Stanislaw Lem is notorious for his scathing dismissal of science fiction. Fortunately, his dissatisfaction with the typical products of the genre has not prompted him to abandon it altogether. FIASCO is one of the best books in a long and productive career.

The action begins on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, in what is probably the twenty-first century. A young pilot manning a robotic colossus goes in search of several missing comrades (one of whom, the pilot Pirx, is a familiar figure to Lem’s readers). Meeting the same fate that befell them, and facing certain death, he has one hope: an emergency capsule in which he is vitrified, his body fluids instantaneously congealed into ice, to await resuscitation via future technology.

This fast-paced opening proves to be merely a prologue to the main plot of the novel. One of the men lost on Titan is indeed revived, though in a manner that poses difficult questions about the nature of personal identity. In the future century in which he is thawed out, the long-frustrated search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been given new life. The survivor from Titan, rechristened Mark Tempe, finds himself aboard the spaceship Eurydice, bound for the Harpy, a constellation previously hidden from astronomers by the Coalsack nebula. There, the Eurydice will send a smaller ship, the Hermes, to explore Quinta, the fifth planet of one of the Harpy’s suns, from which a high emission of radio waves has been...

(The entire section is 433 words.)