Verdict – Buy this book, love this book!
The stories in this anthology follow the adventures of “Ijon Tichy”, the Penguin Modern Classics version is a translation by Michael Kandel. The translator deserves a mention as there are a lot of mnemonics, puns and poems etc., which must have made the job a challenge. It’s carried out with charm, humour and, as far as can be seen, a genuine affection for the character.
If you’re concerned about taking the leap to an author you’ve never heard of, Lem also wrote (among other crackers) Solaris, the George Clooney version of the film in 2002 being the third try to get it on film. He is noted as being the most successful Polish writer with 22 million books sold, plus many plaudits, awards and adaptations. Links to lists of these will be below. He grew up in occupied Poland (first Germany, then Russia) and it was only after 1956 and the “Polish Thaw” that he was able to publish work without it going through the Russian censors and having anything satirical or politically dubious removed.
The result is a joy to read, 12 short stories which were written over 20 years starting in 1954. Lem’s stories are funny, unexpected, farcical, painful and twisted, although in a very clean, naïve, 1950s sci-fi kind of way. No character is uncouth in the “Star Diaries” worlds, physics is pretty much ignored and the solutions to the silly situations “Ijon Tichy” finds himself in are often farcical, lateral thinking events. There are times the story gets distracted by silliness, not for long, then it zips back to normality. This gives the book a genuine free-wheeling feel, its not a treadmill and its not signposted as to where the individual tales will go.
The stories are Ijon’s recollections of his adventures, first hand, direct and with the kind of roaming sentences that you would expect from a grandfather talking to a child. Lots of diversions, irrelevant details, reasons and internal conversations are detailed. I keep thinking it feels like Sherlock Holmes with a sense of humour, or perhaps Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker” with a lot more fun. Either way, not many short story anthologies actually make me chuckle out loud as often as this does.
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In the order of the book, the short stories are:
The Seventh Voyage
After his ship is damaged, Ijon falls into an area of “time vortices”, after each vortex is hit, different versions of him from a day or so in the future appear to help or hinder the repairs. It gets complicated. Arguments ensue.
The Eighth Voyage
Ijon is Earth’s delegate to the United Planets, will he find something nice to say about his own species so we can join?
The Eleventh Voyage
Ijon goes undercover to solve the mystery of what has happened on a planet where a mad ships computer has set up a robot based human-hating colony.
The Twelfth Voyage
Ijon is lent a “time dilator”, lands on a planet and with it turned on, watches the local people evolve in a few days, not always the way he’d like.
The Thirteenth Voyage
Ijon goes in search of Mr OH, known for solving entire civilisations problems. While visiting places who have been “helped” by Mr OH, Ijon discovers the long term effects.
The Fourteenth Voyage
Ijon visits a planet to go hunting “squamp”, without knowing anything about the prey or the people there.
The Twentieth Voyage
A future Ijon returns and forces the current Ijon to become head of an organisation “fixing” history. It does not go well.
The Twentieth Voyage
After being rescued from wild furniture by the Demolition Friars, Ijon experiences life in a secret order.
The Twenty Second Voyage
Having left his pen-knife on a planet by accident, Ijon realises he doesn’t recognise which one. He goes hunting.
The Twenty Third Voyage
Ijon visits a tiny world where the people have themselves temporarily disintegrated overnight to save space.
The Twenty Fifth Voyage
Ijon visits several planets while trying to catch up with a friend, missing him each time but turning the trip into a tour.
The Twenty Eighth Voyage
During an endlessly long voyage, Ijon recounts his family history and questions whether they (or he) exists. Indeed, is he moving at all?