Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Problems of universal importance

Proud Beggars, by Albert Cossery, is a very funny book, and proved to be a delicious palate cleanser after having read a couple detail-intensive historical novels that went on a bit too long.

Written in 1955, Proud Beggars is surprisingly fresh, and in light of the Arab Spring, its revolutionary spirit can be viewed as relevant — not exactly prescient, but insightful into a simmering antiestablishment, life-affirming attitude.

It's set in Cairo, and in the second chapter there's a murder in a brothel. We know who did it — this is no police procedural or cat-and-mouse tale.

The story is about three friends, barely concerning itself with how they are implicated in the murder.

The novel starts with Gohar, who lives ascetically in a single room in a slum. He wakes to find it flooded and determines that the best course of action is to do nothing and wait for a miracle. But he's freaking out, so finally he makes a run for it, and only once he's well away from the building does he realize he's left his drugs behind, but he's too freaked out to go back. He spends the rest of the day affected by paranoia and hallucinations and sudden clarity and withdrawal, trying to track down his dealer. He dreams of finding passage to Syria where he can spend his days frolicking through fields of hashish. He gave up his professorial gig at the university some time ago; his literary talent now earns him some coin at the brothel, for to "write the love letters of illiterate whores seemed to him work worthy of human interest."

Yeghen is (he seems to think) a very ugly man, which quality is deemed to be central to his character, that of romantic and poet — a popular poet, a populist poet, giving the people voice in the people's own language. He makes his living by dealing drugs and, no doubt, engaging in other nefarious activities.

El Kordi is a revolutionary in his head, but by day he plays the role of government clerk:

It was eleven in the morning. Seated behind his desk in the Ministry of Public Works, El Kordi was growing bored watching the flies buzz about. The large room, lit by high windows and containing several desks behind which other clerks were labouring, was as odious to him as a prison. It actually was a sordid kind of prison, where one was in eternal contact with common-law prisoners. El Kordi would have accepted being in prison, but in a private cell, as a political prisoner. His rancor against such overcrowding derived from noble, aristocratic instincts of which he was not at all aware. He was embittered by the lack of privacy that became intolerable in the long run. How could he reflect at ease on problems of universal importance in front of these dusty, congealed figures devoted to unending slavery? To protest against this injustice, El Kordi abstained from practically all work, intending thereby to show his disapproval and his spiritual independence. But since no one noticed his protest, he grew bored.


From his chair, he distractedly contemplated his sorry colleagues and thought he saw the chains of slavery everywhere. These constraints imposed on his freedom several hours each day made him extremely sensitive to the sorrows of the oppressed masses of the universe. He stirred in his chair and sighed loudly. Some of the slaves, seriously occupied with their work, raised their heads and gave him a look full of incomprehension. El Kordi answered these sad looks with a kind of aggressive pout. He despised all of them. The revolutions would not be carried out by this wretched breed. They'd been there several years — how many, no one could say — rooted to their chairs, covered with dust, with their mummified faces. A veritable museum of horrors. At the thought that one day he might be like them, El Kordi shivered and felt like leaving at one. But then he told himself that it wasn't yet a decent hour to go, and so he stayed on quietly being bored.

Besides the motley trio, the investigating police inspector is himself quite a character, a man of peculiar habits and aspirations. He rounds out the novel's absurdities and brings it to a perfect close.

Along the way, adding to the rich tapestry of impoverished Cairo life: Yeghen's mother ("She was skilled in the art of distilling sadness; she spun misery like a spider its web."); the consumptive whore El Kordi intends to save; and Gohar's limbless beggar-neighbour and his jealous wife.

Despite the material poverty of the surroundings, there's a freedom of spirit and life-is-beautiful vibe throughout the book, and it's more than implied that such joie is absent among the oppressors, and only through relinquishing bourgeois extravagances can one know what is truly important. Of course, so many ideas are turned upside down in this book; ironically, the dead whore's life isn't given much value at all — she's of no consequence, just a casualty of the revolutionary ideas of a few self-important, if beggarly, men. So it seems Cossery is mocking the life-is-beautiful attitude as much as he's embracing it. Either way, it's something to smile about.

The novel has been adapted to a graphic format (French original, Mendiants et orgueilleux), extracted in Words without Borders.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The taste of the Russian peasant

The thespian side of Elizabeth's soul! Hunger for the awe lighting up visitors' faces when they reached her presence, having passed through the enfilade of staterooms connected through carved and gilded portals. Hunger for the gasps of astonishment at the soft browns and yellows in the Amber Room. Shades of ebony touching on the color of dark honey, through which she, the queen bee, floated in her luscious dresses, her high heels sliding on the polished mosaics of the floors. "How vulgar, Varenka," Catherine had murmured. "She has the taste of the Russian peasant she will always be."

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak, is a historical novel centering on the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia, from the time she arrived at the court of Empress Elizabeth, at the age of 15. Catherine is a mythic character, but the truth is I know very little about her.

Her story is told through the eyes of one of the maids at court, Varvara, the orphaned daughter of a bookbinder, whose main duties revolve around the transmission of information, or, more bluntly, spying.

I wanted to love this book, but didn't. A little over halfway through I toyed with the idea of abandoning it. After all, I know the story ends in a coup and Catherine's ascension to the throne. I think the only thing that pulled me along was the introduction of the character of Count Poniatowski and the connection to Polish history, though I think my curiosity would be better served by a biography or history text.

The tagline — "behind every great ruler lies a betrayal" — is a little misleading; there is no single betrayal on which events hinge.

It was not believable to me that Catherine would suddenly have so much support, at court, among the Guard, after having lived so much on the sidelines, out of the court's and public's eye. Her life was fuller, of course, than we are allowed to see (and the novel is weaker for us not seeing it).

That's one of Varvara's epiphanies, but she comes off as rather pathetic for not having realized earlier that her status was not unique, for not having questioned some sources of information or the nature of other relationships. For someone in the know, she knows very little. Similarly, I don't buy Varvara's grief for her husband, and the characterization of her relationship with her daughter feels forced. It's too bad that we experience all the novel's events through someone whose characterization is relatively weak.

There's a disconnect between her perception, Catherine's story, and what I think the reader is intended to come away with.

About the palace cats.


Monday, January 23, 2012


Has anyone read X'ed Out, by Charles Burns? Can you explain it to me?

I wish I'd known that this story was incomplete and was only the first part of a serial. On its own it's a bit slight, and I don't see what the big deal is over it. The story elements are part David Lynch, part William S. Burroughs — trippy and unexplained. Visually it pays homage to Tintin, but beyond that I don't see how referencing Tintin adds to the story. Maybe Burns intends a stronger parallel to be drawn in the next 100 pages, but I don't see it yet.

I'd be interested to see how the whole story plays out — what's with the hive, and the lizard creatures? — but the first volume by itself was pretty disappointing.

The Guardian
LA Times

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Graphic novels, comic books, whatever you want to call them, have never really been my thing. I've always been open to them in theory, but was never particularly drawn to them as a genre.

I use the word "genre" deliberately because it highlights a major misconception about what comic books are, one I was guilty of in the past, and one that is slowly being overcome in the literary establishment. Graphic novels are not a genre unto themselves; the term describes a format, like book, movie, painting, article, that delivers some kind of narrative (hence the "novel" part). I have over the years read in the form of graphic novels: adventure stories, fantasies, journalistic reportage, science fiction, historical memoirs, love stories.

My other half has always been a big fan of Daniel Clowes. This Christmas I gave him a handful of Clowes's latest, and since nobody gave me any books for Christmas this year (what the fuck?!), I've taken to reading over his shoulder.

Saturday morning I managed to squirrel away on my own with Mister Wonderful. Dark comedy romance? It's an evening in the life of a divorced middle-aged man out on a blind date. It's funny, perceptive, sweet. The night's events are visually depicted, but the meat of the story is Marshall's internal running commentary. In this way we also get glimpses into his past, learning how he came to be the man he is today.

But one night about three months ago, I was "befriended" by a strange woman. We wound up spending a crazy, sleepless weekend together. It was sort of like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," except in this version, Holly Golightly is an unstable, crank-snorting sociopath. It wound up costing me $800, my grandmother's earrings and a laptop, but such is the price of transformative human events, I suppose.

Clowes is a keen observer of behaviour. We miss a lot of Natalie's chitchat because Mister Wonderful is too busy thinking about having to pee but this not being a good time to go pee. Her emotional confessions are interrupted by the waitress. He grumbles about the rich party-goers and insults them in his head. It's all very human.

I'm learning that reading graphic novels requires a certain kind of literacy; one review notes some of the artist's techniques:

He makes judicious and creative use of comic book devices: three dimensional words to symbolize emotional distress; a little floating man to represent Marshall's superego; text in word balloons running off the side of a panel or obscured by inner-thought boxes; vignettes drawn in cartoony style to depict imagined consequences; flashbacks tinted a rusty orange.

Mister Wonderful originally ran in the New York Times Funny Pages.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

From real to configurational space

Back in December when I was wondering what to read next, I held up two books and asked Helena, the one about robots or the one about something else (I don't remember what)? No contest. Robots, hands down.

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories by Stanisław Lem. The stories are awesome and clever and hilarious.

They are illustrated by Daniel Mróz — the drawing I've posted here depicts the electronic bard, the story about which I quoted from previously. (There is an online gallery of Mróz's work, and and the recent Google doodle commemorating one of Lem's publications also pays him tribute in employing his style.) The illustrations are as funny and weird and complex as Lem's stories.

The stories read like fairy tales, though they are set in the far future. They deal with warring kingdoms, exotic cultures, human foibles, and questions of morality. They have a 1001 Nights feel to them, but with robots. Essentially, The Cyberiad relates the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two constructors, as they execute various commissions across the universe while working on their own personal robotics projects. But they — the stories, not so much the constructors, but sometimes — are deeply reflective and philosophical.

Trurl and Klapaucius are friends, colleagues, competitors. The stories are about them more than their creations — the robots serve to amplify their too-human flaws: greed and ambition often lead them to go about their work with blinders on. The fact that they enjoy some relative successes means that there are others scheming to undermine them; when they're not trying to sabotage each other, they will join forces against a common threat.

Many people point to The Cyberiad as the perfect entryway to Lem's work. These stories are certainly accessible, but I'm not sure how representative they are of Lem. They are nothing like the handful of novels that I've read, but I imagine some other of his books might share The Cyberiad's light-heartedness and joie de vivre.

I don't know if Douglas Adams ever cited Lem as influence, but a comparison between these authors is clear.

Behold, from "The Third Sally or The Dragons of Probability" (I've inserted breaks for readability, but note that Lem writes this as one paragraph):

Trurl and Klapaucius were former pupils of the great Cerebron of Umptor, who for forty-seven years in the School of Higher Neantical Nillity expounded the General Theory of Dragons. Everyone knows that dragons don't exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here.

The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way. 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 algebra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real nonplusser. Bitter controversy raged among the experts on the question of whether, as half of them claimed, this fractional beast began from the head down or, as the other half maintained, from the tail up.

Trurl and Klapaucius made a great contribution by showing the error of both positions. They were the first to apply probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically.

First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement — then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the Academy. To this day those who (sadly enough) have no knowledge of the General Theory of Improbability ask why Trurl probabilized a dragon and not an elf or goblin. The answer is simply that dragons are more probable than elves or goblins to begin with. True, Trurl might have gone further with his amplifying experiments, had not the first been so discouraging — discouraging in that the materialized dragon tried to make a meal of him. Fortunately, Klapaucius was nearby and lowered the probability, and the monster vanished.

A number of scholars subsequently repeated the experiment on a phantasmatron, but, as they lacked the necessary know-how and sang-froid, a considerable quantity of dragon spawn, raising an ungodly perturbation, broke loose. Only then did it become clear that those odious beasts enjoyed an existence quite different from that of ordinary cupboards, tables and chairs; for dragons are distinguished by their probability rather than by their actuality, though granted, that probability is overwhelming once they've actually come into being.

Suppose, for example, one organizes a hunt for such a dragon, surrounds it, closes in, beating the brush. The circle of sportsmen, their weapons cocked and ready, finds only a burnt patch of earth and an unmistakable smell: the dragon, seeing itself cornered, has slipped from real to configurational space. An extremely obtuse and brutal creature, it does this instinctively, of course.

Now, ignorant and backward persons will occasionally demand that you show them this configurational space of yours, apparently unaware that electrons, whose existence no one in his right mind would question, also move exclusively in configurational space, their coming and goings fully dependent on curves of probability. Though it is easier not to believe in electrons than in dragons: electrons, at least taken singly, won't try to make a meal of you.

[Helena asked if she'd made a good choice, selecting this book for me to read. I told her, excellent. Over the weeks I was reading these stories I would retell parts of them to her, and we'd share our puzzlement or laugh at their ridiculousness.

In an unrelated conversation, she told me she's changed her mind about what she wants to be when she grows up. Maybe she wants to be a constructor (and I thought this was a weird choice of word for her to use), to build things she designs herself, ecological things, that are good for the planet, to make our lives better, like pineapple phones or electric cars.]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What you know, you know

"Why did you strike his so soundly?"

"He needs that scholarly pride clouted out of him."

"Like the man you spoke of who angered you?"

There's a short silence. His shoulders rise and fall. "There are those who think that all of life's lessons can be reaped from reading. I despise them."

"Despise them?"

"What a man does with his brain is his concern, not mine. Just do not let him think he's a better man for it. [...]"

Although many professional reviewers are quibbling over the liberties David Snodin has taken with Shakespeare's Othello, I rather enjoyed his Iago, and I'm guessing my general ignorance of Shakespeare went a long way in this regard. I didn't notice what plot points were changed, nor did I have a strong sense of Iago's character before jumping in.

Of course, I knew the basics of Shakespeare's story, and read up on it a little after Snodin's novel had hooked me.

Snodin has written about his fascination with the character of Iago, and the more I know, the more entranced I become myself — enough so that I'll be checking out Othello on film soon.

Snodin's story picks up where Shakespeare's left off. Iago is imprisoned for murder in a remote corner of Cyprus, and by page 11 we learn he's escaped. Back in Venice, we learn of the domestic tragedy of Othello and experience its aftermath through Gentile Stornello, cousin of Shakespeare's ill-fated Desdemona. Gentile's a nerd and a weakling — a poet! — and he gets mixed up with — that is, beaten up by — one of the Malipiero bad boys. And he falls for his servant girl.

One of the Malipiero uncles is Chief Inquisitor of the Serene Republic of Venice. He has Gentile brought in, because he can. And he throws Gentile — who reminds him of his own deceased son — in with Iago — for whom there is still an official hunt going on. That is, he's got Iago, but he's not telling anyone yet, cuz that's not enough for him; he wants to know what makes Iago tick. So he lets him go. Malipiero uses Gentile to gleen what he can about Iago.

So the plot has some Shakespearean-like complexities at its core.

It's a cat-and-mouse story — the cat know exactly where the mouse is, and the mouse knows the cat is on its tail, but the cat waits for exactly the right moment to pounce, and the mouse plays to survive, and you're never really sure what the cat gets out of it. Is there really such a thrill in the hunt or is it simply playing, to the death — does it enjoy the game or is it merely acting according to its nature?

There are a lot of reasons I enjoyed Iago.

One. I'm loving historical Venice, its sounds and colours. This is directly related to my ongoing relationship with the Assassin's Creed video games, and reading this book was a reasonable substitute for the games, allowing me to immerse myself in that world through a different channel.

Two. It seems I may have my own personal Iago these days, whispering groundless suppositions in my Othello's ear. But by what motivation? Jealousy, cruelty, kindness, justice, amusement?

Three. I read this novel while watching people grieve. It served as a much-needed escape from funereal circumstances and as a reminder of some basic truths.

The loyalty and protection of those closest to you, I think, is what makes for true succor — a shield against the fears of the night and the perils of the world outside.

Mostly it made me wonder about our true natures. Do we always act as our selves, or can we be driven to deeds that are out of character? How? Which is our true self — the one in cool-headed repose or the one inflamed by passion? Do we betray our true selves under torture? People around me are saying things in their grief — I can't tell if it has muddied their contact with the world or if it has stripped bare something that is in their essence.

(With these questions I'm reminded of Louise Penny's A Trick of the Light, a completely different novel from this one, and a remarkably strong one in how it's holding up in my memory, but with a similar motivation — to dig at the roots of human nature.)

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The New Republic
Washington Post
Winnipeg Free Press

I tend to agree with the reviewer of the Winnipeg Free Press piece:

It is a journey that ends, as it seems all post-Freudian accounts of evil must, with sexual trauma suffered in childhood.

This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the novel, betraying as it does the most unsettling aspect of Shakespeare's play. Whereas Shakespeare's Othello reveals to us monstrosity disguised as mundanity, Snodin's Iago only manages to make the monstrous mundane.

From what I gather, if you know your Shakespeare, this book may disappoint you, but if you're like me, Iago may inspire you to approach its source.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finding Shakespeare

Hamlet finally meets his maker in The Blast of War, Volume 2 of Kill Shakespeare (collecting issues 7–12).

The first volume, A Sea of Troubles, set the stage, bringing to life the premise that Shakespeare's creations have taken on a life of their own and are grappling with some metaphysical complexities. Are they bound by Shakespeare's quill (and what exactly is the nature of that bond), or is their will entirely free (and if so, where does that leave Shakespeare)? The plot is a question of resolving the balance of power — the bloodlustiness of Lady Macbeth and her demonic minions and the treachery of Richard III on the one hand, with Juliet, Othello, and Hamlet leading a kind of uprising against a meaningless existence on the other, essentially in defense of Shakespeare's honour.

This second volume see these factions do battle in an ultimate confrontation. But it's not all war. I was swept up in the love story: Romeo is alive after all. Will Juliet go back to him, or will she move forward with Hamlet?

Shakespeare turns out to be an alcoholic recluse wallowing in his own existential crisis. Hamlet has searched him out.

"Amazing. These people believe you their creator and yet thou art merely a drunkard. They deserve better. For this ale-soaked form deserves not my pity, nor even my scorn."

"Careful, Prince. I was not asked to be their — or your — maker. But know this: I most assuredly can unmake thee."

While the first volume stands for the novelty of its premise, I enjoyed the sequel even more for the strength of its story.

The video clip that follows features an interview with Kill Shakespeare's creators. It provides some insight on what went into its making, but it also gives you a taste of the story and the wonderful artwork.

There's some talk of adapting this work for film. Personally, I'd love to see this turned into a TV series: the Kill Shakespeare universe is wide open for countless potential adventures.

Clandestine Critic
Geeks of Doom


I read this back in early December, but for various reasons haven't had the opportunity to post about it (or spend much time on the Internet at all) till now. It's a happy coincidence that since then, I've read David Snodin's Iago, another extrapolation of the life of a Shakespearean character beyond Bill's script (I'll write more about this novel later). It certainly complemented my reading of the comic, giving me a fuller appreciation of Iago — a character I know very little about (I've never read or seen Othello) — and how he fits among the villains in Shakespeare's world, and helped keep this comic book alive in my mind.

This to say: you don't need to know any Shakespeare at all to enjoy Kill Shakespeare, but (as with anything, I guess) the more you know, the richer it is.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why should I long for things of this world?

My father's voice came back to me first: "The power of reason . . . breaking down fear and superstition . . . Kunstkamera is a temple of knowledge." And then I remembered our maids calling Peter's museum a cursed place, one that would bring bad luck on our heads. Were they right when they sneered at my father's words?

I pushed away these thoughts. I would not cry, I vowed.

The first thing Professor Stehlin pointed out to the Grand Duke in Kunstkamera was a glass dome covering a hill made of skulls and bones. Two baby skeletons propped on iron poles looked as if they were preparing to climb it. Beside them another skeleton, bow in hand, seemed about to start playing his violin. A wreathe made of dried arteries, kidneys, and hearts hung above them, with a a calligraphed inscription that said: Why should I long for things of this world?

"Anatomical art," Professor Stehlin called it. "So why should we think of death when we are still in our prime?" he asked his pupil.

The Grand Duke rubbed his hands and grinned. He remembered word for word what I had read to him days before.

To make us aware of the brevity of life. To remind us that we will have to account for our deeds well beyond the moment of death.

Professor Stehlin nodded with a smile.

— from The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak.

It feels right to be reading this when it's cold. These last weeks have been dark. There has been death, and also violence. It's been a sad time, and morbid too.

The description of this museum disturbed me. The book is historical fiction. At this point I had to investigate: how much is historical, how much is fiction?

Kunstkamera is real, situated across the Neva from the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It is Peter the Great's personal collection of anthropological artefacts. Something of a freak show.

Much of the extensive and gruesome collection of anatomic specimens is viewable online.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Capitaine Haddock: Iconoclast

I am surrounded by Tintin lovers.

As much as we are sceptical of the translation of Tintin to the big screen, we are eager to see it. But for various reasons, it will have to wait a little while.

Myself, I have only a passing acquaintance with the intrepid young reporter. So by "we" I really mean my daughter, her father, his mother, her brother, and so on.

Being surrounded by Tintin as I am, there's nothing to do but grab an album off the stack: Le Crabe aux pinces d'or, in which we are first introduced to Capitaine Haddock.

I read this in French, and while I didn't get all the words, I got most of them. In fact, the most entertaining aspect of the story was the stream of insults Capitaine Haddock would let forth.

Canailles!... Empl­âtres!... Va-nu-pieds!... Troglodytes!... Tchouk-tchouk-nougat!...

Sauvages!... Aztèques!... Grenouilles!... Marchands de tapis!... Iconoclastes!...

Chenapan!... Ectoplasmes!... Marins d'eau douce!... Bachie-Bouzouks!... Zoulous!... Doryphores!...

Froussards!... Macaques!... Parasites! Moules à gaufres!


Filibustier!... Végétarien!... Pacte-à-quatre!...

Pirate!... Corsaire!

Arlequin! Hydrocarbure! Zoulou! Canaque! Gyroscope!

Empl­âtre!... Doryphore!... Noix de coco!... Zouave!... Cannibale!...

Anthropopithèque!... Iconoclaste!...

Paltoquet! Anacoluthe!... Invertèbre!... Jus de réglisse!

Do these insults really need translation?

I'm informed that this character trait of the good captain's pervades the rest of the adventures. There is much to look forward to.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Such is the way of scientific fanaticism

Trurl decides to build a machine that could write poetry...

The program found in the head of an average poet, after all, was written by the poet's civilization, and that civilization was in turn programmed by the civilization that preceded it, and so on to the very Dawn of Time, when those bits of information that concerned the poet-to-be were still swirling about in the primordial chaos of the cosmic deep. Hence in order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the enter Universe from the beginning — or at least a good piece of it.


Towards the end of the twentieth century the machine began to tremble, first sideways, then lengthwise — for no apparent reason. This alarmed Trurl; he brought out cement and grappling irons just in case. But fortunately these weren't needed; instead of jumping its mooring, the machine settled down and soon had left the twentieth century far behind. Civilizations came and went thereafter in fifty-thousand-year intervals: these were the fully intelligent beings from whom Trurl himself stemmed. Spool upon spool of computerized history was filled and ejected into storage bins; soon there were so many spools, that even if you stood at the top of the machine with high-powered binoculars, you wouldn't see the end of them. And all to construct some versifier! But then, such is the way of scientific fanaticism. At last the programs were ready; all that remained was to pick out the most applicable — else the electropoet's education would take several million years at the very least.

During the next two weeks Trurl fed general instructions into his future electropoet, then set up all the necessary logic circuits, emotive elements, semantic centers. He was about to invite Klapaucius to attend a trial run, but thought better of it and started the machine himself. It immediately proceeded to deliver a lecture on the grinding of crystallographical surfaces as an introduction to the study of submolecular magnetic anomalies. Trurl bypassed half the logic circuits and made the emotive more electromotive; the machine sobbed, went into hysterics, then finally said, blubbering terribly, what a cruel, cruel world this was. Trurl intensified the semantic fields and attached a strength of character component; the machine informed him that from now on he would carry out its every wish and to begin with add six floors to the nine it already had, so it could better meditate upon the meaning of existence. Trurl installed a philosophical throttle instead; the machine fell silent and sulked. Only after endless pleading and cajoling was he able to get it to recite something: "I had a little froggy." That appeared to exhaust its repertoire. Trurl adjusted, modulated, expostulated, disconnected, ran checks, reconnected, reset, did everything he could think of, and the machine presented him with a poem that made him thank heaven Klapaucius wasn't there to laugh — imagine, simulating the whole Universe from scratch, not to mention Civilization in every particular, and to end up with such dreadful doggerel! Trurl put in six cliché filters, but they snapped like matches; he had to make them out of pure corundum steel. This seemed to work, so he jacked the semanticity up all the way, plugged in an alternating rhyme generator — which nearly ruined everything, since the machine resolved to become a missionary among destitute tribes on far-flung planets. But at the very last minute, just as he was ready to give up and take a hammer to it, Trurl was struck by an inspiration; tossing out all the logic circuits, he replaced them with self-regulating egocentripetal narcissistors. The machine simpered a little, whimpered a little, laughed bitterly, complained of an awful pain on its third floor, said that in general it was fed up, through, life was beautiful but men were such beasts and how sorry they'd all be when it was dead and gone. Then it asked for pen and paper.

— from "The First Sally (A) or Trurl's Electronic Bard," in The Cyberiad, by Stanisław Lem.