Although The Chain of Chance retains some of the science fiction elements we associate with Stanislaw Lem’s fiction, it is, in essence, a detective novel – or, perhaps we should say, Lem’s exploitation of the detective novel to his own ends. Whereas the genre traditionally begins with a murder, and therefore a murderer to be discovered, the investigation in The Chain of Chance is a result of a series of mysterious deaths, where numerous coincidences lead to the assumption of a murderer. These coincidences become the investigation as, when the novel opens, our narrator is attempting to mimic their pattern as he recreates the journey of one of the victims:
“I should actually have felt relieved knowing that by tomorrow I would be shedding my false skin, because not for a moment did I believe I was tempting fate by sleeping in Adams’ pajamas, shaving with his razor, and retracing his steps around the bay. Nor was I expecting an ambush along the way – no harm had come to him on the highway – and during my one night in Rome I was to be given special protection.”
This, naturally, creates tension as he attempts to decipher the random events which occur around him – for example a woman fainting (“The more convinced I became the fainting spell was real, the less sure I was of it”) – and re-enact the random events of Adams’ journey – like changing a tyre. As he later explains:
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle… a puzzle consisting of numerous pieces; each of them is distinct enough on its own but when fitted together they make for an indistinct whole.”
Poison is suspected as the victims demonstrate a violent change in personality before dying, often at their own hands. They are generally of a certain type: middle-aged men, athletic – but not in the condition they once were – balding, suffering from hay-fever, with links to a particular health clinic. It reads like the work of a serial killer – though I suspect this genre was largely unknown in 1975 – but the mentality of a policeman is not what is need to solve this case:
“That mentality is alright for prosecuting criminals but not for proving whether in fact a criminal exists.”
Lem also includes another form of murder in the novel – a terrorist attack on an airport (lest we forget, terrorism was well-known in Europe in the 1970s). This takes place at a new terminal specifically designed to thwart such attacks – Lem is making the point that nothing is fool proof in the face of chance. Though the narrator senses what is about to happen, he fails to prevent the explosion, but saves a young girl as he knocks her from the automated walkway, following immediately behind, onto the ‘floor’ below:
“I encountered something soft and wet which gave way under me like foam until I landed in a freezing liquid… It must have been a tank designed to soften the impact of a shock wave.”
Lem’s description of this technology demonstrates that his imagination can sometimes overwhelm narrative necessity, but the intention to contrast the two types of ‘murder’ is clear, the terrorist attack being:
“The classic example of a modern crime. Premeditated and at the same time accidental.”
Though it is planned, its victims are random; in the case of the deaths being investigated it is the other way round: the victims seem ‘chosen’ but the invetigators cannot fathom a ‘plan’ behind the killings.
The Chain of Chance doesn’t display the imaginative bravura of The Cyberiad, but it does make for an engrossing mystery, and one which, when the solution is revealed, makes Lem’s philosophical point without breaking the rules (i.e. the clues presented in the narrative are clues). The translation, by Louis Iribane, leans heavily on American vernacular at times, which is at least better suited to the detective genre than science fiction, though the line “displayed on the poster was an enormous fanny” did make me wonder if I had accidentally wandered into Trainspotting. What is clear in any language is Lem’s restless inventiveness and his refusal to be constricted by whatever genre he writes in.