"The Advantages of a Dragon."

Lately, I found myself unable to resist the temptation to translate this very pertinent classic of science fiction to English. If you, reader, know of a better translation, do not hesitate to write in. Meanwhile, here goes:

"The Star Diaries of Ijon Tichy: The Advantages of a Dragon."
Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006).

Until now, I've said nothing about my journey to the planet Abrasia, in the Cetus constellation. The civilization there had turned a dragon into the basis of its economy. Not being an economist myself, I, sadly, was not able to make sense of this, even though the Abrasians were more than willing to explain themselves. Perhaps someone well-versed in the particulars of dragons will understand the subject a little better.

The Arecibo radio telescope had been picking up indecipherable signals for quite some time. Jr. Prof. Katzenfenger was the only one able to make headway. He puzzled over the enigma while suffering from a terrible case of the sniffles. His stuffed and dripping nose, ever interfering with his scholarly labours, at a certain point led him to a thought: that the inhabitants of the uncharted planet, unlike us, might be creatures who rely on smell rather than sight.

And indeed their code turned out to consist not of alphabetic letters, but of symbols for various smells. But, truth be told, there were some perplexing passages in Katzenfenger's translation. According to this text, Abrasia is populated not only by intelligent beings, but also by a creature larger than a mountain, uncommonly ravenous and taciturn. The scientists, however, were less surprised by this curio of interstellar zoology, than by the fact that it was specifically the creature's insatiable hunger that brought great returns to the local civilization. It aroused horror, and the more horrible it became, the more they profited from it. I have long had a weakness for all kinds of mysteries, and when I heard about this one, I made up my mind to set out for Abrasia straight away.

Upon arriving, I learned that the Abrasians are entirely humanoid. Except that, where we have ears, they have noses, and vice-versa. Like us, they had descended from apes; but while our apes were either narrow- or wide-nosed, their simian ancestors had either a single nose or two. The one-nosed had gone extinct from famine. A great many moons orbit their planet, causing frequent and lengthy eclipses. At those times, it becomes pitch-dark. Creatures who sought food with the aid of sight could turn up nothing. Relying on smell worked better, but it worked best of all for those who had two widely-spaced noses, and used their sense of smell stereoscopically, just as we make use of our paired eyes and stereophonic hearing.

Later on, the Abrasians had invented artificial lighting, and, even though twin-nosedness had ceased to be essential to their survival, the anatomical quirk inherited from their ancestors was here to stay. In the colder times of the year, they wear hats with ear flaps, or, rather, nose flaps, so as not to freeze their noses off. Of course, I may be mistaken. It seemed to me that they were not exactly thrilled with these noses of theirs -- reminders of a troublesome past. Their fairer sex hides their noses beneath various decorations, often as large as a dinner plate. But I did not pay much attention to this. Interstellar travel has taught me that anatomical differences tend to be of little significance. The real problems hide far deeper. On Abrasia, that problem turned out to be the local dragon.

On that planet, there is only one very large continent, and on it -- something like eighty countries. The continent is surrounded by ocean on all sides. The dragon is located in the far north. Three principalities directly border him -- Claustria, Lelipia and Laulalia. After studying satellite photos of the dragon, as well as 1:1000000 scale models of him, I came to the conclusion that he is a quite unpleasant creature. I must say though that he was not the least bit similar to the dragons we know from Earth's stories and legends. Their dragon doesn't have seven heads; he has no head at all, and, it would also appear, no brain. And as for wings, he also hasn't any, and so flight is out of the question. The matter of legs is less clear, but it would appear that the dragon has no limbs of any sort. What he resembles most is an enormous mountain range, copiously slathered with something rather like jelly. The fact that you are beholding a living thing only becomes apparent if you are very patient. He moves uncommonly slowly, as a worm does, and quite often violates the borders of Claustria and Lelipia. This creature devours something like eighteen thousand tonnes of foodstuffs every day. The dragon is fond of grains, porridges made from same, and cereals in general. But he is not a vegetarian. Food is delivered to him by countries which consist in the Union of Economic Cooperation. The bulk of these provisions are carried by rail to special unloading stations, soups and syrups are pumped into the dragon through pipelines, and in the wintertime, when a lack of vitamins is perceived, they airdrop these from specially-equipped cargo planes. And at no point does anyone need to look for a mouth -- the beast is able to grab a meal with any and all parts of its enormous carcass.

When I arrived in Claustria, my first impulse was to ask why they go to such great lengths to feed this monster, instead of letting it perish from hunger. But straight away I learned that I had landed in the midst of a scandal, an "attempted dragon assassination", and promptly shut my mouth. Some Lelipian, dreaming of winning the laurels of a savior, had founded a secret paramilitary organization, with the aim of slaying the insatiable giant. To do this, he proposed to poison the vitamin supplements with a substance which causes unbearable thirst, -- so that the beast would take to drinking from the ocean, until it bursts. This reminded me of a well-known Earth legend about a brave hero who defeated a dragon (whose diet consisted chiefly of fair maidens) by throwing him a sheepskin stuffed with sulfur. But this is where the resemblance between the Earth legend and the Abrasian reality ended.

The local dragon was under the full protection of international law. Not only that: the treaty concerning cooperation with the dragon, signed by the forty-nine signatory governments, guaranteed him a steady supply of tasty foodstuffs. The computerized translator, with which I never part on my voyages, allowed me to make a detailed study of their press. The news of the failed assassination had thoroughly dismayed the public.

It demanded severe and exemplary punishment for the failed assassins. This surprised me, because the dragon per se didn't seem to evoke much in the way of sympathy from anyone. Neither the journalists nor the authors of letters to the editor made any secret of the fact that the subject of the conversation is a creature repulsive in the extreme. And so, in the beginning, I had come to think that he, to them, were something like an evil god, a punishment from the heavens, and, as for the sacrifices, they, following some peculiar local custom, spoke of them as "export." You can speak ill of the devil, but you cannot disregard him entirely. At the same time, the devil can tempt people; when you sell him your soul, you can count on a great many earthly pleasures in exchange. The dragon, however, near as I could tell, had made no promises to anyone, and there was absolutely nothing tempting about him. From time to time, he would strain mightily and flood the bordering regions with the byproducts of his digestion, and in ill weather one could feel the stench from forty-odd kilometers away. At the same time, the Abrasians held that their dragon is to be cared for, and that the stink is evidence of indigestion; it means that they must take care to give him medicines which limber up the metabolism. As for the attempt on his life, they said, if, God forbid, it had succeeded, the result would be an unprecedented catastrophe.

I read everything in the newspapers, but none of it shed any light on the question of exactly what kind of catastrophe they had in mind. Exasperated, I took to visiting the local libraries, leafed through encyclopaedias, histories of Abrasia, and even visited the Society of Friendship with the Dragon; but even there, I learned nothing. Except for a few members of the staff, not a soul was there. They offered me a membership if I'd only pony up a year's worth of dues, but this wasn't what I had come for.

The states which bordered the dragon were liberal democracies; there, you were allowed to speak your mind, and after a lengthy search, I was able to find publications which condemned the dragon. But even their authors still held that when dealing with him, one ought to make reasonable compromises. The use of guile or force could have grave consequences. Meanwhile, the would-be poisoners cooled their heels in the local jail. They did not plead guilty, despite confessing their intention to kill the dragon. The government press called them irresponsible terrorists, the opposition press -- noble fanatics, not quite in their right mind. And one Claustrian illustrated magazine suggested that they might be provocateurs. Behind them, it said, stands the government of a neighbouring country: thinking that the quota on dragon exports established for it by the Union of Economic Cooperation was too stingy, it hoped, via this subterfuge, to get it reconsidered.

I asked the reporter who came to interview me about the dragon. Why, instead of being given a chance to finally put an end to him, were the assassins tossed in the clink? The journalist answered that it would have been a despicable murder. The dragon, by his nature, is kindly, but the severe conditions of life in the polar regions prevent him from expressing his innate kind-heartedness. If you had to go hungry constantly, you too would become ill-tempered, even if you are not a dragon. We must carry on feeding him, and then he will stop creeping southward and become kindlier.

- Why are you so sure of this? I asked. - I've been collecting clippings from your newspapers. Here's a few headlines: "Regions of northern Lelipia and Claustria are getting depopulated. The torrent of refugees continues." Or this: "The dragon has once more swallowed a group of tourists. For how much longer will irresponsible travel agencies peddle such dangerous tours?" Or here's another: "In the past year, the dragon has expanded his footprint by 900000 hectares." What do you say to this?

- That it only confirms what I was saying. We are still underfeeding him! With tourists, yes, there's been some incidents, and quite tragic ones, but one really oughtn't irritate the dragon. He really can't stand tourists, especially the photographing kind. He's allergic to photo flashes. What would you have him do? Remember, he lives in total darkness three-quarters of the year... And I'll say, just the production of high-calorie dragon fodder gives us 14600 employment positions. Yes, some handful of tourists perished, but how many more people would perish of hunger, if they were to lose their jobs?

- Just a minute, just a minute, - I interrupted him. - You bring the dragon foodstuffs, and this surely costs money. Who pays for it?
- Our parliaments pass laws which bestow export credits...
- So, it is your taxpayers who pay for the dragon's upkeep ?
- In some sense, yes, but these outlays bring returns.
- Wouldn't it be more profitable to put an end to the dragon?
- What you are saying is monstrous. In the last thirty years, over forty billion have been invested in industries connected with dragon-feeding...
- Maybe it would be better to spend these sums on yourselves?
- You are repeating the arguments of our most reactionary conservatives! the reporter exclaimed with irritation. - They are inciting murder! They want to turn the dragon into tinned meat! Life is sacred. No one ought to be killed.

Seeing that our conversation was leading nowhere, I parted ways with the journalist. After a bit of thinking, I went off to the Archive of Print and Ancient Documents, so that, after digging through dusty newsprint clippings, I could find out just where this dragon had come from. It took a great deal of effort, but I was able to discover something quite intriguing.

Half a century ago, when the dragon took up a mere two million hectares, no one had taken him seriously. I ran across many articles which proposed to uproot the dragon from the ground, or to flood him with water through specially built canals, so that he might freeze over in wintertime; but the economists explained that this operation would be quite expensive. But when the dragon, who in those days was still subsisting solely on lichens and mosses, doubled in size, and the inhabitants of neighbouring regions began to complain of the unbearable stench (especially in the spring and summer, when the warm breezes start to blow), charitable organizations offered to sprinkle the dragon with perfume; and when this didn't help, they took up collections of baked goods for him. At first, their project was laughed at, but with time it really took off. In newspaper clippings from later times, there was no longer any talk of liquidating the dragon, but instead more and more talk of the profits that are to be gained from bringing him aid. And so, I was indeed able to learn some things, but I decided that this was not enough, and set off to the university, to visit the Department of General and Applied Draconistics. Its dean received me quite courteously.

- Your questions are anachronistic to the utmost degree, - he answered with a condescending smile after hearing me out. - The dragon is a part of our objective reality, an inseparable, and, in a certain sense, central part, and therefore it must be studied as an international problem of the greatest importance.
- Can you be more specific? - I asked. - Where did he come from in the first place, this dragon?
- Oh, who knows, - the draconologist answered phlegmatically. - Archaeology, predraconistics, and the genetics of dragons are not in my circle of interests. I do not study draconogenesis. While he was still small, he did not present a serious problem. That is a general rule, esteemed foreigner.
- I was told that he descended from mutant snails.
- I doubt it. At the same time, it isn't important just where he came from, given that he already exists, and not merely exists! If he were to disappear, it would be a catastrophe. And we would not likely recover from it.
- Really? Why is that?
- Automation led us to unemployment. Including among the scientific intelligentsia.
- And what, the dragon helped?
- Of course. We had enormous surpluses of foodstuffs, mountains of pasta, lakes of vegetable oil, and the overproduction of baked goods was a genuine calamity. Now we export these surpluses up north, and, remember, they also have to be refined. He won't scarf up just anything.
- The dragon?
- Well yes. To develop an optimal programme for his nourishment, we had to create a system of scientific research centres, such as the Chief Institute of Dragon-husbandry and the Higher School of Dragon Hygiene; in each university, there is at least one draconistics department. Special enterprises produce new types of fodder and nutritional supplements. The propaganda ministry created special information networks, so as to explain to society just how profitable trade with the dragon can be.
- Trade? So he sends you something? I can hardly believe this!
- He sends, of course. Chief of all, the so-called dracoline. It's a secretion of his.
- That shiny slime? I saw it in the photos. What's it good for?
- When it congeals - for plasticine, for children in kindergartens. But of course there are a few problems. It is hard to get rid of the smell.
- It stinks?
- In the usual sense - very much. To get the smell out, they add special deodorants. For the time being, dragon plasticine costs eight times more than the ordinary kind.
- Professor, what do you think of the attempt on the dragon's life? The scientist scratched his ear, which hung above his lips.
- If it had succeeded, then, first of all, we would have an epidemic on our hands. Just try and imagine the vapours that would emanate from such an enormous cadaver? And, second, the banks would go broke. The total destruction of our monetary system. To make a long story short, catastrophe, esteemed foreigner. A terrible catastrophe.
- But his presence makes itself known, doesn't it? To tell the truth, it's extremely unpleasant, isn't it?
- What do you mean, unpleasant? - he said with a profound philosophical calm. The post-draconic crisis would be far more unpleasant still! Remember, please, that we not only feed him, but conduct extra-nutritional work with him. We try to soften his temper, keep it within certain boundaries. This -- is our program of so-called domestication, or appeasement. Lately he is being given large quantities of sweets. He likes sweets.
- Somehow I doubt that his temperament will get sweeter from this, - I blurted out.
- But at the same time, the export of baked goods has quadrupled. And you mustn't forget about the work of the CMDR.
- What's that?
- Committee for the Mitigation of Draconic Repercussions. It provides employment for many university and college graduates. The dragon has to be studied, investigated, and, from time to time - healed; previously we had a surplus of medics, but now every young doctor is assured of finding work.
- Well then, I said without much conviction. - But all of this is exported philanthropy. Why don't you start doing philanthropy right here, among yourselves?
- How do you mean?
- Well... you spend mountains of money on that dragon!
- So, what - should we be handing it out to citizens just like that? This runs against the very basics of any school of economics! You, I see, are a total ignoramus in economics. Credits, which back draconic export, warm up the economy. Thanks to them, the exchange of goods and services grows...
- But the dragon grows too, - I interrupted him. - The more you feed him, the bigger he gets, and the bigger he gets, the bigger is his appetite. Where's the sense in this? Don't you know that in the end, he'll drive you into penury and eat you up?
- Nonsense! - the professor fumed. Banks add the credits to their portfolios!
- So, they're, what, bonds? And he'll repay them in what? In his plasticine?
- Don't take things so literally. If it weren't for the dragon, for whom would we then build the pipelines through which we pump flour extract? Don't you see, that's iron-works, pipe factories, welding robots, networks of transport, and so forth. The dragon has real needs. See, now you understand? Production has to work for somebody! Industrialists would not produce anything, if the finished product had to be thrown into the sea. A real consumer, on the other hand, that's something entirely different. The dragon -- is a gigantic, amazingly capacious foreign market, with a colossal demand pressure...
- I don't doubt it, - I noted, seeing that this chat is leading nowhere.
- And so, have I convinced you?
- No.
- This is because you hail from a civilization that is so utterly different from our own. At any rate, the dragon has long ago stopped being a mere importer of our production.
- So what has he turned into?
- An idea. A historic necessity. Our state interest. The mightiest factor which justifies our united efforts. Try to look at this business through exactly that lens, and you will see what fundamental problems can be discovered in what is, to be fair, a quite revolting creature, if it grows to a planetary scale.

September 1983

P.S. They say that the dragon has broken up into a multitude of little ones, but their appetite is anything but weaker.

This entry was written by Stanislav , posted on Saturday May 02 2020 , filed under Books, Chumpatronics, Distractions, NonLoper, Philology, Philosophy, Translations . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “"The Advantages of a Dragon."”

  • Pete D. says:

    A lovely read, though the "cadaver --> banks broke --> catastrophe" equation is one broken logical leap too far, even for people who noses for ears.

    • Stanislav says:

      Dear Pete D.,

      Sadly, the humanoids in this tale don't strike me as all that different from the ones we actually live among. Including their "logic".


    • Alex T says:

      One logical sequence, which broken or not (I lean broken), was followed rather diligently just a decade ago. Let's just call out the dragon a classic too-big-to-fail TM.

      Good story but is it just the story of successful systems? i.e. Systems that are stable, ARE stable, and will tend to maintain status quo. Alternatively, we are just catching a glimpse of a system that is trying to stabilize itself but is already circling the drain

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