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Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem

Fiasco (original 1987; edition 2000)

by Stanislaw Lem

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517819,606 (3.99)18
Authors:Stanislaw Lem
Info:Futura (2000), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library, Read
Tags:science fiction

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Fiasco by Stanisław Lem (1987)



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***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 |
I thought this was pretty darn good. While there are important differences, it felt like a much more successful attempt to address the story of Arthur Clarke's Rendezvouz with Rama: man travels to meet with aliens, has a hard time communicating, finds surprises and danger, has a hard time figuring out what the heck's going on.

Lem populates his human ship with a small but truly diverse crew of scientists, pilots, a physician and catholic priest. Each of these characters at times plays an important role in the story. They bring diverse experiences, values, and personality types to a very stressful situation, allowing the dynamics of the interactions among the crew to play an important role in the novel. Lem's Quintans are one of the better conceived aliens I can remember, in surprising ways completely different than humans, and yet in other ways similar.

One of the more memorable things about the book is a superb first chapter that serves as an extended prelude and could easily be published as a stand alone short story. Set a couple hundred years before the rest of the story, it is a truly stunning tale of an attempted rescue mission on Titan.

Another thing I liked about Fiasco is that Lem makes you think. There are questions that are left unanswered, but the reader is given enough evidence to draw conclusions. Oddly enough, the identity of the protagonist is one of these unanswered questions (although the inclusion of the first chapter makes it pretty clear who the reader is supposed to assume the character is).

Fiasco is obviously a novel written during the cold war, and is clearly meant as a warning about mankind's future. And while in some ways it feels dated, we certainly cannot afford to forget how easily a reasonably intelligent species can get caught up in a downward spiral leading to very real possibilities of extinction. ( )
2 vote clong | Dec 26, 2007 |
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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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:40 -0400)

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