Stanislaw Lem is one of the many authors I’ve always meant to read something by. I’ve even picked up a handful of his books over the years with noble intentions of follow-through which have, to-date, gone unfufilled. So picking Lem’s Mortal Engine from the freebie box I’d commited to availing myself of only if I really read the books was a moderately acid test of my resolve. About as acetic, I’d say, as Coca-Cola syrup.
The stories in Mortal Engines can be be grouped into two rough categories. Many of them are fables of societies peopled exclusively by robots. Lem’s machine minds regard organic life as a bizarre and terrifying aberration, but they are themselves the polar opposties of Asimovian automatons: they’re more often ruled by emotion than logic. In spirit, Lem’s fables reminded me far more of Rabelais, Cervantes, and Swift than most science fiction: the societies he depicts are often pre-industrial, if not downright feudal, with “electro-knights” levelling “cyber-lances” at one another in duels of honor. The most striking attributes of these stories are Lem’s ability to look at humanity from an outside and contemptuous perspective (not unlike Swift’s Houyhnhnms) and the strangeness of his imagination: not only does Lem boldly modify virtually any noun with “cyber,” “electro” and myriad variants; but his inorganic life proliferates through the universe in a dizzying array of forms: intelligent crystals, gaseous beings, consciousness spread throughout cities.
Lem’s second mode is a much more conventional SF blend of action-oriented narrative with philosophical overtones. In one of the stories, his recurring space pilot character Pirx confronts a mining robot which runs amuck at a lunar base. Pirx worries not just about surviving encounter, but the moral dimensions of his struggle with the robot. Although these stories were supposedly more realistic, I found it harder to suspend disbelief in them as a 21st century reader , because the resources available to Lem’s moon colonists and other future denizens were often ludicrously anachronistic. It’s a fundamentally unfair criticism of older work, but I’m often unable to overlook what appear (from my vantage point, not Lem’s) to be obvious factual errors.
Needs More Demons? No.