Stanislaw Lem,
Mortal Engines
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992)

I wonder what kind of science fiction was available in communist Poland? If Stanislaw Lem's writing is any kind of guide I would have to guess Wells and Verne, the classic 19th-century authors. Probably some of the British and American pulp works of the 1940s and 1950s. Maybe Isaac Asimov? The thing is I don't know, Mortal Engines is the first of Lem's work that I've read. After years of seeing his books on the shelf I finally picked one up, and found myself pleasantly surpised.

Mortal Engines is a collection of robot-centered myths, fairy tales and adventure stories. Originally written and translated in the 1970s, the stories in this anthology seem almost timeless, in that they belong to no specific era of science fiction. They are told in old-fashioned, seemingly scientific/baroque language which enhances the believability of Lem's robotic characters. He tells of robot cultures, robot societies, robot lovers and robot knights. Except for a couple of bad guys there are no organic lifeforms in any of these tales.

Of the 14 stories in Mortal Engines my two favorites are "How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand" and "The Mask." The first tells of two great robotic scientists and how they, with the help of their inventions, recreated the universe. It almost seems to be a story about scientific infighting anywhere. "The Mask" tells of a beautiful young robot, discovering who and what she is.

Reading Lem's stories makes me want to do two things: first, read one of his novels, and second, see what other wonderful things were published in the former Eastern bloc. Even without obvious antecedents, Mortal Engines is great hard SF.

[ by Ziya Reynolds ]

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