Book Review: The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

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February 17, 2016
The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem feels like a dream. A really bizarre one, you know? One where you find yourself falling off a cliff for some crazy reason, only to be saved by praying mantises on flying scooters?

Like that, but ten times weirder.

Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy returns to Earth to attend the 8th Futurological Congress, a gathering of experts and government delegates from all around the world where the main topic of discussion is the many problems plaguing humanity and their possible solution. Held in a Hilton hotel in Costa Rica, Ijon and the rest of the guests are oblivious to the rebellion brewing outside and suddenly find themselves in the middle of a revolution. Following a series of unfortunate events, Ijon loses his grip on reality and is so far gone that doctors decide to freeze him until a time when they can find a cure for his condition.

It’s the year 2039 when Ijon wakes up and he finds himself in a world where hallucinations have replaced reality.

I had a very unique reading experience with The Futurological Congress. I first watched the movie inspired by the book, “The Congress”, over a year ago and felt like someone had inconspicuously slipped some very heavy drugs into my drink because that movie was super trippy and confusing. Think animated Inception on hallucinogens and then crank it up a notch or ten... After walking out of that movie theatre, though, I didn’t think much else about it until a couple of weeks ago when my husband brought it up again, and so we re-watched it. And then again. And then we found out it was inspired by a book, so of course we had to get that. And suddenly, the movie made sense.


This had never happened to me before, reading a book after seeing the movie it inspired and having that movie enhance the reading experience instead of diminishing it. To me, it felt like the movie was made to help me better understand the events of the book, but you can’t really appreciate the movie and its subtleties unless you’ve read the book. Conundrum! The only possible solution, of course, is to re-watch the movie a thousand times before and after reading the book.

Also, funnily enough? The book and the movie are two completely different stories.

But enough about the movie (which you should totally watch), let’s talk about this book!

Throughout most of the book, I kept referring to it as “1984 or Fahrenheit 451 on drugs” because it had that dystopian feeling of the friendly neighborhood government trying to control and appease the masses by ridiculous means, and the main character who just can’t accept the current state of affairs; but what makes The Futurological Congress different to those dystopian novels, is the good dose of dark humor and satire that Stanislaw Lem infuses into the story, taking things to the extreme and the absurd to illustrate issues that are still prevalent in society today (overpopulation, anyone?). It also dedicates a whole section to the concept of futurolinguistics and the development of language, which just adds an extra layer to the wackiness (and which was probably really annoying to translate! I don’t speak Polish so I can’t say for sure that nothing was lost in translation, but considering all the made up words in this book, I feel like Michael Kandel did a fantastic job translating this book. There was no disconnect and it read like it had originally been written in English).

As a whole, this book is really good. It’s very short and action-packed and it starts off a little slow and confusing, but definitely pulls you in as you walk along Ijon Tichy trying to make sense of this new, futuristic reality. It has a point to make and it does it in very weird and inventive ways. When you get to the particulars, though, you start finding flaws, like the lack of character development and diversity and even the poor personality of the main characters. This book is about the story and not its characters and it’s something you should definitely keep in mind as you navigate this brave new world without feeling one bit of sympathy for Ijon or anyone else in it.

I wish I could say more but I really don’t want to spoil the experience! Highly recommend it, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Sci-Fi or are getting tired of dystopian futures, this book will take you on such a mind bending trip that you’ll be glad you picked it up.

And then you must watch the movie for double the trippy fun!

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