Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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....
(The entire section is 513 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
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...
(The entire section is 1270 words.)