Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1270
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, Steergard and his crew become extremely cautious, and the fiasco begins.
Father Arago participates in this expedition as a physician and as a moral adviser. He elicits from Steergard the initial intention of the mission, to establish contact peaceably. If the aliens do not want contact, then the Hermes has no choice but to go home. This intention is gradually displaced.
From hiding, the Hermes collects space artifacts that appear to be military equipment. Though alien technology is incomprehensible without knowledge of its use, the men assume human purposes and use human analogies to develop elaborate hypotheses about the civilization they wish to contact.
There are several signs that Quinta does not want contact. As the Hermes approaches, all Quintan radio sources...
(The entire section contains 1270 words.)
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