Themes and Meanings

The themes of The Chain of Chance have preoccupied Lem throughout his career. In 1968, he published a long treatise, “Filozofia przypadku” (the philosophy of chance), and in the autobiographical essay “Reflections on My Life”—in Microworlds (1984)—he indicated that this preoccupation originated in the frightening coincidences and near-misses in his early life during the German occupation of Poland. In that essay, Lem poses a crucial question that echoes the title of the English translation of this novel (although not the original Polish title, which simply means “catarrh”): “Can all the factors that were responsible for my coming into the world and enabled me, although threatened by death many times, to survive regarded only as the result of long chains of chance?” In his answer, Lem says that, while he does not believe in “predetermination,” he suspects that the universe may often reveal “a preestablished disharmony, ending in chaos and madness.”

This reference goes far to explain Lem’s intentions in The Chain of Chance. Events in the universe that he describes are not predetermined (indeed, they would be more explicable and thus less frightening if they were). What Lem reveals in his novel is the way the universe, at least on occasion, reveals a tendency to produce a “disharmony” which is so extreme that it leads inevitably to “chaos and madness.” The twelve victims in the novel are all driven into such chaos and madness by a “chain of chance” that the reader finds most appalling because it is clear that it actually could happen. The victims, who have nothing in common...

(The entire section is 681 words.)


Lem is a social philosopher whose vision is largely independent of ideological or economic particulars. In The Chain of Chance, he...

(The entire section is 619 words.)