Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

I’m in the midst of an epic series run at the moment so decided to take a break with something a bit different. I love me some old fashioned science fiction, but until now had never looked at Stanislaw Lem, one of the most legendary figures of the genre. I’m glad I have now as The Star Diaries is a fun, bizarre and striking work whose influence I can now retroactively see ripple through the genre.

The Star Diaries is a collection of short stories, all focusing on famous space adventurer Ijon Tichy. Tichy’s adventures range from the ridiculous to the profound and include things which later became science fiction staples, such as closed time loops and post-humanism. A few of the best involve an attempt to re-write human history to be more peaceful which goes amusingly wrong, a world where human body modification has produced a bizarre and disturbing society and Tichy’s appearance with a delegation to beg for humanity’s admittance to a Galactic government.

One of the most striking things about The Star Diaries is how ahead of its time it is. The best stories choose an idea and pursue them with a dogged determination. Lem’s reputation as a philosopher means that these stories can get a bit didactic, with lengthy scenes of people recounting their world view and perspective to Tichy. There’s an impressive variety; some stories are essentially a vehicle to allow Lem to explore his philosophical ideas and some are simple daft fun. The best ones are those which combine both and The Star Diaries contains some really funny moments. There’s more than a little The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy here.

Tichy is a fun protagonist to follow, being generally competent but not nearly as much as he thinks he is. This isn’t really a story about characterisation and there isn’t much coherency to the setting. The Star Diaries isn’t about this though and is more interested in pursuing its themes to a ruthless degree.

The Star Diaries is a strange, challenging book which manages to also be a lot of fun. I haven’t read much old school sci-fi recently. I read a lot in the past, in fact I did my dissertation on Isaac Asimov. The Star Diaries may just be the book to persuade me to get back to it.

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