If Lem’s novel Solaris is preoccupied with the possibility of communicating with an alien species, then Fiasco is almost the polar opposite in that it shows how it may not be possible to communicate with alien life at all—especially if the aliens do not want contact.
Fiasco opens in the time of Pirx the Pilot on Saturn’s moon, Titan. A man from that time has a mishap and is flash-frozen. He wakes up centuries later on the spaceship Hermes, heading to the planet Quinta, where the crew hopes to find knowledge and brotherhood with an alien life-form believed to be within a “window” of opportunity allowing for communication.
When they get there, however, there are no bipeds, no anthropomorphic aliens, no form of life that remotely resembles anything the humans recognize. Instead, they find a planet whose surface is marred by ugly mounds and weblike netting draped from poles and aliens with a totally different evolutionary history, as well as physical and psychological differences. These aliens resemble the termites of Earth, a reference which is cleverly disguised as a novel within the novel, for the entertainment and edification of the crew.
The Quintans are embroiled in a planetary war between “hives.” The battle has reached insane proportions. The space around the planet is bombarded with signal jamming and nasty nanomechanical weapons that attack anything entering that space.
Fiasco tells of mankind’s first contact with an alien civilization. Having searched the heavens for centuries, scientists finally discover, on distant Quinta, an intelligent species at roughly the same technological level as humanity. The attempt to visit them becomes a fiasco. The novel explores the many barriers to communicating with aliens.
Fiasco opens with a small-scale fiasco, set in a time (perhaps the twenty-first century) previous to the main action of the novel. Angus Parvis arrives on Titan, a moon of Saturn which is being developed as a source of minerals. He discovers that his teacher and friend, Pirx, is among a group of men who disappeared while attempting to move materials between two bases. Parvis takes a giant machine across the alien, unpredictable, and dangerous landscape to attempt a rescue, but the combination of human error and the hostility of the landscape causes the rescue’s failure and his death.
The failure on Titan foreshadows the later fiasco that gives the novel its title: Both spring from human nature and from the relationship of humans to the cosmos. At the center of Parvis’ personal failure are love, pride, and ignorance. He attempts the rescue out of affection and loyalty to Pirx and his fellow workers. These admirable but irrational passions override his ignorance of the terrain and his inexperience with the machine he uses. His pride in his ability to operate the machine and in the power of human technology over nature leads him into a death trap.
More general failures contribute to his personal failure. Mistakes and bureaucratic rivalries have produced two bases on the treacherous moon, when only one was desirable. Continued mistakes and rivalries produce the need for the surface travel between bases that, in turn, leads to accident and death.
From this small fiasco, Parvis may be saved for a greater catastrophe, the journey of the space ship Eurydice to an alien civilization. When he learns that he will die on Titan, Parvis uses an emergency machine that vitrifies him instantaneously. In a future century, when the technology for reviving frozen people is developed, he finds himself on the Eurydice, where he has been revived and rechristened Mark Tempe. The relation between Parvis and Tempe is not one of simple identity, however, for in order to come up with a subject capable of functioning fully when revived, the medical technicians of the Eurydice have had to choose between two of the men who were vitrified on Titan, both of whom are viable candidates for resurrection. The identity of the revived pilot remains a tantalizing—and disturbing—puzzle, for the technicians have had to exercise powers traditionally reserved for God.
When the Eurydice arrives at the Quinta system, it must undergo a complex series of maneuvers that accomplish a form of time travel. Meanwhile, a smaller ship with a crew of ten, the Hermes, undertakes the specific mission of visiting Quinta. Just before the Hermes, arrives, Quinta takes actions that suggest it is aware of an alien approach. As a result,...