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Literature / Tales of Pirx the Pilot

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Tales of Pirx the Pilot is a collection of short stories by Stanisław Lem, first published in 1968 in Poland, and was translated to English in two parts (Tales of Pirx the Pilot & More Tales of Pirx the Pilot).

The stories follow Pirx, a cadet at the "Institute", an academy for astronauts in the near future, as he makes his way through the ranks of student, patrol pilot, and finally astrogator (read: captain of a spaceship).In this future, travel within the Solar System is an everyday thing, and mankind has begun to colonize it. Most stories are thus set either in space or on the moon, as "Luna" represents one of the most important bases for humanity. Later on in the book, Mars is also being colonized.

The main focus of the books is, unsurprisingly, on space travel and how mankind uses and is changed by it. Another main theme is how robots and computers act and evolve, with a healthy, realistic dose of What Measure Is a Non-Human? The future itself is described in rather gritty tones and quite hard science fiction (The author was known for being Hard on Soft Science). A sort-of-sequel (or possibly conclusion) to these stories is the novel Fiasco, in which Pirx doesn't technically appear, but his protege does.

A film called The Inquest of Pilot Pirx based on the story "The Inquest" from More Tales of Pirx the Pilot was released in 1979.

Tales of Pirx the Pilot provides examples of:

  • 2-D Space: Averted. The protagonist navigates above the ecliptic a lot, actually. Pirx's Tale mentions that navigating within the ecliptic is dangerous and illegal, although sometimes done.
  • Absent Aliens: Played straight, and subverted (maybe?) in Pirx's Tale.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Played with a lot. Computers and robots become more human over the course of the stories, up to and including human flaws. Played dead straight in The Inquest. Mostly, though, technology is unreliable in a Million to One Chance simply because no human has ever imagined this Million to One Chance ocurring.
  • The Alcoholic: The radio operator in Pirx's Tale. He's a Functional Addict, more or less, but incredibly passive-agressive (he knocks on the table in Morse code to insult his collegues at dinner) and invariably becoming a miserable drunk towards the evening.
  • The Alleged Car: Blue Star from Terminus is a literal piece of space junk rebuild into a new ship from bits and pieces and outfitted with a new reactor. How bad is it? It can barely reach second cosmic velocity during the lift-off, while overloading said reactor in the process and leaking all sorts of fluids from the piping. Pirx's entire comfort comes from the fact that others managed to fly this bucket of bolts and it has been given a green light by the safety commitee, so maybe he will luck out with his freight, too.
  • All Just a Dream: In The Test,the titular test is actually a simulated flight.
  • And I Must Scream: A version appears in The Conditional Reflex: students of the Institute must pass a test where they have to endure sensory deprivation for as long as possible. After several hours, this becomes... troubling.
  • Asteroid Thicket: Averted. In Pirx's Tale the spaceship Pirx commands was maneuvering in an asteroid cloud for several hours without even seeing one asteroid, although people not in the business tend to expect it like it's in the movies.
  • Character Development: Only natural, considering that we follow Pirx from a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to an experienced space captain. His calm, inquisitive nature is pretty much a constant, but young Pirx has some adorably boyish notions he gets disabused of.
  • Chalk Outline: In The Conditional Reflex, Pirx notices the chalk outline in the lunar station, where one of the previous crew died (of asphyxiation, he had a broken helmet).
  • The Coconut Effect: Happens in-universe in Albatross. The luxury liner Pirx is travelling by has an observation deck modeled after a classic ocean-going vessel. Including an AC system designed to provide it with chilling "sea" wind "blowing" from the bow, while cozy blankets are neatly folded on the seats, waiting for passengers. Pirx comments how pointless it all is - and how expensive to maintain - but at the same time fitting the "civilian expectations".
  • Continuity Nod: In The Inquest Pirx discovers a fly on his ship and mentions that he hates them. This is a nod to the very first story, The Test, where flies were responsible for some tomfoolery. Also, in The Accident he thinks back to Terminus and decides it's plainly and simply unfair of humans to build thinking robots to slave away for them. He also decides that, in a unlikely event of robots revolting, he'll take their side, which he doesn't actually do in The Inquest.
  • Contrived Coincidence: One of Lem's specialties. For instance, in The Conditional Reflex the incident Pirx is investigating could only have happened in a very specific set of circumstances, one of which is that a member of the crew must be cooking ommelettes. Pirx and his crewmate still manage to recreate it.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Played for some very dark laughs in the end of The Patrol - Pirx manages to shake off his Space Madness, knocks his own tooth in the process and figures out what was causing the other pilots to get seizures and vanish in space. Once he goes back to Earth and hands in his report... the whole credit for this discovery goes to the scientists analysing Pirx telemetry and testimony, while the pilot remains anonymous. The narration then dryly notes Pirx had to pay for the new tooth from his own meager wage.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: The Morse Code is alive and well, and quite commonly used - at least as an emergency method of communication. And sometimes in other, much creepier context...
  • The Everyman: Pirx, bordering on Ridiculously Average Guy. And it's the whole point of those stories - the era of heroic, bold explorers of the outer space is long gone and he's just a guy that does boring freight jobs and menial missions, not particularly skilled, but also far from incompetent. He's just an average Joe in an increasingly average space - a complete novelty when it was written in the late 50s.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The crew of the Blue Star/Coriolanus in Terminus. The ship collides with meteorites and gets partially destroyed. Yet some of the crew manage to survive, trapped and separated from each other on different decks. They are still able to communicate in Morse code using the pipes, if only to tell each other they were slowly running out of air...
    • And then it gets worse. The ship's robot somehow "catches on" the personalities of the dying crew and keeps them in its electronic brain. When Pirx, given the captain's chair on the refitted and renamed ship, encounters this robot, it beats out the Morse code as used by the said crew on pipes, while it's mending the pipes. And when Pirx tries to communicate with them they reply. He eventually orders the destruction of the robot due to the "total decay of brain function".
  • False Crucible: The Test requires the cadets to perform a series of dangerous maneuvers in a falling-apart rocket. Except it's all an elaborate simulation in a fully controlled environment, checking future pilots for their ability to act under extreme stress.
  • Feeling Their Age: In Ananke Pirx (himself in his late thirties) notes how space pilots are always pushed into retirement before they turn fifty, for medical reasons. They always try to wriggle out of it. This helps him figure out that his old captain, now a programmer of navigational computers has been grounded because of OCD that he already had when commanding Pirx.
  • First-Person Smartass: In Pirx's Tale Pirx himself is narrating, and shows off his snarky character.
  • Fly Crazy: The Test. Pirx, like every other cadet, must complete a "test flight" in a one-person ship, where he gets a fairly important task to do. (He never asks himself why something like that would even be trusted to a rookie.) But it's actually a simulation to determine a pilot candidate's coping skills in stressful situations, hence everything keeps going wrong. One of the things that go wrong is a fly somehow ending up in the cockpit, wandering into the wiring and getting fried, which causes a short-circuit and a proper emergency situation. Pirx manages not to lose his head and "survives" the simulation, but his colleague, The Ace whom Pirx has pegged as Always Someone Better than him, does crash.
  • Forbidden Fruit: After two incidents of rockets going missing in space with no apparent cause, pilots in The Patrol are forbidden from bringing unauthorised or personal items to their ships. Directly as a result of that regulation, Pirx takes pride from managing to smuggle in a small skill toy about saving three little pigs - even if he can't play with it in microgravity.
  • Foreshadowing: Terminus begins with some Scenery Porn regarding the Blue Star and spaceships launching. In the middle of it, Pirx hears a disembodied voice calling and tries to find the person who spoke. It might have been just a dockhand, but... Later he encounters many more disembodied voices of people who aren't there, because they actually died and only "live" in Terminus's memory.
  • Genre Shift: The Conditional Reflex is like a mystery story ON THE MOON!
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Pirx does this to himself in The Patrol. But instead of slapping himself, he proceeds to kick his face with a knee - since he's strapped tightly to the pilot's chair - until his face is a bloodied, bruised mess with one of teeth knocked out. But at least the pain and adrenaline allow him to finally sync out of a seizure-inducing blinking on one of his display panels.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Subverted, as the computers and robots usually only show one trait of human intellect at a time.
    • But they are silicon crystal-based, with the inherent variety, and Pirx does muse about the individuality it may or may not give them.
  • Helpless Observer Protagonist: In Albatross, two spaceships are lost due to a nuclear reactor explosion in full view of Pirx, and he can do nothing at all to help. First, he is currently flying as a passenger and not as a pilot, second, the ship he's on is a luxury liner and the crew can't risk the passengers' safety by getting closer to the disaster, so the space traffic controller commands them to leave.
  • Improvised Microgravity Maneuvering: The radio operator from Pirx's Tale has a habit of just tossing whatever junk he happens to have in his pockets, without regard for other crewmembers' safety. That's one of his less annoying traits.
  • Lack of Empathy: Played With. In Albatross, the passengers of the Titan space liner are never informed about the emergency situation and that Titan is providing assistance to other ships, solely to prevent panic on-board. The resulting maneuvers and acceleration means the on-going dance in the ball room has to be stopped, making the dancers impatiently demand to know when they will be allowed to go back to the party. Their demand reaches the bridge right when the crew is witnessing the destruction of the two ships they were trying to assist after picking a distress signal.
  • Last-Name Basis: A recurring theme, to keep up with the semi-nautical references and somewhat militarised aspect of the space flight. Numerous characters, Pirx included, are only addressed by their rank or surname and are rarely given a name.
  • Murderous Malfunctioning Machine: The Setaur robot in The Hunt seems to run on this - it was a mining robot before it went nuts.
  • No Name Given: We never learn Pirx's first name. Not even in Fiasco.
  • Only Sane Man: Pirx has Working-Class Hero-style common sense and decency which makes him appear as one throughout the tales.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Navigation in space mostly consists of looking at trajectories and calculator (computer) outputs.
  • The Plan: In The Inquest, bordering on a Gambit Pileup and Take a Third Option. It's kind of hard to explain.
    • More like Xanatos Speed Chess, really - it all boiled down to Pirx being unpredictable, or in any case, acting less "logically" than the robot expected.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: The Inquest has some of them among the ship's crew. It's a test of their spaceman capability.
    • Robots behaving in surprisingly human ways are central to at least two of the stories.
  • Scaling the Summit: Pirx's hobby (Author Appeal, too - Lem was an avid mountaneer). In Conditional Reflex he takes time to discuss mountaneering and get some useful tips on climbing on the Moon from a scientist stationed there. In The Accident, he climbs a mountain in search for a robot which, as Pirx notes, didn't have to climb to fulfill its task - but the summit was there. Afterwards, when they prepare to leave the planet without the robot, Pirx finds himself doing the tasks the robot would normally be doing. This gives him pause.
  • Scenery Porn: The spaceport scene opening Terminus has to be read for the sheer Mundane Made Awesome.
  • Scenery Gorn: In Ananke, the crash site of the Ariel.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Pirx outright says that in Ananke:
    Pirx: Rules are not sacred to me.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: For all the grit in the setting, the stories have a rather optimistic tone of mankind somehow getting on. For Lem's standards, they're downright cheery.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Heavily downplayed. Apparently spaceships still fall under the Lloyd's Register, some ranks and terminology match and at least some luxury civilian flights are given an extra appearance of being "just like in the ocean" as a marketing gimmick, but other than that, space itself is treated like a 3D environment, with all the physics, navigation and actions matching real science attached to it.
  • Space Madness/Sanity Slippage: In The Patrol Pirx goes through one of those. He gets better, though. In another story, set in Pirx's cadet days, he lasts seven hours in a sensory deprivation tank, a record for his class, and the description of his experiences is pretty trippy.
  • Space Trucker: Ever increasing number of people are doing this as their job. Pirx himself gets jigs as a freight pilot when needing extra cash between more requiring missions and it's implied to be a regular situation for many pilots and astrogators. However, the job still has strict requirements, takes years of intense training and selection and is no joke, so it's not entirely stripped out of an elite status, even if trivial by itself.
  • The Spock: The Nonlinears in The Inquest are Ridiculously Human Robots to the point where you'd need a medical examination to tell they're not human. But they lack intuition and ability to pick the relevant out of a flood of data or to approximate solutions, since these are connected to creativity, of which they have none. The two Pirx meets also claim to have no emotional life, although he notes the prideful tone in what they say. It's unclear whether or not they can lie.
  • Starship Luxurious: The Titan in Albatross is a luxury liner IN SPACE!
  • Take That!: There is a handful of jabs toward Great Britain and its Vestigial Empire status at the time of writing, along with its general lackluster performance in the space exploration and modern engineering. And it's not particularly subtle.
  • Taking the Bullet: In Hunt, Setaur pushes Pirx away and covers him from incoming laser, despite having no real reason to do so. It is later revealed the shooter took Pirx himself for the target.
  • There Are No Therapists: In Ananke, while a captain suffering from a definitely-not-played-for-laughs obsessive-compulsive disorder has been grounded, there's no indication he's been given any sort of help. It's quite possible that he himself rejected it, and, as he's a very private person, Pirx, who only knew him professionally, wouldn't know about that. Still, Pirx only realises in hindsight that his old captain was such a handful because of a mental health issue.
  • United Nations Is A Super Power: At least in space, as they supervise the most important projects and have the judicial power.
  • Universal Universe Time: Inverted, as every planet, moon and spaceship has its own time, often leading to extreme jetlags for the ships' crews. This may be part of why Pirx Must Have Caffeine.
  • Unwinnable Training Simulation: Subverted. While The Test involves a tough virtual simulation, it is perfectly winnable and expected to be passed. The "trick" is to keep your head clear, remember your training and stay focused on your task no matter what, which are pre-requested qualities for a future space pilot. And if you can't do that, you're simply not cut for the job.
  • Used Future: So run-down there are shady South-American companies cashing in on the scrap metal orbiting Mercury, while old wrecks are being rebuild back into "new" freighters.
  • Virtual Training Simulation: In The Test. Pirx doesn't know about it, which is the point of the test (they're testing new pilots' coping skills in an actual crisis situation).
  • Wham Episode: Albatross. Two fully staffed starships are lost in an nuclear accident, and all the protagonist can do is watch.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Hunt is set up as a standard Murderous Malfunctioning Machine scenario. Except, in the end, Setaur saves Pirx's life and he repays that by gunning the robot down. Pirx feels really, really bad about this.
  • Working-Class Hero: Pirx combines being no-nonsense, outside-the-box thinking guy with, at the same time, lack of any training beyond the requirements of his station. He considers the whole space piloting thing a job like any other. It's even used as a plot point in The Inquest, where his unflappable common sense is both what saves the day and why he's picked for the test in the first place.
  • Zeerust: The larger computers still run on punch hole cards, and satellites communicate using Morse code.
    • Zeerust Canon: Eventually, with the final short story Ananke and especially Fiasco, the outdated technology remains a part of the setting, regardless of real-life advances in computing and space technologies. To put it in some perspective, Fiasco came out the year of Challenger's disaster.