Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541
Gregory, a Scotland Yard lieutenant detective. Tall and lean, with a broad face, square jaw, and dark complexion, he lives in a mysterious rooming house, where barely audible noises at night disturb his sleep. The first case of his career involves finding the perpetrator of a series of apparently related crimes: Several corpses have been removed from mortuaries and strangely mutilated. A well-trained detective, Gregory must find a human cause for these events, but his odd methods of investigation and his passion for truth gradually convince him that these are “natural” reanimations of corpses rather than crimes. He then faces a paradox: Although he believes that there has been no crime, he must still act as if there has been. He cooperates with Chief Inspector Sheppard in fabricating an explanation in which there is a human criminal agent.
Sheppard, a Scotland Yard chief inspector. An older man with rheumatism, he is an eccentric, keeping pictures of executed criminals on the walls of his study. Sheppard directs the strange case, reluctantly giving it to the inexperienced Gregory. He follows Gregory closely, evaluating his work and sometimes criticizing his methods, especially when Gregory makes Sciss his main suspect. He offers a number of hypothetical explanations in which rational agents of various kinds figure. Finally, he provides a workable but fictional solution for the “crimes” that Gregory is willing to support.
Harvey Sciss, a statistical genius. He is thin and dark, with gray eyes, puffy cheeks, and a receding chin. He seems interested in perverted sex and has a heart condition that threatens him with an early death. He develops the theory that the mysterious reanimations are a statistical anomaly with a probable natural cause. They only appear miraculous because they are so rare and because there are elements of a pattern in their occurrence. He repeatedly points out to the police that mass statistics, though they reveal large-scale phenomena, do not explain them.
Armour Black, a best-selling novelist. He is fifty years old, large, dark, and athletic. In an extended conversation with Gregory, Black explains necessary fictions. For the policeman’s world to make sense, there must be crimes and criminals; Scotland Yard, he says, has no choice but to interpret these mysterious events as crimes to fit them into this perspective. He predicts that the police will be forced to create a story that explains these events as crimes if they do not discover actual criminal causes.
Dr. McCatt, an associate of Sciss. Like Sciss and Black, McCatt believes that the world is less thoroughly understood than most people believe. He shows Gregory an arcade game to illustrate the necessity of using the human mind to solve problems. Each game, including the detective game, has principles that determine how it is to be played, principles that make the world appear more comprehensible than it really is.
Williams, a suburban London constable. The only eyewitness to one of the events, he reports that he saw a corpse come to life and move about on its own. Because he panicked and ran into the path of a car and is near death when he gives his testimony, Gregory and Sheppard choose not to believe him.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
Stanisaw Lem uses his characters to manipulate the conventions of the detective plot and to toy with the reader. This playfulness directly serves Lem’s theme. Gregory proves a subtle and effective detective, yet his methods often seem incompetent. When the case is turned over to him, his first step is to play a game of his youth, taking random rides on the Underground. This action leads him to think, mistakenly, that he sees one of the reanimated bodies on a train. In fact, several times, Gregory takes a random direction that fortuitously leads him to an apparently significant clue which, in turn, proves to be a red herring for the reader. One purpose behind this aspect of Gregory’s technique is to show the reader that significant information about the case may be found as effectively by random search as by systematic search, for even though these “leads” prove fruitless, they are no more so, for his purposes, than the “real” ones.
Gregory tends to suspect the people that he encounters who seem to hold back information from him, and the only two suspects that he finds are Sciss and Sheppard. Each man has a murky private life about which he does not want to talk. Yet Gregory himself has such a problem. His landlord seems to spend the entire night in the room next door, making unidentifiable noises, and Gregory is irrationally reluctant to investigate these sounds that keep him awake most nights. As a result, he wants to keep this side of his life secret. Gregory, the landlord, Sciss, and Sheppard all remain essentially mysterious characters. Their idiosyncrasies remain unconnected and largely unexplained, while in a classic detective novel they would be related in some way to one another and to the crime.
One reason behind this aspect of Lem’s use of character is that human beings continuously manifest inexplicable behavior, often with quite banal explanations, that appears to be deeply mysterious when viewed in the absence of a fuller picture. The reader never knows why Sheppard has pictures of executed people on his wall at home or how he always seems to know where Gregory is or why Gregory is ashamed to spy on people. Sciss’s idiosyncrasies are probably explained by his search for sadomasochistic sex with young girls, and the landlord’s noises are probably the result of chronic illness, but these explanations are never fully confirmed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69
Engel, Peter, and John Sigda. “An Interview with Stanisaw Lem,” in The Missouri Review. VII (1984), pp. 218-237.
Lem, Stanisaw. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1984.
Occhiogrosso, Frank. “Threats to Rationalism: John Fowles, Stanisaw Lem, and the Detective Story,” in Armchair Detective. XIII (1980), pp. 4-7.
Potts, Stephen. “Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem,” in Bridges to Science Fiction, 1980.
Ziegfeld, Richard E. Stanisaw Lem, 1985.