Science fiction is not a genre I typically gravitate towards. I don't intentionally avoid it, but it there just never seems to be a science-fiction novel on the top of my to-be-read pile unless someone else puts it there. The thing is, though, when sci-fi – like any other genre – is done well, you suspend your disbelief without being asked and become totally absorbed in the story. Unfortunately, I find a lot of authors make this impossible; their worlds have too many strange rules, too many unpronounceable words, or sacrifice description for action (or vice-versa). Stanislaw Lem manages to largely avoid all these pitfalls, and in Fiasco he does what sci-fi does best: he takes a modern-day problem and allows us to see it in a different context.
Fiasco opens on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, in a kind of false start. Purvis, a pilot, has just arrived at the base to discover that two men have gone missing – they set out to the next settlement and neither arrived nor returned. Purvis volunteers to go look for them, after listening carefully to the dangerous terrain he will have to navigate through. Unfortunately, Purvis meets a similar fate to the two other men, as he becomes entangled in the ice forest (created by geysers that erupt, freeze, and then come crashing down) and, doing the only thing he can, activates the machine's cryogenic device, freezing himself until rescue.
The first part is a bit disjointed from the rest of the novel, which takes place years later. But, it isn't a throw-away by any means. The amount of detail Lem manages to pack into this first episode is incredible. Not only does he give a precise description of the various machines and how they work, but he also has a great eye for landscape. His descriptions of the surface of Titan are quite beautiful, and he manages to get across just how dangerous this moon's various terrains are without letting go of how, in Purvis' eyes, the place is totally awe inspiring. Lem's descriptions are stark in some ways – his language is in no way flowery – but they are evocative, and promise a novel of careful detail as well as purposeful action.
After this first sequence, though, the time and place of the novel shift to the spacecraft Eurydice, which is on a mission to make contact with non-human life forms on a planet called Quinta. Onboard the ship is a man who has been frozen and subsequently reanimated. He doesn't know his name or where he has come from, but he is a pilot and the implication is that he is Purvis, although that is never confirmed. On Eurydice he is given the name Tempe. Thus begins the narrative on the problem of communication, which is really what this novel is about. Essentially, as the novel's title implies, the entire endeavour is a disaster.
What I like best about Fiasco is Lem's ability to write about impending doom in a subtle way. He escalates the situation slowly, exploring the psychological reasons that people react the way they do, and as the acts of violence increase in severity, Lem is careful not to celebrate them. The humans, of course, are having trouble communicating with the Quintans. And, naturally, the Quintans don't act positively to a strange ship in their air space; they do what humans would do if the situation were reversed (that is, try to kill the perceived enemy) and, naturally, the humans don't like it. Lem's mockery of the "we come in peace, but be nice or we'll kill you" method of cross-cultural communication is both clear and effective. And in the end, the Quintans are utterly destroyed by the attempts at contact.
Fiasco is not a cheerful book, but neither is is bleak. The novel is filled with strange humour and weird side-stories, which indicate that Lem hasn't written an allegory of the how the world is today, with various characters representing world leaders or countries. The story is both more general and more specific than that. General in that the overall message of understand is universal, and specific because this is a story about one relatively small spaceship and one relatively small planet. It is a clash of civilizations on the small scale, and it leaves you hoping that the survivors have learned something valuable they can take back to Earth with them.
by Stanislaw Lem
First published in English in 1987 (cover image shown from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition)