Study Guide

The Chain of Chance

by Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

John, the narrator, a former astronaut, has been hired to investigate the death of a fellow American named Adams, who has died of unknown causes in Naples. This is only the most recent in a series of twelve strange deaths in which the victim first exhibited evidence of great excitement and aggressive behavior, followed by hallucinations and delusions of persecution, and, finally, total withdrawal, leading to death, in most cases by suicide. Though the twelve were unknown to one another, John believes that the pattern cannot be mere coincidence. Were they the victims of a great, mysterious conspiracy?

In an attempt to discover precisely what caused the death of Adams, John, monitored by two colleagues who follow at a distance, duplicates exactly the movements of Adams in Naples and Rome, hoping to tempt the presumed killer to attack him. He stays at the same hotel, drives the same highway from Naples to Rome, stops at the same service station, and registers at the same hotel in Rome. Although he is suspicious of some of the things that happen to him—a young woman in the service station, for example, approaches him and then faints—he learns nothing that can explain what happened to Adams.

He decides, therefore, to go to Paris to consult with Dr. Philippe Barth, a distinguished computer scientist who has been programming a computer to solve problems in which the amount of data exceeds the storage capacity of human memory. At the Rome airport, however, John is delayed when he saves a young girl from a terrorist’s bomb which kills several people. At first he is arrested as the terrorist’s accomplice; then, as a hero, he must endure a news conference, though he wishes to be anonymous. Eventually, he is able to deliver the girl, Annabella, to her father in Paris.

In Paris, he meets Barth, to whom he describes the twelve deaths and the problem inherent in the fact that they seem simultaneously related and unrelated. Barth is convinced that whoever is responsible for the deaths in Naples...

(The entire section is 827 words.)