Escalation and Eschatology in Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco, with a New Introduction by the Author

Paul R. Potts

Introduction to the 1988 Essay

I wrote this essay as the final paper for my junior independent study course, English 401, at the College of Wooster. That class was a sort of methods class for writing and understanding different kinds of literary criticism: feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, postmodern… all that fun stuff. I don’t know just what school of literary criticism this essay represents — reader response? Sociological? But here it is.

My instructor in the course was Professor Henry Herring. I remain grateful to Dr. Herring for his excellent teaching, and for allowing me to go “full cyberpunk” in this paper and dive right into the deep end. If my language is occasionally opaque, it is my own fault.

In this essay, I explain my own reading of Lem’s novel, bringing in ideas from other work. Lem wrote philosophical science fiction. I don’t believe he worked hard to bury or obfuscate the big ideas he was trying to get across. In fact, in many of his works his characters, at some point, quite bluntly explain the big ideas, either openly, or using simple allegories. So it wasn’t so much that I felt the need to explain Lem to readers, but that I was excited about how the argument of the novel connected to other ideas outside the novel, and I wanted to share that excitement by making those connections explicit.

Lem does occasionally throw in some more obfuscated symbols. The names of the ships are from mythology. The deadly ice forest on Titan is called “Birnam Wood,” a reference to the “moving forest” which defeats Macbeth. The ship’s computer, a godlike thinking machine, is called “DEUS,” indicative of the faith that the humans put in their technological marvels. I don’t spend a lot of time tracking down or explaining these symbols because they aren’t important. They’re more like “easter eggs” — fun if you understand them, but otherwise not really worth babbling about.

Back when I was planning my junior independent study thesis, I considered writing about some other science fiction writers. I was, for a time, trying to work up a paper about the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Some current readers will understand why I am quite grateful, now, that I didn’t choose to write about her work, but at the time I gave up on it because it didn’t seem very good, and I feared it would be very difficult to slog through novels I didn’t actually enjoy. Ultimately I settled on Lem because his ideas seemed to interlock with so many of my interests, including computing, nuclear weapons, and nanotechnology. You can detect in my writing the preoccupation with nuclear annihilation and the “Star Wars” missile defense shield that was prominent in the early lives of many members of Generation X, especially those exposed to The Day After, the 1983 television movie about nuclear war, and the administration of Ronald “we begin bombing in five minutes” Reagan.

When I began to re-read this piece, I felt a little fearful — it was, after all, written by a 20-year-old. I thought it was likely to be embarrassing. But reading it now, I still feel pretty good about it. It has, perhaps, too much by way of plot summary, but I wanted to be able to explain my argument to someone who hadn’t read the books referenced. It expresses “intertextuality,” by finding threads of similar arguments in other books and linking them up, talking about some of the ideas that were floating around in the noosphere in 1988. The thing I like about it most is its enthusiasm for ideas.

Fiasco opens with a scene in which Lem’s old protagonist, Pirx, is lost in a dangerous geyser-filled region of Saturn’s moon, Titan. Another man, Parvis, sets out to find Pirx, but his mechanical walking machine is trapped. Doomed, Parvis resorts to the extreme measure of activating a cryonic device which will entomb him in liquid nitrogen, killing him, in the hope that, someday, someone using more advanced technology might be able to restore his preserved body.

In the far future, someone — maybe Parvis, maybe Pirx — is rescued from this frozen region of Titan, and restored to life. Damaged, the rescued man does not remember his name, and we never learn exactly who he is. I did not mention this in the original essay, but Pirx/Parvis is Lem’s “bridge” from his earlier work to this stranger, darker later work. If you have read Lem’s more light-hearted stories about Pirx, or Ijon Tichy, you should understand that the world of Fiasco is very distant from that one, and we aren’t even allowed to know whether our old protagonist is dead, or resurrected but damaged, and thus a damaged copy or distorted echo of his earlier self. It seems that Lem himself lived and wrote long enough to develop a “late style” in which he deliberately distanced himself from his more humorous writing to tell a darker story, and I’m glad he did.

I also had plans, never completed, to incorporate into this essay another Lem novel, The Invincible. In 1988 it was damned hard to find some of these long out-of-print books. I spent the summer of 1988 living with my father in Los Angeles, and called around to various used bookstores in the area. I finally found a shop that had a copy, and I bought it by mailing the proprietor $5.00 in cash to mail me the book. But after acquiring this rare, yellowed paperback and reading it, I did not wind up incorporating thoughts about The Invincible into my essay. I am not sure exactly what I was thinking, but the most likely reason is that my essay was getting long enough, and my argument complex enough, without it. Like all of Lem’s work, The Invincible certainly deserves study, too.

I never explicitly say so in the essay, but I should say so here: Lem’s thinking was shockingly, stunningly ahead of his time. His work is appreciated, but deserves to be appreciated even more. His works such as The Invincible were out of print for decades. Fortunately, the situation seems to be changing: there’s a recent edition of The Invincible available from MIT Press. There’s a great recent translation of Solaris, but a print version has not been published, so you can’t read it unless you have a Kindle, or are willing to “read” it by listening to the audiobook, available only from Audible. And in 2016 if you order a copy of one of his less-popular works, such as Imaginary Magnitude, you will likely get a badly-reproduced print-on-demand book with nearly illegible type and a blurry cover.

Anyway, I feel pretty good about putting this essay out into the world, for anyone reading Fiasco to stumble across. Hopefully, verbatim passages won’t wind up in someone else’s college essay, but that is a contingency over which I have no control.

I have cleaned up garbled typography here and there, and made a few small revisions, but for the most part it reads as I wrote it almost thirty years ago. I changed a few word choices. For example, in the original, I used the phrase “framework stories” to describe the stories-within-stories. I now call these “nested stories” which is more accurate.

The computer file containing this essay has been on a long, strange trip. It started out on a Macintosh floppy disc. It must have made it onto a hard drive at some point. From there it may have migrated via a Bernoulli disc and passed through several more hard drives, lived for a time on a Magneto-optical disc, then a CD-ROM disc containing a disc image of the Magneto-optical disc, and made it to my Macintosh Pro, 28 years later. While 2016 versions of Microsoft Word would not open the original file without displaying a lot of garbage, I was able to use an emulator, SheepShaver, to run a very old version of MacOS and Microsoft Word, open up the file, and copy the text out, then turn it into a Markdown file. This process is not for the faint of heart. Just getting the emulator to work properly with old disc images took hours of trial and error. Most recently, in 2022, 34 years after I wrote the original file, I have migrated the Markdown file onto a RAID file server connected to an Intel NUC running Ubuntu Linux. From there, I will finally get it onto a web server in HTML format. In short, the file has escaped from burning house after burning house, as media and devices failed and technologies and file systems and file formats changed, and it is a small miracle that even by regular diligence and effort it was saved. Meanwhile, my “dead tree” edition, or hardcopy, is slightly yellowed, but has not required any particular technical support or maintenance to survive those 28 years in readable form. There’s a lesson in all that, somewhere, I think, but I’m getting tired, and I’m no longer in the mood to lecture, so you’ll have to teach it to yourself.

Escalation and Eschatology in Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco: The 1988 Essay

Stanislaw Lem in his novel Fiasco tells the story of the interaction of a space vessel full of emisaries from Earth with an incomprehensibly alien planet, Quinta. As the story progresses, a nightmarish “Star Wars” escalation emerges and eventually results in tragedy. Lem illustrates the forces guiding the crew of the Hermes with two strange and symbolic nested stories. As Quintan technology responds to Earth’s incursions, the escalation reflects not rational motives for contact and communication but instead mirrored paranoia between Quinta and the human visitors. In our own era where technological development is eliminating human contact between the war machines of the superpowers, Lem shows that mutual trust and communication is the only antidote to paranoid military escalation.

The story of the interaction of the Hermes and Quinta illustrates the importance of avoiding what K. Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology calls dangerous “memes” (Engines of Creation p. 35). A meme, says Drexler, is a self-generating and self-replicating way of thinking. He pictures these memes as acting like aggressive and refractory microorganisms; some memes contribute to immunity from others. He writes “Memes that seal the mind against new ideas protect themselves in a suspiciously self-serving way… In times of swift change they can make minds dangerously rigid” (Engines of Creation p. 38). The decisions on board the Hermes that ultimately result in the destruction of Quinta are made under duress, and have to be made quickly: the anthropocentric paradigm of attack and defense, bred from a “Star Wars” mentality, leads to the exclusion of any other, more useful, pictures of the state of affairs on Quinta.

Memes don’t affect only expeditions to alien planets: they also must be avoided much closer to home. These memes are dangerous now, as we move rapidly into the technological future. Drexler warns that

We look ahead with minds and cultures rooted in the ideas of more sluggish times, when both science and technological competition lacked their present strength and speed. We have only recently begun to evolve a tradition of technological foresight (Engines of Creation p. 41).

This foresight is necessary as our technology progresses, says Drexler, to direct technology in humanistic directions. The “assembler revolution,” says Drexler, will result in a technology based upon microscopic devices capable of replication and autonomy. Where Drexler’s scientific speculation leaves off, Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction begins, and in Fiasco Lem explores some of the consequences of inflexible thinking about a future technology surpassing today’s conceptions. Lem’s technology intersects with Drexler’s predictions tangentially: some elements of the future technology he proposes are nanotechnological, and some are not.

When the members of the expedition from Earth approach Quinta, they find a vast number of artificial satellites and a partially completed ring of ice orbiting the planet. They concur that “Beyond all doubt Quinta was inhabited by a civilization so advanced technologically that it had entered the Cosmos not merely in small craft but with a power able to lift oceans into space” (Fiasco p. 129). A communique from the mother ship Eurydice has arrived, and describes changes on Quinta that occurred during the voyage of the Hermes: flashes, explosions of nuclear type, a drastic increase in cloud cover, and radio-jamming white noise on all bands. The meanings of these phenomena are unknown. Assumptions are made that Quinta is experiencing planetary war which has spread into the space around the planet. The conflict is supposedly between two superpowers on Quinta, because the Hermes notes two main continents on Quinta.

Taking the hulk of a drifting satellite on board, they find that the confusingly alien technology has been corroded by a metal-attacking, virus-like agent. It is assumed that this was as a result of an attack by the rival of the satellite’s launchers below on Quinta. Another satellite is taken on board, and has undergone a similar “infection”:

Certain components of both satellites had acquired a kind of resistance to the catalytic corrosion, and in a way so narrowly defined, so specific, that one could speak of an immunological reaction by analogy to living organisms and microbes. In [the crew’s] imagination formed the image of a micromilitary struggle, a war conducted without soldiers, cannons, [or] bombs… (Fiasco p. 155).

This notion of artificial micro-warfare is not new to Lem. In his essay “The Upside-Down Evolution,” collected in One Human Minute, Lem discusses nanotechnology on the battlefield of a war in Earth’s future: “The greatest problem in the unhuman stage of military history is that of distinguishing friend from foe… The nonliving weapon might imitate (extremely well) floating dust specks or pollen, or gnats, or drops of water. But under that mask lay a corrosive or lethal agent” (One Human Minute p. 57). He also describes the actions of tiny attackers against conventional weapons of war: “Just as germs invisibly invade an organism… so the nonliving, artificial microbes, following the tropisms built into them, penetrated the gun barrels, cartridge chambers, tank and plane engines. They corroded the metal catalytically, or, reaching the powder charges or fuel tanks, blew them up” (One Human Minute p. 58). These would operate by methods similar to those by which existing bacteria follow their design to attack certain cells in humans.

The most important characteristic of this technology in Lem’s novel is its ambiguity, for it results in escalation by misinterpretation. It is not possible to attribute, with any surety, the attack of a nanotechnological virus to the deliberate and aggressive activity of an enemy. In the case of Earth’s interaction with Quinta more ordinary technologies also bring about this ambiguity of intent which results in a misinterpretation of Quinta’s moves as aggressive. The information-gathering and technology-capturing satellites and landers that the humans use are interpreted as dangerous aggressors when sent by Quinta. The notion that a careful examination of the products of a technology can lead to understanding of motivation is discounted, as we shall see, by fear.

As the humans on the Hermes explore the Quintan moon, three Quintan orbiters attack lunar probes, apparently without guidance from Quinta. The lunar probes destroy themselves rather than risk capture. The “no prisoners” theme is important: the so-called “sidereal” technology of the Hermes is so advanced that it can destroy whole planets. To let any artifacts of this technology fall into the hands of the Quintans is a horrifying prospect, but the humans feel no qualms about capturing artifacts of Quintan technology. Thus, due to the fear of the humans, the decision-gathering methods of the Quintans and the humans must remain asymmetrical.

Even if the responses of the defensive sphere to the invading scout craft of the humans are not automatic, but guided by the Quintans, they should not automatically be interpreted as activities of aggression. Father Arago, the representative from the Vatican, suggests that “we do not consider that we acted as aggressors. We desired to examine products of their technology; they desired to examine our products. It’s simple symmetry” (Fiasco p. 189). To Arago, the actions of the Quintans can be seen in more than one light, and it is the perspective of the observer that decides the proper response. The Quintans, acting with caution, would presumably desire to find out as much as possible about the visitors while minimizing the risk of open contact. The captain agrees that the Quintans have the right to this caution, and thus projects human fears onto alien beings:

Our very arrival may have alarmed them, particularly if they are technologically incapable of galactic flight but know what orders of power are required for it… if they became aware of the Hermes [earlier] — and we have been in orbit here three months — then our silence, our camouflage, could seem ominous to them… (Fiasco p. 190).

Further attempts at communication with the Quintans fail. Another craft is sent: the Gabriel, equipped to land, its purpose explained by radio. Quintan crafts converge on it at surprising speed, and to prevent capture the intelligent, autonomous Gabriel also self-destructs by imploding and thus destroying its pursuers. One mangled craft is discovered, and from an examination of the wreckage the physicist Nakamura concludes that it was designed to capture the Gabriel for examination and not to destroy it. His opinion, however, is drowned out by the rest of the crew’s demand for retaliatory gestures.

As the Hermes retreats into hiding from Quinta, the humans abruptly have an excuse for further action. The ship is, apparently, attacked directly. Only the extreme power of the ship’s technology and the speed of the its responses prevents the Hermes from being destroyed by a tremendous impact. But once again, interpretations of the event differ. Was it an automatic response of a cloud of virus-sized microweapons, triggered by the ship’s entry? Nakamura holds this view. Three of the other physicists develop a paper describing a Quinta ready for cosmic warfare, with micromilitary weaponry, in a state that has developed through escalation. In this form of development, the physicists theorize, “each side worked to produce weapons that would possess tactical, and then strategic, autonomy. The implements of battle acquired independence…” (Fiasco p. 214). All of Quinta’s “attacks” could have taken place automatically, guided by the planet’s fantastically complex defenses. A model of Quinta’s defenses, then, could be a system “to which the Hermes was of ‘foreign body’… the Hermes would have been… an infection confronted by defending lymphocytes within an organism” (Fiasco p. 217).

Remarkable parallels exist between K. Eric Drexler’s description of a “Star Wars” active defense and the system deployed around Quinta. To respond to any attack, the system as described by Drexler could

…be made incapable of discriminating between attacking sides. Though serving the strategic interests of its builders, it would not be subject to the day-to-day command of anyone’s generals. It would just make space a hazardous environment for an attacker’s missiles (Engines of Creation, p. 198).

While Drexler sees this as a way of hopefully limiting the arms race, Lem points out in the story of the Quintans and the Hermes the consequences of such a system which the builders no longer control. Such a system seems to exist around Quinta in the form of a vast network of defensive satellites: it is not even possible for the Hermes to determine which satellites have been deployed by which of the two postulated Quintan superpowers. To prevent such ambiguous situations which are open to dangerous misinterpretation, Drexler wisely acknowledges that the notion of such an “active shield” defense would require intense cooperation and mutual understanding — something not possible with current memes. He states that

Making them work will require a creative, interdisciplinary synthesis of ideas in engineering, strategy, and international affairs. They offer fresh choices that may enable us to avoid old impasses. They apparently offer an answer to the ancient problem of protecting without threatening — but not an easy answer (Engines of Creation p. 199).

Clearly, communication is a faculty that Quinta has lost. Thus, it is not possible to avoid the misunderstandings that the actions of such a defensive shield engender. Actions are too easily misinterpreted: in the interaction of the Hermes and Quinta “There were no material devices… no dispatches or declarations easy to decipher, that could not be interpreted as a mask concealing aggression” (Fiasco p. 199). The crew of the Hermes allow their fear to guide them to make such interpretations of the actions of Quintan technology. A meme of trust and willingness to let communication take place (i.e., willing exchange of technologies and the open inspection of each other’s arsenals) is necessary to avoid these interpretations. This idea certainly has applicability to our own terrestrial war-sphere.

A close examination of the novel’s two nested stories illustrates that despite the most intellectual and ethically correct intentions, in the ambiguous situations that develop it is the biases of the humans that ultimately result in the character of the mission changing from contact to demolition. The first nested story can easily be related to the embassage of the Gabriel: it and the previous ambassadors were sent into a communications silence, as explorers. This fictional passage is presented via holography as Dr. Gerbert watches. According to legend two Spanish explorers, Don Guillermo and Don Esteban, seek gold in a mysterious location, the Valley of the Seven Red Lakes. They cross into a natural echo chamber, the Valley of Silence. Just as loud sounds are avoided on certain mountain faces to avoid causing avalanches, here the slightest disturbance brings down a shower of broken rock upon intruders. The Hermes enters its own Valley of Silence: disturbance brings retaliatory attack. The “attack” of falling rock in the Valley of Silence is a natural phenomenon, and acts automatically. The defensive shield of the Quintans can be viewed in the same way, although the anthropocentrism of the crew of the Hermes does not allow them to do so. This illustrates again the importance of objective memes for accurate understanding.

In the nested story, after escaping without serious injury, Don Guillermo and Don Esteban reach a cavern where, by the action of a natural prism, the face of a distant observer comes into view for a brief moment: an old Indian who sees their passage into sacred ground. They press on to another cavern, and “Then from the darkness came a giant spectral face suspended in the air, its eyes directed downward. Don Esteban cried out… as the scream resounded, Don Guillermo covered his face with his hands. Then there was thunder, fire engulfed him, and he lost consciousness” (Fiasco p. 56). The frightening visage in the reflecting prism is not a projection of supernatural or alien forces. It is ordinary human motivation, magnified by unknown technology, that destroys Guillermo. The situation makes human anthropocentric fears and motivations write themselves large and turn the unknown into the terrifying. The fear on the Hermes is that the Quintans will gain the knowledge of the sidereal technologies of the humans, and thus gain the upper hand; this taints the character of their interactions with the Quintan’s unwilling emmisaries in the form of captured satellites. The symbolic connection is made between the foreign landscape of Don Guillermo and Don Esteban’s travels when the narrator of their story says “The Valley of Silence is the same valley that our windows overlook” (Fiasco p. 57).

The crew decides that contact is necessary at all costs. They use their technologies to destroy Quinta’s moon. Unfortunately, Quintan missiles interfere; instead of maintaining an orbit, trillions of tons of debris fall to the planet, causing great destruction. Meanwhile, new techniques allow close examinations of Quinta in cross-section: huge caverns are found, filled with calcium, which may be the remains of millions of corpses that have been irradiated. No conclusions can be reached, though: “They had no way of knowing yet whether the population of Quinta was made up of living creatures or, possibly, nonbiological automata: the heirs of an extinct civilization” (Fiasco p. 230). One nightmarish vision of the state of Quintan civilizations is expressed, that of the dead piled in underground caverns, hidden from the technology that they developed and were eventually destroyed by. In the novel, the Quintans become an important non-presence: because they cannot be seen, and do not communicate, speculation on the Hermes increases exponentially. This speculation, however, still follows the old memes of warfare between two terran superpowers.

After the Quintans do not respond to the destruction of their moon, Steergard intends to use a huge laser: the “solaser,” which, mirror-like, absorbs light from Quinta’s sun and later directs it in a beam of intense energy. This suggestion was given by the ship’s computer, called DEUS, as the next move in the game. Father Arago warns Steergard away from this alternative: “I am suggesting that the machine has also become a mirror. A mirror that enlarges, from you, an aggression born of frustration” (Fiasco p. 249). Steergard’s dedication to the ideal of contact is so intense that he desires to save the civilization on Quinta from what he perceives to be its deadlocked cosmic war and paranoid silence, even if it is necessary to destroy it to do so. As we shall see when the true state of the Quintans become clear, had Steergard’s impression of the Quintans been an objective one he would have realized that the expedition’s goal of contact at all costs was one that had virtually no meaning. What exactly is the state of the Quintans, and why is contact such an untenable notion?

The second nested story provides a set of symbols for understanding both the Quintans and the humans. As the first fictional sequence ends and the setting surrounding the becomes clearer, there is a brief reference to the next nested story. Shuffling through holographic images in Gilbert’s cabin, Victor Davis summons an image “of a sandy waste with high termite mounds” (Fiasco p. 59). This image, presented later, will serve as a metaphor for the true state of the Quintans. In the story another explorer is given the arcane knowledge of a kingdom of unusually large termites. Termite mounds, says the narrator “reach eight meters in height… they’re harder than Portland cement… [filled with] eyeless, white, soft insects that have lived for some twenty million years away from the light” (Fiasco p. 96). Separation from the outside world is described in hivelike, fallout-shelter terms. The professor goes on to describe how, after days of travel and many hardships, his expedition reached a stumpy, black mound, the center of the termite nation. He broke it open, and found that

I had never seen termites like these. Enormous… [Their] antennae were all touching a gray object no bigger than my fist. The insects were extremely old. Motionless, as if made of wood… when I swept them from the central object — that round, strange thing — they perished instantly. Came apart beneath my fingers like rotten rags… (Fiasco p. 101).

The mother ship of the Hermes, the Eurydice, originally observed the surface of the land masses of Quinta to be dotted with regular white noise transmitters, like the regularity of the termite mound in the framework story. The Quintans are, by association with the characteristics of the termite mound of the story, not autonomous, independent beings. Without their technology they are inert. The structure of their existence is incomprehensibly alien. Despite this, the crew wishes to make contact. The Quintans only accept contact under the ultimatum of planetary destruction.

Mark Tempe alone has the privilege of descending to Quinta to explore. A one-man rocket, called the Earth, will take him down to the surface. He finds a deserted spaceport. A false Hermes that the real one sent as a cautionary decoy is there: an explosion of unknown cause has blown open the side of the vessel, but none of the inner doors has been forced open. If this was an attack, it was a strange one: it could just as easily been motivated by fear of the humans supposedly on board the false Hermes. A motive of aggression was assumed by the humans, however. His equipment finds that the false Hermes has been strewn with millions of microviruses, “in the guise of dirt” (Fiasco p. 315), quiescent and with an unknown latency period. They could be completely inactive: once more, the situation is unclear. Is this a deliberate infestation to be carried back to the Hermes by Tempe, or a natural phenomenon of the Quintan environment?

So much on Quinta is ambiguous to human eyes. It was not only the Vatican representative, Father Arago, therefore, that held fast to his faith on board the Hermes. In the face of the pictures of Quinta’s incomprehensible surface, the crew maintains the belief that the design of every aspect of it follows a logical form. In Fiasco it is an act of faith, and not of objectivity, that places human-like motivations behind the activities that take place on Quinta. Still hoping to gain the elusive goal of contact with the Quintans, Tempe explores the spaceport area in which he has landed, and finds a grotesque building: a huge, inside-out mock-up of the false ship, with silent, automatic, flashing messages inside: “This is greeting… We are fulfilling your wish… Greeting concluded” (Fiasco p. 317). Lem again emphasizes the alien and frightening silence of Quinta, as in the Valley of Silence:

There were no signposts, no terminals, no devices for the exchange of information, nothing — less than nothing… the corpse of their ship, contaminated with a hidden plague; or its swollen copy, like a frog inflated to death by a lunatic, made to serve as a shrine of hospitality, or the crystal flower bed welcoming him by turning to ashes: [as if to say] Your envoy can do what he likes. Everywhere he will be met by the same stony silence, until, forced to part from his expectations, bewildered and defeated, he flies into a muddled rage, begins blasting at whatever is at hand, and buries himself beneath tumbling ruins — or crawls out and departs… fleeing (Fiasco p. 318).

Determined to see them, Tempe exceeds the agreed-upon time limit between radio contacts, and passes beyond the six-mile radius of freedom imposed by the agreement with the Quintans. The agreement stipulates that if the humans suspect Tempe has come to harm, Quinta will be destroyed. Even after Tempe realizes that he has foolishly forgotten to contact his ship, he presses on, following a sensor which indicates massive concentrations of life. Tempe realizes he has little time left, and now with nothing to lose, his curiosity to see the Quintans still drives him. He finds them, in rough crusted lumps clustered on the hillside of the spaceport, with narrow openings. In the wet muck beneath are warm, rootlike tubes. He smashes through this outer shell; the inside of the mound is “like a loaf of bread cut in two by an ax, with ropy, raw dough at the center” (Fiasco p. 322). As he realizes the truth, that these are indeed the Quintans, the Hermes initiates the destruction of Quinta.

The state of the Quintans can be seen as a kind of ultimate de-evolution at the hands of technology: it is apparently the self-developing and guiding devices on the surface of the planet which have interacted with the Hermes, and not the Quintans at all. One way of viewing the Quintans is to presume that, as they put more and more decision-making power into the autonomic technology, it simply “took over” in a way that Drexler gives dire warnings against:

…with advanced technology, states need not control people — they could instead simply discard people. Most people in most states, after all, function either as workers, larval workers, or worker-rearers, and most of these workers make, move, or grow things. A state with [nanotechnological] replicating assemblers would not need such work. (Engines of Creation p. 176)

Drexler has used terms to describe the role of humans in a technological state that are equally applicable to the termites in the symbolic framework story. The Quintans would have been “discarded,” as no longer needed by the Quintan technosphere: after all, if war existed on Quinta, how could mushrooms fight it? This is a particularly grim warning when considering how little of a place the human soldier really has in the role of nuclear attack and counterattack run by underground command centers and aided by machines operating faster and more efficiently than humans.

Thus, Lem’s purpose in portraying the Quintans as “devolved” seems to be warning us. He warns us through the story of the interactions of Earth and Quinta that technology will never supplant our biases, and that it is our basic nature to be driven by the forces that have developed us: despite our intellects, we can never be rid of them, for we are ultimately biological at the core. His hopeful counterexample, representing much a much more useful meme, is Father Arago. The feeding and development of the disastrous meme on board the Quinta is also presented symbolically: back in the second nested story, the professor found later that the object under the dirt in the central, black termite mound was a perfectly round, shiny sphere, which attracted insects by the hordes wherever it went — it keeps them alive, and removed from it they perish. This could stand as a metaphor for the human interaction with DEUS, the ship’s computer, also described as a small sphere. DEUS supposedly acts as advisor and interpreter for the humans, and constantly monitors them to warn when instability and irrationality may set in. But the computer is itself hopelessly anthropocentric, having been designed by humans and instructed by humans, thus, its advice for interacting with the Quintans is as biased as the humans’. Locked inside their vessel, the humans feed on nothing but their own fears, receiving and amplifying information from DEUS which, even though they accept it on faith, simply reflects their subjective “truth.”

Lem uses yet another mirror metaphor as DEUS, the ship’s computer, realizes the true reason behind the human’s fears of Quintan theft of their technology when it notes that “a mirror does not lie. You cannot incline it to reflect only postures that are free and relaxed without giving an image of everything else” (Fiasco p. 240). The information the humans had given the Quintans in previous communications contained everything but that which would portray them in a negative light or give the secrets of their planet-destroying powers. The computer is referring to a situation of mutual armaments: both reflect the paranoia of both sides. Thus the humans are fearfully and anthropocentrically unwilling to accept contact with Quintans as equals (reflecting everything about them) because they know that their own unilateral use of this powerful technology risks being less than ideally fair and ethical. Does the situation of unilateral fear of sharing technology sound familiar?

The metaphor of the termites in the black mound is an unpleasant picture of our own feeding to and from our technology, without which, exposed, we are as brittle as ash. We have overcome the frailty of our limits with technology just as any species could: “They went out into space — only to find out how alien it was to them, and how the mark of their animal origin had been stamped inexorably on their bodies” (Fiasco p. 90). Locked in the shells of technology, they are hopelessly unable to truly understand and face the alien without the animal emotions of fear and aggression controlling. Lem expresses the etiology of our anthropocentrism in a brief history of a species’ technological development into space that Mark Tempe reads: In the account, technology allows some species to overcome the inevitably provincial memes that come from having developed from a particular, peculiar set of natural processes. Lem asks, through the story of the interaction of Earth and Quinta, “will humankind be so fortunate?”

While the captain of the ship, Steergard, was willing to destroy the Quintans to save them and gain his hopeless goal of contact, Father Arago represents a different meme. This is illustrated through Lem’s use of the “lifeboat” metaphor, when Arago says “Suppose you stand on a packed lifeboat, and those drowning, for whom there is no room, grab at the sides, putting the boat in danger of capsizing and sinking. You would cut away the hands, true?” (Fiasco p. 253). Arago would not. He says that “In my eschatology there is no such thing as a lesser evil… with each slain being an entire world dies” (Fiasco p. 254). He does not believe that the absolute goals of contact is worth the damage that the Hermes, despite good faith, has caused on Quinta (and, before they knew the truth, presumably to the Quintans). Just as the goal of contact is meaningless when the truth about the Quintans is known, our human goals of mutual defense and assumption of antagonism will become meaningless if the communication and trust that are necessary for survival are established. They will, of course, also become meaningless if escalation occurs and Earth reaches a fate like Quinta, destroyed in our case not by outside invaders but by our own war-sphere.

Lem has voiced a warning, and anyone familiar with Lem’s work would never accuse him of optimism (indeed, some feel he is a misanthrope). He often mixes humor with his cynicism, but Fiasco is somewhat of an uncharacteristically humorless work for Lem. It is not the role of Lem as a writer of science fiction to create hopefulness or hopelessness and thus sedate us into a false sense of security or despair. Either of these states is dangerous in that it could produce inaction while technology speeds ahead; as Drexler notes “a wait-and-see policy would be very expensive… it [could] cost billions of lives, and perhaps the end of life on Earth” (Engines of Creation, p. 17). We must develop what Drexler calls “technological foresight” to guide the way we develop such technologies. It is even more important, however, to develop the meme of trust and human contact, or soon our increasingly autonomous technologies may be operating in our own technosphere without our guidance.

Annotated Bibliography

Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. New York: Anchor Books, 1987. Drexler outlines speculation about the ways in which nanotechnological developments have the potential for bringing us into a utopia, but also for destroying us. His work is highly speculative, but based on rational extrapolations from the physical sciences: it is not a question of if, but when nanotechnology will come about (and if it will be guided by humanistic and foresighted memes).

Lem, Stanislaw. Fiasco. Trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. The technologies in Lem’s latest novel are an interesting patchwork of science-based speculation and mystifying hand-waving. Lem is characteristically not strong on characterization, but his presentation of the problems of technological ambiguity is fascinating. Since they have real applicability to our own technological war-sphere, his example of Quinta’s escalating interaction with the Hermes is also frightening.

Lem, Stanislaw. “The Upside-Down Evolution.” One Human Minute. Trans. Catherine Leach. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, p. 59. This short book contains three essays, written again in Lem’s often-used form of reviews of books not yet written. These essays present mankind in the cold light of an existentialist, or even mechanist, world-view. They are cynical and pessimistic, but funny and thought-provoking as well.

Wooster, Ohio, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Pittsfield Township, Michigan
April-May, 1988, May-June, 2016, and June 2022

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