My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is often compared to the work of Philip K Dick, ostensibly because of its theme of drug-induced hallucinations, but I suspect it’s more so because of Lem’s admiration for PKD as “the only worthwhile American science-fiction writer.”
For me, I’m much more reminded of Brave New World by Alduous Huxley. The same, basic concept is behind the story, even though Huxley’s work is a “serious novel” and this one is anything but. While The Futurological Congress has many deep ideas, it’s delivery is just about as far-fetched as can be. Lem’s decision to make this a shorter novel was a good one, because I’m not sure how much more of the book anyone could take; it’s all world-building, and the narrative is only an excuse to explore the satirical, over-the-top world Lem has crafted. Truth be told, there’s very little plot and characterization here, and though I often put the ideas and concepts used in a novel far above these elements, I must confess that the book’s world-building-only approach ruined my enjoyment of it—but as for the ideas:
The Futurological Congress takes place in a comically over-populated future Earth, one in which society has decayed to a vulgar and violent level, and Ijon Tichy—our protagonist—is attending a meeting of futurists held in Costa Rica. The depiction of this meeting is one of the novel’s best devices: one by one, inane suggestions as to how to handle the ever growing population of Earth are voiced by the hundreds of intellectuals in the room. These proposals range from a restructuring of the role of the family in society, to a comical vision of the future where everyone changes apartments every day “so people don’t get bored” and dissatisfied with the cramped living conditions of the future.
Following a violent protest at the hotel which the Congress is being held at, Ijon and a few other intellectuals escape into the sewers, fleeing the mass violence and LTN bombing above—short for Love They Neighbor, a bomb which causes its victims to enter into an enthralling state of ecstasy in which their love for all humankind brings them to their knees and leaves them weeping, unable to fathom how deep their appreciation for their fellow man is.
While inside the sewers, Ijon is killed, only to be revived inside the body of another human being—made possible by a brain transplant—and then frozen. He wakes up even further into the future as a “defrostee,” and finds that civilization has finally achieved equilibrium. The birth rate has been brought under control and the populace is pacified through an endless variety of happiness inducing drugs. It is a strange utopia; for example, bank loans are given to anybody and everybody without the legal requirement to pay them back, because the conscience of every citizen is so heightened by the drugs in their system that almost no individual can resist the nagging urge to repay their debt. In fact, one of the few illegal actions there is in this society is to withhold another citizen’s supply of psychem—the mass produced, ever-present, happiness-bringing drug.
But of course—and here is where I suspect we are tempted to draw similarities between PKD—the reality Ijon finds himself a part of is only a façade. In actuality, there is another drug omnipresent in the world, though with this one there is no avoiding its consumption as it is present in the air itself. Called a “mascon,” this drug hides the ugly reality beneath the veil of hallucination. People are nothing more than decaying, broken bodies patched up with artificial limbs; their buildings are crumbling and decaying; their gourmet food is in actuality a bucket of carbon matter, in front of which they drop to their knees and grab handfuls of its contents with their skinless fingers, eating straight out of the bucket. Needless to say, Ijon is shocked by this reality, but he is told off by a soothsayer—an individual who is given yet another drug to null the effect of the mascon—who says the real difficulty is being outside of the illusion, making sure the illusion is preserved for everyone else. He calls it the final moral act. As humanity is approaching the end and the Earth is dying, he says at least there are those willing to make the end tolerable for everyone else.
While The Futurological Congress’s narrative approach changes halfway through the book, and it is nothing more than an excuse for Lem to write down all of his most comical ideas, it still has the finishing touch of a master storyteller and novelist. It ends with a final twist and the beautiful image of Ijon watching a futurologist’s paper floating away into the “unknown future.” It’s a powerful sentiment, one which is almost at odds with the jocular nature of the story.