Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem

I recently read Solaris by Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem. It, and the two movies that were based on it (directed by Steven Soderberg and Andrei Tarkovsky) are some of the best science fiction I've ever seen (or read). I highly recommend all of them: they are not the watered down Star Wars space opera, but hard sci fi at its very best: a dual commentary on science and religion in light of the limits of human knowledge.

Interested in reading more of Lem, I picked up Fiasco at the Chicago Public Library because it looked interesting. The plot, essentially, is that a star ship is sent from earth to a distant sun, where evidence of civilization has been detected. The mission is to make contact with the alien civilization and to exchange information with it, in a congenial neighborly sort of way.

Unfortunately, things don't go according to plan.

The POV character of the novel is, for the most part, a "dare-devil" pilot who is killed in the first chapter and then brought back from his cryogenic tomb four hundred or so years later. He has amnesia, and eventually takes to calling himself Mark Tempe, since he can't remember his real name.

The ship makes it to the planet, but complications arise. First, the aliens ("Quintans", since the planet is the fifth from its sun) don't seem to want contact nearly as much as the humans do. They've created a wall of radio static around the planet, which makes any attempts at communication difficult. Furthermore, in the area of space surrounding the planet they've established what may be a web of automatic defenses. Of course, since the Earth crew has no idea what the aliens are like, every single enigmatic facet of the solar system is an enigma that must be solved and interpreted, then (when more evidence becomes available) solved again and reinterpreted.

Eventually it becomes clear that there are at least two superpowers on the Quintan planet, who have been in continuous conflict with each other for many centuries. The war has been pushed off planet and into space, where it has also become essentially automated. Competing and intertwining defense grids now keep vigil beyond the atmosphere, while on the ground an uneasy ceasefire is maintained. Further attacks on the Terran ship and rebuffs of its attempts at contact frustrate the crew, who surmise that centuries of war and mistrust have left the two powers paranoid and unwilling to make contact. In their own defense, the crew decides to put on a show of power -- a show which may or may not lead to an interstellar war. I'm not saying.

Overall, I thought Fiasco was very intelligent, as well as being a fun read if you're into science fiction and speculation about contact with alien civilizations. Most of the book is spent attempting to figure out what is going on down on the planet, and what the Quintans are thinking -- as Mark says toward the end of the book, we make a model of the other person, which contains their own model of the situation, which we must answer with another model of a model, and so on ad infinitum. Making my own guesses about how the book would end was part of the whole fun.

The book isn't quite as good as Solaris, however; and part of the problem is that it isn't quite as timeless. Fiasco (as you will probably have guessed from the above synopses) was written during the Cold War. (Published in 1987). It's very much a child of that time, and so those particular themes didn't resonate with me quite so well as they would have back in the day. However, despite this, Lem's continuation of his pessimistic view of the chances of Contact with other races (as seen also in Solaris). I would recommend reading Solaris instead of this if you have to choose or are not otherwise a fan of science fiction, but if you read a lot of science fiction, and don't require the presence of space princesses or space pirates, this is good hard science fiction.


Saralynn said...

Hi Michael. Just found your blog! Okay, so my husband and I watched Solaris (the new one with George Clooney), and I was completely lost for most of the film. Is that part of my just being a bad English major and not being good at analyzing creative expression? (as opposed to numbers, which I'm great at analyzing) I'd love your thoughts--saralynnng@hotmail.com. Thanks!

Saralynn (Blyth) Nege, Wheaton '04

John Branch said...

Nice discussion! This post turned up pretty high in Google search results, in case you're interested.

To anyone looking for a taste of Lem, I'd recommend both Lem novels you mentioned here. Also Cyberiad.

Regarding the other comment here, anyone trying to figure out the American film will probably find the Russian one also difficult, though to me Tarkovsky's is superior. Maybe reading the novel will make things clear.

Inga said...

Have you read Eden? I've read all Lem's books and Eden is my favourite by far.