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A Joke Too Big To Handle

The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem Avon Books, $1.25. 142 pages.

By George K. Sweetnam

THERE IS NOTHING funny about a Polaroid Land camera. But if you want a joke, make one 20 feet high, put it in the middle of the Cambridge Common, and get a dozen people to dance and chant in a circle around it. Enlarging the mundane is an old formula for humor.

Now take the 20-foot-high prank to its logical extreme. Raise over $30 million. Build a model of a Polaroid camera out of concrete and glass. Build it a hundred feet high. Pack it with elaborate devices and arcane knowledge and wisemen. Drop it on the campus of a large, prestigious university. If the smaller blow-up was funny, this must be hilarious. It would be Harvard's Science Center.

Stanislaw Lem's stories are somewhat like the enormous gag that Edwin Land, the wealthy inventor of the camera that bears his name, pulled on Harvard when he tied his contribution for the Science Center to the stipulation that the structure look like his photographic brainchild. Lem is an absurd humorist whose jokes are too big to be funny. He writes of a world gone mad. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and The Futurological Congress are tales set in future societies that no longer know where they have come from or where they are going. Indeed, they no longer know why they exist.

These fantasized societies are huge machines with no purpose but their own preservation. The people who comprise the mechanism have lost all individual sense of purpose. They only have direction if they accept a job and a place in their society--a role in keeping the aimless device in perpetual motion. Lem's joke is so big that it sucks in human effort and wastes lives. His punch line is the pain of purposelessness.

The two novels were first published in Poland in 1971, but one is set in the Rocky Mountains, and the other starts in the Costa Rica Hilton and moves to Manhattan. Lem is an Eastern European but his mind wanders in an American technological wilderness, and the paranoia he evokes is at home under the shadow of the Science Center. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub starts where a comfortable narrative would already be well into the body of its tale. The narrator is in some indefinite Pentagon Three, buried deep within the Rocky Mountains. Pentagon Three, with thousands of offices, miles of corridors, and an enormous supply of food and water, sealed itself off from the outside world when it felt America became heretical--when American joined a world federation. The narrator wanders in the halls of this ultimate bureaucracy looking for a mission of his own. There is no mention of where he was before the account starts. The only personality the reader gleans is the narrator's tireless urge to search. He is no one in particular, looking to be somebody--anybody. His search is timeless. The setting and the sense of ceaseless frustration speak to the citizens of a corporate age.

Pentagon Three is a self-contained world that marks time in work shifts. It produces plans and counterplans ad infinitum. Then it produces reports and files and stuffed manila folders on the plans. The papers shuffle between offices and then another department reports on the reports. Secretaries keep them in order and librarians store them in archives. Higher-ups order them studied, or declare them confidential. Pentagon Three is called simply "The Building." Its actions are all theoretically directed against the "Antibuilding"--the enemy. But the Antibuilding does not exist, and all the paper-shuffling only serves to deny any whispers that perhaps the Building has no purpose. The real enemy is the non-Building. The ultimate heresy is to suggest the truth--that all the orders and plans and reports only create a fiction of purpose, that the officials and underlinks and secretaries and clerks only do their jobs to keep the circulation of the huge, isolated technocracy flowing.

LEM WRITES science fiction, a genre that has long been considered serious reading only for physics wonks, drug fiends, and junior birdmen. Lem writes a parody of modern life that is serious reading for anyone who is concerned that there be a place for humanity amidst the machinations of the modern world. No need for concern? Visit the offices of any large corporation. Visit the Boston offices of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There are the reports on reports on reports. There are the file cabinets stuffed with manila folders being wheeled aimlessly from room to room. There are the rows and columns of identical desks equipped with identical chairs. The officials have endless meetings and conferences and appointments. The staffers debate which color pen is appropriate for which report. The secretaries discuss where to file the reports. If someone is sick the flow of work goes on to all appearances unchanged around the empty desk. To disregard a novel as part of a fringe genre because it considered the impact of technology would be to ignore a fact of life. Lem extrapolates to a nightmarish future to write the problems large. A realistic novel would read like Joseph Heller's Something Happened, which takes incredible patience to finish--exaggeration is a way to have effect.

The Futurological Congress is savagely anti-utopian. Lem dreams up a future world in which the only sophisticated technology belongs to the pharmaceutical industry. Where Memoirs Found in a Bathtub enthralls the reader in the narrator's desperately futile search for a purpose, The Futurological Congress sweeps along on Lem's wild imagination. The people live in squalor while they unknowingly take hallucinogens that make them believe they live in the best-of-all-possible-worlds people once believed science would someday provide. The Cyberiad, a collection of short stories, likewise offers tales of how science, once thought so omnipotent, gets caught embarassingly powerless, like a movie star crapping in the woods. The book is full of inventors' plans backfiring and most of the stories are limited enough for the jokes to be funny.

The dilemma of the character writing Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is grim, and the book's resolution is grimmer. He goes crazy. The book offers no hope--just a warning. The narrator becomes convinced that everyone around him is crazy. He searches for a mission among a maze of people, but stops communicating with them, just as Pentagon Three once cut itself off from the outside world. The first part of the book's warning is about paranoia. The narrator also passes up his one chance to get away from the corridors after corridors. Once he found a way out of them, a door into sunlight. He should have run hard and far and dove into a cold mountain stream. And returned, if he could then see a reason. The narrator left the doorway uncrossed, to return to the heart of the Pentagon, to seek his mission underneath the undying fluorescent lights, in the midst of all the senseless plans. He stays to search where the absurdities are carefully ordered and illuminated. As noted, it drives him crazy. The second part of the book's warning is this: don't look for meaning where 20 others have done studies.

Don't read this book on a drab day when there is much drudge work to be done and no friends are around. Read it when, after you finish, you can reassure yourself that other people have much to offer and can be trusted, even loved. Read it when you can walk down roads and paths far from the fluorescent-lit hallways. Down those paths there is mystery, and mystery provides wonder and hope.

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