Fiasco is a hard science masterpiece by Stanislaw Lem
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
blog books

Fiasco is a book by Stanislaw Lem. The same author who also wrote Solaris (you must watch the Andrei Tarkovsky film adapted from this novel), he is well known for his disdain of human contact with alien civilisations. The cusp of his argument resides on the difficulties in such establishment of contact and the unfamiliarity with a civilisation different from ours. I did not realise this when I first started reading the book. I had read Solaris before, but for some reason, I could not place the name. However, towards the middle, it dawned on me who the author was, and I could see the connections and familiarity in the writing.

Fiasco is based on human contact with an alien civilisation discovered amongst the reaches of the galaxy. The book presents a hard science viewpoint, and describes technological progress in detail. The humans in the book have achieved the means to use gravity (gravitics?) and can even bend time using the power of black holes. This presents the science side of things.

The real beauty of the book lies in describing the human side of humans and the alien nature of aliens. By the end of the book, humans are literally forcing contact upon the civilisation that does not wish to be contacted, and in doing so, end up destroying their civilisation without the realisation of what exactly they were doing. At the same time, the differences in each individual human are drawn out. Some wish to annihilate the aliens for honour upon a perceived slight or attack, whereas others wish to offer an olive branch. As situations unravel, people change, and their viewpoints fluctuate. The books presents convincing arguments for each thoughtpoint.

In terms of the aliens, they are a mysterious bunch. They never contact (except via human-readable message sent as text) and do not appear visually by going out of their way to hide. Or so the humans perceive. The book makes it point well regarding the absurdity of relying on conventional human perceptions of communication and technology when encountering an alien civilisation. By the end of the book, I was quite surprised at how amazing the book was, and somewhat regretting the fact that I had not read this before.

In terms of the actual sci-fi stuff in the book, I loved how descriptive Lem is sometimes. When first on Titan, the description of otherworldly beauty is, well, beautiful. And the science in building the ship that can travel at near light-speed, or use black holes to dilute time using temporal gravitics, or describe fringe science as the basis for flight and technology, everything was very well inlaid with the rest of the story.

I particularly liked how the AI aboard the ship (funnily named DEUS) was also human in the end, though this process is never understood until aliens are involved. In the mean-time, the alien planet turns out to be something completely unexpected.

Here is my theory of what happened. The aliens were warring, in two or more factions. This led to all resources being divested towards militaristic endeavours. Their planet has a ring of ice, artifically placed into orbit, which causes rainfall at regular intervals. By assuming that they wanted this to happen, the aliens deliberately placed this ice-ring into orbit to have more land-mass and to also have periodic rainfall. The ship cannot find traces of aliens on the planet. However, it discovers crypts or underground chambers where there are calcium (or other life-form mineral) deposits. At the same time, the planet is blanketed in white noise at all frequencies, and can be seen to be a war between transmitters with no receptors in sight. The behaviour of the attacking/scout planes, and the absurdity of the communication channels is theorised to be an automated system in the book, which I agree with. The aliens therefore have hibernated underground or vegetated into the ground. This is stated plainly towards the end. Humans, meanwhile, mistake the automated defences (who are warring against each other) as an intention of attack and end up likely destroying the planet or the area.

I did not realise I had already written a post on this, and so wrote another one (shorter)

Fiasco is a book written with amazing detail and wit, with descriptions of everything is otherworldly while still staying within the bounds of hard science. The book deals with, as Stanislaw Lem is famous for, the contact of humanity with alien civilisations. The entire philosophy of Lem boils down the alieneness of this contact, and the absurd fascination of humanity in to achieving this at all costs. This is also apparent in his novel, Solaris, which was remade a few times (the version by Tarkovsky is the best).

Spoilers ahead

I read the book, and loved it in three parts. The first was set on Titan, where the description of the planet and its geology was simply mesmerising. The second part was when the intersteller flight was achieved, and described in great detail in the book. This included the application of 'gravitics' and using black holes to propel time itself through dilation. Very very fancy sci-fi concepts, and really got me stretching my imagination. The third part was the crumbling of the human psyche as they approached the aliens. Here I will stop my comments, because I can do no justice to the book through it. Instead, I will simply comment that the book changes how arguments regarding first contact are structured after one has read through it. In essence, it allows the reader to broaden their minds to the 'human' anatomy of our very thoughts and actions, and in relaying this in the context of everything we do - including our action and technologies and even war itself.