The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem (Review)


The Investigation is a novel about strange occurences. Dead bodies start moving, by themselves. At first, it’s hardly noticeable. A corpse moves from its back over onto its front. Or it rolls off the table. People dismiss these occurences, when they notice them, as practical jokes. Then the bodies start getting up and walking, even going through great lengths to clothe themselves before going out in public.

The main character, Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard, is tasked with solving these bizarre crimes. These are not mere body-snatchings. The bodies definitively appear to have moved themselves. And the incidents have strange similarities and coincendences running throughout. How did the criminal accomplish these crimes? What was his motive? Even the most basic questions fail any rational explanation.

As a result, a number of theories are proposed to explain these occurences. It quickly becomes clear, however, that more important than the investigation itself are the effects it has on the reader. Whether or not Gregory is changed by the investigation, whether or not he solves the case, the reader must open his mind in order just to grasp the meaning of the story.

This is compounded with a minor plot, which preys on Gregory’s mind. Gregory’s landlord, from whom he rents a room, is the subject of his own mystery involving strange noises that eminate from his room, continuing throughout the night. Gregory wonders what these noises are, and they become part of his dreams, affected by his investigation into the seemingly paranormal series of occurences.

Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Lem has criticized most English-language science fiction as unimaginative and mediocre. I love sci-fi, but I accept this evaluation from one such as he. Lem is a master storyteller and a brilliant thinker and writer. Most noted for his novel Solaris, which was brought, after a form, to the big screen, I enjoyed some of his other novels better, including Peace on Earth, Chain of Chance, and The Investigation. Also, I highly recommend the two-volume set Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Highcastle: A Remembrance

StanisÅ‚aw Lem’s memoirs of his childhood in Lwów, until WWII. “An intelligent, evocative examination of youth and memory.”

Stanisław Lem was born in Lwów, Poland in 1921 (now Lviv, Ukraine). His father was a physician, and he himself studied medicine at Lwów University, until World War II. In 1946, he returned to learning medicine at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. But he refused to take his final exams, in order to avoid becoming a career military doctor. He worked as a research assistant and started to write stories. In 1948, Lem started writing his first novel, Hospital of the Transfiguration, which is a dramatic (non-genre) novel based partly on his own experiences. This novel did not see the printing press, however, until freedom of speech was expanded in Poland in 1956. Before that, he published his first science fiction novel, The Astronauts.

Since then, Lem’s books have been translated into 41 languages, selling over 27 million copies.

Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t read The Investigation, I highly recommend it. I’ll be giving away some of the plot, so SPOILER ALERT! Still, I think the novel is worth reading, even if you know how some things turn out. (And I’m not giving away everything.)

Sciss’s Theory

Gregory, of course, suspects a human criminal, but some of the crimes he cannot reasonably explain. One in particular can only be explained if the corpse were actually moving by itself. Then there’s Sciss, a scientist with a theory, Gregory’s nemesis in his investigation. I say Sciss is Gregory’s nemesis not because Sciss tries to undermine the investigation, but because Gregory doesn’t like him and doesn’t believe his theory.

Sciss’s theory is that this is a natural occurence, which he has linked with various factors. This of course sounds like gobbledygook to Gregory. How can a natural occurence cause corpses to walk around and perform obviously intelligent activities? But Sciss explains his theory so convincingly. We don’t understand what causes gravity, either– Oh, we know that two masses attact each other. But what causes this attractive force? If pressed, eventually, we have to admit that we don’t really understand why an apple falls from a tree rather than flying upward. But gravity happens everyday; it’s a part of our lives. So we’ve learned to accept it. We don’t question it. If dead bodies got up and walked around everyday, we’d accept that, too. Simply because we don’t understand the root cause of an occurence doesn’t mean it’s not a natural occurence.

Gregory, of course, being a hard-nosed police investigator, doesn’t buy this. He also needs a human suspect in order to further his investigation. He’d sooner suspect Sciss than this bit about it being an unexplained natural occurence. And only after Sciss is cleared, cleared, and cleared again does Gregory relent in these suspicions.

In the end, they do come up with an answer to the occurences, though a scientifically unsatisfying one. And we are left with the knowledge and feeling that truth is in the eye of the beholder, just a fabrication of our own minds.

Lem did not preach. But he did engross me in a mystery that demanded to be solved. Then he presented me with solutions that required I change my world-view, however temporarily, to understand.


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