Mortal Engines by Stanislaw Lem

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Edited and translated by Michael Kandel

Review by Karen Langley

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is probably best known for his novel “Solaris”, a book that’s been filmed twice – once by the renowned Russian director Tarkovsky, and once for Hollywood starring George Clooney. However, he’s produced numerous works ranging from short stories to longer fictions and philosophical works, many of which are hard to find nowadays. Fortunately, Penguin have taken to issuing some of his works in their Modern Classics range, with pleasing covers, and the most recent to be published is “Mortal Engines”.

Lem was born in Lwow in 1921, and spent much of his life living and working under the Soviet (Stalinist) regime. Sci fi was, of course, a popular genre to be writing in because it was possible to sneak in political commentary, although Lem’s work spreads across many variants of that particular type of book. According to articles I’ve read online, he’s suffered from having bad translators at many points in his life, and because of his punning and poetry and scientific terms he’s reckoned to be hard to render in other languages.

“Mortal Engines” is an interesting volume; unlike the other novels and collections I’ve read, this one has been compiled by translator Michael Kandel, who’s responsible for some of the best renderings of Lem’s work in English. He themed the book specifically to feature stories of robots, as he was keen to translate Lem’s “Fables of the Robots”. These 12 stories are augmented by an Ijon Tichy story, plus two longer pieces, “The Hunt” and “The Mask”; all of the works were originally published in the 1970s.

Lem is always an entertaining author, and Kandel rightfully points out that the “Fables” are playful stories; you could almost describe them as Steampunk, I think, as they feature protagonists who are all robotic but who live in a courtly world, with kings and knights and all the paraphernalia which goes with them. So there are Court Jesters, plots against those in charge, wicked rulers who oppress their subjects – but all with the extra twist that these are mechanical beings, albeit ones who seem very human-like in their emotions and caprices. The descriptions are vivid, the science (whether real or not) sounds impressive and there are lots of sly in-jokes – it’s amusing and yet telling seeing human foibles ascribed to robots…

A further story, “The Sanatorium of Doctor Vliperdius”, features the astronaut Ijon Tichy  (protagonist of “The Star Diaries” and “The Cyberiad”) visiting a sanatorium specifically set up for automatons, who seem to have as many problems as humans do. The fables have much in common with the stories in those other two books, with their dazzling imagery, wordplay and humour. What’s also fascinating is seeing human beings, with their organic structure, through machine eyes – we really are a squidgy, unpleasant mess, it seems!

“Science explains the world, but only Art can reconcile us to it. What do we really know about the origin of the Universe? A blank so wide can be filled with myths and legends. I wished, in my mythologizing, to reach the limits of improbability, and I believe that I came close. You know this already, therefore what you really wanted to ask was if the Universe is indeed ludicrous. But that question each much answer for himself.”

However, should you start to suspect that Lem is a one-trick pony, the two longer stories in the collection are very different and very powerful pieces of work. “The Hunt” is a more traditional sci fi story; set on the moon, it’s narrated by the freighter pilot Pirx (who apparently appears in other Lem books). Temporarily stranded while awaiting clearance to set out with his cargo, he’s drawn into a situation which occurs when a sophisticated robot, known as a Setaur, is damaged and appears to go rogue, destroying the humans that attempt to stop it. The odds are uneven, as the humans have limited resources; nevertheless, parties set out to hunt down the Setaur on a planet that’s more hostile to them than it is to mechanical beings.

“The Hunt” is a tense and exciting story; Pirx, an experienced and somewhat cynical pilot, seems to jump at the chance of taking part in something outside of the usual routine, and it’s his intelligence and wiliness that brings the hunt itself to final close – though with an unexpected twist. The landscape of the moon, as it would have been known at the time, is conjured brilliantly and entirely convincing, making for a thrilling read.

As if that wasn’t enough, the final story in the book takes the reader in yet another direction. “The Mask” opens with a narrator who is uncertain: unsure of who they are, unsure of where they are and unsure of their purpose. In almost stream of consciousness narration, we read of a kind of strange birth or coming into being, until things seem to settle – the storyteller is apparently female, apparently beautiful, and at some kind of court at the behest of a powerful king. However, she has limited and confused memories, a disturbed sense of self and a vagueness about what she’s here for and what she has to do. Instantly she attracts, and is attracted to, an unlikely figure at the ball. This turns out to be a man called Arrhodes, and as the story unfolds it transpires that the two have a connection that is more than just a mutual liking. As our narrator begins to explore and understand what she truly is, another kind of hunt develops and it remains to be seen whether she will fulfil her purpose or can break free of her programming.

All of these stories are engaging and absorbing, some more amusing than others, and all cleverly written (and brilliantly translated). However, the last two lift the collection to a different level. Lem’s work is very varied, and his shorter works often carry oblique commentary on life under totalitarian rule. I didn’t sense any of that here; instead, these works seemed to me to be considering the differences between human and machine, the suspicion and the conflicts, and whether the two types could ever meet in harmony. Perhaps, therefore, this is more of a comment on the human condition and a plea for tolerance between those of different race and belief; and also a meditation whether the organic creature or the automaton is more ‘human’.

Nevertheless, the outstanding story, for me, was “The Mask”. The writing was impressive; fluid, poetic and compelling, it was very different from anything else I’d read by Lem and the way he got inside the head of his character was stunning. The narrator’s ‘birth’, her confusion, her attempts to understand herself and to reconcile herself to her destiny were brilliantly portrayed, and the story will stay with me for a long time.

I’ve seen comments on this collection that criticised its composition, stating that the last two stories don’t necessarily sit well with the lighter ones that make up the rest of the book. I can see the point, but I found that this wasn’t a problem for me. There is a consistency of outlook, a sense of exploring the possibility of relations between humans and robots that speaks about our ability to reconcile ourselves to living in the world alongside other species and races, and learning to get along with them. Stanislaw Lem’s books always have hidden depths and plenty to provoke thoughts about life and its complexities, and “Mortal Engines” is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

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Karen Langley blogs at and regrets that space travel never got any further than the moon.

Mortal Engines by Stanislaw Lem (Penguin, 2016). 9780241269077, 226pp, paperback.

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