In many important respects Fiasco is Stanisalw Lem’s crowning achievement. Publsihed in 1986 toward the end of the Polish author's distinguished career spanning more than half a century, the novel contains at its heart a key theme revisited by Mr. Lem over the years: the impact of science and technology on multiple dimensions of intelligence and communication.
What a literary achievement! Please do not be thrown off by the label "science fiction." To be sure, generous helpings of scientific data and detail are proffered to satisfy any reader with an interest in science; but, more importantly, especially for non-science types like myself, Fiasco probes an assortment of gripping philosophical conundrums and is a hugely engaging adventure story. I was enthralled every step of the journey as I accompanied the crew on their expedition to distant planet Quinta to communicate with the Quintans.
The time is mid-twenty-first century and travel between planets and moons is commonplace. From the orbit of one such moon, Titan by name, the spaceship Eurydice is launched on its quest to make contact with what is judged by top international scientists a technically advanced civilization. Such pooling of intellectual resources is possible since in this future time there is worldwide peace and global cooperation. Thanks for the cheery prospect, Stanislaw! Too bad your optimism doesn’t endure when the Earthlings reach planet Quinta.
The ship is massive, as large as a high-rise building – many rooms and hallways and chambers large enough to hold smaller space vehicles. The crew includes a flight commander and various chiefs overseeing things like power, communications and medicine. Accomplished experts within the fields of physics, biology, geology and other sciences are present along with a Dominican monk in the role of adviser.
Of course, the inclusion of a Catholic father adds real spice to the flavor and shape of how decisions are to be made. Although Catholicism was very much part of the culture in his home country of Poland, Stanislaw Lem made a public statement on why he became an atheist: “For moral reasons: the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created intentionally."
Also on board is a pilot awakened after spending decades in cryonic deep freeze – his own “last resort” decision in consequence of a botched rescue mission. Did I say awakened? Perhaps resurrected from the dead would be more accurate, at least according to top physician Dr. Gilbert's philosophy of personal identity. We listen in on the good doctor's provocative conversation with Dominican Father Arago.
And last, but hardly least, there's DEUS, a supremely advanced twenty-first century supercomputer performing complex calculations in nanoseconds and speaking directly with members of the crew. DEUS is short for Digital Engrammic Universal System but everyone involved in the project recognizes the irony of a direct reference to a deus ex machina.
Back on the pilot returned to life - he can’t recall his past name, it could be Prix or Parvis. As readers, we know Parvis from his mini misadventure in Chapter One; Lem fans will recognize Prix from the author’s Tales of Prix the Pilot. Anyway, among the more intriguing sections of the novel is his return to consciousness and interactions with a Socrates-style teaching computer in efforts to help restore his memory and educate him on the latest technologies. A particular statement made by the teacher resonates on what is to follow once the ship attempts to communicate with the Quintans: “The Mystery of the Silent Universe has become a challenge to Earth’s science.”
Additionally captivating are the embedded shorter tales within the novel: the first tells how two sixteenth century Spaniards conquistadors violated sacred ground in their attempt to unmask the mystery surrounding an ancient Aztec deity; and the second an excerpt from a book of science fiction the resuscitated pilot reads one evening, a spellbinding, spine chilling yarn about an Indiana Jones-style treasure seeker venturing through South American jungle to reach a vast region where termites rule.
Under a blazing tropical sun the termites have built over a million white mounds, row after row after row, thirty feet high and harder than cement. Each and every one of these mounds seethes with termite activity within. And at the very center of this termite city there is a bent, black mound.
Our adventurer recounts how he brought dynamite, airplane gasoline, insecticides, gas masks and other heavy duty equipment to lead an expedition to the land of termites and uncover the secrets of the black mound. However, what he ultimately discovers after penetrating to the heart of this insect nation deepens rather than solves any of nature’s secrets. I include a brief sketch of this embedded tale since it unquestionably contains many parallels with the ship's excursion to Quinta.
Reaching their destination and sending a series of digital transmissions but receiving no answer, a small crew voyages to the surface of Quinta in their probing craft, the Hermes. They detect one moving object the size of a boulder that increases its speed to escape their observation. The captain is quick to resolve: “Let’s catch that moth.” He sets the trajectory of pursuit and engages the craft’s hunt program. Go get ‘um cowboy! Less than a mile away from the Quinta prey, the Hermes discharges a missile with prehensile arms, grasps it and conducts an initial examination. Clearing any safety issue with DEUS, the crew then takes the trophy of their chase on board for future analysis.
Moth, pursuit, hunt, prey, trophy, chase - these are the actual words articulated by captain and crew. Such language is aggressive; such language is the language of war. How far are these future space explorers from the mindset of prehistoric hunters or the Greek warriors at the gates of Troy? How will the consequences of this initial assertive strategy play themselves out?
Pondering Stanislaw Lem’s work, many additional philosophic questions loom up for consideration. Here are several: Are humans so warlike that nearly any communication from aliens will be interpreted as a threat requiring retaliation? Why didn't Nakamura, the perceptive Japanese physicist, recommend a sense of humility all along? Nakamura states: Where there is mind, there is cruelty. Is this an accurate observation? Would it have been wise to include a Zen master on this mission teaching the crew meditation and the cultivation of "No Mind?" What's the sound of one brutal hand clapping?