Posts Tagged ‘Stanislaw Lem’

The Chain of Chance

June 5, 2016

chain of chance

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.


The Cyberiad

February 11, 2016


Stanislaw Lem is a writer who has not been well served by UK publishers or (apparently) translators – a number of his books having been translated into English via other languages. It is therefore a pleasure to discover Penguin Modern Classics releasing The Cyberiad (which was followed this year by The Star Diaries). Both are translated by Michael Kandel who clearly, judging from the amount of word play involved, has a very good grasp of Lem’s intentions. (They are not new translations, however, the English language version of The Cyberiad appearing in 1974, nine years after its Polish publication).

Hopefully the Classics imprint will attract new readers who may previously have been scared off by the pigeon-holing of Lem’s work as science fiction. While it certainly contains many of the elements we associate with the genre (robots, space travel, alien planets) it doesn’t read like any other science fiction I have come across. The writer I was most reminded of was Italo Calvino: the same playfulness, one minute embracing, the next disregarding convention, and an imagination constantly punching through to the next dimension. The Cyberiad is a series of stories centred on two ingenious inventors, or ‘constructors’ as they are called, Trurl and Klapaucius, friends, colleagues and rivals, whose ability to create seems only to be limited by Lem’s imagination. In the first story, Trurl invents a machine which can create anything beginning with n; once satisfied it works he invites Klapaucius to inspect it. His friend sets to work testing the machine eventually asking it to “do Nothing.”

“The constructors froze, forgetting their quarrel, for the machine was in actual fact doing Nothing, and it did it in this fashion: one by one, various things were removed from the world and the things, thus removed, ceased to exist, as if they had never been.”

In the second story Trurl builds a thinking machine but when he tests it with the traditional inquiry as to what two plus two is, it replies seven. Even with Klapaucius’ help the machine cannot be fixed, and when Trurl loses his temper and kicks it, the machine takes offence and is soon chasing them through the town leaving devastation behind it:

“For the machine, in stubborn pursuit, was plowing through the walls of the buildings like a mountain of steel, and in its wake lays piles of rubble and white clouds of plaster dust.”

Throughout the stories it is the constructors very human flaws and reactions, despite their genius, that create much of the humour, whether directed at their creations, or at each other. In ‘A Good Shellacking’ Trurl presents Klapaucius with a “Machine to Grant Your Every Wish.” Suspecting that Trurl has hidden inside the machine in order to spy on him, Klapaucius asks it to create a Trurl whom he proceeds to beat on the basis that it isn’t the real Trurl.

Much of the book consists of a series of ‘sallies’ were the constructors “sally forth” into the universe and offer their services to various rulers. (At one point they rearrange the stars to create an advert). As well as serving these rulers, Trurl and Klapaucius frequently have to outwit them. Beginning with two warring kingdoms, they decide to separate and each offer his genius to one, but agree on a plan to ensure that neither of them has to destroy the other. This is not the only engagement which leads them into danger: a request from King Krool to create a beast worthy of his hunting skills reveals he does not liked to be left disappointed:

“I only know that no-one yet has satisfied me, and the scream of terror they invariably give as they plummet to the bottom doesn’t last quite so long as it used to.”

And so it goes on. The Cyberiad seems to be not so much a celebration of science but of fiction. Trurl and Klapaucius’ machines are creations rather than inventions, relying on imagination not scientific discovery. Their plans rely on the logic of narrative rather than reason. On this basis it seems almost accidental that Lem wrote something that looked like science fiction; whatever genre he chose it seems likely he would have transformed and transcended it.