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Literature / The Star Diaries

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The Star Diaries (Dzienniki gwiazdowe) by Stanisław Lem, often published together with their sequel Memoirs of a Space Traveller, are supposedly the journals and travelogues of Ijon Tichy, a famous space traveller, recording his remarkable adventures exploring the cosmos.

Besides his identity as a pioneer of space exploration and an established travel writer, Ijon Tichy is an amateur scholar who moves in scientific circles both on Earth and around the Galaxy, and, if the need arises, an ambassador of humankind on the parquet of galactic diplomacy (he has even been known to serve his home planet as a secret agent in undercover missions); he is a noble soul wishing to go where no man has gone before, to push the limits of humanity’s horizon and bring the cosmos together in peace, as a brotherhood of all sapient civilizations...

...that, or a charlatan and liar, who makes a living off bamboozling gullible Earth-lubbers with astronautical folklore and hair-raising tall tales too absurd to be believed by anyone with so much as a grain of common sense. Take your pick.

The Star Diaries (first edition in 1957, expanded in 1966 and 1971) consists of short stories, all narrated by its personable Space Munchausen. In the process, the book satirizes or parodies countless science fiction tropes, yet it also explores - in a comical guise, but otherwise quite straightforward - many classical themes of science fiction; such as meeting and interacting with alien civilizations, Time Travel, Artificial Intelligence, and the consequences of technological and scientific progress for humanity.

The sequel, Memoirs of a Space Traveller (1982), also consists of short stories, but differs notably from Star Diaries in that most of the stories are set on Earth and are also quite serious, even dark (though not all of them). Mostly they feature Tichy, now a respected celebrity, meeting eccentric scientists and inventors, and only a few deal with Ijon Tichy’s adventures with alien civilizations.

The character of Ijon Tichy went on to star in three more satirical novels: The Futurological Congress (1971), Wizja Lokalna (1982, no translation), and Peace on Earth (1987).

The Star Diaries were loosely adapted during the late Noughties into a German live action TV show called Ijon Tichy: Raumpilot. The show, a wacky sitcom, invoked a intentionally trashy look with bizarre costumes and consciously corny special effects, and gave Ijon Tichy a thick fake slavic accent.

The Star Diaries provide examples of the following tropes:

  • All Just a Dream: The Eighth Voyage.
  • And I Must Scream: Particularly in the Twenty-Fourth Voyage, where an alien civilization's super computer, who they designed to be perfect and to organize their everyday lives perfectly, starts turning the aliens into shiny disks and arranging them in perfect geometrical patterns and sculptures. It's hinted they don't die in the process.
  • Assimilation Plot: The Thirteenth Voyage has Tichy visit a series of societies that were given laws by "The Great Architect", whom Tichy is travelling to meet. In the last society everyone has been engineered to look exactly the same, and life roles (banker, janitor, wife, child, etc.) are reassigned by lottery every day. This is the Architect's "masterpiece", because it eliminates identity, and thus eliminates death. Tichy then decides the Architect is completely off his rocker, and runs away as fast as possible.
  • Batman Gambit: In The Star Diaries it's paired with a literal Paranoia Gambit. On an alien planet, an uber-computer interprets its directive to make local population perfect as "turn them into black disks". The survivors forbid him from killing any more people, so the computer announces that he will only do so with people who he is told to carry off. Guess what, in the next morning there are a lot more disks...
  • Bio-Augmentation: Taken to the extreme in the Twenty-First Voyage, where the inhabitants of Dykhtonia, who initially were Human Aliens, have started to genetically reform their bodies in so many different ways that the form of one's body has become subject to fashion and politics.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Exaggerated: Ijon Tichy once turned his rocket around and headed back several parsec because he thought he had left his pocket knife in a spaceport cafeteria. (Turns out it was in his pocket all along.)
  • Caused the Big Bang: There's a story where scientists are trying to send into the past a particle which will become the Big Bang (they are also trying to imbue it with the properties to create a better universe... doesn't really work out).
  • Child Hater: The Twenty-Eighth Voyage informs us that Ijon Tichy's grandfather Jeremiah did indeed—"not unlike Aristotle"—dislike children; but the poisoned candy was meant for the jackdaws. The labels on the wrapping paper proof that.
  • Conflict Ball: The entire Seventh Voyage could have been resolved within minutes if Tichy hadn't been beating himself up (literally) for the entire week.
  • Celibate Hero: Tichy is a bachelor and appears to have no interest in women.
  • Dangerous Orbital Debris: In "Ijon Tichy's Open Letter - Save the Cosmos!" he gives, at lenght, his opinion on how full of junk outer space is and how dangerous it gets.
  • Dedication: Parodied. The book contains a foreword by Ijon Tichy's friend Professor Tarantoga. He ends it with saying that nobody helped him in his work, and listing those who set him back would take too much space. Tarantoga also notes that the rumours of some computer-like device called "Lem" having written the memoirs are absolutely ridiculous. Everyone knows that "LEM" stands for "Lunar Excursion Module" and it wasn't nearly advanced enough to write anything.
  • Doorstop Baby: The Twenty-Eighth Voyage reveals that Ijon was found by his father, Auror Tichy, as a Doorstop Baby in front of his spaceship cabin (complete with a note saying "It's yours"). He never found out who the mother was...
  • Failure Is the Only Option: In the Twentieth Voyage, Tichy became the head of an organization from the 27th century that attempts to correct history and create a better world using time travel. However, every plan fails spectacularly due to a combination of mishap, incompetence, and malice resulting in a thoroughly fouled-up world — ie. the one we currently live in.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Used quite often, especially in the Twentieth and the Twenty-First Voyage.
  • Gone Horribly Right:
    • In the Twenty-Second Voyage a missionary teaches a benevolent alien race about martyrdom. Aliens interpret the missionary wants to become a martyr and torture him to death to fulfill his desires.
    • Another missionary succeeds so much in convincing another alien race that Sex Is Evil that they are in the danger of becoming extinct.
  • Human Aliens:
    • The Dykhtonians (Twenty-First Voyage) were initially this, before they started to redesign their own bodies by bioengineering. Throughout the story, Ijon Tichy often even calls them humans "for convenience".
    • Parodied in the Twenty-Fifth Voyage, where a group of Starfish Aliens living on an extremely hot planet discuss the possibility of an intelligent species living in a lower temperature; the oldest one concludes that the existence of such creatures is impossible, and any other sapient species must be exactly like them.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: In the Eighth Voyage, Tichy represents Earth to petition for its admission to the United Planets. The members, who are highly advanced creatures are utterly disgusted and outraged by humans. Their scientific name for humans, instead of Homo sapiens is Monstroteratum Furiosum, the Stinking Meemy, which belongs to the phylum Aberrantia (Deviates, Freaks), the subphylum Antisapientinales (Screwheads), the class Necroludentia (Corpselovers), the order Lasciviaceae (Abominites, or Scumberbutts), and so on. In the end, it turns out that life on Earth was actually created by two crew members of an alien spaceship as some kind of sick joke. Luckily it turns out to be All Just a Dream.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: On the planet of Panta, which Ijon Tichy visits on Voyage no. 13, identity has been abolished in favor of state-assigned social roles that rotate at midnight.
  • Message in a Bottle: The Twenty-Eighth Voyage is Tichy's diary of his last and longest voyage, which he put in "an empty barrel of oxygen" and let drift into space.
  • The Münchausen: It is repeatedly alluded that certain "critics" of Ijon Tichy, the great pioneer of space exploration who knows the galaxy like the back of his hand, think that he is a great big old liar. And though Tichy repeatedly and indignantly rejects such insolent reproaches, it is lampshaded several times that he has not a bit of evidence for all his outrageously wacky adventures. (The later Ijon Tichy books however drop this aspect and everybody seems to take the factuality of his travelogues for granted.)
  • My Own Grampa: In "The Twenty-eighth Voyage", the private log of Cosimo Tichy, captain of a spaceship approaching the speed of light, mentions Cosimo's relative Amphotericus confiding to Cosimo that as a consequence of the latest temporal paradox (accelerating, the ship's stern had "cut across an isochronal"), he is now his own father.
    [A]pparently his time line knotted up into a loop.
  • Noodle Incident: In "The Twenty-eighth Voyage", Ijon Tichy admits that grandfather Jeremiah was unpopular because "not everyone knew how to take his humour"; hence
    the affair with the milkman and the two mailmen, who doubtless would have gone insane anyway because of hereditary predisposition; the more as the skeletons were on bicycles and the pit's depth was no more than two and a half meters.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party:
    • In "The Twenty-eighth Voyage", Ijon Tichy sings the praise of his cousin Arystarch Felix Tichy, a brilliant pioneer of "gastronautics", i.e. the construction of space rockets from edible materials. Ijon Tichy is especially pleased that Arystarch's tasty inventions (such as "macaroni insulation", "cells with alternating currants", or the "semolina noodle drive") have put an end to cannibalism in space, which (he casually mentions) used to be a common occurrence in his youth.
    • Also in "The Twenty-eighth Voyage", Ijon Tichy relates that his ancestor Anonymus Tichy was accused of killing and eating his twin brother while on a one-year voyage in space, undertaken as part of a failed attempt to empirically test the twin paradox (the incriminating evidence was a cookbook discovered in the rocket, with the chapter "Pickling in Outer Space" marked in red).
  • Religious Robot: The robot monks of Dykhtonia, who refuse to connect to other robots, because this would result in an infinite loop of converting each other, which is pointless. They actually have - or so they claim - a 100% proof that God exists - and prefer sitting on it to the constant reprogramming and being reprogrammed.
  • Riddle for the Ages: In the Fourteenth Voyage, Tichy visits the planet Enteropia where they have an activity called "scruption". Tichy can't find out what it is, because the lexicon entries about it all just link to each other. On the planet, all of his attempts to learn more end with the locals leaving in a huff. (Scruption is apparently something sexual, since you can't do it without a wife.)
  • Robotic Reveal: Inverted in the Eleventh Voyage. Tichy, sent in a robot disguise to a planet inhabited solely by machines that are hostile to all humanity, discovers in the story's finale that there is no single robot around the place. All of the alleged machines are in fact secret agents like himself, who have been exposed one by one, and forced to keep up appearances. Furthermore: the computer mastermind behind this plot shows up to be merely a humble human gofer working for the agency responsible for sending all those people on a mission to that planet.
  • Sex Is Evil:
    • In the Twentieth Voyage, Ijon Tichy whines how ugly and misplaced human sexual organs are. It was his fault. Indirectly.
    • Tichy's ancestor Igor Sebastian, whose fate is recalled in the Twenty-Eighth Voyage, created a substance that made sex painful, so humanity wouldn't be controlled by carnal desires anymore. When he put it into the water supply of his city, he was lynched.
  • Space Pirates: Parodied in "The Twenty-eighth Voyage", when Ijon Tichy tells of his grandfather Euzebius, a space pirate. Euzebius would lure rockets off course by "scatter[ing] tiny flashlights along the Milky Way", then fall upon the duped and plunder them. Because of his habit of simply chucking dead bodies into space, over time there formed a cloud of corpses forever orbiting his black rocket. Ijon Tichy also mentions that interplanetary piracy is generally unprofitable and therefore practically inexistent; indeed Euzebius (says Ijon Tichy) had no material motives, but was a Romantic idealist who wished "to bring back the venerable Earth tradition of piracy on the high seas". Since Euzebius would frequently wait for years for rockets to prey upon, and therefore suffer terribly from boredom, he would after a completed robbery give back his victims all their belongings and let them travel on, then overtake them again to board and plunder them once more ("this would happen six, even ten times in a row").
  • Starfish Aliens: Most of them — especially in the Eighth Voyage, which has Ijon Tichy mistake an alien ambassador for a soda machine.
  • Tall Tale: Played with — it's never clear if Tichy "really" had all those wacky adventures, or whether he is just telling tall tales.
  • Time Police: The Twentieth Voyage reveals that in the 27th century there will be a "tempolice force" with the task to hunt down corrupt and criminal time travellers.
  • Time Travel Episode: Several, and Ijon Tichy juggles the Timey-Wimey Ball in all those, the most amusing instance probably being the episode when Tichy, caught in a time loop, is banged on the head with a saucepan wielded by a future version of himself (then goes on to bang a saucepan on the head of a past version of himself). For a week.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Ijon Tichy, as he presents himself.
  • The Unreveal: What the heck is scruption?
  • Veganopia: The advanced aliens in the Eighth Voyage do not eat other creatures, and are disgusted by humans for not only eating meat but doing so proudly.

Memoirs of a Space Traveller provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Artifact Title: In-universe. "The Washing-Machine Tragedy" is a story (in the style of Zach Weiner) about two washing machine vendors trying to outcompete each other. Very soon their products cease to resemble "washing machines" in any way.
  • Brain in a Jar: Professor Corchoran creates AI's that have no connection to the real world - all their sensory data comes from the tapes set by him. They don't know about it, except for one who suspects - Corchoran himself thinks the same is the case with everybody. Another, slightly more mad scientist creates an AI copy of Corchoran's mind, as well, but this copy is aware of his situation.
  • Bulungi: The neighboring nations Lamblia and Gurunduwaju in "Professor A. Dońda".
  • Caused the Big Bang: Professor Dońda works out that Big Bangs are caused by information amassing, and that humanity is just about to excess the critical "mass", which would erase all the world's databases and create a tiny universe. Nobody believes him. And then it happens.
  • Famed In-Story: From Memoirs of a Space Traveller onward, Ijon Tichy's celebrity status on Earth is well-established, and often the set-up for new adventures.
  • Freak Lab Accident: Dońda was conceived in one, when gene sample from a (female) bolivian prisoner got accidentally used to fertilize another woman's egg. Frog DNA may or may not have been mixed into it, explaining how he can be male.
  • Inside a Computer System: Corchoran's experimental brains were never people - he created them from scratch, but they're nevertheless trapped in a virtual reality. One of them, the "madman", thinks that paranormal ocurrences like prophecies or telepathy are the result of an error in the illusion that is his reality.
  • Mad Scientist: Not Tichy himself, but he tends to be sought after by (or seek) people like that. Sometimes they want his help, sometimes he wants to hear about their work.
  • Meaningful Name: Professor Affidavit Dońda plays with this trope, since his name is the result of two clerical errors (a Turkish airport official not knowing what an affidavit is, and a guy in the artificial insemination lab yelling "don't do it!" at the other lab worker as he mixed up the samples, which resulted in Dońda being conceived), and he can't be bothered to change it.
  • Mood Whiplash: Purely satirical stories are followed by completely serious ones on hard SF themes like the creation of a truly independent mechanical intelligence, or the horror of having an immortal soul without a body. Partially caused by the book being a collection of short stories written over a period of about twenty years.
  • Red-Flag Recreation Material: In "The Eleventh Voyage", one of the reasons for the Calculator's alleged rebellion and vicious hatred of humanity is that he absorbed the rather colorful arrangement of books and documents from his starship's cargo, including protocols of meetings of the cannibal section of Neanderthal writers' union, three fictional Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the biography of Jack the Ripper, and the memoirs of Marquis de Sade.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Apart from the "washing machines" (some of whom become successful artists and entrepreneurs who employ human servants, including washerwomen), most robots Tichy encounters are, in fact, ridiculously human. Some are actually human, posing as robots.
  • Robotic Reveal: In one story, the aggressive competition of two producers of washing machines leads to multitudes of intelligent, human-looking washing machines posing as people. Some of the machines even get themselves elected into the Congress, which is illegal and leads to establishment of a new tradition, namely, knocking the congressmen with a large hammer before each session to check whether they're metal or not. The story ends with Tichy taking part in a debate and realising he's the only human in the room.
  • Super-Powered Robot Meter Maids: The entire washing machines business starts with the creation of washing machines that can talk, do taxes, nurse babies and so on. It escalates through Sex Bot "washing" machines into machines that can't really wash clothes, but can pass as humans.
  • They Called Me Mad!: Professor Dońda is ridiculed by the scientific community for his work on "śvarnetics", or computerisation of magical spells. However, what he's actually trying to prove is that information can turn into mass and form a new universe, which requires filling computer disks with information, the actual value of which being completely irrelevant. Still, Dońda is quite bitter towards other scientists. Tichy himself is never quite sure whether Dońda is a crackpot, pretending to be a crackpot, considered a crackpot and running with it or any combination of the above. For what it's worth, his theory proves correct.
  • Time Travel: A much darker example than usual has a hapless inventor test his prototype time machine in Tichy's living room making a trip 50 years into the future - realizing too late that the trip actually will take him 50 years. And the machine has no emergency brake.
  • Time-Traveling Jerkass: In "The Twentieth Voyage", time travelers involved in the project of Optimization of Historical Processes in the 27th century are supposed to Set Right What Once Went Wrong, while in reality, many of them use time travel just to act on their rivalries with their own colleagues or to commit crimes they wouldn't get away with in their own time. For example, the fall of the Aztec Empire at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores turns out to be the result of project supervisors P. Latton and Harry S. Totel trying to spite and discredit each other.
  • Unwilling Roboticisation: Played with. In Dr. Vliperdius' psychiatric ward for robots, Tichy meets a robot friend of his who has developed a delusion that he was previously a human who one day woke up transformed into a robot, and that "they" have "stolen his body".
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: In one story, Tichy meets Decantor, an inventor who constructed an immortal soul. For that purpose, he had destroyed the body of his wife and kept her consciousness in a box, without any external stimuli. Tichy realizes that this is a fate worse than death and finally convinces Decantor that people don't want immortality; they just want to live.

Alternative Title(s): Memoirs Of A Space Traveller