Translated by Louis Iribarne
Review by Karen Langley, 23 January 2020
Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was a prolific author of science fiction works, the most well known of which is Solaris (which has been filmed as a Hollywood blockbuster and a cult movie by Tarkovsky). However, his many other books have not always been so easy to track down, existing in older obscure editions; so the recent spate of reissues in handsome Penguin Modern Classics livery has been a welcome chance to make the acquaintance of his quirky and individual characters. Several titles which I’ve read and reviewed over recent years have featured the space adventurer, Ijon Tichy; and indeed I wrote on Shiny New Books about a collection of his escapades, Mortal Engines, back in 2016 (as well as covering his books extensively on my blog). However, the latest reissue from Penguin has a different protagonist, who gives his name to the book: Tales of Pirx the Pilot.
The book was first published in Polish in 1968, and in many ways is similar to the Tichy books: the setting is futuristic but not in a clean, technological way; it’s almost what you might describe as proto-Steampunk. The hero is a hapless individual, struggling with fallible technology and his own mediocrity. However, despite being as entertaining as the Tichy works, Pirx’s adventures are perhaps less slapstick and have a more serious undertone, which develops as the book progresses.
Tales… does indeed consist of what are in effect short linked works, opening with Pirx as a trainee pilot daydreaming his way through a test flight. In many ways he’s a passive character, something of an observer; he seems to make his way through life by the skin of his teeth, and his early adventures are often funny, with things always seeming to go wrong – for example, his antics with a rogue fly in the cockpit are hilarious. However, as the stories continue and we encounter Pirx as a qualified space pilot, making his way through the stars in a cruise ship or visiting a remote base on the moon with a bad reputation, it’s clear that life away from the Earth’s atmosphere can be just as strange and dangerous as it is on our home planet.
On the whole, people tend to trust too much in the evidence of their senses; if they should happen to see a deceased acquaintance in public, they would sooner believe in the resurrection than admit to their own insanity.
The book’s blurb mentions that the action is set in a time when space travel is routine and unremarkable, but I would tend to disagree with that. There’s nothing routine about any of the travels related, either for Pirx or any of the others he encounters. In fact, the stories seemed to me to draw on humanity’s history of exploration and travel; and one particular section, entitled “The Albatross” (reflecting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), is a dramatic reminder of the risks of travel in space or in fact anywhere. Our human, questing nature has led us to search the seas and then the stars, and the book often draws heavily on nautical imagery and storytelling tropes.
By the time I reached the final story in the book, “Terminus”, the tone had become gradually darker; and this last section, in which Pirx is charged with flying an old and dilapidated spaceship with a dramatic history all the way to Mars, deals with complex topics of memory, loss and what it is to be human. It’s a haunting and moving story, and the imagery lingered for a long time after I’d finished it.
No matter how strenuously he tried to ignore the familiar sight below, he couldn’t resist. From the moment the Selene settled into its circum-Terra orbit, before escaping onto a translunar course, his eyes were glued to the viewport. The most thrilling moment came when Earth’s surface, crisscrossed by roads and canals, speckled with cities, was gradually cleansed of any human presence; when nothing was visible below save the planet’s soft, round bulge, blotchy and cloud-flecked; when the eye, moving from the violet-black of oceans to the familiar shapes of continents, failed to locate a single trace of man’s technological genius. At an altitude of several hundred metres, Earth looked empty – eerily empty – and newborn…
Tales… was a fascinating read, full of wonderfully descriptive passages and unforgettable characters. The sheer brilliance of Lem’s imagination is stunning; the book was, of course, written when space exploration was still in its infancy, and the landscapes he conjures up are vivid and convincing (even if we would now know them to be inaccurate). Pirx is a beguiling protagonist; he’s no traditional hero, rather a man to whom we can relate and with whom we have sympathy. His actions move from comic at the start of the book to tragic at the end, and watching him travel through his adventures was a real joy.
Interestingly, I couldn’t help at times drawing comparisons with Lem’s great work Solaris, and I felt that Tales… somehow bridges the gap between his humorous writings (which though funny often touch on anti-Soviet subtexts) and his deeper, more thoughtful books which look more widely at the human condition. His writing, with its exploration of our differences, our dependencies and our need to learn to get along, is always relevant. Tales… is an exciting and eminently readable work, and one which I highly recommend!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is fascinated by the cosmos.
Stanislaw Lem, Tales of Pirx the Pilot (Penguin, 2019). 9780241400227, 211pp., paperback.)BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)