Murder by Chance

The Chain of Chance by Stanislaw Lem Translated by Louis Iribarne $7.95

THE WORLD'S BEST-SELLING science fiction writer is a man you've probably never heard of. With over six million books in print, Polish author Stanislaw Lem is also the most critically-acclaimed science fiction writer throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union--nevertheless, his name remains a mystery to most American readers. His novels, short stories, plays, reviews and scientific treatises have been translated into nearly thirty languages, but only in the last five years have many of his works become available in English. The Chain of Chance, Lem's most recent novel, continues the strain of cosmic pessimism that pervades his thirty previous books while adding a new philosophical dimension guaranteed to challenge every reader's basic perception of reality.

Lem's work arose and later broke from a utopian tradition in Soviet science fiction whose ancestry dates back to the industrial revolution's impact on nineteenth-century thought. Chernyshevsky's 1862 novel What is to Be Done?, an idealistic apothesis of reason, and its immediate rebuke by Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground, a defense of irrationality, are perhaps the progenitors of the utopian/anti-utopian debate. Since then, utopian literature has focused primarily on the issues of technology and political ideology.

In departing from this tradition, Stanislaw Lem shifted his focus from society to the individual. He considers his early utopian novels too optimistic and naive, and in his mature works he is interested in the subjective view of the individual as he tries to cope with a reality he cannot understand. And although his novels are often set in futuristic or chimerical landscapes, Lem's characters are in essence real-life men facing problems familiar to every reader.

LEM'S VEHICLE IN The Chain of Chance is a variation upon the conventional detective novel--one might call it a murder without a murderer--which he infuses with an inventive twist of probability theory. Civilization has grown so complex, he maintains, that it is governed only by laws of random chance. As a result, the protagonist--and the reader--is alienated from the reality he thinks he can understand and control. In the depersonalized modern world, common sense has become nearly meaningless. The effect is eerie and sobering.

Yet for all of Lem's philosophical concerns, the novel remains a suspensful and realistic detective story. The author's acuity of observation and penchant for statistical minutiae makes each character convincing and interesting. A significant portion of this short novel consists of meticulous descriptions of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths, making The Chain of Chance both a forensic pathologist's delight and a challenge to armchair sleuths, because, hidden among the barrage of details are the clues to this mystery. To understand them one might have to be pre-med, but the novel's tendency toward the arcane does not greatly detract from its suspense or from the fascination of its conclusion.

Lem's narrator, a retired French-Canadian astronaut named John, relates the details of an undercover investigation into the mysterious deaths of eleven tourists visiting a health spa in Naples. As with most writers of detective stories, Lem never lays all his cards on the table; the reader only gradually learns that the victims were all middle-aged foreigners, balding and of athletic build. (Is it by chance too that the picture of Lem on the book's back cover matches this description?) In addition, the men were wealthy, single, and had been receiving treatments for rheumatism at the Vittorini mineral baths. In two years, all eleven men either vanished, went insane or committed suicide. After an unsuccessful inquiry by the Italian carabinieri, John is called in to pose as Adams, one of the victims, in the hope that he can induce a repetition of the circumstances that led to Adam's death.

John has been chosen for the role of decoy because of his physical resemblance to the victims and his rigorous preparation for the job. The life of an astronaut, he claims, is one not of glamor, but of "boring and montonous routine," thus qualifying him for a mission in which his task is to reproduce Adams's exact schedule of daily activities, going so far as to wear the dead man's clothing, drive his car and occupy the same hotel room. John is under 24-hour surveillance by a team of six scientists who observe him through binolculars and monitor the functioning of his heart, blood and lungs with electronic sensors taped to his skin. The entire procedure, as secret as it is thorough, fails to yield any leads whatsoever, and as the novels begins, a dejected narrator is readying for his departure from Naples, certain that his mission has been a failure.

But all is not lost. The Chain of Chance's most distinctive feature, when seen in the context of Lem's body of work, is that it purports to have a solution. In the book's denouement, John unravels the mystery and at last everything becomes understandable. This may be routine for a detective story, but for Lem it is a radical break from his tradition of leaving stories open-ended.

LEM ENDOWS HIS narrator with an urbane wit which frequently turns upon Western decadence and indicts the depersonalized world of modern technology. John's sarcastic wit carries the novel through its occasional slow stretches such as his lengthy drive from Naples to Rome.

Lem's protagonist is both a product of the scientific community and an outcast from it; his cynicism seems to stem from wounded pride after he was relegated to the position of back-up astronaut. In modern technology, where remote-control computers are "the highest order, the symbol of our civilization," John says facetiously, there is no room for human failings: acute hay fever forced his demotion when a space mission unexpectedly discovered vegetation on Mars. Rather than remain a member of the backup crew, he quit, joining the undercover investigation in the hope that it would satisfy his attraction to risk and "the unknown, the unpredictable, the undefinable." He finds what he is looking for.

Occasionally John succumbs to a flaw Lem's other protagonists do not: his witty cynicism turns to bromides and offending overstatement, as in the remark "despite the exhaust fumes, I could make out the scent of flowers in the gently fluttering breeze." For this we have Lem to blame: in his eagerness to emphasize the irony behind scientific progress that has backfired, he commits the sin of self-indulgence.

As in Lem's earlier works, this novel parodies those institutions claiming to have achieved static perfection or ultimate knowledge. Like Lem's earlier protagonists, usually human scientists studying alien civilizations, John is struggling to discover truths inherently too complex or mysterious to be understood. The utter failure of man's scientific explorations in past novels manifests the author's conviction that man cannot apprehend the universe in a meaningful, objective way.

In The Chain of Chance the irony is that it is man's own civilization which has become so complex as to be beyond his understanding. Yet John succeeds in uncovering the mystery, and the author's resolution appears to be cogent enough to leave us feeling smugly satisfied that we know the answer. Are we willing to believe Lem, or should we suspect that he is gulling us into accepting his artifice in order to satisfy our expectation of a final solution and our need for one as well? It is not at all clear, for the novel's realism is so intense that the conclusion is entirely unconvincing. We should suspect the patness of his solution but be content in our ignorance by acknowledging Lem's masterful ability to make the alien seem so familiar and the ordinary so frighteningly unknown.