My life in outer space

Mortal Engines – Stanislaw Lem (1977)

Mortal Engines


The Three Electroknights (1972)
Uranium Earpieces (1972)
How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface (1972)
Two Monsters (1972)
The White Death (1972)
How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand (1972)
Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon (1972)
The Advisers of King Hydrops (1972)
Automatthew’s Friend (1972)
King Globares and the Sages (1972)
The Tale of King Gnuff (1972)
The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius (1971)
The Hunt (1973)
The Mask (1976)

This is a collection of short stories which feature Artificial Intelligence (‘Mortal Engines’ being Shakespeare’s description of the machines of war. It can also be seen as a description for mechanisms which possess consciousness and can indeed die) but from Lem’s unique perspective. The first eleven tales are set in a civilisation of robots who have escaped the tyranny of Man and see ‘pale faces’ as only a myth.
Lem uses the conventions of fable and fairytale to tell these tales and in so doing, expose the fallibility and hypocrisy of his robots who are, essentially, no better or worse than the palefaces who created them.
The robot societies are hierarchical. They have kings and electroknights and an oddly feudal and medieval society which combines a rigorous attention to detail in terms of scientific accuracy with an absurdist, almost surrealist view of the actual robots who are the descendants of AIs who fled from humankind aeons before.
Here we have humour, allegory and fable in a set of tales which it is interesting to compare with the Western fashion in the Sixties and Seventies for Science Fantasy from the likes of Moorcock and M John Harrison.
Also included in this volume is ‘The Sanatorium of Dr Vliperdius; in which Ijon Tichy of Lem’s ‘Star Diaries’ visits a sanatorium for robots with various psychoses.
‘The Hunt’ is a Pilot Pirx tale in which a rogue mining robot goes on the rampage across the surface of the moon.
The strongest and most powerful piece is saved for last. ‘The Mask’ is an examination of self, self-awareness and memory told by a robotic assassin – symbolically egg-shaped – which begins as a neuter voice and then realises itself to be female since it inhabits a female body.
‘She’ finds she has three alternate choices of past memories, a puzzling fact which becomes irrelevant when she discovers a fascination for a man called Arrhodes and realises that she is programmed – or destined – to kill him.
Later, realising that she can feel the metal ovoid within herself, she cuts herself open, releasing what is actually her true self, a robotic scorpion like creature.
This symbolic caesarean birth gives rise to another adjustment of identity although the robot’s prime directive is still to track down Arrhodes by following his scent across the land, during which time the artificial consciousness begins to question its programming, its motives and its ‘desire’ to kill him.
This quirky poetic piece is in stark contrast to the levity of the other tales and yet still has elements of fairytale about it, such as the baroque settings, the King – whom we assume commissioned the assassination – and his various subjects.
In its fifty-seven pages it explores the nature of self and identity more thoroughly than authors tackling similar themes do in entire novels. Brilliant.


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