Literary Mashup: Stanislaw Lem and Marge Piercy

The best musical mashups are those that combine songs that have some sort of superficial resmblance but in fact are quite different. There’s a common theme, but they use different rhythms, instruments, and words to get their point across. They end up complementing each other real good. Real good. Putting a cowbell track over the 1812 overture would not be a good mashup. Putting Natalie Cole alongside Nat King Cole would be commercially successful, but without new information. Put Snoop Dogg with Led Zeppelin or Debbie Harry with the Doors and now you’ve got something.

Reading The Cyberiad (Lem) and Woman on the Edge of Time (Piercy) was an experience I can only describe as a literary mashup. Superficially they’re both science fiction. They both “predict” the future. They’re both dystopic if you choose to see them that way. And they’re both optimistic if you’re into that point of view. I only come to that conclusion, though, because I read them at the same time. First a story from Lem, then a chapter from Piercy, then another Lem story and another Piercy chapter.

The Cyberiad is whimsical in a George Orwell/Jonathan Swift sort of way. The world consists now of nothing but robots who are vain, petty, and greedy. In other words, just like humans. It seems like a childish story with an added feature of excellent word play. Reads like Dr. Seuss. From a literary standpoint, this book is a work of genius. I’m not sure if the genius was Lem or his translator, Michael Kandel. It’s hard to believe the jokes started out in Polish. They’re so Englishy.

“The briliant Cerebron…discovered three distinct types of dragon: the mythological, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical…And then there were the imaginary dragons, and the a-, anti-, and minus-dragons (colloquially termed nots, noughts, and oughtn’ts by the experts), the minuses being the most interesting on account of the well-known dracological paradox: when two minuses hypercontiguate (an operation in the albegra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real non-plusser.”

I mean, do they have words in Polish like “nonplusser” and “oughtn’t” that work so well here?

Marge Piercy’s work is straight up from a literary standpoint. No jokes, no special word play, no outlandish style. The two pieces are as different as black and white. Already they’re a good choice for a mashup. Here’s two stories that predict the future based on current thought. Lem takes the Singularity head on and accepts its precepts, showing us a world full of robots and no palefaces, the term used for the albumen-laden beings once called human. Piercy denies the Singularity will ever take place though we’ll still have ever more advancing technology. In her story no robots or androids will take over the planet.

The real difference between the two stories, though, is mood. Pierce gives us a Utopia in the vein of Thomas More. Like More, her Utopia-building tends to get tedious. There’s so much to describe in how a better world would look according to Marge Piercy, we get bogged down in the details. Taking the idea seriously as she does, it’s hard for her to interject jokes the way Lem does. Lem never takes his world seriously so he can constantly make fun of it. We never worry while reading Lem. We’re constantly in fear while reading Pierce. And yet she’s giving us a Utopia. What’s to be afraid of?

Mostly we’re afraid that we’re never going to get there. We just don’t believe we’re ever going to reach the sort of communal love that is required to make this world happen. The characters don’t say their social structure holds together because of love, but as outsiders to the Utopia, we get the feeling that good old fashioned hippy love is what is keeping everything together. The book was published in the 70s and we know how the story from the 70s ended. It ended in the 80s. We are now fully skeptical of hippy love. But Piercy herself was skeptical when she wrote it. She fully admits a war of the storming-the-Bastille- variety created the new enlightened way of life. In this case corporate life and mass culture died a clean death at the guillotine. Everything changed seemingly overnight and now, although our ever marching technological progress has made life more fun, healthy, and rich in a dairy creamer way, we’ve lost our competitive nature. Big money is no longer driving our technology. We are advanced technologically because it’s good for us, not because there’s a market for it. We’ve lost the nuclear family and in its place have a huge extended family where everyone is related to everyone else, simply because we don’t really know who our parents are and in fact we’re all in vitro fertilized and gestated anyway.

See what I mean here about not believing we could get there. It would take a serious chopping off of aristocratic heads to get to this, but legally, formally, on paper, written down, recorded on microfiche, there is no aristocracy anymore so whose heads are we to lop?

Anyway there you have it: two views of our possible futures. One with humans using technology to evolve into something totally non-biological; the other humans technologically advancing into a kinder, gentler, more human model of humans. How different can two books that are about the same thing be?

In all fairness, these two futures could actually both happen since Lem’s future is way, way, way in the future and Piercy’s is only a hundred years or so. Pierce’s story is actually much more realistic, though. More believable. It stars humans so naturally, I would say that. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t far fetched, which it is.

Next mashup: Robert Graves’ Greek Mythology and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s bookshelf at




Literary Mashup: Stanislaw Lem and Marge Piercy — 3 Comments

  1. Really interesting article, Sue — lots to think about.

    As for Graves & Dreamsnake — That will be a kick to read.

    Maybe it will get me back to work on the Minoan alternate history.


  2. I -loved- The Cyberiad and still do – lots of Lem is just plain way terrific. I used the Piercy in several Intro to WMST classes and had some students really really like it.

  3. Yeah, it’s funny Vonda, I’m just now reading Graves and I’m learning stuff about the pre-hellenic Greeks that I had no previous knowledge of. Now I’m actually starting to get some of the stuff spec fiction writers like you are writing about.

    Cat: “Lots of Lem” sounds like it could be a blogtalk show or something. “All Lem, All the Time.”