Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The narrator, who is about to sail away, recalls his life in Babylon, where everything is ruled by chance. There is a lottery in Babylon that began as most lotteries do, offering relatively modest prizes that did not inspire many to participate. Later the possibility of drawing fines was added to the lottery: For every thirty winning numbers there was to be one requiring payment of a fine. People who did not participate in the lottery came to be scorned as mean-spirited. When some people refused to pay the fines (from which winners were paid), nonpecuniary awards and penalties were added, such as jail sentences. When the stakes were raised, excluding the poor, there were riots. This led to reforms that removed the necessity of even having to buy tickets: Everyone had to participate. Similarly, cash prizes were eliminated; instead, winners could be elevated to the highest reaches of the Company that ran Babylon, while losers could be sentenced to death.
The ship is now ready to sail, but the narrator explains that the Company—arcane and shrouded in mystery as it is and holding Babylon together as it does—may not even exist, that it may never have existed. He concludes that there is a “conjecture no less vile [that] argues that it is inconsequential to affirm or deny the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.”