In two weeks, on the 12th of September 2021, Stanisław Lem was born 100 years ago. That, coupled with the writer’s continuing popularity, made the Polish parliament declare 2021 officially to be the Year of Stanisław Lem, with festivities in Kraków and some new publications.
No better time for me to review Lem’s final novel, Fiasco. Lem stopped writing novels afterwards, but continued to publish non-fiction, mainly in the form of essays, until he died in 2006.
Fiasco has a curious publication history: the book was commissioned by a German publisher, and first published in a German translation in 1986. It was published in Polish some time later, and translated into English by Michael Kandel in 1987. Kandel translated 9 other Lem titles, including His Master’s Voice and The Cyberiad, and as far as I can tell his work is looked upon quite favorably, contrary to Kilmartin & Cox’s translation of Solaris.
I’ve read Solaris last year, and liked it a lot. Based on an overview of Polish native Ola G’s favorite Lem novels, and generally glowing reviews, I decided to read this one as my next Lem. Normally Ola’s recommendations do work out, but I hate to report I found Fiasco a terrible, terrible read.
Fiasco has a few problems, and they all stem from the fact that by the time Lem wrote this book one of his main themes was well known: “the impossibility of communication between profoundly alien beings”. One could say it was a theme he flogged to death, Fiasco being the fifth book in a series of pessimistic first contact novels: Eden, Solaris, The Invincible and His Master’s Voice. Even his very first novel, 1946’s The Man from Mars, dealt with it.
Add to that a title that leaves nothing hanging, and both reader and author are confronted with that old problem: how keep things interesting? The ending isn’t exactly a surprise, and, more general, it’s clear from the onset human-alien communication will fail. So Fiasco‘s strengths should be procedural: the journey, not the destination.
And for that journey, Lem decided to take the Serious Hard SF-approach. This book is filled with rambling technobabble of the quantum gravitational time dilation kind, and that must have been impressive back in the 80ies. It gives the novel a serious, trustworthy veneer, without a doubt. Lem’s dense, sciency prose makes this book a tough cookie at times, but the prose is not what killed my vibe.
A first problem of this book is that all this serious science stuff takes stage front and center, almost to the point of being obnoxious. But I’m not interested in it, because it is all bullshit no matter how you turn it. For speculative fiction to work, the speculation needs to be realistic somehow, and Lem failed to convince me that his vision was somehow possible. Star Trek and its ilk sidesteps this problem by keeping technobabble low key, serving the adventure and the characters – but characters are not what this book is about, and the ending of the adventure was obvious all along. Somehow Lem thinks doubling down on science and non-existing gravitational technology makes things interesting. To some extent, he was right of course: lots reviewers praise this book for its serious Hard component. Taste, sure, but also trapped by bling and beeps, if you ask me, and probably trapped by the flattering effect novels like these have: it all sounds smart, no?
But Lem is not Greg Egan, and the difference is this: Lem’s gravitational technology doesn’t exist and will never exist – it’s not even interesting as a thought experiment, because it is not based on a serious extrapolation of the 1980ies understanding of physics, instead, it is just random technobabble that sounds cool and gives Lem powerful explosives to play with. It’s fantasy disguised as SF.
The second problem is even more serious.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: SCIENCE FICTION SHOULD TAKE SOCIAL SCIENCES INTO ACCOUNT AS WELL.
But didn’t Lem have this covered, you ask? Isn’t he an author attuned to the ‘condition humaine’, so attuned to humanity even that it made him pessimistic? Or as Wikipedia has it: “another key recurring theme” of Stanisław Lem “is the shortcomings of humans.”
And indeed, the humans that populate the Eurydice/Hermes space ship fail the test spectacularly. The book might be in Lemian character, but believable it is not. Not in a long shot. Supposedly very smart characters behaving stupidly always kills my vibe. It is ultimately what makes this book terrible, as it destroys its credibility.
Let me spoil some of the stupid:
– The crew decides to revive somebody they don’t know for no obvious reasons and no benefit to themselves, but by doing so they risk the entire multi-trillion dollar operation decades in the making, and their own lives. They just as well could have waited doing so until they got back to Earth. On top of that, it didn’t really matter to the dead guy, he was in dreamless cyro anyway, nor to his loved ones: everybody he ever knew was dead already.
– The first act of the expert crew (selected from billions on an Earth that has managed to install global peace) when they encounter alien technology in the system were they where set to establish contact is to capture and destroy that technology. We come in peace!
– When a human satellite/probe/vessel is approached by flying things, the computer of that probe interprets that as a threat and uses itself as a suicide bomb, destroying alien technology yet again. So far, so good, as this is the computer’s fault, not the human experts, I hear you say. But the crew can’t seem to wrap their head around it, and doesn’t seem to understand they could be seen as aggressors. I mean, I can. And I don’t have a PhD in astrobiology.
– The crew somehow thinks destroying the planet’s moon is a good way to establish communication.
– When they finally get a man on the surface of the planet, apparently their multi-spectral telescope technology isn’t good enough anymore to monitor stuff, and the man needs to manually signal his mates from his space ship every two hours so they know he’s okay and the aliens aren’t deceiving them. Otherwise, the planet will basically be obliterated. Guess what happens? The man gets so caught up in his research he forgets the time, apparently didn’t set a timer, and forgets to signal. He is killed, together with the aliens.
To Lem’s credit, there are 2 or 3 characters that have reservations to some of the mission’s proceedings, but somehow this mission is run as a dictatorship, and captain Steergard even manages to convince himself that no participation nor consulting his crew on highly difficult matters is the morally right thing to do, as that way his crew doesn’t need to bear that terrible load of responsibility. The crew doesn’t seem to mind, nor are there procedures in place to override the captain. Maybe space will to that to you, but by this part of the novel my faith in the HR department of the SETI agency had evaporated anyhow.
Lem simply doesn’t seem to care about any credible scenario to hammer home his thematic points. I’m sorry, but even though humans can indeed by stupid and aggressive by nature, there is no conceivable way in which these things would have happened in the future world that Lem conjured up himself: a peaceful, high-tech 21st century on a ship full of top notch professional scientists. It is ludicrous.
In an attempt to voice a strong opinion on humanity, Lem forgets human reality.
I’m not the first to bring up these points, but in all the reviews I’ve read, it is striking how practically nobody seems to mind all this. Okay, you could argue Lem gets a point because this isn’t so-called realistic literature. Fiasco is meant as a parable. A cautionary tale. A metaphor. I’m sorry, I don’t buy that. Similes need to check out. The problem is that Lem tries to say something about humanity by means of a fictional humanity that doesn’t exist. Does not compute.
Lem is also praised to have been very imaginative in inventing the Quinta planet, and indeed, the sense of discovery works well for the most part. What the crew finds and how they reason about it seems well done.
The cover artist and other reviewers have also spotted this focus on game theory, and this supposedly philosophical book is indeed quite heavy on the logic of what certain sightings could mean, how to interpret this and that, and what that means for the crew’s resulting actions. Lem coins it the “algebra of conflicts” in the book itself.
Yet I quickly lost all interest in these parts of the novel, as they clashed with the basic theme of aliens being alien. The crew’s speculations are all conjecture anyhow, and they simply jump to conclusions much too soon on much too limited evidence. Again: a stupid bunch, talking as if they are smart, but forgetting the basics – even though some of them do realize that they are in “a labyrinth that had no exit”. The game theory might check out, but somehow they still end up making bad decisions time and time again.
Similarly, some other stuff seems just too convenient: the aliens aren’t that alien, as they seem to be able to crack English fairly quickly – they obviously received tons of data and were able to interpret that sufficiently enough to form coherent, seemingly relevant sentences themselves. How to compose such a data set to begin with? Or did they misunderstand? Who knows? The entire language problem aspect is hinted at, but totally underdeveloped – especially for a novel that’s about difficult communication to begin with.
A few more words on the aliens themselves – spoiler alert. It seems unlikely that beings that are stationary without apparent limbs could evolve cultural intelligence and invent technology. Russel Powell makes an excellent, thorough case for it in his brilliant Contingency and Convergence: Towards A Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind. Granted: we readers don’t have enough information to make firm conclusions about the Quintans and their history, so let’s just keep it at this: the glimpse I got didn’t convince either.
Lem’s basic theme is an interesting one, but I don’t think novels of the 20th century necessarily have much to add to the debates. Better to read contemporary non-fiction – science evolves, and that doesn’t always bode well for older science fiction. While I don’t think Powell’s book can be topped in the near future, I might still read last year’s The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intellligence by Keith Cooper. There’s also 2010’s Talking about Life: Conversations on Astrobiology from Chris Impey, and 2020’s The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy by Arik Kerschenbaum, a much lighter book than Powell’s.
Not everything is bad: there are a few brilliant scenes scattered throughout the book, and the onboard A.I. is well done. I would have liked that aspect to have been developed more, but Lem seems to forget it near the end.
Also the opening chapter – set on Titan a century before the main action – has a few sublime passages. It’s probably no coincidence that these parts resonated best with me, as the first chapter contains fragments of Kryształowa kula (The Crystal Ball), a story from 1954, and could be considered as belonging to a different work altogether. These passages also struck Paul Delany when he reviewed the book in 1987 for the NYT:
Mr. Lem has argued that the loss of the sacred in the modern world has brought with it a crisis in art, and his novels try to keep alive, in space, myths that are dying out on our increasingly secular and relativist planet. This is a giant and perhaps presumptuous literary ambition. Mr. Lem comes closest to achieving it in his virtuoso descriptions of the sheer strangeness of other worlds, such as the horrific landscape of the planet Titan: ”For the very reason that here nothing served a purpose – not ever, not to anyone – and that here no guillotine of evolution was in play, amputating from every genotype whatever did not contribute to survival, nature, constrained neither by the life she bore nor by the death she inflicted, could achieve liberation, displaying a prodigality characteristic of herself, a limitless wastefulness, a brute magnificence that was useless, an eternal power of creation without a goal, without a need, without a meaning.” (*)
But Delany praises the entire book, and indeed, his further highbrow musings on Fiasco draw the card of cautionary tale:
As he moves further away from personal relations, and casts a more sardonic eye on the tricks that humanity’s Faustian intelligence plays on itself, Mr. Lem has come to identify with such writers as Swift and Voltaire – ”people who had been driven to despair and anger by the conduct of mankind,” as he wrote in ”Microworlds,” a collection of essays. In all their dealings with Quinta, the men of the Hermes show how deeply aggression has been built into the way we interpret the motives of others. ”Fiasco” is a cautionary tale for our present condition. It warns us that intelligence is no free play of individual mind, but a dynamic process that obeys its own inexorable laws; left to itself, it may end by destroying the organic basis in which intelligence first began, and without which humanity is still unthinkable.
Even though environmental catastrophe lurks just beyond the horizon these days, and our own ruling class doesn’t seem to be up to the job of avoiding it either, maybe the 1980ies where indeed more pessimist about humanity in general. The Cold War, the problematic contact between East and West, and Lem’s own geographic & political context were not supportive of too much optimism and joy about humanity and its administrators. As such, Fiasco can still be enjoyed: not as a cautionary tale or a scientific fable, but as a window into another time: not the future, but the early 1980s.
(*) The passage Paul Delany here quotes sadly isn’t the best example, as Lem showcases muddled thinking at best, and tries to ground this part in a philosophy that seems anthropomorphic – ironic, as Lem tries to write against human hubris and human projection. As if evolution is an immaterial, teleological process. It isn’t. As if “dead matter” is free indeed. It isn’t. Dead matter is also subject to physical laws, and as such not free. It also encounters a guillotine: the guillotine of physical laws – destruction like erosion & explosion, or changes due to fusion or transformation that ultimately also destroy what came before. “Dead matter” isn’t creative either – that is an anthropomorphic concept, just as seeing a teleology or meaning in evolution is anthropomorphic, and ultimately even anthropocentric. Dead matter is, like genes, and like biological life, the result of physical processes. The dichotomy Lem tries to illustrate doesn’t exist, or, at least, not because of the reasons he describes. There is no abstract “genotype” that gets amputated. There only are trillions and trillions of individual genotypes expressed by living phenotypes that die or don’t die before they are able to reproduce. Not because of some restricting teleology, but merely because of physical laws and coincidence. Evolution is also wasteful & brutal, and the evolution of living things serves no need either.