There are some books I first ran across when I was younger that completely “blew my mind” and very much “expanded my horizons.” The sad thing is that although everyone knows about the classics (such as the Foundation Trilogy by Asimov and Starship Troopers by Heinlein), many other tales are relatively unknown.
In Part 1 of this mini-series I mentioned three books that really stand out in my mind: Candy Man by Vincent King, The Joy Makers by James Gunn, and Songs from the Stars by Norman Spinrad. Now, here are a two more that really influenced me when I first came across them…
The Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley (1963)
Also known as Journey Beyond Tomorrow, this book is somewhat difficult to describe in a nutshell. Following a major cataclysm in the form of World War III that occurs sometime in the not-to-distant future and decimates the vast majority of the world, our setting is a future civilization in the Pacific Islands.
The book’s introduction is presented by a fictional editor and compiler circa 3000 AD who is trying to document the adventures of a guy called Joenes, a semi-legendary figure of the 21st Century.
One problem is that the underlying premise of this tale is that it has been passed on as an oral tradition by story-tellers for a thousand years, and is only now being compiled and written down. Another problem is that the people of the future don’t really understand our time, which makes much of Joenes’ journey confusing, to say the least. A snapshot of the book is as follows:
Born of parents of U.S. origin, Joenes has always lived on the tiny Pacific island of Manituatua. At 25 he loses his job and decides to visit the United States. Following his arrival there, he undergoes a series of surreal experiences, through which Sheckley describes with extreme sarcasm a society full of absurd extremes.The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (1965)
Just arrived, Joenes gets to know Lum, who would become his lifelong companion and friend, tries Peyote, argues with the police and is mistaken for a Communist. Investigated by a commission of inquiry he is sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, but his sentence is immediately remitted by some kind of an electronic oracle. He is co-opted as a professor in a university engaged in manifestly insane experiments and is later recruited by the government to work at the Octagon (which replaced The Pentagon). He is then sent to the Soviet Union on a secret mission, but on his return the plane is mistaken for an enemy aircraft and attacked, sparking World War III. Only some Pacific islands survive, where Joenes moves with his friend Lum.
Actually, this may not really fall into the “Unknown Gems” category in that a lot of people do know about it …on the other hand, a surprising number of folks I consider to be “science fiction buffs” have never heard of it, which is a real shame…The Cyberiad
is a series of short stories by Stanislaw Lem. The vast majority of characters are either robots or intelligent machines. The main protagonists of the series are Trurl and Klapaucius, who are brilliant (robotic) engineers, called "constructors" (because they can construct practically anything at will) – on one occasion, for example, they re-arrange stars near their home planet in order to advertise.
The universe of The Cyberiad
is pseudo-Medieval – there are kingdoms, knights, princesses, and even dragons in abundance. The level of technology of the vast majority of inhabitants is pseudo-Medieval also, with swords, robotic steeds, and gallows widespread. With this co-exist space travel, extremely advanced technology made by the Constructors, and all sorts of futuristic weapons and devices.
The stories in The Cyberiad
are both humorous and thought-provoking. One of the most amazing things to me is that this book was originally written in Polish and it wasn’t translated into English until 1974. I don’t know whether or not there have been multiple translations, but the copy in my collection is brilliantly done (you have to read the words to understand just how difficult translating this work must have been).
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