middle of the next. Tichy found himself in a peaceful, prosperous and happy world that had cleaned up the environment, and completely demilitarized. They accomplished that mostly by introducing drugs called Psychems into the world's food supply and atmosphere. The drugs are said to keep people centered, happy, productive and largely anger free, and that is pretty much what Tichy observes. Tichy readily buys into the societal ideals, but soon learns that all the happy people around him also take another drug that allows them to hallucinate doing the most evil things to people that they see on the street. This is the only acceptable form of venting, and Tichy was shocked to learn that this concept even exists in his own personal Utopia. Angered by the duplicity of the world Tichy begins digging and learns something even worse: That the world has been given another drug called a Mascon, which completely and utterly fools them from seeing the truth. The truth is that the beautiful, well dressed people on the street were really hideously mutated, toothless and largely naked. That the fantastic automobiles in the new streets were really people on broken-down bicycles on pot-holed streets. That the people riding clean, well-lit elevators were really climbing greasy cables in broken down shafts. That the fine food served on beautiful china in spacious restaurants was really slop served in buckets to people stacked in on top of each other in rat traps. The Mascon drugs masked reality so well that nobody even noticed their horrific plight, especially that the environment was shot to hell, and that glaciers were approaching Los Angeles.

As interesting as this novel is, Lem used a few ancient tricks, not the least of which was the notion that everything that happened in the book was a hallucination from which Tichy would wake up in the end. But his Lem's attempts at linguistic twists were the main source of the humor. He spent quite a bit of effort with the future English language. For example:

The worst are words which look the same but have acquired entirely different meanings. "Expectorant - A conception aid." "Pederast - Artificial foot faddist." "Compensation - Mind fusion." "Simulant - Something that doesn't exist but pretends to.

There are of course many other absurdities, such as weather by vote, the decriminalization of murder to a finable offense, since everyone who dies can be easily resurrected, and the definition of a new crime called "prerecidivation," or intentional recidivism, which is a jailable offense, and occurs when you kill someone over and over again. There is also a distribution points for psychedelics called psychadelicatessens. But the society also had all the usual benefits of technological innovation, such as cyborgs, body modification, gender swapping, cloning, immortality, a robot underclass of menial laborers, free energy, lots of food, and so on. The moment that Tichy had his moment of epiphany was shocking. The reality of this world is that the "chemocracy" had put into effect many of the ideals that the futurologists of Tichy's era had come up with, in an attempt to stop exactly what happened. This is one of Lem's most important books for that reason. It demonstrates two of the big ideas that he liked to work with, the first being that no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to understand, and thus are unable to fix, some of the problems that the universe throws your way. But the other is that nothing is what it seems, and sometimes you are a fool for thinking that you have understanding.

It is hard for me to tell what Lem was railing against in this book. It could have been the pharmacological revolution that was past its nascent start in the 1980's when this book was written. He took a fairly large bore weapon and aimed it at the linguists too. The ultimate evil in this story was really done to the citizens, though I do not believe that Lem saw them as victims of some huge political machine, or even one evil mastermind. Calling Lem brilliant is putting it lightly. After Lem draws you in with his utopic visions he knocks you right in the teeth with something right out of de Sade. This is a book that is hard to put down that will have you laughing out loud at least once per page. If you have never read Lem, this is an excellent starting point.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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