Themes and Meanings

Humanity knows much less than it thinks it does. Armour Black, the writer who joins Sciss, Gregory, and McCatt (a scientist) in a conversation, explains the central idea of the novel. The universe presents the mind with facts, but the mind is not content with facts. To take in a fact is to interpret it, to create, assume, or “observe” its connections with other facts. It is not merely the detective’s methodology that demands a perpetrator for these events, for all methodologies require the interpretation of facts. As McCatt observes in a later conversation, a human being must use the mind; it has no other way to play the game.

Similarly, the reader must use his mind, for there is no other way to play the reading game. Lem’s manipulation of detective conventions gives the reader an experience parallel to Gregory’s. All the central mysteries remain unexplained, though revelations often seem imminent.

An important implication of this limitation is that humans always read themselves into the universe. At the beginning of his investigation, Gregory meets in an arcade a familiar-looking stranger who will not let him pass. On the verge of violence, Gregory discovers that he is before a disguised mirror—he is in conflict with himself. This incident is paradigmatic here and in many of Lem’s works.