If you like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a fair chance you’ll like today’s story.
First off, this doesn’t read like a work that has been translated. I assume Lem’s original prose is at least as good as the English translation, but Michael Kendel has done a fantastic job with the wordplay, the style and the general bounce of the language. Indeed, it’s going to be one of these stories where I’ll need to consciously limit myself on how much I quote. It opens with:
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.
But it turns out that dragons are merely highly improbable (one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years). So Trurl invents a probability amplifier and, when the local draconic probability is suitably heightened, a dragon materializes.
At this point I should point out that this was written in 1974. I haven’t seen anything that says Douglas Adams knew of Lem’s work at this point, so I suspect that any similarity with the Infinite Improbability Drive is probably coincidental.
Anyway, the existence of the probability amplifier, and that the proven potential existence for dragons has lowered the further probability threshold of dragons materializing, that soon there are dragons being reported all over the galaxy. One fellow named Basiliscus the Gorgonite begins hiring himself out to perform dracolysis on planets blighted by dragons, but Trurl and Klapaucius suspect that he is using an inferior draculator that is only temporarily alleviating the problem. So they decide to split up and roam the galaxy, getting rid of dragons in a more permanent (yet still technologically obtuse) fashion.
I hope I’ve given an idea of how much fun this story is to read. Its technobabble is delightfully absurd. The entire Cyberiad collection is in much the same vein as this, and deserves greater prominence.
The Dragons of Probability by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel)
also called The Third Sally, or the Dragons of Probability
Word count: 6.400
First published: The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age, collection, 1974, Seabury Press
Where to find it: the most recent edition was published in1990 by Mandarin
According to Wikipedia, The Cyberiad was made into an opera in 1970 by Krzysztof Meyer. Some stories were adapted, though I don’t know if this was among them.