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Literature / Fiasco

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Fiasco is one of the later novels by Stanisław Lem, and yet another concerning the issues of First Contact. It is also the last time when we meet (ish) Pirx the Pilot - because it's built up on an earlier, unfinished story that had him as the protagonist.

The story initially follows Parvis, a young pilot on the Saturn's moon Titan. In spite of multiple warnings against doing that, he ventures in his walker into the dangerous region of methane geysers to look for people who went missing there, among them famous veteran pilot Pirx. He fails, and is forced to use the emergency procedure of vitrification.

Many years later, a huge starship is sent to a distant system to carry out a historical mission: to contact an alien civilisation which was discovered there. During the launch preparations, the fatal geyser region of Titan is cleared, and bodies of those lost are uncovered. Only one person, however, can be brought back to life; his identity can only be narrowed down to "either Pirx or Parvis" (also, a lot of material found is used for spare parts, so physically speaking, the guy might be both and neither. Sweet dreams.). Regardless of who he is, the resurrected man joins the crew and plays a crucial role in the mission.

This novel contains the following tropes:

  • Amnesiac Hero: P/Mark Tempe suffers from Trauma-Induced Amnesia after having been frozen and restored, and while he doesn't remember who exactly he was before, he retains his technical expertise, piloting skills and calm personality.
  • Cabin Fever: The tension on board of Hermes grows steadily higher, worsened by each consecutive failure.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Pirx's friend laments that he promised not to go rescue anyone and promptly broke the promise. His co-worker wearily explains it had been obvious from the very start what Pirx would do, and they both try to dissuade Parvis from following - which he, of course, does.
  • Classical Mythology: Characters note the tendency of planetographers and plannists to name things after it.
  • Continuity Nod: Parvis sets off to rescue his mentor, the titular character of Tales of Pirx the Pilot.
  • Constellations as Locations: The bulk of the story happens in the constellation of Harpy.
  • Cool Starship: Two of these: the smaller ship Hermes for the actual exploring and contacting, and a mothership Eurydice that waits in a black hole's gravity well for its return. They use ramscoop propulsion and were launched from Titan by a battery of lasers.
  • Description Porn: Mostly describing the incredibly cool technological marvels the humans have (not that it helps).
  • Deus Est Machina: The Digital Engrammic Universal System (called the General Operational Device in the original) from Fiasco. One character notes that the acronym was probably intentional.
  • Distant Prologue: Parvis's rescue mission occurs about two and a half century before the First Contact mission.
  • Do a Barrel Roll: To deal with the Quintan anti-spaceship weapon, the ship does a barrel roll through a sun's corona.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The crew resorts to blowing up the Quintan moon in a desperate attempt to communicate. Later they blow up the planet itself, because the P didn't report on time and they think he's been captured - he actually got so engrossed in what he was doing that he forgot.
  • Epic Fail: Starting with the beginning, where Parvis performs a highly skilled, impressive landing on a difficult landing pad - and is promptly informed that he was given wrong directions and ought to have landed in the other base (there are two bases on Titan, because of bureaucracy and petty rivalries). Throughout the book, incredibly cool technology does squat to prevent increasingly serious failures of judgement.
  • Eternal English: The P is thawed hundreds of years after becoming a Human Popsicle, but when he hears the doctors speaking (presumably English, since this is an international mission), he understands every word and finds the experience grounding.
  • First Contact: With the Quintan civilisation. Two words are enough to describe the result.
  • Foreshadowing: Pirx's friend in the begginning comments on how similar Parvis is to Pirx. The words "he has the same eyes" are used. Also the Show Within a Show holodeck fictions the crew members peruse all seem to be about exploration of weird worlds ending in complete failures (the very first one has an Undead Author explained away as some sort of a lens system allowing a distant observer to see all that happened, so the narrator of the Framing Story can tell it to his guests).
  • Fun with Acronyms: The Digital Engrammic Universal System (called the General Operational Device in the original), the ship's quantum computer.
  • Genre Shift: A sci-fi story interspersed with fiction the characters happen to be reading (or perusing on their Holodeck). And all this fiction is best described as subtly strange and vaguely horrifying. And oddly, if not at a first glance, appropriate.
  • Grey Goo: Quintans use it to destroy things they dislike. Probably.
  • Human Popsicle: Vitrification is an emergency procedure, extremely painful, damaging and unreliable - but better than nothing. In the Hermes part of the story, there's embrionation, which involves exchanging blood for a special liquid and slowing down the heart for protection from extreme g-forces while the ship uses a black hole to get to its destination.
  • Humans Are Bastards: More like, Humans Turn Oddly Violent When Frustrated. They also accuse the aliens of bastardry.
  • Humongous Mecha: The Diglators, which actually are construction vehicles.
  • Kill Sat: The humans try a big stick when speaking softly fails. There's No Kill like Overkill.
  • Master Computer: DEUS/GOD. It manages the whole ship and has opinions - enough to hide data from the commander (the P only sees through it because he's from a time when computers were less reliable and double-checking them was not unthinkable).
  • Minovsky Physics: The humans' ability to make gravity their puppy is behind much of their tech, but Quintans apparently don't have it and it can't fall into their hands. Because it may turn out that Aliens Are Bastards.
  • Motion-Capture Mecha: The Diglators, with the pilot in an ultra high-tech harness inside.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: It can be said of the whole crew (heck, the entire human race), but the P in particular. These people are supposed to make First Contact and instead destroy the alien planet. Because the P didn't report on time.
  • Noble Profession: Father Arago, the dominican friar, is the voice of conscience in the crew. The fact that Lem set a priest in such a role marks the change that happened over the years in his writing; some of his earlier works had noticeable jabs at religion.
  • Only Sane Man: Dual role — the P (who seems to have the practical common sense of Pirx) and father Arago. Though the former's good ideas turn out to have unintended consequences...
  • Sadistic Choice: Only there's no villain to enforce it - the doctors have to decide which of the two preserved brains they will reanimate, in complete absence of any objective criteria for picking one and not the other.
  • Scenery Porn: The first part of the story, set on Titan, is filled to the brim with detailed, lush descriptions of the breathtakingly beautiful and alien landscape.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The novel can be described as an in-depth exploration of the concept of Epic Fail - so many completely avoidable and generally meaningless failures happen there. Oh, and The Hero Dies.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Quintans. Discussed once the humans force them into contact by emitting images of humanoids on clouds. The real shapes of the aliens are revealed (maybe?) only at the last moment. Mentally, they are staunchly isolationist, but the reason for that is hardly inhuman: the humans conclude they're divided into two blocs locked in a cold war, and the governments of both cover up their arrival in fear of it being exploited by the other bloc. Of course, that's an educated guess backed up by game theory and some arbitrary assumptions.
  • The Stoic: Parvis, like his mentor, is a quiet individual not prone to emoting, even though they also share Chronic Hero Syndrome and a general preference to do stuff instead of wallowing in misery. Whichever of them the P used to be, he acts the same way.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome
    • The protagonist gets to drive a Humongous Mecha, which, contrary to its typical unrealistic depictions in other media, complies to the laws of physics. It takes a lot of time to speed up or to slow down, when walking fast you need a huge arc to turn around, and the acceleration of the appendages is limited by design, otherwise a sudden movement would lead to significant structural damage. It's a heavy construction equipment after all, not an acrobatics platform. Driving it feels almost like driving an ocean liner.
    • Vehicles used in dangerous environments feature an emergency cryonic device, to preserve the people until help arrives and can dig them out. Instead of being a slap-on-the-wrist Human Popsicle, it is definitely not nice. To preserve the brain mostly intact, it has to be frozen with liquid nitrogen from all sides as quickly as possible, so tubes crash violently through the face and the jaws, to inject liquid nitrogen, shattering most of the skull in the process (while the victim is still alive and awake). All blood and other bodily fluids are quickly and violently purged from the body, to prevent crystallization. Even many decades later, when the technology for revival exists, it is not an easy task. Most of the victims do not survive at all, and the one they can save (in a very controlled, low-gravity environment), still requires extensive surgery, long recovery time, and suffers from severe memory loss.
    • The explorers arrive to a star system showing signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Having only guesses and assumptions about the society and culture of the inhabitants, all attempts at communication end in misunderstandings.
  • Riddle for the Ages: So was it Parvis or Pirx they woke up? There's a subtle hint that it probably was Parvis: his first name is Angus, suggesting a Brave Scot, and later on P quotes Scotland's national motto Nemo me impune lacessit. Then again, this is an appropriate (ish) Badass Boast, and you don't have to be Scottish to know it, so... On yet other side, the P was found in the exact same circumstances Parvis got vitrified (inside a mecha, next to another wrecked, empty mecha) and there was a wallet in his personal effects, just like we're explicitly shown Parvis carried. But! While the reader would know these things, the crew would have no way to learn them.
  • We Can Rebuild Him: The P is a Composite Character in a most literal way — there's two bodies in fairly good shape, enough material for one man, but at the cost of dismantling the other body. He never actually remembers who he was and gradually starts to refer to himself (and be reffered to) as Mark Tempe.
  • We Come in Peace Shoot to Kill: Humans come in peace to establish contact with Quintans. The aliens are passive-aggressive about the idea. The humans insist. In the end, they blow the whole planet up.