The Futurological Congress: An endlessly imaginative novel

The Futurological Congress Mass Market Paperback – May, 1976 by Stanislaw LemThe Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem science fiction book reviewsThe Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Numerous are the stories in science fiction in which populations have been brainwashed to believe an ideal, most often the opposite of what we hold dear. A sub-genre in itself, advertisements have been used (The Space Merchants), narcotics (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), propaganda (We), technology (Brave New World), emotions (The Giver), totalitarian control (The Telling) and on and on go the tools used to twist society’s collective mind into a new dimension of reality. Lesser known than the majority of these works, Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 The Futurological Congress is a fully imaginative story deserving of mention in the same breath.

Ijon Tichy is a recurring character in the tales of Stanislaw Lem, and in The Futurological Congress the cosmonaut finds himself on Earth — Costa Rica to be exact, attending the Eighth Futurological Congress. Though arcane science is his main interest, Tichy notices that things become a little too peculiar when getting a drink from tap in the hotel. The walls going funny and his emotional state taking an unexplainable swing, he pops a pill and brushes it off in order to attend the lectures. The news is full of rebellions and riots in the world at large, but the Congress’ attendees pay no heed to the violence outside, that is, until the fight is brought to the hotel itself. With bombs going off and strange chemicals suddenly in the air, Tichy escapes into the canals beneath the hotel. Eventually finding a manhole to open air, he discovers his troubles are only beginning.

A mescal tab laid on a hit of LSD topped off with a fine powder of psychedelic mushrooms would be a good way of describing the evolution of The Futurological Congress’ plot. The bombs going off around the hotel are more than just shrapnel and gunpowder, and the chemicals which saturate the air plunge the reader into the rabbit hole of Tichy’s mind. Surreal to say the least, it takes some time for the cosmonaut to shake the cobwebs and adapt to the realities he finds himself in.

Possessing the full degree of Lem’s prodigious creative power, the middle section of The Futurological Congress immediately calls to mind the bizarrely fantastic, eccentric lateral thinking of The Cyberiad. Trurl and Klaupacius’s reality is not our own and neither is Tichy’s, yet he can find no escape. The cosmonaut’s time in the hotel at the outset, and the stages of hallucination he passes through, likewise possess all the imagination of a writer with an expanded mind yet in full control of the text expositing the visions and concepts. Not surreal like J.G. Ballard or twisting, turning like Philip K. Dick, Lem was one of a kind, and Tichy’s trip through the chemocracy of a psychemized society is an example why.

In the end, The Futurological Congress is an endlessly imaginative novel that, in the tradition of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell, looks at a way (dream?) in which a brainwashed society goes about a twisted quotidian life, none the wiser. Packed to the gills with visuals and concepts, Tichy’s reaction to the truths he encounters, while not as severe as John the Savage’s, speaks volumes about Lem’s intentions. Giving the conclusion purpose, readers will find much food for thought and delightful imagination in the preceding pages. Though strange bedfellows, Jack Vance’s gleaming The Eyes of the Overworld features an intriguingly similar device to Lem’s story. In Vance’s story, when a certain lens is placed before the eye, even the most depressing of sights becomes a vision of paradise. The lens of Lem’s story is something entirely different, but the resulting vision remains the same.

About the movie adaptation:

Ari Folman’s adaptation of Lem’s novel, called simply The Congress, deviates much from the text but produces an equally brilliant story on screen — enough so that the reader/viewer can uniformly compare and contrast the two mediums.

Folman roots his film in a meta-story (the life of actress Robin Given, played by Robin Wright) while Lem’s is based on the adventures of the fictional Ijon Tichy. But the travails and realities each character ultimately explore are fruits from the same tree.

I dare say Folman’s is more fantastic and Lem’s more science-fictional, yet they both arrive at the same point, and are each wonderfully created in their own right. There are some script problems at the outset of The Congress, but once everything settles into place and events start rolling (quite literally in a Porsche for those who have seen the film), the psychedelics on screen and the conclusion possess just as much impact as Lem’s on page.

~Jesse Hudson


The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem science fiction book reviews“When there’s no bread, let them eat opium.”

I loved this bizarre story, too, and found much of it hilarious and thought-provoking, especially some of the ideas about how playing with language leads to new creative ideas. The plot is a bit like The Matrix, but drugs are causing the illusions instead of a computer program.

Besides the authors that Jesse mentioned above, I’d also mention that fans of the Strugatskys will probably like The Futurological Congress.

The audiobook, narrated by David Marantz, is very nice.

~Kat Hooper

Published in 1971. Bringing his twin gifts of scientific speculation and scathing satire to bear on that hapless planet, Earth, Lem sends his unlucky cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, to the Eighth Futurological Congress. Caught up in local revolution, Tichy is shot and so critically wounded that he is flashfrozen to await a future cure. Translated by Michael Kandel.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. Great review, Jesse! I’ve had this in Avon paperback on the shelf for decades, waiting to be read, but I never actually knew what it was about, and had no idea it bears some resemblance to totalitarian dystopian tales like 1984, Brave New World, We (my favorite three) and reality-benders like Dick’s Three Stigmata. That makes the book even more enticing. And I had NO IDEA this book would ever inspire a film version, it seems miraculous (the same goes for Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth).

    You’ve mentioned that Michael Kandel has done a great job in translating the original Polish versions of Lem’s work. Have you ever read any of his books in Polish??

    • Of the three you mention, The Futurological Congress is most like We, particularly for the satirical bent. I’ve not seen radio Free Albemuth (nor read the book, for that matter). Is it worth it?

      My Polish skills are relatively poor, and given Lem is prone to a lot of word play and creating non-existent words, I’m not sure it’s a good place to improve my skills. ;) Perhaps someday…

  2. Radio Free Albemuth is an early draft of PKD’s VALIS – they depict his bizarre religious experiences in fictionalized terms. If you like his body of work, they provide a lot of insight (and some surprising humor) into his thoughts about himself. The movie is pretty bad, so I would avoid that.

    As for reading Stanislaw Lem in the original Polish, as you said, all the wordplay is probably hard to appreciate unless you are fluent in the language at a literary level. Even after 15 years in Japan, I don’t think I will ever reach that level in Japanese. That makes Michael Kandel’s accomplishment even more impressive. I actually have his own book Strange Invasion (1989), which looks like a pastiche of PKD’s paranoid alien invasion-type stories, but haven’t read it. It seems to have fallen into obscurity, unfortunately.

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