Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Review: Pirx the Pilot and other stories
I've just realised that I've got on the train still carrying the book I finished yesterday. Nothing to read, so I'll write a review. I picked up "Tales of Pirx the Pilot", by Stanislaw Lem, in the same stack of secondhand books from Woodend that I got the classic Fritz Leiber Lankhmar book and Chalker's Well of Souls. This one I picked up because I'd loved "The Cyberiad" by Lem. It's a compendium of three of Lem's books from the Sixties: the Pirx the Pilot stories, "Return from the Stars", and "The Invincible". The Pirx the Pilot stories are closest in tone to the Cyberiad, and have a hint of the same gentle mockery of human silliness. They're a set of short tales about the career of Pirx, a spaceship pilot. Similar to some of Asimov's early works ("ingenuity and applied science save the day"), they differ in that Pirx is no super-competent science hero - he's more of an everyman. Most are funny, but the last is quite moving, about the only survivor of a spaceship accident. "Return from the Stars" is an altogether more bleak novella. Hal Bregg comes back from a hundred-year mission to the stars, which to him lasted only ten years thanks to time dilation, to find the Earth completely changed. He struggles to find a place in the new society that has no need for heroes and explorers. It's a different take on the same story that Haldeman's Forever War gave us: that you can never return to the same place you started from. In Haldeman's story, the protagonists could escape their changed homes by returning to the dangerous familiarity of their war. Bregg has no such option, his new society having cancelled all the space exploration missions long before he returned. I must confess to being a little bored in parts of this, and other parts were hard to follow - although some of the fault for this may be in the translation from Polish which certainly did not seem as fluid and deft as the Cyberiad's. In "The Invincible", a ship lands on an uninhabited planet searching for survivors of a previous mission. They quickly encounter a swarm of mechanical flies, and are soon fighting for their lives. This is a nanotechnology story written before electronics, when people were still marvelling at transistors and radios had valves and vacuum tubes. People rode penny farthings and it was still legal to shoot Welshmen on sight. Too far? Anyway, this has machine evolution, man's relentless acquisition of territory, the belief that we will always be superior to machines all in here, being challenged. Great stuff. All these stories contain a future that will never be. One with big chunky dials, knobs that need twisting, levers to pull, electronic brains fed by instruction tapes. Rockets piloted by men who are men, and never even mention women at all, unless it's to show a picture to a comrade of a gal back home while sharing a smoke. If you're going to read one Lem book, pick Cyberiad - it hasn't aged at all. "Tales of Pirx the Pilot" is vintage stuff, and comes with a lot of baggage. If you can get past the sometimes strange translation, the sixties technology and the almost complete lack of female characters, then there's fun to be had here.