The planet Quinta is pocked by ugly mounds and covered by a spiderweb-like network. It is a kingdom of phantoms and of a beauty afflicted by madness. In stark contrast, the crew of the spaceship Hermes represents a knowledge-seeking Earth. As they approach Quinta, a dark poetry takes over and leads them into a nightmare of misunderstanding. Translated by Michael Kandel. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book
About the Author
Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) was the most widely translated and best known science fiction author writing outside of the English language. Winner of the Kafka Prize, he was a contributor to many magazines, including the New Yorker, and the author of numerous works, including Solaris.
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The man who said this was no longer looking at the pilot in the spacesuit with the helmet under his arm. In the circular control room — horseshoe console in the middle — he went to the wall of glass and looked out at the ship, a large even though distant cylinder, charred around its jets. A blackish fluid still spilled from the jets onto the concrete. The second controller, big in the shoulders, a beret tight on his bald skull, put the tapes on rewind and, like an unblinking bird, regarded the newcomer out of the corner of his eye. He wore headphones, and in front of him was a bank of flickering monitors.
"We managed," said the pilot. Pretending that he needed support to remove his heavy, double-buckled gloves, he leaned slightly against the jutting edge of the console. After that landing he was wobbly in the knees.
"What was it?"
The smaller one, by the glass, in a worn leather jacket, with a mousy, unshaven face, clapped his pockets until he found his cigarettes.
"Deflection in the thrust," murmured the pilot, a little surprised by the coolness of the welcome.
The man by the glass, a cigarette already in his mouth, inhaled and asked through the smoke:
"But why? You don't know?"
"No," the pilot wanted to reply — but he remained silent, because it seemed to him that he ought to have known. The tape ended. It fluttered on the reel. The larger man got up, took off the headphones, only now nodded to him, and said hoarsely:
"I'm London. And that's Goss. Welcome to Titan. What would you like to drink? We have coffee and whiskey."
The young pilot was flustered. He knew the names of these men but had not met them before. He had assumed, for no reason, that the larger would be the chief, Goss, but it was the other way around. Getting this straight in his head, he chose coffee.
"What's the cargo? Carborundum bits?" asked London when all three of them were seated at the little table that came out of the wall. The steaming coffee was in glasses that resembled laboratory beakers.
Goss took a yellow pill with his coffee, sighed, coughed, and blew his nose until tears came to his eyes.
"And you brought radiators, too, right?" he asked the pilot.
The pilot, again surprised, expecting greater interest in his feat, only nodded. It was not every day that an engine stalled in the middle of a landing. He was full of words not about freight but about how, instead of attempting to blow out the jets or increase the main power, he had immediately cut the auto and went down on only the boosters, a trick that he had never tried outside the simulator. And that had been ages ago. So he had to collect his thoughts again.
"I brought radiators, too," he said finally, and was even pleased at how it sounded: the laconic type, emerging from danger.
"But not to the right place," smiled the smaller man, Goss.
The pilot didn't know whether or not this was a joke.
"What do you mean? You received me — you called me," he corrected himself.
"We had to."
"I don't understand."
"You were supposed to land at Grail."
"Then why did you pull me off course?" He felt hot. The call had sounded imperative. True, while losing speed he had caught a radio announcement from Grail about some accident, but couldn't make out much through all the static. He had been flying to Titan via Saturn, using the planet's gravity to decelerate and thus save fuel, so his ship had brushed the giant's magnetosphere until there was crackling on all the wavelengths. Immediately afterward he received the call from this spaceport. A navigator had to do what flight control said. And here, before he was out of his suit, they were cross-examining him, Mentally he was still at the helm, with the straps digging into his shoulders and chest as the rocket hit the concrete with its arms spread. The boosters, still firing and rumbling, made the whole hull shudder.
"Where was I supposed to put down?"
"Your cargo belongs to Grail," explained the smaller man, wiping his red nose. He had a cold. "But we intercepted you above orbit and called you here, because we need Killian. Your passenger."
"Killian?" the young pilot said with surprise. "He's not on board. Besides me there's only Sinko, the copilot."
The others were dumbfounded.
"Where is Killian?"
"By now, in Montreal. His wife is having a baby. He left before me, on a shuttle. Before I took off."
"Of course, from where else? What's all this about?"
"The mess that obtains in space equals that on Earth," remarked London. He stuffed tobacco in his pipe as if he wanted to break it. He was angry. The pilot, too.
"You should have asked."
"We were positive he was with you. That's what the last radiogram said." Goss blew his nose again and sighed. "You can't take off now in any case," he said finally. "And Marlin couldn't wait to get the radiators. Now he'll put all the blame on me."
"But they're there." The pilot indicated with his head. In the mist stood the dark, slender spindle of his ship. "Six of them, I think. And two in gigajoules. They'll disperse any mist or cloud."
"I can't very well put them on my back and carry them to Marlin," returned Goss, in worse and worse humor.
The carelessness, the irresponsibility of the subordinate spaceport, which, as its chief admitted, had intercepted him after three weeks of flight without verifying that he had the passenger they expected, shocked the pilot. He did not say to them that the cargo was their problem now. Until the damage was repaired, he could do nothing, even if he wanted to. He kept silent.
"You'll stay with us, of course." With these words London finished his coffee and rose from the aluminum chair. He was huge, like a heavyweight wrestler. He went over to the glass wall. The Titan landscape, a lifeless fury of mountains of unearthly color in the rusty dimness, with clouds of bronze thick at their peaks, made a perfect background for his figure. The floor of the tower vibrated slightly. An old transformer, thought the pilot. He also got up, to look at his ship. Like an ocean lighthouse it stood vertically out of the low, rushing mist. A gust blew away the wisps, but the marks of overheating on the jets were no longer visible, perhaps because of the distance and the half-light. Or else they had simply cooled.
"You have gamma defect scopes here?"
The ship mattered more to him than their trouble. They had brought the trouble on themselves.
"We do, but I won't permit anyone to approach the rocket in an ordinary suit," replied Goss.
"You think it's the pile?" the pilot blurted.
The small chief got up and walked over. From the floor registers along the convex glass came a pleasant warmth.
"The temperature did jump above normal during the descent, but the Geigers were quiet. It was probably only a jet. A ceramic might have been flushed from the combustion chamber. I had the feeling that I was losing something."
"A ceramic, fine, but there was a leak," Goss said firmly. "Ceramics don't melt."
"That puddle?" The pilot was surprised. They stood at the double glass. Indeed, beneath the bottom fins lay a black puddle. Mist, wind-driven, intermittently swept the hull of the ship.
"What do you have in the pile? Heavy water or sodium?" asked London. He was a head taller than the pilot.
Squeaking sounds came from the radio. Goss hurried over, put on a headset, and spoke quietly with someone.
"It can't be from the pile ..." the pilot said, at a loss. "I have heavy water. The solution is pure. Crystal-clear. But that is black as tar."
"Well, then, the refrigerant in the jets bled out," agreed London. "Which cracked the ceramic."
It was as if he were talking about fuses. He was not in the least bothered by the accident that had stuck the pilot and his ship in this hole.
"Yes," said the young man. "The greatest pressure is in the funnels when braking. If the ceramic cracks in one place, the main thrust will clean out the rest. Everything was flushed from the starboard jet."
London said nothing.
The pilot added hesitantly:
"I might have landed a little too close ..."
"Nonsense. It was good that you even landed straight."
The pilot waited for more words bordering on praise, but London turned to him and looked him over: from the tousled fair hair to the white boots of the suit.
"Tomorrow I'll send a technician with a defect scope ... Did you put the pile in neutral?" he added suddenly.
"No, I shut the whole thing off. As if docking."
The pilot saw by now that no one was interested in the details of his struggle with the rocket right above the port. Coffee was fine — but shouldn't his hosts, who had imposed so much on him, provide a room and a bath? He longed for a hot shower. Goss kept whispering into the microphone. London stood leaning over him. The situation was unclear but full of tension. The pilot was beginning to feel that these two had something on their minds more important than his adventure, something that involved the signals from Grail. In flight, he had caught fragments — about machines that hadn't made it, about the search for them.
Goss turned with his chair, so that the taut line to his headset pulled the phones off his ears onto his neck.
"Where is this Sinko of yours?"
"On board. I told him to check the reactor."
London looked questioningly at the chief. The latter shook his head slightly and muttered, "Nothing."
"And their copters?"
"They returned. Visibility zero."
"You asked about the maximum load?"
"There's nothing they can do. What does a gigajoule radiator weigh?" he turned to the pilot, who was listening.
"I don't know exactly. Under a hundred tons."
"What are they doing?" insisted London. "What are they waiting for?"
"For Killian —" replied Goss and cursed.
From a compartment in the wall London took out a bottle of White Horse, shook it as if debating whether it would be suitable for the situation, and placed it back on the shelf. The pilot stood, waiting. He no longer felt the heaviness of his suit.
"We lost two men," said Goss. "They didn't reach Grail."
"Three, not two," London corrected him gloomily.
"A month ago," Goss went on, "we received a shipment of new Diglas. Six, for Grail. Grail couldn't accommodate the carrier; the spaceport was still being reconcreted, and when the first freighter set down there — the Achilles, ninety-nine thousand tons — the whole reinforced slab, guaranteed by the government, cracked. We were lucky the ship didn't fall over. It was pulled out of its hole and kept in dock for two days. They did some quick first aid on the concrete, put down a fireproof cover, and opened the port again. But the Diglas stayed with us. The experts decided that hauling them by rocket wouldn't pay. Besides, the captain of the Achilles was Ter Leoni. He wasn't about to take a ninety-nine-thousand-ton craft a measly hundred and eighty miles, from Grail to here, for such peanuts. Marlin sent two of his best operators. Last week they took two machines to Grail. The machines are working there now. The day before yesterday the same two men returned by copter, to take two more. They set out at dawn and by noon had passed the Promontory. When they began to descend, we lost contact with them. A lot of time was lost because beyond the Promontory Grail itself does the guiding. We thought they weren't answering because they were in our radio shadow."
Goss spoke in a calm monotone. London stood at the glass, his back to them. The pilot listened.
"In the same copter, with the operators, came Pirx. He had landed his Cuivier at Grail and wanted to see me. We've known each other for years. The copter was supposed to take him back in the evening. It didn't arrive, because Marlin had sent out everything available in the search. Pirx didn't want to wait. Or he couldn't. He was supposed to take off the next day and wanted to be on hand for the clearance of the ship. Well, he pressed me to let him return to Grail using one of the Diglas. I made him give me his word that he would take the southern trail, which was longer but avoided the Depression. He gave me his word — and broke it. I saw him, on the patsat, descending into the Depression."
"The patsat?" asked the pilot. He was pale. Sweat beaded on his brow, but he waited for the explanation.
"Our patrol satellite. It passes overhead every eight hour. It gave me a clear picture. Pirx went down and disappeared."
"Commander Pirx?" asked the pilot, his face changing.
"Yes. You know him?"
"Know him!" cried the pilot. "I served under him as an intern. He signed my diploma. ... Pirx? For so many years he managed to extricate himself from the worst —"
He stopped. There was a pounding in his ears. He lifted the helmet with both hands, as if to hurl it at Goss.
"So you let him go alone in the Digla? How could you? The man's a commander of a fleet, not a truck driver."
"He knew these machines when you were still in diapers," replied Goss. It was obvious that he was trying to defend himself. London, stony-faced, went to the monitors, where Goss sat with the earphones around his neck. In front of Goss's nose, he knocked the ashes from his pipe into an empty aluminum drum. London examined the pipe, as if not knowing what it was, then took it in both hands. The pipe snapped. He threw away the pieces, returned to the window, and stood motionless, clenched fists held together behind his back.
"I couldn't refuse him."
Goss turned to London, who, as if not listening, looked through the glass at the shifting skeins of red mist. Now only the prow of the rocket occasionally emerged from them.
"Goss," said the pilot suddenly, "give me a machine."
"I have a license to operate thousand-ton striders."
There was a brief glitter in Goss's eyes, but he repeated:
"No. You never operated one on Titan."
Saying nothing, the pilot began to take off his suit. He unscrewed the wide metal collar, unfastened the shoulder clasps, the zipper underneath, then reached deep inside and brought out a folder bent from being carried so long under the heavy padding of the suit. Its flaps opened as if ripped. He went to Goss and placed papers before him, one by one. "That's from Mercury. I had a Bigant there. A Japanese model. Eighteen hundred tons. And here's my license. I drilled a glacier in Antarctica, with a Swedish ice-strider, a cryopter. Here's a photocopy of my second-place in the Greenland competition, and this is from Venus."
He slapped down the photographs as if playing trumps.
"I was there with Holley's expedition. That's my thermoped, and that's my colleague's. He was my alternate. Both models were prototypes, not bad. Except that the air conditioning leaked."
Goss looked up at him.
"But aren't you a pilot?" "I transferred, got my qualification, with Commander Pirx. I served on his Cuivier. My first command was a tug...."
"How old are you?"
"You were able to switch like that?"
"If you want to, it's possible. Besides, an operator of planetary machines can master any new type in an hour. It's like going from a moped to a motorcycle."
He broke off. He had another packet of pictures, but didn't produce them. He gathered the ones tossed on the console, put them in the worn leather folder, and returned them to his inside pocket. In the opened suit, a little red in the face, he stood near Goss. Across the monitors ran the same streaks of light, indicating nothing. London, sitting on the handrail by the glass, watched this scene in silence.
"Suppose I were to give you a Digla. Let us suppose. What would you do?"
The pilot smiled. Drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. The fair hair bore the mark of the helmet's pads on top.
"I would take a radiator with me. A gigajoule, from the ship's bay. The helicopters at Grail could never lift that, but for the Digla even a hundred tons is nothing. I would go and have a look around. ... Marlin's wasting his time searching from the air. I know there's a lot of hematite there. And mist. From the copters you can't see a thing."
"And you'll take the machine straight to the bottom."
The pilot's smile widened, showing his white teeth. Goss noticed that this kid — because it was practically a kid, only the size of the suit had added a few years — had the same eyes as Pirx. A little lighter perhaps, but with the exact same wrinkles at the corners of the eyes. When he squinted, he had the look of a large cat in the sun — both innocent and crafty.
"He wants to enter the Depression and 'have a look around,'" Goss said to London, half as a question, half ridiculing the audacity of the volunteer. London didn't blink. Goss stood, removed the earphones, went to the cartograph, and pulled down, like a blind, a large map of the northern hemisphere of Titan.
He pointed to two thick lines that curved on a yellow-purple field cut with contour lines.
"We are here. As the crow flies, it's 110 miles to Grail. By this route, the black, it's 146. We lost four people on it when the concrete was being poured for Grail and ours was the only landing field. At that time, pedipulators on diesels were used, powered by hypergols. For local conditions, the weather was perfect. Two teams of machines reached Grail without a hitch. And then, in a single day, four striders disappeared. In the Depression. In this circle. Without a trace."
Excerpted from "Fiasco"
Copyright © 1986 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Show of Strength,
A Cosmic Eschatology,
Sodom and Gomorrah,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
possibly my favorite of Lem's works.
"Fiasco" and "Solaris," two of Lem's finest novels, can be taken together to form a treatise concerning contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms. If "Solaris" is concerned with the notion that we might never be able to understand an alien culture well enough to meaningfully communicate with it, then "Fiasco" goes a step further: it might not be possible for us to communicate with an alien culture at all. Evidence of alien life is discovered in a nearby star system, and a team is sent to investigate. When they arrive, the aliens they were sent to greet seem hugely reluctant to communicate; first contact progressively moves closer and closer to becoming, well, a fiasco.
I thought this was pretty darn good. While there are important differences, it felt like a much more successful attempt to address the story of Arthur Clarke's Rendezvouz with Rama: man travels to meet with aliens, has a hard time communicating, finds surprises and danger, has a hard time figuring out what the heck's going on. Lem populates his human ship with a small but truly diverse crew of scientists, pilots, a physician and catholic priest. Each of these characters at times plays an important role in the story. They bring diverse experiences, values, and personality types to a very stressful situation, allowing the dynamics of the interactions among the crew to play an important role in the novel. Lem's Quintans are one of the better conceived aliens I can remember, in surprising ways completely different than humans, and yet in other ways similar. One of the more memorable things about the book is a superb first chapter that serves as an extended prelude and could easily be published as a stand alone short story. Set a couple hundred years before the rest of the story, it is a truly stunning tale of an attempted rescue mission on Titan. Another thing I liked about Fiasco is that Lem makes you think. There are questions that are left unanswered, but the reader is given enough evidence to draw conclusions. Oddly enough, the identity of the protagonist is one of these unanswered questions (although the inclusion of the first chapter makes it pretty clear who the reader is supposed to assume the character is). Fiasco is obviously a novel written during the cold war, and is clearly meant as a warning about mankind's future. And while in some ways it feels dated, we certainly cannot afford to forget how easily a reasonably intelligent species can get caught up in a downward spiral leading to very real possibilities of extinction.
He's always creative and sometimes brilliant. The conjunction is something glorious.
Worth reading more as a character study of human psychology than science fiction adventure. The author shows humanity using its best science overshadowed by its worst propensity to act on flawed assumptions.