Decades Old, Yet Relevant Questions in Stanisław Lem’s Futurological Congress
Futurology analyzes the successes and failures of present technologies in order to predict new scientific innovations that may arise at any point in the future. In Stanisław Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy, a large group of hilariously incompetent individuals who call themselves futurologists are gathered to solve the sociopolitical issues that have plagued mankind for as long as it has existed. In their solutions, the most difficulty is encountered in their obligation to respect the basic rights entitled to all citizens. Thus, they decide to look past such a minor formality in order to put in action all the spectacular ideas that have been conceived. One of these men will be unwillingly sent forward in time to observe the ripple effects of the policies that result from this congress. Through satirical yet astute criticism of a dystopian alternate society and its obliviously governed inhabitants, Lem’s novel forces us to ponder the extent of authority in our own lives, our use of perception-altering drugs, and other topics of controversy that have only become more relevant since the book was first published in 1971.
We are introduced to our protagonist, a Mr. Ijon Tichy, as he travels to Costa Rica to participate in the eighth world futurological congress. Tichy is a space traveler who is invited to participate by futurologist Professor Tarantoga, who is a recurring character throughout the book. Things are not well in Lem’s caricature of our world: the population is rising at a tremendous rate, terrorism is omnipresent to the point where Tichy’s hotel room comes with a guarantee of being bomb-free, and the members of the congress are desperate to come up with answers. After several futurologists present their own absurd solutions, the meeting becomes the target of a government-administered attack of euphoria inducing “benignimizers,” which are dissolved into the water supply and sprayed into the air. Tichy and Tarantoga escape to the sewers underground, but Tichy suffers from a series of intense hallucinations, in which he sees sewer rats standing upright playing bridge in one moment and is flying around with an imaginary jetpack in the next. Finally, Tichy, believing everything around him to be his hallucinations, is shot by an escaped criminal whose bullet Tichy is sure is just another invention of his own imagination. Our protagonist wakes to learn that he has been preserved for decades in an effort to cure him of his psychological and physical ailments, and now must live in a world where the issues futurologists were tasked with solving are masked from the populace by an abundance of complex drugs suited for any purpose.
This sudden revival in the year 2039 marks a dramatic change in setting as well as style of storytelling. Here, Lem explicitly explains that several of the absurd scenes Tichy witnessed in the past world have been hallucinations. In the later part of the narrative, it is left to the reader to judge the validity of the obviously delusional protagonist’s observations. In both halves of the novel, Lem presents far-fetched, overreaching resolutions to social issues that are exaggerated in the traditional black humor approach to sociopolitical criticism, known well amongst satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Lem’s opinions on such issues manifest themselves in his explanation of the ridiculous policies that allow society to function at a debatable degree of success.
In the first world presented to the reader, Lem demonstrates the absurdity of the congress from which the novel takes its name. The incompetence of Lem’s futurologists and the superfluous fanfare surrounding the whole event is essentially Lem’s criticism of the luxuries enjoyed by powerful men. While they enjoy performances “in which an all-girl orchestra played Bach while performing a cleverly choreographed striptease” (Lem, 6), the world seems to be on its last hinges around them, with the frequent mentions of kidnapped diplomats, assassination attempts, and dwindling resources. When they finally come around to discussing the plights of their society, it is hilariously inefficient:
Each speaker was given four minutes to present his paper, as there were so many scheduled—198 from 64 different countries. To help expedite the proceedings, all reports had to be distributed and studied beforehand, while the lecturer would speak only in numerals… emphatically repeating: 4, 6, 11, and therefore 22; 5,9, hence 22; 3, 7, 2, 11, from which it followed that 22 and only 22! Someone jumped up saying yes but 5, and what about 6, 18, or 4 for that matter; [futurologist] Hazelton countered this objection with the crushing retort that, either way, 22. (20)
The reader may already be scoffing and realizing Lem’s point in criticizing the seemingly organized discussions that are political debates. By the time the next line is read, the reader is likely giggling and shaking his head at the absurdity of the congress as a whole: “I turned to the number key… and discovered that 22 meant the end of the world.”(20)
In the events leading up to our protagonist’s hibernation, we observe the government experimenting with the administration of calming chemical agents upon its citizens. “Benignimizers” are unknowingly consumed; “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs are dropped from planes. Tichy describes his thinking under the influence of such compounds as docile and accepting: “Every analytical reflex was as if submerged in thick syrup, wrapped and smothered in a porridge of self-satisfaction, all dripping with the honey of idiotic optimism…”(16)
The world of the future is where most of Tichy’s narrative takes place, and it is the setting in which the government’s ambitions to control the populace culminates in a final and tremendous abuse of power. Society is manipulated by the administration of various chemicals; meticulously developed variants of the original “benignimizers” of Tichy’s time. Citizens are either coerced into taking these drugs or unknowingly consume them, and are under their influence during every waking moment of their lives. Pills are commercialized for every possible derivative of basic human necessity. For anybody who is lonely, “… you can take a drug called duetine which doubles your consciousness in such a way, that you can hold discussions with yourself on any topic (determined by a separate drug).”(81) For the overly ambitious, there’s “… authentium. Creates synthetic recollections of things that never happened. A few grams… and a man goes around with the deep conviction that he has written The Divine Comedy.”(81) There are apparently even chemicals to alter physical appearance, as Tichy speaks of a group of black men who have effectively changed their ethnicity with the help of a drug called caucasium (97).
As Tichy becomes increasingly familiar with his new environment, he realizes that the societal struggles he was tasked with solving as a futurologist are not only still present, but also have considerably worsened. There are 29.5 billion living people on the planet (67), but somehow Tichy is made to believe that all the strife that defined his previous life had disappeared. It is still not apparent how these drugs managed to inspire such extreme widespread benevolence until we once again meet Professor Tarantoga, this time in the future world. He explains to Tichy that present society is functional due to a heavy dependence on chemicals known as “mascons,” which simultaneously induce sensory, visual, and auditory hallucinations to “falsify the world.”(113) Unbeknownst to Tichy and the entire population, they are administered these mascons with every meal they eat, every glass of water they drink, and every breath they take. The drug is simply everywhere. Over dinner at a luxurious restaurant, Professor Tarantoga offers Tichy a separate, illegal drug that will block the effects of these mascons, and only under its influence does Tichy understand that everything before him is a façade:
The magnificent hall, covered with carpets, filled with palms… the orchestra in the back that played exquisite chamber music while we all dine, all this had vanished. We were sitting in a concrete bunker, at a rough wooden table… The music was still there, but I saw now that it came from a loudspeaker hung on a rusted wire… the silver dish with steaming pheasant had turned into a chipped earthenware plate containing the most unappetizing gray-brown gruel…(114)
Professor Tarantoga brings the point home with a blunt affirmation of an inevitable truth: “Ours is simply a world in which more than twenty billion people live… In such a world, where are you going to find Chablis, pheasants…? The last pheasant died a quarter of a century ago.”(117)
It can be assumed that in some consecutive meeting of futurologists, held while Tichy was nothing but a frozen block of ice awaiting revitalization, this was suggested as a final solution to exponential growth of the population, opposition to authority, free will, and other pitfalls of humanity’s existence: mind-controlling drugs, to be administered forcefully or under the illusion of choice. Over years of chemical experimentation, starting with the benignimizers and Love Your Neighbor bombs of Tichy’s time, it has been found that a mind whose judgment is clouded by a veil of meticulously designed artificial satisfaction is open to complete manipulation. It’s eerie how relevant Lem’s observations remain forty years after Futurological Congress’s publication. In today’s prescription drug culture, chemical imbalances are quickly diagnosed and pills are prescribed to stimulate the brain, relax it, or anything in between. Lem’s fictional authority, so indifferent in its control, also parallels recent reports suggesting an authorized total invasion of our online privacy. Tichy’s memoirs leave us questioning our own relation to our leaders and the psychoactive chemicals we allow ourselves to consume, and Lem’s tongue-in-cheek approach to observing and criticizing these same issues is how he skillfully balances his work between social commentary and science fiction.