no critical faculties 7: stanislaw lem’s the chain of chance


How did they know they were supposed to speak English? A telegram had come from Randy announcing the arrival of an American astronaut. How could they tell I was the astronaut? No one else was in the habit of wearing suspenders.

A man takes to the road in Naples. He wears a dead man’s clothes and drives a dead man’s car, goes through the ritual of the dead man’s final day alive. It becomes apparent that he’s courting death himself, but it’s not apparent why. He fails, only to narrowly escape a death different than the one he was pursuing, following from his chance proximity to an airport bomber. After these episodes, comprising the first fifty-five pages of The Chain of Chance, Lem explains himself, laying the mystery out in a conversation that spans another seventy.

The man is a former astronaut, accustomed to viewing things from a grand, objective distance, as in this exchange which brought me winging tragically back to Alnilam:

“Please, so be so kind as to tell me how the earth really looks from up there? I don’t trust the photographs.”

“And rightly so,” I said, passing her the salad bowl, secretly charmed by her blunt and unceremonious manner. “No photo can ever match it, especially not when the orbital path is close and the earth gradually takes the place of the sky. It doesn’t block the sky, it becomes the sky. That’s the impression one gets.”

“Is it really as beautiful as they say?” Her voice expressed doubt.

“It was to me, anyhow. What impressed me most was the emptiness of it, the desolation. Not a sign of any cities, highways, or seaports–nothing but oceans, continents, and clouds. By the way, the oceans and continents look much the same as we were taught at school. But the clouds… I found the clouds to he the most uncanny thing of all, maybe because they don’t look like clouds.”

“What did they look like?”

“That depends on the altitude. From very far away they look like the old and wrinkly hide of a rhinoceros, all cracked, and bluish-gray. But the closer you get, the more they look like different shades of sheep’s wool after it’s been combed out.”

But this story sticks him in the thick of it, reenacting the final days of a single member of a curious statistical group: men of a certain age and certain inclinations who died under mysterious, parallel circumstances. It sticks him in the middle, but then draws him away again, to the safety of objective distance, to long dialogs with scientists and investigators as they prod the issue from every verbal angle. Another case emerges, and proves inconclusive. Our astronaut attempts to leave France, the setting of these dialogs, and proceeds to have his flight canceled and make alternate arrangements in incredible detail.

It’s plodding, my attention began to wander. It’s like it lapses into the mundane early portions of a Lovecraft story, but instead of a reveal of harrowing verbiage from beyond the whatever it works up to an episode of more conventional madness, wedging the protagonist in the middle of things again, but properly. By chance, he becomes one of the men he sought to emulate indeed, and in coming out the other side reveals the answer they’ve been seeking.

So I, who like Lem, and have a tolerance for nonsense like Proust, got a little bored as I neared the tail end of this story. It goes on at such length about mundane things that it’s easy to grow mistrustful of payoff, but in the end it’s worth it. Everything that comes before lays the groundwork for a typically precise, rational reveal, one which relies on all the seemingly excessive details that have come before. It’s a well-built little gem of a book, with an interesting premise, worth reading but never exactly exciting.

Special Beard Bonus

The protagonist is, at one point

surrounded by a crowd of bearded neophytes

The poor man. Further, he encounters the harrowing

pharmacologist named Dr. Lapidus. Sporting a full-length beard, he looked as if he’d just returned from an uninhabited island.

Unfortunately, Lem doesn’t clarify the precise length that is “full”, leaving his readers to fruitless speculation on the point at which the sojourns on a lonely island look sets in.

Bonus Mining For Cheap, Juvenile Subtext

Around three I went into the garden, where little Pierre was waiting for me. This meeting was our very own secret. He showed me the parts of his rocket.

I’m sure our aged astronaut is only a bachelor because his occupation left him without enough time for the ladies.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 01/29/2010.

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