(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Stanisaw Lem has said that he would prefer not to visit any of the futures he has imagined or any of those that may actually come to be. For his lack of enthusiasm, he gives two reasons: “the distant future could resemble a cemetery, or it could be incomprehensible to me.”

Fiasco represents both of these possibilities. The main story in Fiasco concerns an expedition from Earth to the distant planet of Quinta, where there is a civilization of aliens at the right stage of development for communication. This expedition fails to communicate, however, and at the center of this failure is the problem of human nature so vividly illustrated by the arms race. The expedition fails to understand the Quintans because humans can understand aliens only in human terms, just as on Earth one culture has difficulty understanding another.

Mark Tempe is the sole member of the expedition to gain a brief glimpse of the Quintans, before he is mistakenly destroyed by his comrades. The Quintans appear to be a kind of treelike fungus, both aerobic and anaerobic. Tempe cannot grasp this utterly alien biology, and he never has a chance to imagine what their intelligence must be like or how they would develop and use technology and for what purposes. Before he lands and briefly examines Quinta, however, he and his shipmates believe that they discover quite a bit about Quintans. In fact, they discover virtually nothing verifiable, nothing that is likely to be true.

Lem’s point is partly that the alien cannot be known. In mankind’s fantasies about encounters with alien intelligence, there is usually an assumption that alien biology either will not affect understanding or will be so similar to human biology that the passions and intelligences of the two species will coincide enough to make communication possible. Fiasco, in a gripping fiction, though it is without deeply interesting characters, explores the reasons humanity should not be so optimistic about contact with the alien.

The Quintans remain essentially mysterious throughout the novel. Their main functions are to be present and to be silent. Their presence draws the expedition to them and provides physical evidence about which the men can reason. Their silence licenses the men to read freely the meanings of the evidence. The result of this freedom is that the men read their own human attitudes and history into the Quintans’ artifacts and visible activities. The majority of those in the expedition see the Quintans as involved in a highly technological civil war that has yielded an arms race currently in a stand off. The expedition sees itself as a possibly unwitting player in this game. Factions on the planet may deal with them separately in an attempt to gain advantages over other factions.

Much of the central portion of the book consists of various members of the expedition adding their twists and angles to this attempt at interpretation, each trying to account for new or as yet unexplained physical evidence. The only serious opposition to this general approach comes from two interesting directions.

First, Tempe wants above all “to see the Quintans.” He shows a practical man’s desire to keep explanations simple, to withhold conclusions, and to try different approaches. What little success the expedition achieves is largely the result of his resistance to theorizing.

Second, and more important, is the Christian opposition of Father Arago. He is the only member to argue seriously that the Quintans’ silence most likely means that they would rather not communicate. This possibility is a central tenet of the theory about alien civilizations that brought the expedition to Quinta. After centuries of hearing nothing while monitoring radio signals from space, Earth scientists concluded that while it was likely that there were many intelligent species “out there,” only a few at any given time met the conditions of being close, sufficiently advanced for radio communication, and not so advanced as to wish to avoid contact with primitive civilizations such as Earth’s.

Father Arago believes that for some reason the Quintans would prefer to be left alone. He and Steergard, the captain of the expedition, seem to agree at the beginning of the journey that they must respect such a desire if the Quintans show it. When they are on the scene, however, only Father Arago is able to maintain this position. Steergard and the rest feel driven to force communication upon the Quintans. Why the expedition feels so driven, why they push onward toward the completion of a fiasco, is another significant theme of Lem’s...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)