Themes in “The Cyberiad”

The Cyberiad is one of those books that can be read at different ages, although certainly with different take-home messages. The stories of Trurl’s and Klapaucius’s sallies are undeniably childlike, and as such would make great reading material for a young, aspiring reader. This is the first time I’ve read the book, but it was clear to me how much fun these stories could have been when I was younger. In fact, as I sat reading them on a lawn chair in front of Parrish, more than one person came up to me saying that they had loved this book as a child!

I must admit that I didn’t love the book. Not because of the silliness (which, though unexpected coming from Lem, was a nice change of tone), but because of the repetition. So many of the stories had the exact same format that I found myself getting bored. Someone needs the help of the famous constructors. Trurl is impulsive, Klapaucius is more level-headed. The two constructors create a new technology out of ridiculous and comical pseudoscience, which, though it takes several tries, eventually is a wonderful creation that validates the constructors’ (literally!) universal fame. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had read it as a younger person, and then read it again now, thus enjoying it for having enjoyed it in the past. (Every reader has a book or books like this. My personal favorite is Bruce Coville’s Book of Aliens: Tales to Warp Your Mind, which I have read more times that I can count, and will continue to read as I get older.)

That said, there were a few themes throughout the book that caught my interest. The first was the excess of violence. I don’t mean graphic violence, but more the unnecessary use and glorification of weapons and getting your way by force. It was Looney Tunes-esque, and I’m not sure (like with the Warner Bros. cartoon) that I was entirely comfortable with it. It seemed outdated, but at the same time I wonder if the exorbitance was meant, like much else in the book, to be a parody.

The second theme was a much weightier one: the arrogance involved in an act of creation. This comes up again and again with Trurl’s creations, which often don’t work as originally planned (e.g., the Nothing machine, the poetry machine, etc.). This idea is seen most evidently in, and even suggested in the title of “The Seventh Sally, Or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led To No Good”.  Overall, it reminds me of the age-old folktale maxim: be careful what you wish for.

A more subtle version of this theme lies in the history of the constructors’ universe. There are suggestions that humans, “palefaces”, once created Automatus Sapiens like Trurl and Klapaucius. At some point, we can assume, these robots succeeded (violently?) their creators in being the dominant existence in the universe. Here we finally have a sense of the Lem who wrote Solaris. The idea that some things are beyond humans’ grasp—whether it’s the ability to communicate with another intelligent life form or the foresight to see what will become of their own species as a result of reckless creations—unites the two books. And of course, it’s a theme we’ve seen throughout this course, namely with Capek. I very much liked this aspect of the book, and I enjoyed the combination of a serious, somewhat existential thread woven among all the levity and absurdity of the stories.