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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 withing 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 of 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 SF (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 in Pirx's Tale.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • All Just a Dream: In The Test, even though it's actually a simulation.
  • 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.
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  • Asteroid Thicket: Averted. In Pirx's Tale the spaceship Pirx is on 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.
  • 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, where flies were responsible for some tomfoolery like almost crashing into the freaking moon.
  • 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...
  • 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".
  • First-Person Smartass: In Pirx's Tale Pirx himself is narrating, and shows off his snarky character.
  • Fly Crazy: The Test.
  • Genre Shift: The Conditional Reflex is like a mystery story ON THE MOON!.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Murderous Malfunctioning Machine: The robot in The Hunt seems to run on this - it was a mining robot before it went nuts.
  • Only Sane Man: Pirx has a streak of Working-Class Hero-style common sense and decency which makes him appear as such throughout the tales.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Navigation in space mostly consists of looking at trajectories and calculator outputs.
  • The Plan: In The Inquest, bordering on a Gambit Pileup and Take a Third Option. It's kind of hard to explain.
  • 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 one of the stories, 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.
  • Scenery Porn: The spaceport scene in "Terminus".
  • Scenery Gorn: In Ananke, the crash site of the Ariel.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: For all the grit in the setting, the stories have a rather optimistic tone of mankind somehow getting on.
  • Space Madness / Sanity Slippage: In The Patrol Pirx goes through one of those. He gets better, though.
  • Starship Luxurious: The Titan in Albatross.
  • 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.
  • Used Future: So run-down there are shady South-American companies cashing in on the human garbage orbiting Mercury.
  • 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.
  • Zeerust: The larger computers still run on punch hole cards, and satellites communicate using Morse code.


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