Fiasco, published in 1986, was Stanisław Lem’s last novel.1 Subsequently, for twenty years until his death in 2006, Lem wrote only non-fiction: a mixture of criticism and futurology, very little of which has been translated into English.

I don’t normally have much time for spoiler warnings, but in this essay I’m going to look at the way Lem manipulates the reader’s perception and judgment, so you may prefer to experience this for yourself before reading my take on it.

In all quotations, passages in bold are my emphasis.

In Fiasco Lem returns to one of his idées fixes, the impossibility of meaningful contact with aliens. In Solaris (1961) scientists studied a living ocean but found only their own preoccupations reflected back; and in His Master’s Voice (1968) the meaning of a radio signal from the stars became more elusive the more effort went into decoding it. Fiasco is, if anything, an even more depressing take on this theme: it’s a direct rebuke to the optimism and anthropocentrism of much ‘first contact’ science fiction.

Fiasco opens with spaceship pilot Parvis landing on Saturn’s moon Titan. He learns that several ‘strider’ (mecha) pilots have been recently lost in the unmapped ‘Birnam Wood’ region of the moon, most recently the famous pilot Pirx. Parvis immediately commandeers another strider to go to rescue them. Trapped in the same way as his predecessors, he resorts to the ‘vitrifax’, a risky form of cryogenic preservation.2

A hundred years later, two vitrifaxes are recovered from Birnam Wood, but it is not clear whose they are, and there are only enough body parts to resurrect one of them. Pirx or Parvis? His defrosted memory cannot tell.

The pilot finds himself aboard the Hermes, a spaceship on a mission to “Quinta, the fifth planet of Zeta Harpyiae,” where alien life—very possibly intelligent alien life—has been discovered. We recognize the mission from a hundred science fiction stories: to explore the system, to observe and analyze the Quintan civilization, and to make contact. The Hermes is equipped with the latest in ‘sidereal engineering’ and so they seem to have nothing to fear from the Quintans. But a cautious approach is only prudent.

The bulk of the novel deals with this process of observation and analysis, and the process by which the scientists aboard the Hermes come to conclusions about the Quintans. The trouble that the scientists face is that the evidence is utterly ambiguous: it points in no particular direction and they are powerless in the absence of a theory. They have to come up with hypotheses as to the nature, behaviour, and motivation of the Quintans, in order to test them against the data, but how can they come up with such theories when the Quintans may be utterly alien?

Gradually the scientists of the Hermes lock on to a particular theory about the Quintans, that they are engaged in a centuries-long Cold War from which they have no way of retreating, and have abandoned the surface of the planet and hidden in underground bunkers:

The starting situation, we believe, was when multifront war, waged on the surface of the planet, became tantamount to total annihilation. After this critical point was reached, the arms race was moved off the planet. None of the antagonists intended to transform the entire solar system into a battle zone of monstrous proportions, but proceeded in steps, countering the moves of the adversaries. By the time a confrontation was finally reached in outer space, nothing could any longer restrain the zone’s growth, let alone nullify it to establish a lasting peace.

The Commander is initially skeptical about this theory:

“There’s an attitude on board I hadn’t expected. Imaginations are running a little wild. As you know, there’s constant talk about enigmatic conflicts, microweapons, nanoballistics, war. This is, I think, the ballast of preconceptions.

And indeed the flaw in the characters’ analysis of the evidence is stated explicitly early on—if you’re paying attention:

“An infant, smiling, smiles according to assumptions that it has brought with it into the world. These assumptions, of a statistical nature, are multitudinous: that the pinkish blobs its little eyes perceive are people’s faces, that people usually react positively to the smile of a baby, and so on.”

“What is your point?”

That everything is based on certain assumptions, though the assumptions, as a rule, are made silently. Our discussion deals with events that appear very improbable as a series of unrelated things—the flashes, the chaotic emission, the changes in Quinta’s albedo, the plasma on the moon. What caused them? you ask. The activity of a civilization. Does this clarify anything? On the contrary, it mystifies, because we began with the tacit assumption that we would be able to understand the actions of the Quintans.

But it’s not easy to keep this in mind as the flood of data comes in. The events and observations demand explanation—indeed, the characters’ survival may depend on their rapid understanding of the Quintans.

According to the Cold War theory, the Quintans will be unable to respond to peaceful overtures: it must be clear to both factions that any shift in the balance of power (due to contact by one faction with the overwhelmingly militarily superior humans) will prompt the other faction to launch a pre-emptive strike, according to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Thus neither faction dares to respond to the humans. The only way to make contact is to threaten both factions simultaneously with overwhelming force, such as the destruction of the planet. The logic seems unassailable… but it leads only to the fiasco of the title.

The cognitive failure here is a form of confirmation bias, exacerbated by groupthink: having settled on the infinitely flexible Cold War theory, it’s not difficult for the scientists aboard the Hermes to find a place for each piece of evidence to fit, especially when the evidence is fragmentary and ambiguous. Many hypotheses are considered and discarded, but there’s no systematic attempt to list competing theories and estimate which ones are best supported by the data. Though even this method, had it been employed, would have been suspect because of the likelihood that none of the competing theories are correct.

And it’s easy for the reader to be carried along with the characters’ misjudgments: we’re accustomed to the way in which this kind of analysis in science fiction is usually reliable, these kinds of scientists being the author’s way of conveying information to us. It’s tempting to read the book as some kind of satire—the hypothetical paranoid underground Quintans representing Cold Warriors and Doctor Strangeloves, with the crew of the Hermes belonging to an advanced civilization that has developed beyond such foolishness.3 But with the last few lines of the novel, Lem overturns these readings.

So here’s a survey of six major pieces of evidence collected as to the nature of the Quintans, how the crew of the Hermes incorporate those pieces into their Cold War model of the Quintan civilization, and alternative explanations—both alternatives that are considered by the characters, and other possibilities that arise in light of what we learn at the end of the book.

  1. The atmospheric flashes and cold spot

    Several series of brief flashes above the thermosphere and ionosphere of the planet had been recorded… A bolometer aimed at the center of the planet’s face registered a sharp drop in temperature on the order of 180 degrees Kelvin, with a slow return to equilibrium. The cold spot had an area equal to Australia.

    In the Cold War theory: “The flashes observed by the Eurydice could have been skirmishes between highly advanced combat units on the periphery of the Zeta system.”

    Other hypotheses considered: “a meteor swarm entering Quinta’s system and colliding with artificial satellites” — “an accident in some enormous refrigeration devices, in cryogenic equipment” — “climate control with the aid of very large photoconverters”.

  2. Radio static

    A radiolocation map of the planet showed hundreds of transmitters of white noise, which merged into shapeless blotches. Quinta was emitting noise on all wavelengths.

    In the Cold War theory:What came to mind was an image of “radio warfare” taken to the point of absurdity, where no one any longer transmitted anything, because each side drowned out the other… All bands of radio waves were jammed. The entire capacity of the channels of transmission was filled with noise. In a fairly short period of time the race became a contest between the forces of jamming and the forces of intelligence-gathering and command-signaling. But this escalation, too, penetrating the noise with stronger signals and in turn jamming the signals with stronger noise, resulted in an impasse.”

    Other hypotheses considered: “The noise was either the scrambling of broadcast signals or a kind of coded communication concealed by the semblance of chaos.” [It’s a consequence of the Shannon–Hartley theorem that the maximum information is transferred on a channel in the form of white noise.]

  3. The damaged satellites

    Even more curious were the small centers of destruction found in both satellites. These localized ravagings could not have been caused by any violent action from without. Most often, the compounds of the wires had been bitten through or gnawed at, producing tiny beadlike hollows. Rotmont, called in as a chemist, concluded that this was the work of highly active macromolecules. He was able to isolate a number of them. They had the shape of asynchronous crystals and preserved their selective aggressiveness. Some attacked only superconductors. He showed his colleagues, under the electron microscope, how the nonliving parasites ate their way into the filaments of a superconducting niobium compound, multiplying as more and more material was devoured.

    In the Cold War theory:In their imagination formed the image of a micromilitary struggle, a war conducted without soldiers, cannons, bombs, and where the secret weapon, extremely precise, was a semicrystalline pseudoenzyme.”

    Other hypotheses considered: the “parasites” are symbionts, like gut bacteria on Earth: “the line between what constituted an integral part of the alien machinery and what had invaded it, to destroy it, grew fuzzy. Kirsting observed that in general no such line existed in any strictly objective sense.”

  4. The ring of ice

    The planet was encircled by a ring of ice chunks in an enormous but unstable sheet…. The outer rim was widened by centrifugal forces; the inner, from atmospheric friction, turned into melting fragments and vapor, so that a portion of the water thrown into space by methods unknown returned to the planet in a never-ending rain…. The ring interfered with the climate of the entire planet. Besides the heavy rains, its mighty shadow fell across—during the planet’s revolution around the sun—now the northern, now the southern hemisphere. The ring obstructed, reflected away the light of the sun, not only lowering the average temperature but also disturbing the circulation of trade winds in the atmosphere…. Altogether, it looked like a space structure half completed and abandoned.

    In the Cold War theory: “Their struggle takes place beyond front lines, in meteorological damage inflicted on the enemy, or in mutual catalytic erosion of technoindustrial potentials. This may have halted the creation of the ice ring, since that task would require global cooperation.”

    Other hypotheses considered: “The inhabitants of the planet had thrown part of the ocean waters into space in order to increase the land area” — “a disaster of the ‘chain-reaction’ type as the undesired effect of gravitological experiments gone out of control”.

    Hypotheses not considered: Maybe the purpose is climate control: the Quintans like the heavy rains resulting from ice re-entering the atmosphere.

  5. The structures on the moon and the moving plasma.

    On Quinta’s large moon there appeared—in the dark hemisphere, not facing the sun—a point flash that flickered—moved independently of the motion of the moon’s surface…. The purpose of the giant installation was unclear. There was no doubt, however, that the work had been abandoned while in full swing. All the entrances leading to galleries and shafts had been closed off or, rather, buried with explosive charges, the heavy machinery having first been thrown deep into the tunnels and wells. The plasma microsun was fed by thermoelectric transformers through a system of magneto-conduits that drew energy from the depths of the asthenosphere—about 50 kilometers beneath the outer mantle of the lunar crust.

    In the Cold War theory: there’s no real attempt to explain this in terms of the Cold War theory, except to suggest that it might have been a project whose completion was interrupted by the war.

    Other hypotheses considered: “What was discovered on the Moon might be the work of some religion. Sun worship—of an artificial sun.” — a project involving “resettling on the Moon, turning it into a navigable planet, and moving to the system of Eta Harpyiae” in order to escape a nearby black hole — an attempt to tap energy from the moon’s asthenosphere.

  6. The missing Quintans

    Nothing illuminated the darkness when the sun went down. Both large continents, raised from the ocean, with steep, snowcapped mountain chains, shone at night only with the ghostly glow of polar lights…. Neither on the inland seas of both extensive continents nor in the ocean were any vessels sighted. There was also no activity at the intersections of the straight lines that cut effortlessly through forested plains and high ridges of rock. The lines could not serve as transportation…. The lack of any sign of civilizational bustle, of port cities, for example, at the mouths of great rivers; the convex metal shields in mountain valleys which hid the valley bottoms with armor that was distinguishable from the natural rock only spectrochemically; the absence of air traffic, given the discovery of about a hundred smooth concrete airfields enclosed by low buildings…

    In the Cold War theory:All this led irresistibly to the conclusion that century-long warfare had forced the Quintans underground, and that it was there that they lived.”

    Hypotheses not considered: The Quintans are present, but not in a form that the humans are able to recognize as intelligent life.

So on re-examination of the text in the light of the ending, it seems that there was no evidence that was conclusively in favour of the Cold War theory.4 But that theory won out nonetheless because none of the alternatives were formulated coherently enough to stand up as competition. The true theory, it is suggested at the end, is that the Quintans are incomprehensibly alien, and we can never really know them.5 As Dave Langford puts it, “Lem takes a consistently bleak view of the limitations of human cognition.”6

It would be remiss not to mention some major weaknesses to the novel. There’s the old-fashioned sexism—it’s not just that the crew of the Hermes are apparently 100% male, but there are passages like this:

A machine, programmed so that no one in verbal contact with it, including its creator, could tell it from a housewife or a professor of international law, was a simulator indistinguishable from them—as long as one did not try to run off with the woman and have children by her, or invite the professor out to lunch … and consume soufflés with him.

It’s like something out of the 1950s—but Fiasco was published in 1986. There’s also no attempt at characterization: the characters are just mouthpieces for the ideas. But this weakens the reader’s appreciation of the failure of their decision-making process—it’s hard to feel ‘I could make the same mistake as him’ if there’s no him there to empathize with. And there’s the speed with which the characters switch from observation to intimidation in their attempt to force contact on the Quintans. The method chosen—a demonstration of force by destroying the Quintans’ moon—is rather too horrifying. This was the point where I started to question what was happening, but I think the effect would have been stronger if I had been carried along with the characters a bit longer.

  1.  Peace on Earth, published in 1987, was completed in 1984.

  2.  This prologue echoes the themes of the novel in miniature: it’s an illustration of human cognitive failings (Parvis, knowing that the highly experienced pilot Pirx had just been lost on an identical rescue attempt, should also have realized that it was foolish to carry out the exact same failed plan as his predecessor) and it’s a rebuke to the genre convention whereby self-sacrificial bravery wins the day.

  3.  For example, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr: “In one interpretation, the human astroheroes bumble into the war sphere of a planetary civilisation apparently engaged in destroying itself. We know nothing about the Quintans’ works and days, yet they seem quite familiar—nightmare traces of ‘what we will be like’ once the synthetic viruses of SDI become active.” (From the essay ‘Futuristic Flu’ in Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey.)

  4.  I note that some readers appear to have held on to parts of the Cold War theory even though the ending should have invited its wholesale abandonment (a form of anchoring bias). Three examples. George Turner: “An interstellar expedition finds the planet Quinta and discovers it to be in a condition of total war, one half of the planet versus the other half. The Terrestrian Commander feels it his duty, as the possessor of superior armaments, to intervene and impose peace. The outcome is, of course, the fiasco of the title.” (From the essay ‘New directions in science fiction’ in Skiffy and Mimesis: More Best of Australian SF Review (Second Series), edited by Damien Broderick.) Marcus Chown: “The inhabitants—who never reveal themselves—are engaged in an arms race gone mad. It’s a civilization which has invested the lion’s share of its energies in the building of weapons that occupy the space around it.” (From the review ‘Alien landscapes’ in New Scientist, 1987-10-29.) Armin Krishnan: “Two antagonistic blocks on the planet Quinta are forced into a war-like deadlock by their automated defence systems. Unable to achieve any decisive victory, both sides rely on automated defences that block any action or movement of the other side, leading to complete paralysis and civilizational decline.” (From the essay ‘Dangerous futures and arms control’ in Killer Robots: Legality and Ethicality of Autonomous Weapons.)

  5.  Translator Michael Kandel writes that Lem “says that one might think of the Quintans as ‘giant intelligent anthills’” and adds “An intelligent mold? Some kind of colony of sapient quasi-insects or microbes? We don’t know, but it’s something that a human being cannot internally accept.” (From the essay ‘A Freudian Peek at Lem’s Fiasco’, in The Art and Science of Stanisław Lem, edited by Peter Swirski.)

  6.  From the entry for Solaris in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, edited by Gary Westfahl.