Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Contact! Meeting an extra-terrestial civilization in Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco novel.


Contact! Meeting another civilization in Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco novel.

Stanislaw Lem has been for a long time my favorite science fiction author. Besides being a great writer, he is also a philosopher, sociologist , physicist and moralist so one always comes away from his books having learned something interesting.

"Fiasco" is one of his best novels. It is about the challenges of establishing contact with unknown civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. The book has lessons for us in case beings from other planets ever visit Earth. ...




The technological challenges are well known - maximum speed is the speed of light,  closest star with planets is x light-years away, enormous amounts of fuel would have to be carried aboard for such a flight, cosmic rays would have killed every passenger well before arrival... Lem solves them with plausible extensions to physics as it is known today. An enormous spacecraft is built in the orbit of Titan, Saturn's moon. It is pushed to great speed by enormous laser beams from Titan, Saturn's moon. Then the nuclear engines take over until the speed is high enough for the craft to collect hydrogen atoms from space, that serve as fuel. A constant acceleration of 1g enables the spacecraft to achieve the speed of light in one earth-year, and in a few more years the craft arrives to Quinta, an earth-like planet with a civilization about to exit the Window of Contact.

The latter is a theory that explains why we haven't heard of other civilizations in the galaxy yet. If their stage of development is before the "window of contact", they are not yet technologicaly advanced for inter-space travel o radio communications. If they are beyond the window of contact, they have already destroyed themselves with technology, just as we are doing right now in Earth. If in the middle of the Window, perhaps they are not yet interested in inter-space travel. Earth in the novel is still in the window of contact, thinks it won't exit it tragically, and is interested in contacting the Quintans in order to learn from them.

A series of anthropo-centric assumptions of the crew lead to all sorts of misunderstandings when trying to contact the new civilization. Their enormous spaceship frightens the Quintans before landing, who do not answer any attempt at communication from the Earthians.  Communication itself is in the form of images, which may be totally intelligible to the Quintans and include human forms, likely to be interpreted as monsters by a totally different civilization. Disapointed, the crew stages a "show of force", to force the impression that they really intend and even can force Contact.. One of the two warring Quintan blocks finally invite a landing that does not end very well...

Every few turns of page and as usually in his books,  Lem launches into interesting discussions that involve human psychology, fruitlessly applied to other beings. One watches how the little items of data that gradually reach the spacecraft shape assumptions, misunderstandings and actions. If other space-born beings come to Earth, what should we do? what (or whether!) communicate to them? what to assume about the visitors? It all seems events would develop as in Lem's novel...