Fiasco: a book review

Over the holidays, I was given a wonderful book by Stanislaw Lem, Fiasco, a work of science fiction by an author I quite admire.  Fiasco is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.  You needn’t be a sci-fi fan (but who isn’t?) to enjoy it and you may have heard of Lem’s more famous work, Solaris. 

In Fiasco, a pilot is resurrected under the careful ministrations of an unimaginably powerful computer.  In the years since his death, the universe had remained silent, no alien life forms noticed.  The leading minds conclude that the window of time in which two developing intelligences can actually converse is very small, relying as it does on some shared experience to base discourse on.  As the computer explains to the nameless pilot; ““A paradox arose:  the greater the number of theories astrophysics had at its disposal, the more difficult it became to prove the authenticity of an intentional signal.”  Confident in their calculations, Earth predicts when an equal life form will appear and sets out across space and time to intercept it and make contact.  So this is the basic premise of the book, a theme in much of Lem’s writing; real communication is impossible with something truly different.

As the envoy draws near to the new planet, they discover a world different than their hopes and predictions, a planet that attacks them without provocation.  In the absence of direct peer to peer communication, they are left to interpret the attacks and figure out their meaning, and between the lines, there’s a fair bit of commentary on the Cold War.  Faced with this impossibility, the characters pick at the fabric of what meaning is.  Except, of course, for the resurrected pilot, a kind of Tiresias figure who can accept there are things foreign to him, things he cannot know.   

There are a lot of interesting themes in Fiasco, and  Lem has provided me with a new favorite description of natural theology:
…Intelligent Beings proceeded to activities that made it increasingly clear to them that whatever had called them into existence gave them only one sure thing: their mortality.  Indeed, they owed their very existence to mortality, for without it the billion-year alterations of emerging and dying species never would have taken place.  They were spawned by the pit, by the deaths of the Archezoic, the Paleozoic , the successive geological periods, and along with their Intelligence received the guarantee of their own demise.  Soon, some twenty centuries after this diagnosis, they came to know the parental ways of Nature: the treacherous and wasteful technology of self-realizing processes used by Her to permit future forms of life to appear. (p. 90) 
It’s fantastic.  The book presents a compelling picture of the limits of our own understanding through powerful questions about meaning in the closed system of Nature.

For me, reading Fiasco was like reading Barth’s commentary on Romans the first time:  It is an overwhelming work of “No!” There is no redemption in Fiasco, no light at the end of the tunnel – far from it -but he has described the one side of life, the judged side of life, God’s “No” so excellently; the closed system of nature, the irrationality of it all, and the way language fails us both in communicating and in hemming us in.  I do not know Lem's religious beliefs, not that it matters, but I find it fascinating that it is the resurrected one who is able to accept that there are things beyond him, even though he cannot recount his own death.  The pilot is not a messianic figure, but a character with a sense of his own limits.  There is an obligatory priest who is also a symbol of religious acceptance of the unknown in the face of certain scientism. A physicist explains the priests position:
"It is possible to construct, out of mathematics, worlds outside the Universe regardless of whether or not they exist.  And then of course, one can always abandon mathematics and its world  to venture with one’s faith into the world-to-come.  People of the ilk o Father Arago occupy themselves with this.  The difference between us and them is the difference between the possibility that certain things will come to pass and the hope that certain things will come to pass.  My field deals with what is possible, accessible; his, with what is only hoped for , which becomes accessible, face to face, only after death.  What Did you learn when you died?  What did you see?"
"Therein lies the differentia specifica between science and faith."
 And that’s the genius of the book:  Lem has a deeper understanding of what “possible” really means than many of the popular futurists that make the magazine stands.  To that end, I found a deep sympathy with his point.  Of course the writing is good, too and I heartily recommend the book.  If you’ve never read science fiction from Eastern Europe, you should know that it tends to be philosophical with less emphasis on hand lasers and tentacle aliens, but that's a good thing.  Fiasco is a book that teaches us about ourselves.


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