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Chain of Chance

The following is adapted from a post I made on the late unlamented Blog.Com on August 14, 2009.

I had not read one of Stanislaw Lem’s (1921-2006) novels for a number of years, remembering only that I always enjoyed them for their quirkiness and imagination. A few days ago, I picked up one of his books at random: It was Chain of Chance (1975).

Picture to yourself a series of murders or suicides of a seemingly random group of people. What they have in common is all are males in their fifties who were athletic in build, and all were visiting a spa in Naples, Italy. The victims consisted of both Americans and Europeans. Sent to investigate what happened in a washed-out American astronaut who calls himself Adams after one of the victims. He attempts to set himself up as a guinea pig doing what the average victim did and trying to see what happens. There were some strange occurrences, such as the collapse of a woman in a large shop where there are no visible employees on the Naples-Rome highway.

At the Rome airport, “Adams” survives a terrorist bomb blast and saves a young French girl’s life. Suspected as being in with the terrorists, he calls in his embassy; and matters get straightened out allowing him to proceed to Paris.

There he meets with Dr. Philippe Barth, a French computer scientist who served as a consultant for the Sûreté, the national security service. The story then suddenly sags as “Adams” describes in exhaustive detail what the victims had in common, what they did, and so on. I thought to myself at this point that perhaps I had picked up the first loser by Lem, but it took only a few pages for the author to recover and pose an ingenious demonstration.

At the Paris Orly airport, “Adams” begins feeling strangely demented and suicidal. In the nick of time, he handcuffs himself to some solid furniture and begins to take notes of what appears to be a series of attacks, culminating in unconsciousness.

I will not divulge Lem’s brilliant ending, except to drop one hint: There is a close tie-in with the subject of The Futurological Congress (1971), which remains my favorite of his books. One more clue. Here is the thinking of one of the people attending the security meeting with Barth, a mathematician named Saussure whom I think is a stand-in for the author:

Man wanted everything to be simple, even if mysterious: one God—in the singular, of course; one form of natural law; one principle of reason in the universe, and so on. Astronomy, for example, held that the totality of existence was made up of stars—past, present, and future—and their debris in the form of planets. But gradually astronomy had to concede that a number of cosmic phenomena couldn’t be contained within its scheme of things. Man’s hunger for simplicity paved the way for Ockham’s razor, the principle stating that no entity, no category can be multiplied unnecessarily. But the complexity that we refused to acknowledge finally overcame our prejudices. Modern physics has turned Ockham’s maxim upside down by positing that everything is possible. Everything in physics, that is; the complexity of civilizations is far greater than that of physics.

In the world of speculative fiction—and I regard him as more properly a writer of this rather than science fiction—few could approach the Pole in his inventive mind, humor, and psychological acuteness. Among his works that I have enjoyed are the following, all of which are still available in good English translations:

  • The Investigation (1959)
  • Return from the Stars (1961)
  • Solaris (1961), which was made into a great Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961)
  • The Futurological Congress (1971)—my favorite among his works
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973), published in Poland as a single work
  • One Human Minute (1986)

I see that I have read quite a few of Lem’s work—and at the same time, not nearly enough.