As a regular reader of rational sci-fi I don't know why I haven't read this remarkable epic before. I have read most of the other sci-fi classics but this is my first Stanislaw Lem book. I was aware of Solaris but only recently realised that it was written by Lem. Fiasco is an amazing story which can be taken at different levels and depths. It uses the scenario of alien contact as an examination of the human condition. Some readers might form the view that the first chapter of the book is almost irrelevant to the main theme which doesn't get going until chapter 2. Another observation is that, apart from a holographic character in the artificial sequence used by Gerbert to distract himself onboard the Eurydice, there is no female character in the entire book! Lem has a remarkable descriptive style which is exemplified in a number of sequences in the novel, e.g. the vivid description of the geyser formations in the doomed attempt by the striders to penetrate the Depression on Titan, and the holographic recreation of the search by the Spanish explorers in the old American Midwest. These are distinctive pieces in their own right but, ironically, oddly out of place and probably superfluous to the main strand of the novel. Also Lem employs a technique reminiscent of the film 2001 where a lot of continuity is left out and the reader is suddenly transferred to a new situation sometimes separated by large time spans and has to quickly assimilate the new state of affairs often through clipped dialogue between the protagonists or by short retrospectives.
Undoubtedly the main character is Parvis or Pirx who comes to be called Tempe but the other characters are reasonably developed, particularly Steergard the tormented Captain of the Hermes. However, Tempe's development is uneven and it's not until the end of the novel that you get a fuller insight into his character. Again there are significant sections on philosophy throughout the book e.g. the development of intelligence in the Galaxy and the opportunity for contact, or the propulsion method used for near light-speed travel. Furthermore, there are long information or explanatory entries such as the technique used to excite the black hole Hades to allow the Eurydice to experience vast time contraction so that only two weeks elapses for its crew whereas years have gone by on the Hermes during its return journey to Quinta. This also allows the Eurydice to return to Earth only 8 years after it originally departed. There is also a long sequence of interrogation dialogue between Steergard and DEUS, the supercomputer, towards the end of the novel. Some readers may choose to skip all of these lengthy hard going pieces without really detracting from the experience of the story.
Lem has deliberately made some of the actions of the `envoys' on the Hermes preposterous and outrageous, as a means of illustrating the extreme behaviour of humans once committed to a course of action where the leadership will not withdraw even although that is the obvious choice. Finally at the risk of displaying anthropocentric behaviour, I doubt that the life-form of the Quintans as depicted by Lem would be capable of achieving intelligence. A well-crafted thought provoking work that stands out in serious sci-fi. Read it!