Themes and Meanings
Fiasco shares situations, themes, and meanings with most of Lem’s other works. A central theme is humanity’s desire to make contact with an intelligence other than itself, whether that be God or aliens. As in his most famous novel, Solaris (1961; English translation, 1970), an important aspect of this theme is the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of humans to see anything other than themselves.
An alien civilization with a different biology, evolution, geology, history, and environment must almost certainly be different from humanity in every other conceivable way. From the few verbal messages that pass between Quinta and the Hermes, it becomes clear that the more abstract their languages become, the more they diverge from each other. They can communicate precisely about the measurement of space and time, but they cannot communicate their most elementary needs and desires—except for survival. Nevertheless, out of a need to understand driven by the desire to communicate, the crew of the Hermes writes and rewrites a speculative account of Quinta in which the planet’s history mirrors aspects of Earth’s history almost exactly. Humans can only see themselves; yet the true Quintans remain invisible. Even the supposedly objective computer seems to “think” in human terms because its programs and information are provided by human minds.
The order humanity sees in the universe is created and imposed by the human mind. These ideas of order serve human purposes well enough, but they provide no way of stepping outside the human perspective to see alien ways of creating and imposing order for alien purposes.
With mythical and religious names, Lem underlines the unconscious arrogance of the expedition’s expectation of successful contact. For example, the spaceship is named for Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and is controlled by DEUS, the computer (from deus ex machina, a “god from a machine”). Among other attempts at communication, the crew sends the probe Gabriel, which recalls God’s messenger to Mary. The mission becomes a godlike attempt to impose human order on an alien culture.