“Nothing” in Polish is “Nic”: A Lem Fairy Tale

Fairy tales disguised as science fiction. That’s how I described Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad in the last post, so I thought that I’d share one with you. It’s kind of Lem’s version of the Fall of Adam and Eve, except with machinery (Trurl and Klaplaucius are constructor robots). I’m just going to retell it, but you should really read the original, which is online at Lem’s official website (maintained by his son, I think). I can’t do justice to Lem’s lovely wordplay, or to Michael Kandel’s impressive translation of it, either.

NewImageStanisław Lem in 1966, courtesy of his secretary, Wojciech Zemek.
Image: Wikipedia

How The World Was Saved

One day Trurl the constructor invented a machine that could create anything — as long as it started with the letter N. Trurl had it make needles and nankeens for the needles to stitch into negligees; narghiles that were filled with “nepenthe and numerous other narcotics”; numbuses, noodles, neutrons and naiads. He tried to get the machine to make natrium — that’s salt in Latin — but the machine said nothing doing.

“Look, old boy,” said the machine, “if I could do everything that started with n in every possible language, I’d be a Machine That Could Do Everything in the Whole Alphabet… . It’s not that easy.”

After Trurl was satisfied with his machine’s performance, he called his friend Klapaucius over to show off the machine. Trurl lavished such praise on his creation that Klapaucius got maybe a teensy bit jealous. Certainly, he got a lot annoyed. He asked Trurl if he might test out the machine himself. Trurl agreed.

Klapaucius asked the machine to make Nature.

The machine whined, and in a trice Trurl’s front yard was packed with naturalists. They argued, each publishing heavy volumes, which the others tore to pieces; in the distance one could see flaming pyres, on which martyrs to Nature were sizzling; there was thunder, and strange mushroom-shaped columns of smoke rose up; everyone talked at once, no one listened, and there were all sorts of memoranda, appeals, subpoenas and other documents, while off to the side sat a few old men, feverishly scribbling on scraps of paper.

“Not bad, eh?” said Trurl with pride. “Nature to a T, admit it!”

Klaplaucius refused to be impressed. He asked next for Negative. The machine obliged, with antiprotons, and antineutrons, and all sorts of antimatter. Well, all right, Klapaucius said; he would accept that as “Negative.” For his last request, Klapaucius asked the machine to do Nothing.

The machine sat there.

Klapaucius claimed victory. The machine was doing nothing! Trurl protested that Klapaucius had asked the machine to do nothing. On the contrary; Klapacius asked the machine to do Nothing — to create Nothing — not to simply do nothing. The two constructor argued over their capital N’s until the machine interrupted.

“Really, how can you two bicker at a time like this? Oh yes, I know what Nothing is, and Nothingness, Nonexistence, Nonentity, Negation, Nullity and Nihility, since all of them come under the heading of n, n as in Nil. Look then upon your world for the last time, gentlemen! Soon it shall no longer be…”

For sure enough, the machine was creating Nothing. It had started by removing those thing from the world that started with n, just out of habit, but soon enough, it started un-making things that started with other letters, too….

Klapaucius screamed for the machine to stop. It did, but the damage was done. Up in the sky, especially, there were only a few, isolated points of light. Gone were the wonders that had been there before: the worches, the pritons, the gruncheons, the zits…

Klapaucius begged the machine to put it all back, but the machine could only replace those things that started with N: nausea, necrophilia, nefariousness, neuralgia, assorted nonsense. All the beautiful objects in the sky — well, most of those didn’t start with N.

[The machine said] “Take a good look at this world, how riddled it is with huge, gaping holes, how full of Nothingness, the Nothingness that fills the bottomless void between the stars, how everything about us has become lined with it, how it darkly lurks behind each shred of matter. This is your work, envious one! And I hardly think the future generations will bless you for it…”

NewImageStarmap of the constellation Gemini, from the Neuester Himmels-Atlas of Christian Goldbach, 1799
Image: Library of the U.S. Naval Observatory

Maybe no one will notice, was all Klapaucius could mumble as he slunk out of Trurl’s laboratory, and away. Trurl (and others) tried to build more machines, machines that could create everything that began with other letters. No one succeeded. And so never again will the world see all that marvelous celestial phenomena: no worches, no pritons, no zits. Never again.

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