Stanislaw Lem: Memoirs found in a bathtub

“Your mission. Conduct an on-the-spot investigation. Verify. Search. Destroy. Incite. Inform. Over and out. On the nth day nth hour sector n subsector n rendezvous with N. Stop. Salary group under cryptonym Bareback. Voucher for unlimited oxygen. Payment by weight for denunciations, and sporadic. Report regularly. Your contact is Pyra-LiP, your cover Lyra-PiP. When you fall in action, posthumous decoration with the Order of the Top Secret, full honours, salutes, memorial plaque, and a written recommendation in your dossier. Any questions?”


Why I read it

I became a Lem fan when I was a uni student at a zine fair in Newtown. Some guy came up to me to talk about my pop science zine and became so agitated at the fact I hadn’t read any Stanislaw Lem – because he just knew I’d really really like it – that he walked down the street to a second hand bookshop, bought a copy of The Cyberiad, and gave it to me.

The Cyberiad was a lot of fun: a slightly hyperactive collection of short stories, packed with clever ideas and wordplay, set in a universe where robots are now the dominant form of intelligence. Then I read Solaris, almost its opposite: a meditative work that poses profound, thoughtful questions about meaningful communication with alien life at a time when Lem’s sci-fi peers were still writing about green men with laser guns. Both works were strange, brilliant and original and I felt like I did when I saw a Dali painting for the first time. I started buying every Lem book I could find.

I was going through my bookshelf last week trying to work out if there are any books I should cull and sell on, and realised I couldn’t remember anything about Memoirs Found in a Bathtub except for a feeling I’d read it once, quite fast and superficially. Was this because it sucked or because I didn’t give it a proper go? Time to read it again and find out.

Why it sucks

Yeah, after giving it a second chance, I’ve come to the conclusion that this book actually kind of sucks.

As a Lem fan this is kind of hard to say. So here are a few reasons:

  1. The preface: jarringly out-of-date and structurally unnecessary
  2. The pacing: as nuanced and well-orchestrated as that mosquito that buzzed in your ear for six hours straight that one night
  3. The people: all characters are interchangeable and we care for them not at all
  4. The punchline: unfulfilling
  5. The profundity: much talked about (by Lem himself, and others) but able to be encapsulated in about a sentence.

Off we go.

The preface: why we don’t care about papyr

The book begins with twelve full pages of italicised text, something that immediately gets us off to a bad start.

Italics aren’t designed to be read in long passages, so your brain is working slightly harder already, and what’s more it’s constantly expecting this preface section to end imminently, because italicised sections are usually short, so when it drags on and on over another page-turn and then yet another, we find ourselves growing impatient, like someone who’s sat down to read a simple sentence that is still introducing comma-separated clauses five lines later, or indeed unnecessary-seeming details about the archeological expedition of Syrtic Paleognostor Bradrah the Mnemonite at the Marglo shale diggings in the Lower Preneogene.

This italicised section is a kind of cover-letter to the main text. It’s a report written by an historian of the distant future who has discovered the manuscript known as ‘Notes from the Neogene’ but informally called ‘Memoirs found in a Bathtub’ in an archaeological excavation of a huge underground building, and attempts to put it into social and historical context.

The historian notes that the building seemed to have some kind of military intelligence function and had physically sealed itself off from the rest of the world for security reasons. Good thing, too, for this was the only thing that spared the manuscript from a vicious ‘papyr’-eating space-bug called ‘Papyralysis’ that rendered all the ‘li-brees’ of ‘Ammer-ka’ to dust, bringing civilisation into a new Dark Age (think of the chaos that would ensue were all ‘cheks, dok-ments, ree-seets, etc’ to disintegrate).

The idea of how fragile a society becomes if its information flow is destroyed – whether that information is on paper or digital – is a powerful one, but not by any means a new one to anyone alive during the Y2K Bug hype. The use of misspellings and misunderstandings for things like the ‘objects of worship’ Kap-Eh-Taahl and the Al-mighty Da-Laahr make sense in terms of history garbled by generations of oral re-tellings, but wear a bit thin pretty quickly.

And the big problem: once you start reading the main text, you realise the preface adds absolutely nothing to it. The guy writing the manuscript was sealed off from the world, after all, so everything outside, including papyralysis and the eventual filling of the Building with magma, becomes irrelevant to his story. It’s like Lem had a short story idea he didn’t know what to do with, so he jammed it onto the front of another book, and somehow his editors let him get away with it.

The pacing & the people

The rest of the book is ‘The Memoirs’, an unnamed protagonist’s account of bouncing around inside a military-intelligence bureaucracy so paranoid and full of double- and triple-agents it’s folded in on itself. Everywhere our hero goes he gets given information about ‘his mission’ that may be real or may be a red herring planted by enemy agents. No-one is who they seem – or are they? Things seem to happen at random – or do they? Will our hero discover meaning, or fold under the pressure of existential angst?

However, all the characters are interchangeable, all the voices sound the same, and all the dialogue seems to be shouted by someone who’s drunk one too many coffees. It was hard to pick up the book after a break and try to find your place, because every part of it sounds exactly the same.

In fact it reads like it was written during a manic episode, and edited by the same crowd whose job it was to rein in George Lucas when he made the Star Wars prequels.

The punchline: spoiler alert

Near the end we get our one fragment of significant plot advancement. Our protagonist meets a man in a bathroom who seems to be the only genuine, straight-talking character we’ve met so far, and who may even have our hero’s best interests at heart.

Later, the protagonist discovers the single door to The Building, giving him the opportunity to exit and end this Kafkaesque nightmare. However, he realises he has promised his friend he will return. But when he gets back to the bathroom his friend has killed himself with a razor blade. The protagonist is horrified and distressed, but then he starts to doubt his friend’s loyalty, grabs the razor, and (presumably) kills himself too. By making him suspicious, you see, the Building has got him in the end.

For me, this was an unfulfillingly abrupt end to the story. It also didn’t make any actual sense. The last sentence of the book is this:

“Give me the razor!” I screamed. “Traitor! Bastard! Give me the razor!”

What sort of narrator grabs the razor, then calmly gets out a sheaf of papers and a pencil, faithfully records the detailed events of the previous three days, and then kills himself in a bathtub?

The profundity

People have written about how profound this book is, either in some kind of Marxist-Kafkaesque context or something to do with the epistemological concern of a paradigmatic vision or gestalt that forms a critique of cybernetics. Lem himself says of it that ‘Here we are confronted with a totalization of the concept of intentional actions.’ Hmm.

It does have some interesting messages. The first one is the notion that everything may be meaningless, not just in the Building, but also in Life.  “At first it seemed to be wandering along with no point… but this is Life, right? Once I realized that the Building was Life (around p. 100) I got much more out of the book,” writes one reviewer on Existentialism. Kafka. Scary. Well and good.

There are also a few clever, tricksy ideas about information and misinformation. Is everything in the Building purposefully purposeless, as the only way to stop plans from falling into enemy hands is to have no real plans, or indeed an infinite number of fake plans? Is the chaos a fake chaos, so carefully scripted that the protagonist’s every action is preordained? Is the building so infiltrated by enemy spies pretending so well to be real agents that in fact all the real work is now being done perfectly, entirely by enemies? Is there an enemy building, an ‘anti-Building’, in which the opposite is the case? Are humans innately so predisposed to see meaning in everything that it’s our undoing, especially in an environment that encourages paranoia? Who knows, maybe this predisposition to see ‘signs’ in everything could even lead someone to read a thesis on the epistemology of cybernetics into a sci-fi story populated with characters derivative of Dr. Strangelove.

In the end, though, without a compelling character or plot, you may as well just list these ideas in point form and be done with it.

And finally

What kind of office building has a bathroom with a bath in it, anyway?


This book was mostly read in a hammock.


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