CHAIN OF CHANCE
To someone brought up in the Anglo-Saxon preserve of British-American science fiction it can be slightly disconcerting to see a luminary rise from the different environment of a foreign land, not even writing in English. Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is such a luminary of the first magnitude, bearing no mark from our transatlantic hothouse. In novels like Solaris, in the Rabelaisian welter of language and ideas that make up The Cyberiad, there is a flavour of moving back in cultural time – what science fiction would have been, perhaps, if it never got into American pulp magazines.
Philosophy fiction, rather than science fiction, would better describe his latest book to be published in English. Lem has accomplished what many writers must have contemplated but abandoned as too daunting: a whodunit in which the murderer is not anybody but is instead some mysterious fateful property of the world. A series of inexplicable deaths are linked by factors that can only by interpreted statistically. The consequent investigation is an extraordinary mix of exciting narrative, deploying all the skills of the detective thriller, and abstract thought which carries the reader into the world of mathematical probability and 'multifactorial analysis'. The build-up of suspense is classic, and the killer is no less frightening for being unmasked as a chain of coincidences on the level of molecular chemistry (Lem does not hesitate to let such remarks as 'Ritalin is a-phenyl-a-piperidineacetic acid methyl ester hydrochloride' enter normal conversation). For the casebook closes only to resume the novel's awful message: technology has become so complex that civilisation is about to come under a new set of physical laws, those of 'random causality' where events have no identifiable cause and individual actions are as meaningless as the motions of atoms in a gas.
Full of content, endlessly erudite (unless it is where Lem sees fit to provide the redundant information that someone's Japanese pocket calculator is 'transistored', which possibly says something about the availability of pocket calculators behind the Iron Curtain), this book is a very impressive piece of work which leaves one thinking for quite a time.
copyright 2000, Barrington J. Bayley
previously published in Time Out