The Futurological Congress, the cyberpunk novel before punk

The Futurological Congress

“Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes.. This is cyberpunk.”
Cyberpunk in the Nineties, by Bruce Sterling

In the year 1971, Polish writer Stanisław Lem published a short novel (less than 150 pages) that anticipated cyberpunk’s dystopian futures by several decades. Titled The Futurological Congres: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy and part of the series of stories featuring Ijon Tichy, it hides numerous dizzying reflections, constant humor and satire, and a multitude of moments of speculative science fiction that, in some cases, might seem too close to the reality we live in.

As expected, it’s not a perfect work, and within its content density per page, there’s a barrier of excess that might deter some readers (since not everything has aged well, starting with the portrayal of women and continuing with attempts to ridicule some American values, although I personally favor the latter even if it’s a bit crude). Nevertheless, this short yet intense journey through a universe between Matrix and Monty Python works perfectly.

For starters, the Futurological Congress that gives the novel its name and opens the book depicts a present quite similar to the current one, both ridiculous and unsettling, where climate change and the search for solutions to population growth and resource scarcity seem like significant problems. Above all, Lem helps us reflect on the concepts of dystopia and utopia and what they imply for our initial reality, often leading us to take sides in defining and judging these options.

The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem: Opinion and Reflections

The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem: Critique and Reflections

The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem is an easy-to-read (but not simple) novel that, amid jokes and humor, delves into profound moral and philosophical debates. To appreciate this, it might be essential for the reader to have an appreciation for satire, as the depiction of certain scenes from the congress (from the arrival at the hotel where it’s organized to the study of the future and strategic and prospective forecasting) might remind you of various Monty Python sketches (like the dialogue of the papal sniper or many moments involving journalists and futurists in the first 70 pages, including images of police beating protesters with batons and then apologizing to the victims).

Actually, at this point in recounting certain moments of the plot, it’s worth noting that the synopsis on the book’s spine does a rather poor job of summarizing the story (in fact, it might spoil most of the potential surprises you’ll encounter), creating expectations that might not be met. Many readers might remember details like the walking rats and knowledge pills due to their absurdity, but the truth is that in portraying a world dominated by immediacy, knowledge, and other achievements, The Futurological Congress accurately anticipates our times. In fact, at certain moments, it mentions things that already exist but didn’t in 1971, such as surrogate wombs or the possibility of having two mothers, one providing the egg and the other being the gestational carrier (now known as the ROPA method in assisted reproduction).

And yet, what is most terrifying or astonishing about it all is the overall picture. The final revelation, while shocking enough to leave a positive impression, is nothing compared to the sum of the reflections. For instance, the notion of dystopias, which had already been hinted at. Realizing that “a caveman would also resist a tram” leads us to a level of reflection that surpasses even the number of brilliant twists and turns regarding what reality is in our lives, where technology is leading us, and other themes explored in similar books. The writer doesn’t merely imagine a dystopian future; he suggests that if we were to travel to the past, we would likely think the same way, both about the past and the future. All of this without neglecting touches of psychology, sarcastic humor, dystopian conflict, and even a bit of politics. In short, a fun, thought-provoking, and concise book.

“Averroes, Kant, Socrates, Newton, Voltaire, could any of them have believed it possible that in the twentieth century the scourge of cities, the poisoner of lungs, the mass murderer and idol of millions would be a metal receptacle on wheels, and that people would actually prefer being crushed to death inside it during frantic weekend exoduses instead of staying, safe and sound, at home?”
The Futurological Congress, by Stanisław Lem

The Congress, the film by Ari Folman based on the book by Stanisław Lem

The Congress, by Ari Folman

In 2013, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman released the movie The Congress, whose story was (quite liberally) based on Stanisław Lem’s literary work. In this case, the film left behind the protagonist and his reality to focus on the dilemma of a future dominated by artificial intelligence and the use of technology to recreate old movie stars for various forms of entertainment. In this development, the movie also adopted some ideas from the book, including those related to psychochemistry, and, following a similar approach to Folman’s earlier work, “Waltz with Bashir,” it blended the ending of the book with the film’s ending to reveal the final twist that was already in the book.

In any case, to bring to life the reality of the future envisaged by the Polish author, Folman employed animation, transforming actress Robin Wright into an animated character who discovers a new world in which, despite seeming utopian, she can’t find happiness. Thus, much like in the novel, we witness an imperfect narrative that functions primarily as reflection, although in this case, not as extensive as in the written version. However, one thing the book doesn’t offer but significantly enhances the film experience is the soundtrack, composed by the consistently praised Max Richter, who had previously collaborated with Ari Folman on his aforementioned project.

Ultimately, we have two works with many similarities but enough differences for you to enjoy both without one overshadowing the other. If I remember correctly, because I believe I saw it in theaters when it was released and I also have it in physical format, the movie wasn’t dubbed into Spanish, but it was subtitled, maintaining that touch of reality necessary in the film, as most of the characters appearing in the live-action segments portrayed themselves.

I read and rated The Futurological Congress ★★★★ on May 24, 2014.

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