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 enter a jamming mode. Though there is evidence of activity on the Quintan moon, no Quintans and no space travel are observed there. Also, to the variety of signals sent by the Hermes there is no reply.
Although there is no way of knowing what the Quintans want, the expedition crew never entertains the possibility that they may simply want to be left alone. Instead, the men continue to develop and elaborate on various hypotheses about national powers, arms races, and levels of war. They read into their scanty evidence about Quintan intentions an extrapolation of Earth’s twentieth century arms race. Thus, Stanisaw Lem comments on the multiple forms such a competition may take, all of which lead to a dead end.
The Quintans’ silence brings out anxiety and aggression in the men, intensifying their collective desire to make contact. Admirable desires lead to mistaken actions. These passions are focused when the men send the Gabriel, an unmanned communications probe, to the surface. This probe is pursued by four missiles from the planet. The probe’s computer is programmed to prevent the capture of its main propulsion unit because the humans believe that this gives them a technological edge over the Quintans. When capture seems imminent, the computer improvises a means of self-destruction that also destroys the approaching missiles. Thus, because of a technical failure, a peaceable attempt at contact becomes interpretable as an act of aggression. Though the humans do not know whether the approaching missiles were exploratory, like their own, or hostile, they are inclined to interpret them as hostile and to blame the Quintans for this failure.
Continued attempts to contact the Quintans produce more ambiguous events that are interpreted as hostile. This escalates the Hermes crew’s insistence upon contact. Eventually, the crew has moved from its original intention of humbly requesting conversation to insisting on contact at any price— including destruction.
When a large mass instantaneously coalesces near the Hermes, the ship automatically defends itself with a shield that jerks it away. The sudden move from zero to high gravity helps convince the crew members that they have been attacked. This event leads them to decide that they must show their strength, that they cannot simply be driven away. They destroy Quinta’s moon. Quinta interferes with this act in such a way that large fragments fall onto the planet, causing great destruction. Again, the crew blames the Quintans for causing themselves suffering and works their interference into the hypothesis of a planet at war with itself.
Though there are always dissenting voices, the dominant motion of the Hermes is toward greater violence to force contact. Father Arago and Tempe suggest projecting “cartoons” on the planet’s clouds to communicate. This attempt produces an invitation to land. An unmanned mock Hermes is sent down, and the Quintans apparently incapacitate it. In response, the Hermes destroys the giant ice ring the Quintans have created around their planet. Massive planetary destruction follows.
Steergard then issues an ultimatum: Communicate, or all life on the planet will be destroyed. Feeling guilt for the destruction that the crew has already caused, Steergard says that he would not really destroy Quinta. The Quintans respond, however, and Tempe descends to the planet. He is sent under the condition that if he fails to answer a regular call signal during his stay, Steergard will attack again.
On the surface, Tempe becomes fascinated with his attempts to discover something about the Quintans, who, though present, seem invisible. He discovers living objects that seem to be a cross between trees and fungus. He is busily exploring them when he realizes that he has been ignoring his signal to contact the Hermes, and he is far from his radio equipment. Before he can act, he and the area of his landing are destroyed by the Hermes’ attack.