Having read Fiasco, my favorite Stanislaw Lem book remains His Master’s Voice. In part this is because His Master’s Voice concerns scientists and the workings of science, which is a major part of my own life. Also, His Master’s Voice is far closer to how I think SETI efforts will turn out than Carl Sagan’s similar, but insanely chipper, Contact. Fiasco, like Lem’s other works, is pessimistic about humankind’s chances to make productive contact with alien life. If Contact is the counterpart of His Master’s Voice, however, then Fiasco is the counterpart of Star Trek, an epic scolding of America’s quintessential positive contact fairy tale. Although I think the scolding is richly deserved, Fiasco doesn’t quite work for me.
I like Roddenberry’s work well enough, but although it tries to be about “new life and new civilizations”, Star Trek is really a paean to human potential. The humans of Star Trek are insufferable cultural imperialists, and the human way is always the best way. This was always most apparent to me in Kirk’s eulogy of Spock from The Wrath of Khan: he speaks of Spock as being “human”, as if that were a virtue, as if Spock wouldn’t (rightly) find the implication insulting. In many ways, Fiasco is also a story about human potential, especially our capacity for unwarranted war. Of the two visions, only one belongs to the world of Cortes and Pizarro.
Fiasco has a strange structure. It starts with a long, incredibly dense “blizzard story” set on Titan. Two men went out into a dangerous area and were lost, another man went out and was lost. The final man, Parvis, goes out in a mechanical strider to look for the others. An accident occurs, the strider is practically destroyed, and he decides to use a crude flash-freeze apparatus, never proven to be effective, in a last-ditch effort to survive. We never find out whether it works; a man rescued from vitrifax awakes centuries later on the world’s most advanced spaceship as it sets out to the planet Quinta in hopes of contacting an alien civilization. Perhaps he is Parvis, perhaps someone else. He adopts the name Tempe, and gets a chance to see the Quintans.
Fiasco includes, among other themes, a thinly-disguised parable about the Cold War, and particularly the demented kinds of decisions that can be made in the context of seemingly endless stalemate. The humans find Quinta locked in a permanent power struggle, swaddled in satellites and sheathed in white noise meant to jam radio communications. The siege mentality of its warring states contributes to their taking an aggressive stance towards the humans, seeing all that is external as a foe. This attitude results in their choosing to essentially destroy part of their planet in order to make sure the humans are seen as the enemy.
The situation on Quinta is presaged by an earlier story within the novel about endlessly warring termites. The book ends with Tempe’s realization that he has seen the Quintans, but does not explicitly say what they are. It implies, however, that the Quintans are something very like those termites. Tempe’s instruments, for instance, tell him that the Quintan lifeforms feature an aerobic/anaerobic symbiosis (true of humans as well, but an essential part of the termite digestive system), and the wart-like structure he attacks looks like an anthill on the inside. It doesn’t really matter what the Quintans look like, however, because they mimic something here on Earth.
More properly, they mimic something that was here on Earth. Like all Cold-War fables, Fiasco seems far less biting today than it must have in 1986, when the conflict had simmered for 40 years and seemed fit to go on another 40. At that time not even creative fiction writers like Lem saw that the communist empire would crumble within the decade, its threat eventually supplanted by terrorism. With so many now alive who never experienced a day of the Cold War, Fiasco must seem even more fanciful than it is.
The downside of this is that Fiasco can’t rely on its parable of escalation to help tell its story, and here’s where the book faltered for me. The critical moment where things go irretrievably wrong comes when the humans decide to make a show of force by destroying the moon. Lem does his best to make this seem like a deed that is totally within the powers of the humans and that seems to them unlikely to result in disaster. However, in the worst Star Trek tradition, this whole plan rests on technobabble, and it’s a problem because an operation like blowing up a moon does not seem like a harmless show of force, no matter how much technobabble you throw at it.
This gives too big an opening for the reader to distance himself from the human explorers. The moment the characters made this decision, I stopped seeing them as really human, distancing myself from their mission. Fiasco would have topped my list if Lem had drawn me along, put me in a place where I agreed with the actions of the human explorers as they tried to talk to the Quintans. At the destruction of the moon, however, I stopped agreeing even remotely with what the humans were doing. I saw them as monsters too early for their quest to have a real impact on me.
That’s not to say that Fiasco is a bad book. It is miles ahead of most other science fiction, full of fascinating ideas and clever writing. Unlike the best of Lem’s work, however, I was merely watching events unfold, rather than following along on the ride.