FIASCO – Stanisław Lem (1986)

Fiasco Lem John Alfred DornIn 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.


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.

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17 responses to “FIASCO – Stanisław Lem (1986)

  1. I’m sorry this didn’t work out for you, Bart! I did enjoy your review, though! 🙂 I think I read it simply as a cautionary tale of its time, with the heavy pessimism, real-life autocratic tendencies of the leadership everywhere (remember Thatcher or Reagan or Soviet Union and MAD doctrine?) and slowly fading scientific optimism. I agree with most of your points, actually – it’s just that here most of the stuff didn’t bother me as I was too surprised and shocked by the ending (I know, I shouldn’t have, but the privilege of youth etc. 😊 Maybe it also had something to do with the character of Pirx who was always such an optimistic figure – a down-to-earth, self-made man with reason guiding him through various misadventures – I was pulled into false sense of security). I hated this book right after I read it; I felt cheated and diminished. But Fiasco would not let me be and after some digestion time I came to appreciate it. The science is outdated and there’s too much of it, sure. Unfortunately, Lem’s game theory is spot on, however stupid that would sound. Similar misunderstandings and false assumptions apparently brought us close to nuclear war more than once during Cold War. Lem employed in Fiasco many of the real-life game theory dilemmas and scenarios; and human propensity to revert to higher authority in time of crisis is also documented.

    Just FYI, I think the part that’s rarely mentioned is that Lem wanted to overturn our preconceptions of the first contact and switch places of humanity and an alien civilization: we as aliens, coming like gods and not bestowing gifts but destruction because of our limited understanding.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for that elaborate reply, always good to have another perspective. I guess our main differences are that I wasn’t invested in Pirx as I I haven’t read Tales of Pirx The Pilot, and the fact that I simply couldn’t get over the extremely dumb behavior of supposedly smart people. It instantly kills my enjoyment, whatever author. It tanked Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, it tanked some of Alastair Reynolds novels, etc. Not that smart people can’t be stupid obviously, but there’s a limit. The revival of Tempe was an early warning sign, but the destruction of the moon almost made me want to DNF. Sadly it didn’t really get better after that.
      But you are right for sure, as a tale of its time, Lem’s choices are understandable, but for me still not excusable.
      And as for overturning our preconceptions, I think he succeeded here indeed, but I have the feeling he did so already in his earlier novels. I think his main point here might have actually been the inborn aggressive nature of humans, and our tendency to find conflict everywhere, but I don’t buy that in such a context.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Btw, I would be very interested in your review should you reread it someday.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TBH, sometimes I think Lem was spot on when it comes to human stupidity and aggression. Just think about the history of the atomic bomb; or about today’s Poland or US or Hungary or Russia or… As much as I’d love Lem’s depiction of humans to be unrealistic I think it checks out. It’s one of many probable outcomes, sure, but it’s not improbable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t need to be bombed, apparently – but were, just because they could’ve been. And as for the crew behavior on the ship, I was reminded of the mechanisms of groupthink when I read it. To me, the internal logic of Fiasco (sans the technobabble) is reminiscent of 1984; it shows a possibility.

        Though I don’t think I’ll be writing a review anytime soon – I’d have to reread Fiasco first – which is also a possibility, becoming more probable with passing years, but still quite far from actuality 😉

        Liked by 2 people

        • Agreed that humans have been stupid in the past, and some are stupid still, also on an institutional level. But that is just the thing: Lem doesn’t write about the 80ies or WW2 or the early 21st century. He writes about a future in which there is global peace, and serious scientific advances that enable colonization of Titan, etc. With that premise, the likelyhood of institutional stupidity, let alone aggression, diminishes.

          Moreover, we aren’t talking about governments that make stupid decisions in the book, but individuals that we can assume are the cream of their crop, highly intelligent, etc. The goal of the mission isn’t conquest and conquer either. There is no ideological or economic conflict at the heart of it (like there was in WO2, the Cold War, etc.) In such a scenario, it would be extremely, extremely unlikely that the people partaking in such mission would not err on the side of caution. Especially since they know nothing of the Quintans culture, capabilities, etc. Again, in such a scenario, any action that is taken that could be interpreted as aggressive should be avoided – let alone actually destroying things, let alone based on practically no data at all about the Quintans. The people selected for such a mission (decades in the making, costing a huge sum of money and resources) would all have been vetted and selected to be able to hold their horses and not do anything rash – let alone blow up a moon. Lem must have know that blowing up a planet’s moon has serious consequences for all life on whatever planet, and he even lets the characters mitigate a bit for that. But the fact that the characters don’t even foresee possible failures in their own scenario is again unlikely for supposedly smart characters, and the fact that they can’t see that it could be perceived as aggressive is imo utterly unbelievable. It’s just basic psychology 101.

          Also the fact that they revive a corpse at serious risk of jeopardizing the mission and their own lives, and also loose time by doing so, is inexplicable, especially at the onset of such a mission, when the idea of duty and responsibility to each other and the mission should still be fresh and high.

          Similarly, the mechanics of the ending with the signal is just completely unbelievable for such an highly advanced technological mission, so it’s just lazy plotting to get the final firework going.

          I agree group think might be a factor, but as I said, 3 characters don’t fall for the just blow-things-to-smithereens approach, and the command structure is poorly designed as well – also highly unlikely, as the mission consists of sociologists, psychologists, scientists, etc. In essence it would be a technocratic/scientific mission, not a military one. It’s not right to compare such a crew to ‘humanity’ as a whole, or certain governments with imperial ambitions of the 20st century.

          Let me backpedal a bit from what I wrote in my review: it might not be completely impossible, but it is so extremely unlikely that it looses credibility, and at the same time showcases a dated idea about ‘humanity’ as a whole. I’m not saying Rutger Bregman is right on all fronts, but I think the idea of society as mere veneer and humans as fundamentally aggressive, evil brutes has left the building for quite some time.

          It might have been less unlikely to Lem and readers in the 80ies, true that, but even in that case the verdict in my final paragraph still stands: this book is dated. On top of that, I think Lem simply failed to really think through the consequences of his set-up, probably blinded by his goal to make the book also on the Cold War and its game theories, and not only first contact.

          (He also didn’t plot everything out carefully anyhow, in a letter somewhere online I read that he was surprised by the ending himself when he wrote it, suggesting he made things up along the way. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy for writing, but it is if you want to express a coherent philosophical view on something as big as ‘human nature’ or ‘human politics’, because without careful planning most writers fall back to their biases and pet peeves.)

          Liked by 2 people

          • I think you’re right: I think this novel surprised Lem, and somehow it is fitting that he didn’t expect this ending – I certainly didn’t! 😉 I feel like this novel started as a straight SF book and turned into a metaphor somewhere in the middle. I’d have to read it again to address all the criticisms you make, as I don’t remember all the details. I felt lulled into a sense of going through the motions, and the decisions they were making were all increasingly irrational but somehow fitting into what I felt was quite believable psychological dynamic on a small ship hurtling for years through space. Being a scientist doesn’t automatically make you smart or wise or ethical, unfortunately. But yes – if one expected a straight SF novel, one might be sorely disappointed: and even if you’re for the ride of reading Lem’s own philosophical agenda as I was I admit that it could’ve been written better. It is dated, but for me it’s still significant and unique, both in the switch of the usual places between aliens and humanity, and in the unique ending.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I think my expectations weren’t the problem, it mainly was the unbelievability. You are right of course, being a scientist isn’t a guarantee for this or that, but as I said, in that context the improbabilities were just too much for my taste.

              I do think the first part on Titan was a metaphor as well, the entire thing about dead matter seems related to the resurrection of Prix, and also to the concept of necroevolution he worked out elsewhere. I’m not sure what he wanted to say with all that though. But indeed, the game theory/politcs metaphor is only introduced in the 2nd part.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. So, just to understand this correctly.. Lem wrote a story about the stupidity and violence in human nature? We botch up a first contact situation because of our nature. But the way he portrays human nature is unbelievable and unrealistic. Hmm. Ok. Then his message doesn’t work so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s an excellent summary of how I feel. I’m really surprised it didn’t seem to bother many others, even though they might agree to most of my points (see Ola’s comment), so I guess I’m in a minority position here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you can’t stand stories in which supposedly smart people make incredibly dumb decisions, never ever read Michael Crichton’s Sphere.

        Liked by 1 person

        • (Ps – I’ve update the review with a postscript on that fragment of evolution and dead matter, it bugged me and I decided to write something about it too, as a biologist you might be interested.)


          • I’m having trouble parsing what you both mean by genotype. Every living organism has its own genotype corresponding with its phenotype. I’m not sure whether Lem equates it to genome or individuals or gene pool of a species. He also seems to regard natural selection as having a purpose or a meaning. Science of course makes no claims about that, except that the mechanism works by itself without need of outside interference.

            Liked by 1 person

            • My guess is that Lem means something like an overall Genotype for a species, a kind of abstract, indeed seemingly with a purpose (think maybe the selfish gene) – not the individual genotypes.


            • (I inserted a few words to make the genotype/phenotype thing I meant more clear, thanks)


              • It sounds more like Lem wanted to express some idea of nature as it was used to be regarded in myth, before scientific thought. You know, centaurs, unicorns, giant worms, things that don’t make sense with the knowledge we have now. In times before the “loss of the sacred”. It sounds like he wanted to go for a “remember the times before we knew all these natural laws? When nature formed part of our mythological world and art didn’t have to comply to the laws of science?” The muddled thinking is that Lem suggests that our secular, scientific worldview imposes meaning, and before there was none. But actually it is the other way around. Evolution removed meaning where before everything was meaning.


  3. I tried to read the futurological congress about a decade ago and could not manage. One of the other things Lem is famous for is having really bad translations into English. I have no idea if this has been rectified yet, but I may have to give him another shot.
    Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, much appreciated! The Futurological Congress was also translated by Michael Kandel. It’s hard to judge the job he did for Fiasco, but it must have been better than that translation of Solaris, which wasn’t translated from Polish, but from a French translation. I’ve talked a bit with Ola on translating Polish (not sure if it was somewhere in the comments on my blog or her’s) but she said that Polish is really hard to translate into English because of certain structural issues in the language. That might explain the problems with Lem translation.

      The prose in Fiasco is oppressive & dense anyhow, but I don’t think that is on the account of the translation. Maybe Ola can comment if she reads this?

      Liked by 1 person

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