Episode 8: Concealing Your True Self

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Well, we’ve had a few more very serious episodes, so now I think it’s time for another lighthearted one.  Today we’re going to discuss a wacky sci-fi spoof from 1970’s Poland that, at its heart, conceals some pointed commentary on its Communist government.   I’m talking about “The Star Diaries”, a collection of satirical science fiction stories by Stanislaw Lem.   In particular, today we’ll be focusing on “The Eleventh Voyage”, one of the stories from that volume, focusing on a planet run completely by robots.   

Lem is an unusual figure in this podcast for a number of reasons.   Unlike most of the other authors we discuss, he was not a dissident or an exile:  he was a successful author who lived in Poland throughout its Communist period.   He didn’t originally set out to be a science fiction writer, but after realizing the constraints of his government’s censorship early in his writing career, he turned to science fiction as a way to escape them.    While the rules of the time could only tolerate propaganda such as “socialist realism” in books set in modern times, they didn’t really have rules that applied to crazy fantasies about aliens and robots.     Although politics wasn’t usually the central focus of his writing, this looser censorship did enable Lem to sneak political points into his work.

Lem’s science fiction novels and stories actually contain an interesting mix of topics.   Some are dense philosophical meditations on the future of humanity— his Wikipedia page actually mentions that some of his books are used as texts in college philosophy classes.   But my favorite of his are the bizarre satires.   Today’s focus, “The Eleventh Voyage”, falls squarely into that category.   It tells the story of a famous star pilot, Ijon Tichy, who is sent to investigate a planet taken over by robots.    It starts out with a glib summary of Tichy’s somewhat strained relationship with machines, as he gets angry with his robotic servant:

There were mice nesting in my meteor collection… While I was making coffee the milk boiled over. That electrical numskull had hidden the dishrags along with my handkerchiefs. I really should have taken him in for an overhaul back when he started shining my shoes on the inside.    [Kindle Locations 695-698]

Tichy is soon summoned by a group of corporate executives, who explain to him that a computer mutinied on one of their ships several decades ago, and crashed it into an unknown planet named Cercia.   It then started a new society, populated entirely by robots, and with a deadly hatred of humans.

…the youthful nationalism of the Robcol had taken the form of an unreasonable hatred of all things human. The Cercian press never tires of repeating that we are abominable slaveowners, who illegally exploit and prey upon innocent robots.   [Kindle Locations 793-795].
…The robots’ printing houses are turning out, on a mass basis, leaflets and fliers addressed to the robots of Earth and in which men, portrayed as grasping voltsuckers and villains, are called injurious names—thus, for example, in the official pronouncements we are referred to as mucilids, and the whole human race—as gook.  [Kindle locations 802-805]

The Company has apparently sent thousands of agents over the decades to try to investigate or negotiate with the mad robots, but none has returned alive.   So, as often happens in these types of stories, Tichy bravely steps forward and volunteers to investigate.   He will disguise himself as a robot, and sneak into their capital and see what he can find out.   Naturally, he needs to be careful of a few issues:

“Mr. Tichy,” said the make-up man in charge, “there are a few important things you must remember. The first is, not to breathe.” “You must be mad,” I said. “How can I not breathe? I’ll suffocate!” “A misunderstanding. Obviously you are allowed to breathe, but do it quietly. No sighs, no panting or puffing, no deep inhalation—keep everything inaudible, and for the love of God don’t sneeze. That would be the end of you.” [Kindle locations 875-879]

Tichy successfully lands on the planet and infiltrates the robot society, making friends with a few of the locals.   He tries to participate in their social activities, including the theater:

They were putting on a play called “Carbazarius.” It was about a handsome young robot mercilessly persecuted by man—that is, by mucilids—who doused him with water, sprinkled sand in his oil, loosened his screws so that he kept falling down, etc. The audience clanged angrily. In the second act an emissary of the Computer appeared, the young robot was freed, and the third act dealt at length with the fate of man, which, as one might imagine, was not particularly pleasant.  (Kindle Locations 1062-1065).

He spends some time just getting to understand the strange machines around him, but one day notices something suspicious:  a robot heading towards a berry patch.   While berries are tasty, they should be of no use to robots.   As he suspects, it turns out that this robot is also a disguised human!   Relieved to find a likely ally, Tichy reveals his own identity and makes arrangements to meet his fellow human to discuss their next steps.   Alas, it turns out to be a trap— the fellow human, despite their shared nature, has turned him in to the authorities and he is placed under arrest.    This is a pretty serious situation, given what he saw in the recent play.  His robot public defender is not very helpful:

“Tell me, Klaustron Fredrax, what am I accused of?” “Of mussiliditee,” he replied at once. “A capitall offence. And also: of the intent to werken tresoun upon us, of espiaillement on behaff of Gookum, of blasphemous conspiracye to liften a hond agayn Hiss Inductivitude—do that sufficeth, excressent muscilid? Confess you to thes crymes?” “Are you really my lawyer?” I asked. “For you speak like a prosecutor or examining magistrate.” “I am your defendour.” “Good. I confess to none of the above crimes.” “The sparkes they shal flye!” he roared.  [Kindle Locations 1108-1113]

But, he is saved when at his sentencing, the Computer offers Tichy a deal:  he can keep living in the city in his robot disguise, as long as he agrees to seek out and report on other humans, or “mucilids”, that may be sneaking around.    He accepts the deal, thinking he can then escape the planet, but his rocket has been found and dismantled, so he is truly trapped.   At the low point of his despair, a thought occurs to him.   He starts pretending to be a member of the secret police, pretending to arrest arbitrary robots in the street, taking them to secluded places, and unscrewing their heads.   In every case, they turn out to be disguised humans.   

The planet was wet, humid, rheumatic—and for robots, unhealthy in the highest degree . . . they must have rusted en masse, and perhaps too there was, as the years passed, an increasing lack of spare parts, and they began to break down, going one by one to that vast cemetery outside of town, where only the wind rang their death knell over sheets of crumbling metal. 

That was when the Computer, seeing its ranks melt away, seeing its reign endangered, had conceived the most ingenious machination. From its enemies, from the spies dispatched to destroy it, it began to build its own army, its own agents, its own people! Not one of those who were unmasked could betray it—not one of them dared attempt to contact others, other men, having no way of knowing that they weren’t robots, and even if he did find out about this one or that, he’d be afraid that at the first overture the other man would turn him in.   (Kindle Locations 1196-1202).

In other words, the Computer had filled up its society with disguised humans, the very agents that had been sent to investigate it.    All the actual robots had rusted away long ago.

Were there any robots left among those ironclad minions? I seriously doubted it. And the zeal with which they persecuted men, that too became clear. For being men themselves, they had to be…  more robotlike than the authentic robots. Hence that fanatical hatred displayed by my lawyer. Hence that dastardly attempt to turn me in by the man I had first unmasked. Oh what fiendishness of coils and circuitry was here, what electrical finesse!  (Kindle Locations 1211-1214)

After further investigation, Tichy finds that even the Computer itself is not really a machine— sitting inside is a bureaucrat shuffling paperwork, following (and probably misinterpreting) instructions whose exact purpose and details he lost track of long ago.   Tichy solves the whole problem by calling a giant assembly in the town square, and having everyone unscrew their neighbors’ heads at once, finally revealing the truth to all.

If you’re a listener of this podcast, I probably don’t have to do too much explanation of Lem’s allegory.   The totalitarian robot society with its violent hatred for outsiders clearly represents Communism, down to the details of the propaganda play, the lawyer’s behavior, etc.    The most interesting aspect to think about is that Lem’s central thesis, that Communist countries are filled with people who are not Communist at all at their core, is in a sense proven by this story’s mere publication.   After all, a true believer in the Polish censor’s office would have clearly recognized the allegory and blocked its publication.   But the sci-fi dressing gave them just enough plausible deniability to claim that they missed that aspect, and accept it as just a zany comedy about alien robots.   

[Closing discussion with Manuel]

Anyway, if you enjoyed our summary of this hilarious story, be sure to check out the rest of Stanislaw Lem’s “Star Diaries”, as well as his numerous other works.    Whether you’re a science fiction fan, a student of Communism, someone who enjoys wacky humor, or are a bit of each of those, Lem is definitely an author worth checking out. 

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.