A comical and disasterous failure of a project that often ends in the destruction of property and careers. As an example, does anyone remember that large suspension bridge that had the resonant frequency of the wind and tossed cars in the air like pancakes before it crumbled into the lake?

The word literally means a flask or bottle in Italian. The figurative use of the phrase is far fiasco, ``to make a fiasco'', for a failure or disaster. I had heard that it came from the idea of glass-blowing, and that it was referring to what happens when a glassblower hiccoughs.

Fiasco is the name of a book written by Stanislaw Lem. An odd but interesting mixture of science, politics and philosophy, Fiasco is set in the reasonably distant future where close-to-light speeds are possible, manipulation of black holes probable, and reanimation of frozen bodies are everyday.

The main act of the book concerns itself with the journey and arrival of a mammoth, earth-made spaceship at a distant planet thought to contain sentient life. Much of what occurs on the ship, far from being pure science fiction, concentrate on the feelings of our characters, their insecurities and feelings, and at some points, philosophical musings on the nature of existence and intelligence.

A trademark of the Polish-born author is to inject his work with a multitude of both real and imaginary science, physics and biology. Theorems and principles that are completely unreal and nonsensical find life in this book; what's more is that you swallow them hook, line and sinker. 'Sidereal Engineering'? Sounds good! I'll take one of those, side order of 'vitrifaction', large 'Holenbach interval', ketchup, mustard.

Although important, the sub-plots regarding the lead character's amnesia, the strange happenings on Titan and the subsequent reanimation are, to my eyes, merely devices to both build atmosphere, and place the reader in the story. Basically, it is the old trick of making your hero as dense as possible, so as to explain things to his dumb ass (and therefore enlightening your readers as well). Lem builds this better than most, making it seem far less transparent and more necessary.

Lem wrote 'Fiasco' in 1986, at a period in the Cold War when the 'Star Wars' program was still very much a frightening reality. Perhaps without meaning to, Lem introduces the ideas and subtexts of paranoia and intrigue in a political system into this work, almost subconsciously building an atmosphere of cultural and political espionage. I can only imagine that reading this work at that time must have been quite eerie, especially with regard to later developments in the book which clearly show quite dangerous uses of force.

Upon first reading, this book bothered me in that it seemed to have no actual conclusion or closure. In retrospect, seen as part of a political text, this ending more closely mirrors (and predicts) the actual events of the Cold War, which went off not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Fiasco is a difficult book, if only because of the strange pace and 'hard' sci-fi elements. However, it ultimately rewards with an interesting tale of both political and cultural significance.

sources: http://world.std.com/~mmcirvin/ - with an excellent essay on both Lem's science and his political satire.

Fi*as"co (?), n.; pl. Fiascoes (#). [It.]

A complete or ridiculous failure, esp. of a musical performance, or of any pretentious undertaking.


© Webster 1913.

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