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Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem
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Fiasco (original 1987; edition 2000)

by Stanislaw Lem

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527919,152 (3.99)18
Member:brightcopy
Title:Fiasco
Authors:Stanislaw Lem
Info:Futura (2000), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library, Read
Rating:***
Tags:science fiction

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Fiasco by Stanisław Lem (1987)

Recently added byjeneria, Wolf_02, mo., stach, fledglingphoenix, private library, eastlake_uk, mandra, srkal

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Starts out great, but after its initial third Lem spends too much time on fake science and has characters behave too stupidly to be believable. Despite the themes skillfully weaved into the early parts of this book, the rest fails to capitalize on this, and so Fiasco falls far short of one of Lem's other novels about attempted contact, Solaris. I'll be comparing Fiasco to Solaris frequently throughout this review, so if you've haven't read the latter consider yourself warned- and also, go read Solaris, it's excellent.

The opening chapter recounts a pilot using a giant walking robot to attempt to rescue people lost on Jupiter's moon Titan. While it might seem strangely divorced from the rest of the text, instead it skillfully establishes many of the themes and ideas that will be explored throughout the rest of Fiasco. While walking through the frozen structures of Titan the pilot is repeatedly reminded of natural phenomena, highlighting how human beings have a natural inclination to draw connections between things, to see the familiar even where there is nothing but the alien. At one point the pilot is led astray, it turns out by his own reflection. After an accident the pilot resorts to a cryogenic freezing option only slightly better than suicide, his rescue mission a failure.

Fast-forward hundreds of years later and several cryogenically frozen people have been brought aboard a huge space ship that will use a black hole to travel to a distant solar system in an attempt to contact intelligent life. Not all of the frozen people can be unfrozen, however, in fact only one can. The scientists have two candidates that have an exactly equal chance of being revived successfully, and so the scientists in charge of the resurrection agree that they will invent a lie about why one candidate is superior, while in fact the one they choose to resurrect will be selected at random. Again, while this section might seem unrelated to the main contact story, it establishes the idea that human kind needs to master his surroundings through reason, and is even willing to make up a reason where none exists, a falsehood being better than nothing.

While traveling aboard the space ship the resurrected man can't remember who he was before, not that he is much troubled by this, though he lives his old life in his dreams and does not reveal this to the doctors who treat him. He spends some time reading a piece of a story about an explorer who finds a vast colony of ants and wages a campaign to get at the heart of the place, where he finds a mysterious sphere that seems to attract insects no matter where he goes. Not only is it a great story in its own right (one I'd be happy to read more of), it also raises the idea of insane quests focused on things beyond our understanding that, even when successful, still ends with a result that's incomprehensible.

All of this is the prologue to the main contact story, and in my opinion it's by far the best part of the book. It establishes the characters, themes, and tone of the book in an entertaining way and without beating you over the head. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't live up to the foundation this prologue establishes.

After this point Lem dives heavily into the fake science of interstellar travel, giving us pages and pages of explanation for how the journey is being made and why it will only take a certain amount of time. In Solaris, the scientific theories and reports Lem has the characters read all serve a specific purpose: to show that mankind has spent a huge amount of effort trying to understand Solaris, and also that so far mankind has learned absolutely nothing definite about it. In Fiasco, the fake science of interstellar travel serves no such similar purpose, since in the world of this story the fake science discussed is actually the truth- at least it works for the characters here. Thus you have to read about the rationale for the temporal effects of black holes for a significant amount of time when the story could have just had the characters use the black hole, with some perfectly reasonable trepidation, and gotten on with the story from there. The fake science about interstellar travel adds nothing to the book.

Not that the fake science ends when the characters get to the inhabited alien world, but after the journey the fake science switches from fake physics to fake alien sociology. This at least serves a purpose, pretty much the same one the reports served in Solaris: to emphasize that we don't really know anything about what an alien might be like or how they might behave, despite piles and piles of theories that sound logical and scientific on paper. What undercuts this section is that the characters performing this first contact don't behave in reasonable ways. Their first actions are to snatch alien objects orbiting the atmosphere and cut them open, an act that is hard not to interpret as hostile. What is it with first contact stories where the humans' first course of action is to cut into the alien thing and see what happens? They do the same thing in Peter Watts' Blindsight.

The attempts at contact just get more absurd from there. They beam radio signals and lasers onto the planet, ignoring the fact that if an alien did the same thing to them while they were on earth they'd almost certainly not realize it. Eventually they stumble upon the better, although acknowledged as still subpar, idea of projecting images down to the planet. This is after the crew enacts certain measures that are stunningly stupid, including blowing up the moon, possibly the stupidest way to make an alien open up the channels of communication ever conceived, though nearly matched later on in the novel when they start laser-beaming the planet. None of the attempts at contact make much sense, a fact at one point acknowledged by the resurrected character, not that it makes the fact any better. The behavior of the crew paints them all as idiots at best, and homicidal maniacs at worst, nothing like how they were characterized earlier. It's a baffling turn for the narrative to take, made even more confusing by Lem proving in Solaris that he can write a far better contact story than this.

The ending does nothing to mitigate these problems- the resurrected character lands on the planet, and through his scan of the mock ship they sent down we're led to believe that at least some of the crew's conjecture about these aliens was correct. The conjecture all seemed more like projection of the human characters, though, so the reveal that they might actually have been correct was a surprise to me, and not a very satisfying one. Still, the wanderings and observations of the character make it clear that he and the other humans still have no idea what's going on in the planet, and maybe never will. Then the atmosphere of the entire planet is destroyed because the character forgets to check his watch. Fantastic.

I understand what Lem was doing here, trying to show how man's desire to have contact (and understand the universe) no matter what the cost leads to tragedy when faced with something incomprehensible. The book's title of Fiasco makes clear from the outset that this isn't likely to be a very successful attempt. I just wish that Lem had presented a more believable fiasco for a contact mission, one with people that behaved more intelligently, and failure that felt inevitable instead of due to human stupidity.

Damn it Lem, that first third was so strong! But then you follow it up with pages of boring fake science and a subpar first contact story, featuring a crew of psychopaths and idiots. This could have been great, potentially even good enough to rival Solaris, but instead I'm left disappointed. ( )
  BayardUS | Jan 10, 2016 |
***This review may contain spoilers***

Few people are familiar with Fiasco. A lot of people do know Solaris, but are unfamiliar with Stanislaw Lem. What a movie can do. Better yet: there's three of them. What a good book can achieve. And it is true: Stanislaw Lem's books are thought-provoking. They might be a bit too slow and philosophical for the average Science Fiction reader. Although mankind travels into space and fires lasers, this isn't your average space opera - far from it. Beside that, the story in the movie Solaris was hardly related to the book.
Now, now. This review is about a book with the _title_ Fiasco, not about a few movies that _were_ fiasco's. Let's get back.

The theme of Fiasco is similar to Solaris (and a few other books by Lem): humanity meets aliens far from Earth. But it's not the physical distance that makes these aliens so unreachable, it's the culture distance. Humans can't comprehend the alienness. Even standing right between them they don't realize that these are the aliens they wanted to meet. Behold Lem's solution to the Fermi Paradox. Worse, any first contact will inevitably lead to catastrophe.

Lem was a Polish writer, no doubt shaped by the country he lived in. During a big part of his life it was an authoritarian society. He had to deal with both a harsh communist regime and an authoritarian Catholic church. Both were suffocating daily life. No wonder Lem's outlook on humankind is dim. Perhaps a bit too dim.

The aliens of Stanislaw Lem are alien indeed. Almost never bipedal, nor their humanoid faces decorated with a few ridges or pointy ears. In Solaris the alien is a kind of sea, in Fiasco the aliens don't move at all.

Fiasco is the struggle of humans, unable to come to grips with a civilization that doesn't want to be contacted. The aliens provide a backdrop for the grim derailment of the humans who want to befriend, but don't understand. In no time the contact escalates into bizarre mass destruction. I must rephrase my words. Escalation is a step-by-step process. It requires two sides. One step by one side, the next step by the other side. In Fiasco both sides are so unequal that there _is_ no escalation. There's only fast growing human brutality.

As stated earlier, this is the core theme, the _Leitmotiv_ of Lem in many of his books. It's his vision of humanity. And - like with Solaris - that's where the story falls a bit flat. In no way do the human travelers convince me that they _had_ to make the choices they finally made. On the contrary. They had ample opportunity to rethink their strategies. They could decide to refrain from violence, yet they didn't. Their unconvincing motivations make them no template for humanity in general.

Consider a first contact scenario with indigenous people by western civilization. The intentions were always good. White priests wanted to save these people from hell by converting them to Christianity. In the meantime they disturbed traditional societies leading to disastrous social derailment. Or they infected them with their European pathogens, killing all instead of saving them. By now most people abhor this course of action. We did learn.
Another example is the exposition of indigenous people to western lifestyle and food. Leading to rampant obesity and lifestyle diseases, these people were better off not contacting our civilization at all.

In both cases the intentions were either good or neutral, yet the results were disastrous. But the first contact Lem describes is far from both. It's aggressive, hostile. In Solaris, they study the organic sea but don't understand it. Only after the humans start bombarding it with a destructive ray, things go wrong. In Fiasco Lem follows a similar pattern. The humans seek contact, the aliens say no. The humans regard this "no" as a hostile act. Their conclusion is that they have to respond with ridiculous violence. And they even blame the aliens for the resulting destruction.

Imagine meeting an unknown tribe. You want to make first contact. They don't react to your extended hand, as they don't know what it means. You wave at them and they don't understand either. They're growing suspicious and run away, throwing a few stones at you. You ponder the situation and decide you need to do something else. So you grab your rifle and shoot one of the tribesmen in the leg. That will get their attention! This is the solution Lem thinks is inevitable with humans. I think he's wrong.

Lem starts the story with the resurrection of a deep freezed human and a hefty discussion about the ethical repercussions. He ends the story with annihilation of alien life.

It's clear what Lem is telling us. If it comes to ourselves, we're full of ethics; if it comes to others, those ethics often disappear in a jiffy. Worse, we don't even understand _that_ we just compromised ourselves.
And that's what bothers me about Fiasco. Regarding the former statement, Lem does have a valid point. Regarding the latter, he is really off the mark. ( )
  jeroenvandorp | Aug 12, 2015 |
this is a fantastic book. extremely imaginative, it evokes amazing feelings of cosmic travel and despair. it has wonderful argumentation and weird man machine interactions. it felt very "plastic" in the sense of it's detailed material descriptions. very otherworldly for sure. ( )
  eeio | Nov 24, 2012 |
There's a really good story in here struggling to free itself from a detailed treatise on alien first contact. It succeeded just well enough to keep me reading, but it was a close run thing. ( )
  hoddybook | May 8, 2011 |
It took me three attempts to read this book. The first time, I got bogged down in the middle of the first chapter, waiting for something to happen. Instead, I was treated to fascinating descriptions of one rock formation, then another rock formation that is quite similar but not totally identical to the first rock formation, then yet a third rock formation that is even more similar but not totally identical... The second time, I picked up the book forgetting it was the one with the mind-numbing geological fetish and took it on vacation. Only then did I realize and yet I tried it again - another failure. So I decided to look up some reviews and see what I was missing. I really wanted to like the book, as I had thoroughly enjoyed Lem's Peace On Earth. I found many reviews saying, yes, the first chapter is really boring but just stick with it.

Armed with this knowledge, I braced myself for a third attempt on the summit. This time, I mainly skimmed the first chapter, making sure I didn't miss anything. Turns out you can go through the entire chapter and only read the first few and last few pages and you'll only miss lots of dry recitation of the geology of Titan.

After surviving the first chapter, I approached the "good" part of the book with gusto. And it certainly picked up the pace, but then I think this might have been true had the entire rest of the book consisted only of blank pages. I found myself enjoying it more but still... not that much. The thing is that the book has some really interesting ideas, and in generally a really great story. Unfortunately, it gets completely crushed by the long stretches of exposition (we're talking pages at a time) on subjects that in the end really don't bear much on the plot. Some might say this is part of world building, but it must be used much more sparingly than this. I felt the actual plot of the book might have filled up less space than that excruciating first chapter. Part of this could be blamed on having to read it in something other than Lem's native tongue, but I honestly can't see how those chapters of exposition could have been more lively in any language. Perhaps Klingon.

So I give it three stars. Like I said, the story is good enough that I can't call it a bad book. But I feel that perhaps it wasn't worth the chore of sticking with it, especially three times. ( )
  brightcopy | Apr 13, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156306301, Paperback)

The planet Quinta is pocked by ugly mounds and covered by a spiderweb-like network. It is a kingdom of phantoms and of a beauty afflicted by madness. In stark contrast, the crew of the spaceship Hermes represents a knowledge-seeking Earth. As they approach Quinta, a dark poetry takes over and leads them into a nightmare of misunderstanding. Translated by Michael Kandel. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

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