The Futurological Congress
by Stanislaw Lem
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm pretty sure The Futurological Congress is only the second of Lem's stories I have read, the other being his novel Solaris. This is a novella featuring one of Lem's recurring characters, Ijon Tichy, a space explorer who also has dealings with various scientific inquiries on Earth. He first appeared in short stories collected in The Star Diaries, published in 1957 but not translated into English until 1976, two years after Congress was translated. In this first-person narrative, Tichy is invited to attend the Eighth World Futurological Congress, to be held at the new Hilton hotel in Costa Rica. In the second sentence he says, "To tell the truth, I never would have gone to Nounas..." I've tried several different Google and Wikipedia searches, and the only references to Nounas, Costa Rica is to this story, along with a Google Maps search that turns up The University of Peace, established in 1980 and located about 20 miles southwest of Costa Rica's capital of San Josť. I'm not sure if it shows prescience on Lem's part or whether it is just serendipitous fate, but the stated mission of the university is exactly what would be needed to prevent the events in this story from taking place.
The futurists in attendance were to discuss the plights of over-population, famine and disease, as well as the many political and cultural turmoils which would complicate arriving at solutions to the problems. The congress is derailed by armed insurrectionists as well as the methods used by military defense forces. It is not clear who placed hallucinogenic agents in the hotel's water supply, but the defense forces also employ various gasses to calm and subdue their foe, so Tichy and almost everyone else suffers from hallucinations. He and a few others make it to the basement of the hotel, but everything Tichy recounts after that is suspect. Is any of it real or is it just the ramblings of a drugged personality? Does he actually experience the days, weeks and even years of events he describes, or it is all happening in a short period of real time, as most of us experience in dreams?
He supposedly is rescued by the military and evacuated by helicopter, which is then downed by enemy fire. Wandering away from the crash site he is picked up by a mysterious woman in a car and taken to a remote cabin. He has sustained injuries and is later taken to a hospital. He awakes to discover he has spent decades in cryonic suspension. As he slowly becomes acclimated to the society around him he discovers that the experimentation into mind-altering drugs has continued to the point that one can imbibe various concoctions in order to experience any type of "reality" imaginable. Everyone seems happy, living in expensive homes and dining on haute cuisine. One of Tichy's acquaintances, and a fellow refugee from the hotel's basement, re-enters the story here, revealing that he has also been transported to the future via cryonic suspension. Since his revival he has endeavored to formulate counter-agents to the ever more prevalent drugs in the atmosphere. When Tichy takes a whiff, the illusion of luxury falls away to reveal the true squalor of his surroundings.
This is a satire, as are many of Lem's stories. There is a lot of humor, but there is a very serious tone underneath. It doesn't matter if what Tichy experiences is real or illusory. What matters is what Lem reveals about human nature, of how we cannot wish away our problems or think we can cure them with "band-aid" solutions. It can be read as sort of a perverse amalgam of previous stories, such as H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (both available as free e-books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Project Gutenberg). It is also possible Lem was poking fun at the drug culture of the time, the "tune-in, turn-on, drop-out" philosophy of Timothy Leary and others. What I took away from the story is that if you want to live in a dream world, be sure it is an attainable one, and also one that benefits everyone, not just yourself.
My review of The Congress, a film loosely based on this story.
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