The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem
Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy returns to Earth after a long absence to attend the Futurological Congress, being held in a hotel in Costa Rica. Unfortunately for Tichy, a full scale revolution occurs during his visit, leading the government to deploy airborne and waterborne hallucinogenic drugs — ’benignimizers’ — to calm the insurgents. Taking refuge from the fighting in the sewer system under the hotel, Tichy experiences bizarre and surreal hallucinations, culminating in him being severely wounded by government soldiers, and he is subsequently frozen in liquid nitrogen to await treatment in the future.
Awakening from cryogenic suspension in the late twenty-first century, Tichy finds himself transplanted into a new body and living in a ‘chemocracy’, where every facet of life is facilitated by one drug or another. Books are read by swallowing a pill, and any mood you wish to experience can be instantly generated by taking the right pharmaceutical. All food and water is liberally infused with hundreds of different drugs.
Tichy takes an antidote to the pharmaceuticals and discovers that the entire world he is experiencing is nothing but an hallucination. Due to overpopulation and scarcity of resources, the whole world has been drugged to keep them compliant and docile — the population are living in poverty and eating gruel while they hallucinate they are enjoying a world of luxury.
Tichy discovers layer upon layer of hallucinations, until he returns to the sewer he was hiding in previously, not knowing whether he has returned to reality or if it is just another illusion.
Having recently read Lem’s collection of robot stories, The Cyberiad, I was struck by the similarity in style between the two books. Whilst not being told in fairy tale style, as is the case with The Cyberiad, this novel has the same inventive wordplay and surreal humour. In fact, the bizarre situations Tichy finds himself in far surpass anything in The Cyberiad. The translator has also done stirling work translating Lem’s invented pharmaceutical names into english, whilst keeping their meaning.
The story fell a bit flat in the second half, after Tichy was awakened from freezing. The Monty Python type humour of the first half seemed to diminish somewhat as the story took a serious turn in its examination of overpopulation and control of the masses. Lem also seemed to get carried away with his invented words in the second half — it became a bit tedious after a while. The story would have been improved by editing this obsessive wordplay down a bit.
Recommended for readers interested in linguistic tricks and fans of humorous, surreal literature.