January 12th, 2014

escher drawing hands

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanisław Lem

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!
Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And every vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not—for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converse, O lips divine!
The product of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a² cos 2φ!
Early in my experience with Unix-like systems I discovered fortune. This program would occasionally provide me with a clever passage attributed -- Stanislaw Lem, "Cyberiad" "Who is this Stanislaw Lem fellow and what is a Cyberiad," I wondered. And then, because it was the mid-90s and search engines didn't exist yet, I did nothing.

A few years later, I started collecting quotes to add to my random signature program. A great many of them came from fortune, since it gave me a quip every time I logged in or out. The first Cyberiad quote that made it on the list was [The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical.] They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way. Different modes of nonexistence, a fantastic puzzle for a philosophy minor like me. I wanted to find and read this book.

There are a few books and authors I keep in the back of my mind for eventual purchase. It gives me direction when I find myself in a bookstore: check the D section of Classics for The Vicomte de Bragelonne, check the A section of Sci-Fi for the HHGTTG radio series scripts, check the L section of Sci-Fi for Stanisław Lem… You would think it wouldn't be too hard to find a book by "the most widely read science fiction writer in the world," yet ten years went by without finding one of his books between Le Guin and Lewis. I was even a beta tester for Google Books on Android tablets, but couldn't buy an electronic Cyberiad. (It's available now, though.) Tantalizingly, Google ran a fantastic narrative doodle based on The Cyberiad. I finally found a copy when I chanced to stop in to Red Letter Books in Boulder, enticed by a book about mangoes on the shelf out front. "Before I buy this, I need to see if they happen to have any Lem." Sure enough, my Quixotic quest found its goal, wedged in a dense shelf of mass market paperbacks.

The Cyberiad is a book of short stories about machines who build machines. The central character is Trurl, a constructor. He and his good friend Klapaucius the constructor build all manner of robots and devices, often on commission from rulers of distant worlds. Unlike the science fiction school led by Asimov, the engineering details of the machines and their scientific mechanism of action are of little importance. The stories are not about the machines but about the philosophical considerations and allegorical implications of such a device in a world not entirely dissimilar from ours. The first story, How The World Was Saved concerns a machine that can create anything starting with N. After creating concrete and abstract nouns, they ask the machine to do Nothing, whereby it starts to eliminate the universe.

Originally written in Polish, the book has a lot of rhymes and wordplay with sciency terms which works surprisingly well in translation (to English, at least.) The sidebar to the right has a poem produced by Trurl's Electronic Bard. Lem has a great facility for technical naming in a way that's fun rather than dry: The second, newer trail was opened up by the Imperium Myrapoclean, whose turboservoslaves carved a tunnel six billion miles in length through the heart of the Great Glossaurontus itself.

What I like best about The Cyberiad is how it resonates with my experience as a constructor of sorts. The book was written in 1967, when hardware was still the king of technology, before we realized that software eats the world. Yet the story Trurl's Machine and other passages describe the foibles of building, debugging, and otherwise producing a computer program better than any software-focused essay I've read. Throughout the book, Trurl displays the three cardinal virtues of the programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris. If more tales were added to the Cyberiad today, perhaps the constructors would be programs which write other programs.

All makers and builders and coders and creators would do well to read The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. This hypermedia book report claims the book inspired Will Wright to create SimCity; what might it do for you? Acquire it in cybernetic digital form or via a musty-bookstore-quest for a well-loved copy not so overpriced as these.