Spoiler alert! We recommend that you first read Lem’s short story “The Hunt”.
A previously unknown yet print-worthy work by Stanisław Lem (unearthed from his immense archives; combed through by his son Tomasz and the author’s personal secretary Wojciech Zemek for the last 16 years) is truly a rare find. This is because the author of The Cyberiad unceremoniously burnt any and all of his own writings that he was not pleased with, in a bonfire at his home in the Kraków suburb of Kliny. He cast quite a lot of texts into the flames there, given that he wrote with such great ease. By what miracle did “The Hunt” manage to avoid the fate of other works that went up in smoke? Moreover, how did it go unnoticed for so many years? Part of the answer presumably lies in the title, which is identical to that of another short story from the volume Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1968). So the lost story most likely did at some point pass through the hands of the attentive secretary, who, seeing a familiar title, nevertheless filed it away among the manuscripts of works already published. And even if he did glance through the text, he would have encountered a scenario familiar from Pirx’s adventures, involving a robot being hunted.
Yet this is a completely different work, one most likely written prior to Tales of Pirx the Pilot, which means in the latter half of the 1950s. It is highly plausible that, uncertain of its worth and thinking that he might have overly exposed himself in it, Lem first set it aside, and then ultimately forgot about it – especially since some time later he wrote a newer, more interesting version of it, which ‘eclipsed’ the earlier one. But these are two very different stories, even though both are concerned with metal-skinned, sentient machines. In “The Hunt” from the Pirx cycle, we accompany the pilot in hunting down a mining robot on the Moon. The robot’s programming went afoul after it was struck by a meteorite, and now it is firing off its laser at anything that moves. In the recently rediscovered story presented here, however, we are on the other side of the barricade. We observe the hunt from the perspective of an intelligent machine whose purpose is to perish in dramatic fashion, like a Roman gladiator, fighting the longest possible struggle for its miserable electronic life. As we identify with the prey’s predicament and admire its incredible tenacity combined with truly human ingenuity, we let ourselves get caught up in a game of sorts, where what is at stake is the ghost-in-the-machine question; the borderline between the human and the artificial. This is a theme that we know well from Lem’s work.
However, there is a hidden, autobiographical layer to the game that plays out in this short story. As is well known, Lem never spoke about what he went through in World War II, as a young Jewish man from a wealthy home, somehow managing to escape death during the Nazi occupation of Lwów. If he did write about it, it was camouflaged to such an extent that few could recognize it, because the writer disguised the Holocaust behind masks – such as the doublers being exterminated in Eden, the astronauts starving to death in The Invincible, or the robot selection in Return from the Stars. In reading “The Hunt” and allowing ourselves to empathize with the predicament of a doomed machine, clinging to the shreds of its self-preservation instinct, it is hard to stave off associations with the Holocaust. This is, ultimately, an attempt to reconstruct the experience of a headlong escape without any hope of success. At the same time, it is a study of the fear felt by a thinking and feeling being that knows it is marked for execution.
If we are to treat Lem’s story as an autobiographical code, the key might be found in a certain horrifying picture taken during the Lwów pogrom (the first days of July 1941), depicting a bloody Jewish woman with her dress torn off, fleeing from a group of juvenile thugs pursuing her with sticks. We know that during this time Lem was also attacked and dragged off to the Brygidki prison site, where the mob committed mass murders. Several thousand Jews then lost their lives. Lem only survived by some miracle. How so, we know only from the account of Dr. Rappaport (from His Master’s Voice), but he is nevertheless a fictional character.
And so, in encouraging the mechanical hero of “The Hunt” to struggle for his life, against all odds, was Lem reliving the psychodrama of his own past? Or was he rather writing a script for the future, trying to ponder the still-unclear ultimate destiny of robots and androids?
Translated by Daniel J. Sax