Stanislaw Lem - Fiasco

Few people are familiar with Fiasco (1987). A lot of people do know Solaris, but are unfamiliar with Stanislaw Lem. What a movie can do. Better yet: there's three of them. What a good book can achieve. And it is true: Stanislaw Lem's books are thought-provoking. They might be a bit too slow and philosophical for the average Science Fiction reader. Although mankind travels into space and fires lasers, this isn't your average space opera - far from it. Beside that, the story in the movie Solaris was hardly related to the book.
Now, now. This review is about a book with the title Fiasco, not about a few movies that were fiasco's. Let's get back.

The theme of Fiasco is similar to Solaris (and a few other books by Lem): humanity meets aliens far from Earth. But it's not the physical distance that makes these aliens so unreachable, it's the culture distance. Humans can't comprehend the alienness. Even standing right between them they don't realize that these are the aliens they wanted to meet. Behold Lem's solution to the Fermi Paradox. Worse, any first contact will inevitably lead to catastrophe.

Lem was a Polish writer, no doubt shaped by the country he lived in. During a big part of his life it was an authoritarian society. He had to deal with both a harsh communist regime and an authoritarian Catholic church. Both were suffocating daily life. No wonder Lem's outlook on humankind is dim. Perhaps a bit too dim.

The aliens of Stanislaw Lem are alien indeed. Almost never bipedal, nor their humanoid faces decorated with a few ridges or pointy ears. In Solaris the alien is a kind of sea, in Fiasco the aliens don't move at all.

Fiasco is the struggle of humans, unable to come to grips with a civilization that doesn't want to be contacted. The aliens provide a backdrop for the grim derailment of the humans who want to befriend, but don't understand. In no time the contact escalates into bizarre mass destruction. I must rephrase my words. Escalation is a step-by-step process. It requires two sides. One step by one side, the next step by the other side. In Fiasco both sides are so unequal that there is no escalation. There's only fast growing human brutality.

As stated earlier, this is the core theme, the Leitmotiv of Lem in many of his books. It's his vision of humanity. And - like with Solaris - that's where the story falls a bit flat. In no way do the human traveler convince me that they had to make the choices they finally made. On the contrary. They had ample opportunity to rethink their strategies. They could decide to refrain from violence, yet they didn't. Their unconvincing motivations make them no template for humanity in general.

Consider a first contact scenario with indigenous people by western civilization. The intentions were always good. White priests wanted to save these people from hell by converting them to Christianity. In the meantime they disturbed traditional societies leading to disastrous social derailment. Or they infected them with their European pathogens, killing all instead of saving them. By now most people abhor this course of action. We did learn.
Another example is the exposition of indigenous people to western lifestyle and food. Leading to rampant obesity and lifestyle diseases, these people were better off not contacting our civilization at all.

In both cases the intentions were either good or neutral, yet the results were disastrous. But the first contact Lem describes is far from both. It's aggressive, hostile. In Solaris, they study the organic sea but don't understand it. Only after the humans start bombarding it with a destructive ray, things go wrong. In Fiasco Lem follows a similar pattern. The humans seek contact, the aliens say no. The humans regard this "no" as a hostile act. Their conclusion is that they have to respond with ridiculous violence. And they even blame the aliens for the resulting destruction.

Imagine meeting an unknown tribe. You want to make first contact. They don't react to your extended hand, as they don't know what it means. You wave at them and they don't understand either. They're growing suspicious and run away, throwing a few stones at you. You ponder the situation and decide you need to do something else. So you grab your rifle and shoot one of the tribesmen in the leg. That will get their attention! This is the solution Lem thinks is inevitable with humans. I think he's wrong.

Lem starts the story with the resurrection of a deep freezed human and a hefty discussion about the ethical repercussions. He ends the story with annihilation of alien life.

It's clear what Lem is telling us. If it comes to ourselves, we're full of ethics; if it comes to others, those ethics often disappear in a jiffy. Worse, we don't even understand that we just compromised ourselves.
And that's what bothers me about Fiasco. Regarding the former statement, Lem does have a valid point. Regarding the latter, he is really off the mark.