On Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance

The Chain of Chance is, first, not a direct translation of the title. The book’s Wikipedia entry—not the greatest source, I know—renders it as Catarrh, or Rhinitis. Hay fever. Not a disease, an annoyance.


Cover of The Chain of Chance

What’s most striking about The Chain of Chance is its structure, which is not conventional at all. (As we’ll see, this book’s themes are directly integrated into the structure and the prose. This is something a lot of SFF could learn from!) The first section is a rambling avalanche of frustrations, raindrops building to a storm of aggravation. The narrator, John, is driving to Rome. Severe allergies clog his sinuses. It’s too hot and too humid. Traffic is heavy; the fan blows exhaust fumes in his face. It looks like rain but the storm won’t break, until suddenly it’s a downpour. “My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel.”

John doesn’t explain what he’s up to. He doesn’t notice he hasn’t explained it. He’s the guy next to you on the plane who spends the flight pouring out his least interesting troubles. We pick out the plot from sporadic details like that sensor: John is posing as a dead man named Adams, using his belongings, monitored by electrodes as he follows Adams’ last journey. How Adams died is a mystery; John imitates his actions precisely, hoping for clues along the way.

Before he took this job John was an astronaut. He didn’t get past orbit, disqualified by allergies. Even his memories of space are annoyances: chasing down floating crumbs and dandruff with a vacuum in zero-G, readjusting to gravity when he came back down.

John stops at a gas station. It’s empty except for a woman who walks in and for some reason faints. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? Just because something seems anomalous, is it important?

An escalator in the station starts when John comes near and stops when he leaves as though, John thinks, it’s announcing the end of a scene.[1] But there’s no intent there, just a sensor. A mechanical process.


Stymied, John flies to Paris, where his journey started. (He still hasn’t gone into details. Who was Adams? Who’s interested in his death, and what’s mysterious about it?) He’s delayed by an airport bombing.

You might assume this is a plot point. It is later, although not in the way you’d expect. For now it’s a thematic bomb. The Chain of Chance was published in 1975 and in the early 1970s terrorism was on everybody’s mind—there was an epidemic of hijackings (over 130 between 1968 and 1972), and Italy was deep in the Years of Lead. In 1975 a bomb would have seemed a logical way to inconvenience the protagonist of a novel in an Italian airport.

Terrorism feels uncanny. The victims are random. The perpetrators are distant, unseen; there’s no direct link. The motive is impersonal—somebody thinks they have to make a point (or that they have a point at all) and to make it they’re going to kill… I dunno, let’s see, maybe you? We don’t know who the somebody is but we know there’s a somebody. When disasters happen in patterns we expect someone is causing them for a reason, an enemy we can fight. As one character observes in an entirely different context, “It’s always convenient to know who’s to blame for everything.”


In the 1960s a programmer named Joseph Weizenbaum created a program called ELIZA. ELIZA was what we’d call a chatbot. It could have followed any number of scripts, but Weizenbaum set it up as what’s known as a Rogerian psychotherapist. (This is the ELIZA we’re all familiar with today, but Weizenbaum called this script DOCTOR.) The technique involves asking open questions and reflecting the patient’s answers back to them, which could be simulated simply by saying things like “That’s quite interesting,” and “Can you elaborate on that?” and occasionally regurgitating whatever the “patient” just typed (“You say the owls are not what they seem?”). What Rogerian psychotherapists thought of all this is not recorded.

In his book Computer Power and Human Reason Weizenbaum described what happened next.[2] When he suggested recording conversations with ELIZA colleagues objected that this “amounted to spying on people’s most intimate thoughts.” Not that Weizenbaum was cool with spying on intimate thoughts, but it hadn’t occurred to him anyone would share intimate thoughts with ELIZA. People were treating ELIZA like a real therapist. Even Weizenbaum’s secretary asked him to leave the room so she could chat privately. Three psychiatrists (including his colleague Kenneth Colby) writing in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease saw a future where “Several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system.” To Weizenbaum this was weird and creepy. Any real therapeutic relationship is based on empathy. How could anyone think this half-assed algorithm was capable of empathy?

Pareidolia is the psychological quirk that makes you see unintended images—often faces—in random or meaningless arrangements of shapes. It’s what’s happening when an electrical outlet looks like a surprised little guy, or when you see a major religious figure in your English muffin. It’s a form of apophenia, the temptation to find meaning in things that aren’t meaningful or even connected. Like, lefty urbanists sometimes insist cities don’t plant fruit trees along the streets due to active collusion between planning departments and supermarket owners, who meet in smoky backrooms nationwide to prevent free food. Nobody thinks of the ordinary and obvious fact—because it’s not an interesting story—that fruit leaves a goddamn mess on the sidewalk. This story takes isolated data points—ornamental trees don’t have fruit, business owners don’t like competition, they’re often tight with local politicians—and perceived a pattern that isn’t there. That’s a form of apophenia.

Humans also tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; some small corner in every human mind will see a stuck Roomba banging around under a couch and imagine it’s frightened. Sometimes people see more humanity in objects than humans. The point of all this being that no one who has accidentally sent a text message about ducks thinks the autotext feature on their phone is smart, but put a better version of the algorithm in a different context and you’ll convince a lot of people—educated people, even—they’re talking to Deep Thought. People like to see people and, more than anything else in the world, people want to believe in agency.


Stymied, John visits Dr. Barth, a computer scientist who consults with the Sûreté. We’re halfway through the book and up to now we’ve had to piece the plot together by picking relevant details out of a torrent of grumbles, but here John finally explains what’s going on.

John’s story is the best kind of telling instead of showing, not a dramatization but a report. It’s a long chunk of exposition, but efficient. The Chain of Chance takes advantage of its status as prose and doesn’t draw the explanation out with flashback scenes or extra dialogue. Lem loved crossing fiction and nonfiction; he was a master of storytelling through exposition and his novels include Borgesian volumes of reviews and introductions to nonexistent books.

Adams was one of a series of men—all middle-aged, all single, all balding, all with allergies—who visited a spa famous for its sulfur baths. Each one subsequently developed paranoid delusions—hinting they were on to some mysterious journalistic scoop, or being hounded by terrorists. (Apophenia again.) Finally each man either committed suicide or died through accidents so careless they might as well have been intentional. Adams’ family noticed the similarities and hired John to make sense of this—not that he’s had much luck. Is it a poison? Is someone testing a chemical weapon? Why balding, allergic men, and why single—is that part of the profile, or did they just not have anyone to notice their strange behavior and get help? Just because it’s a point of commonality, is it important? John isn’t sure what details to pick out; he’s been reading the situation the same way we read the first sections of the novel.


Dr. Barth introduces John to a colleague, Dr. Saussure (no relation). Dr. Saussure doesn’t have a solution but he does have a hunch, expressed in metaphor: imagine a table held together with nails, the nail-heads visible on its surface. Imagine a drop of water perfectly positioned on each nail. You’d conclude someone had been by with an eyedropper. But leave the table out in a rainstorm and of course the nails will be wet, no eyedropper required: in a storm some drops will inevitably hit.

Or imagine a fly landing on a firing range. To hit the fly with a single bullet would be impressive marksmanship. But what about a real fusillade, a room packed with bullets? Shoot long enough, and one’s bound to hit. The dead fly would only impress you if you didn’t notice the misses, if your perceptions were somehow limited to that single bullet.

As an astronaut, John had a metaphorical long-distance view of humanity; he could take in the entire world at one glance. On Earth, he’s one of the flies on the firing range.


Here John returns to his catalogue of annoyances. Chief among them is a tabloid suggesting impropriety between John and the young woman who survived the bombing with him; he’s pissed off enough to get careless. In his angrily random roamings he ingests exactly the wrong combination of snacks, allergy medicine, and shampoo—and now he stumbles into the solution to the mystery, nearly adding to the list of victims in the process. The dead men weren’t poisoned by people. What drove them to suicide was an unlikely chemical reaction involving sulfur, allergy medicine, hair tonic, and candied almonds (hey, everybody likes candy).

Lem opens a chapter of his novel Fiasco by insisting “That which mathematically has an extremely low probability also has this characteristic: that it may nevertheless sometimes happen.” Lem keeps coming back to chance and contingency; when he published a book of literary theory he called it The Philosophy of Chance.[3] The Investigation is another mystery where the villain may be an improbable natural process. His Master’s Voice offers this as one possible explanation for an apparently alien signal.

Any wild improbability may be inevitable including, the last line suggests, the writing of The Chain of Chance, a novel that looks at the twentieth century and sees more people alive than at any point in history and a world moving faster every year. This is a human rainstorm: every day enough people take enough weird and random actions to hit every spot on every table and then some.

Surely such a complex repeating pattern must have been planned? But a lot of people die, and a lot of those deaths also have complex backstories, and a lot of those backstories inevitably happen more than once. It’s just that no one picked those specific wet nails out of the many raindrops hitting the table, assumed they’d found a pattern, and deduced intent. John’s investigation is based in the same kind of apophenia the dead men experienced.

Of course, there is an intent behind The Chain of Chance: Lem’s. But we aren’t living in a novel. We can’t read the world like a story. A lot of political discourse is real people fanfiction about the machinations of perceived enemies who are in reality confused and fumbling. Banal contingencies become plots. Anyone who is at all online has seen people confabulate elaborate stories to explain why strangers took actions that were in fact unimportant or random. Think of the people on Nextdoor who see a van driving slowly and warn that burglers are casing the neighborhood when it was just some guy looking for an address.

Purpose and agency are weirdly comforting even when they seem malevolent. Things don’t just happen. Someone is running the game even if it’s rigged against you. Anyone who’s read a detective novel knows mysteries are caused by villains, and at the end of the story the villain will be revealed. You can do things about villains: arrest them, or fight them, or at least call them out. You can’t call out a random combination of chemicals. You can broadcast warnings and pass laws and regulations; but they take a lot of work, and the work doesn’t feel like a fun adventure, and anyway there’s only so much you can do to protect people from their own haplessness. In that sense a villain is, oddly, less frightening. The Chain of Chance is a detective novel where the villains are nature, chance, and apophenia. These are the enemy more often than most of us would care to admit.

  1. Which is is, but only from the reader’s perspective.  ?
  2. I have read just excerpts of this book and would like to read the whole thing… but it’s out of print, used copies are expensive, and the available ebook for some reason consists of page images cut in half and displayed sideways.  ?
  3. As far as I know this has never been translated into English but there’s a summary at that Wikipedia page.  ?

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