“Fiasco” was the last novel written by Stanislaw Lem. He wrote more before his passing, but no more novels. I have read “Fiasco” before, in Polish and in English, and this time I listened to the audio book version. As I observed before, listening to a book exposes more details of the writing and and for this book it showcased the incredible imagination Lem possessed.
On the surface, “Fiasco” is a book about first contact between humans and another civilization – as you can imagine from the title, things do not turn out well. Under the surface the book is a platform for Lem’s philosophical musings on subjects of contact between civilizations, space travel and artificial intelligence.
The book also includes some fantastically imagined alien environments. In fact the chapter begins with an incident that takes place on Titan, a moon of Saturn. I found the detailed description of the landscape there breathtaking – how could Lem imagine such things?
Rather than delve too much into the plot (you can follow the link above to see a very good summary), I wanted to include a quote from the book which expresses Lem’s views on Artificial Intelligence, here presented as a historical description. Here is what he said:
” The first inventors of machines that augmented not the power of muscle but the power of thought fell victim to a delusion that attracted some and frightened others: that they were entering upon a path of such amplification of intelligence in nonliving automata that the automata would then become similar to man and then, still in a human way, surpass him. About a hundred and fifty years were needed for their successors to realize that the fathers of information science and cybernetics had been misled by anthropocentric fiction – because the human brain was the ghost in a machine that was no machine.
Creating an inseparable system with the body, the brain both served the body and was served by it. If, then, someone were to humanize an automaton to the degree that it would be in no way different, mentally, from a man, that accomplishment would – in its very perfection – turn out to be an absurdity. The successive prototypes, as the necessary alteration and improvements were made, would become more and more human, but at the same time would be of less and less use – compared with the gigabit-terabit computers of the higher generations.
As one of the historians of science observed, it would be like finally building, after colossal expenditures and theoretical work, a factory for making spinach or artichokes that were capable of photosynthesis – like any plant – and which in no way differed from real spinach and artichokes except that they were inedible.”
If the above passage intrigues you and you like a good science fiction story, by all means go ahead and read “Fiasco” – you will enjoy it.