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Peace on Earth, Stanislaw Lem, Harcourt Brace, 1994, 234 pp. (originally published in Polish in 1987, translated by Elinor Ford with Michael Kandel)

Lem's Peace on Earth has little in the way of science fictional speculation, as understood by the hard sf crowd here in North America. The main premise of the book -- nations export the wars of Earth to the moon -- is probably technologically and sociologically absurd. Interestingly, that might be Lem's exact point. Lem has made a very successful career out of satirizing human foibles, and in this process, the typical hard sf requirements get thrown out the window. And rightly so! The march of science might be an attractive idea but we're talking about human beings here. Lem gleefully attacks the notion that our behaviour is governed by rationality, that the future can be laid out nicely by extrapolating forward from science and its achievements. With Peace on Earth, Lem goes to such an extreme that the book verges on the Luddite -- technology is the tool that has allowed human irrationality such wide reign, and Lem wonders if we might be better off without it. I don't want to say more, but suffice it to say that the Luddite ending itself is highly satirical.

In Peace on Earth, Ijon Tichy, the hero of many of Lem's previous books, returns. His story here is not quite as manic as something like The Futurological Congress, but it felt just as sharp and cutting. Tichy returns from a visit to the moon, where he was callotomized (a process which severs the two hemispheres of the brain). Much of the early humour is almost slapstick, as the opposite half of his body disobeys him, kicks his boss in the pants, and so forth. Why was Tichy on the moon? He was sent there on fact-finding mission by the Lunar Agency. The LA is in charge of the vast operation that sent all of the war-making apparatus of Earth to the moon, and also in charge of making sure that none of the nations know how their self-evolving weapons are progressing on the moon. A strange set-up, and Tichy is sent in order to find out what is indeed happening. The narrative alternates between flashbacks to Tichy's moon visit and his present troubles as a callotomized human in some dangerous situations. The story threads meet up as Tichy seeks refuge in a insane asylum for millionaires (where, as could be imagined, the satirist in Lem has a field day), and various factions vie for the knowledge in Tichy's brain.

Tichy has the same dry narrative tone as ever, which suits the ludicrous events that surround him. He reports outrageous and silly happenings with aplomb, letting the reader pick out the satire where necessary. Some of the funnier passages occur when Tichy reports, matter of factly, the opinion of some expert or scientist. Here is Professor Tarantoga's opinion, as reported by Tichy, on why the Lexicon of Fear is a popular item: "...scientists have been annoying everyone for two hundred years with their superior knowledge. How nice to see them baffled by the Bermuda Triangle, flying saucers, and the emotions of plants, and how satisfying it is when a simple middle-aged woman of Paris can see the whole future of the world while on that subject the professors are as ignorant as spoons" (110). However, my favourite section of the book, by far, happens when Tichy is transcribing a rant by one of his professor friends, on the subject of the gastronomical heroes of the past. Who are these heroes? We find out in great detail (and a long quotation here to get the full flavour of the passage):

How unfair, that inventors of old-fashioned technology are all famous while no one even thinks about the gastronomical inventors, or about raising a monument to the Unknown Chef as we do for the Unknown Soldier. And yet so many anonymous heroes fell in terrible agony after they made their brave experiments, with mushrooms, for example, where the only way of distinguishing poisonous from nonpoisonous is to eat and wait for results... We could have managed without America, sooner or later America would have discovered itself, but not the pickle, and then there would have been nothing to sit on our plate beside a roast beef sandwich. No, gastronomy's nameless heroes were more heroic than those who found a soldier's death! A soldier had to charge the enemy trench or face a court-martial, but nobody ever forced a person to brave the danger of an unknown berry. (35)

The satire continues, on every front, and Tichy is the perfect front man for such multi-layered assault on the optimistic view of human nature.

Peace on Earth is a fantastic read, and I enjoy Lem's works as much for their non-conformist place in science fiction as the confident prose and sly humour. Lem's novels are unique, and well worth searching out.

Last modified: September 26, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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