Monday, February 2, 2015

The Chain of ChanceThe Chain of Chance by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world mainly knows Stanislaw Lem as a science fiction writer. Wikipedia says that toward the end of the 20th century he was the most widely read science fiction writer in the world and that his books were translated from Polish into over 40 languages and sold over 45 million copies. His famous novel "Solaris" was adapted for movies three times. However, saying that Mr. Lem was a science fiction writer is akin to calling Thomas Jefferson an architect. Yes, Mr. Jefferson was quite an accomplished architect, but he also did some other, more important things. Similarly, Mr. Lem wrote some science fiction, and yes, it was some of the best (in fact, I think the best) ever written, but he really was a philosopher of science, a futurologist strongly grounded in science and technology, and one of the world's deepest intellectuals. Some of my most beloved works by Mr. Lem are the collections of essays, Philosophy of Chance and Summa Technologiae, which have a lot to do with science (and mathematics), but definitely not with fiction.

I do not like science fiction because I am not interested in imagined worlds (I do not like fantasy for the same reason). Our own world is so fantastically complex, interesting, and hard to penetrate that I do not see the need of creating alternative worlds (my own version of "Occam's razor").

When I was growing up in Poland, I read all Lem's books in my native language. "The Chain of Chance" (Polish title is "Katar", meaning "Catarrh") is the first one that I have read in English (simply because someone borrowed the original and never cared to return it). This book has nothing in common with science fiction. It is one of the two or three mysteries written by Mr. Lem.

An aging American astronaut is investigating a cluster of unexplained deaths (usually suicides that follow periods of depression and severe hallucinations) of late-middle-age men in and around Naples, Italy. The novel might be called a scientific and philosophical mystery as it deals with detailed analysis of various factors, which are common for all unexplained cases, with statistics and probability theory.

The novel has some great writing (the translation by Louis Iribarne is flawless); until about page 60 the reader does not know at all what is going on, yet the events and the prose are captivating. The description of hallucinations is perhaps the best I have ever read. The denouement, although maybe a bit disappointing, is logical and strongly anchored in science. If you like a mystery that is totally different than the mainstream mysteries, "The Chain of Chance" is something for you.

Four stars.

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