Short story: “The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good”

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“The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good” (“Wyprawa siódma, czyli o tym jak własna doskonałość Trurla do złego przywiodła”), by Stanislaw Lem, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel

Collected in Cyberiada (1965), translated as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1974), which can be found online here; story online here and with the first paragraph omitted here

3,021 words

A wonderfully clever and humane story. Everyone likes to see tyrants get their comeuppance, and there’s a particular delight in seeing an oppressed people triumph using their own gifts and abilities, without intervention from outsiders. I love the eerie, self-explanatory closing image of the king’s face.

The language can get flowery (I suspect Kandel is mimicking the floweriness of the original), but it’s fun to read and the writing tends to move fast. “A Doll that Fears Death” would be a good title for a horror story.

I find King Excelsius, like a lot of Lem’s characters, oddly touching, with his vague comprehension “that size was not what mattered here, for government is not measured in meters and kilograms, and emotions are somehow the same, whether experienced by giants or dwarfs.” Of course a true tyrant doesn’t need a full-size kingdom to practice his art. I imagine some are content with nothing more than a spouse.

It might seem fanciful that Trurl doesn’t know whether his own creations are conscious, but if you think about it, it makes sense. When we know exactly how the brain works, will we thereby gain a foolproof method of determining which brains are conscious and which aren’t? Doesn’t it seem more likely that we’ll discover gray areas where consciousness blurs into mindless reflexes? And why would robotic brains be any different?