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In Stanisław Lem's Fiasco, the nature of the inhabitants of the alien planet is never directly revealed, only hinted at.

On the forums there is some amount of speculation about it, the most common ideas are:

  • they are colonies of ant-like small creatures. The mounds are something like ant or termite colonies (hinted by a story-within-a-story about the "god of the termites")

  • similarly to the previous theory, they are microscopic beings.

  • they retreated below the surface and are living in some kind of virtual reality, they lost all direct sensory connection with the outside world and are maintained by machines, so there is no nanotechnological cold war, there are just robots who maintain the planet. The ice ring around the planet is in a bad shape of disrepair because no one needs it, as the inhabitants are devolved into huge blobs (the mounds) fed by nanobots, and no agriculture or other surface activity is needed.

In-universe nothing more can be known, as

the planet is destroyed at the end of the book, and the only person who understood what they are, dies before he can tell it to the crew.

Can there be any proof, evidence, or stronger hint about the true nature of the quintans? For example, did the author ever told an answer or at least some clues on an interview, etc?

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    There was a line that specifically seemed to be put in to rule out the theory of mounds merely being homes for intelligent smaller creatures--on p. 320 when the explorer finds the slope covered in mounds, he aims his "biosensor" at the slope, and finds "the needle repeatedly leaped into the red sector of the dial, fell, and again hit maximum, impelled by a metabolism not of any microscopic infusorians or ants, but of something on the order of whales and elephants, as if whole herds were sitting on that drenched hillside." – Hypnosifl Jun 10 '16 at 22:27
  • I wonder whether FIasco refers to the outcome of this first contact or to the final state of Quinta civliization. – David Tonhofer Dec 3 '20 at 19:20
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I know of no clues in an interview, but I think there are strong ones in the story (that I noticed only on second reading)

In the story, the cosmonauts paint pictures in the sky of Quinta to communicate. One of the assumptions they make is that every intelligent being moves about.
When the ice ring is destroyed, the cosmonauts see no attempt to evacuate the endangered areas of Quinta. However, at the climax of the story, when Mark Tempe is described as having finally seen the Quintans, he's looking at the immobile mound that are obviously injured and organic. The Quintans are the mounds.

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  • This would actually be very close to the third idea in the question. In the question I presented the expanded version of the theory, for example why are they the mounds and how could they have built a civilization without being capable to move. – vsz Dec 12 '13 at 18:02
  • About the spoiler tags: put ">!" in front of a paragraph. You can click on "edit" below my question, and see it for yourself. – vsz Dec 12 '13 at 18:04
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    @vsz this would fit to Lem's theme as nanotechnology as logical endpoint of technological developement. However, I think my answer fits to one of Lems other overarching themes - that the most basic assumption we may make about the other can be plain wrong. – mart Dec 13 '13 at 17:26
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The idea of a whole species retreating to VR is typical for Stanisław Lem's books and is IMHO quite interesting interpretation, but I would like to share another possible idea about Quintans.

Last year I had a pleasure to participate in a SF book club discussion about Fiasco. Since I am Polish and the event took place in Poland, we were reading the book in original - I am not sure if that fact has any meaning, Kandel's translations are usually considered to be quite good.

Anyway, back to the topic: after some brainstorming we got an idea that Quintans are

a fungi-like species.

As previous answers already mention

Quintans may be stationary and "mounds" may be the their bodies (or part of them), for the reasons already described in mart's answer.

But there is more to add: when Marek breaks one of the mounds open, there is no bleeding or any movement - just a porous structure like bread, releasing some kind of dust like a puffball. That web of antennas (?) overhead? Does it look biomechanical?

And one more, even more interesting thing: the reader is tricked into thinking that Quintans are stuck in a kind of Cold War (this probably doubles as the mean of delivering some moral about our Cold War, which was very relevant topic at the time when the book was written). Do we have any evidence that this is a case? Certainly that's what the crew of Hermes (including GOD) concludes (or wants to believe), but...

Look at the "technosphere" of satellites centred around Quinta - maybe these are not war devices at all? Maybe it's just a "natural" mean of expansion for a specie with "fungi mentality"? (release the spores!) Maybe it's "natural" for individual satellites to attack/feed on others? And radio jamming actually serves some purpose for these satellites?

How can you comprehend the behaviour of such aliens? Go and try to talk about philosophy with grass in your backyard!

Of course, this is just one of possible interpretations - the book is deliberately ambiguous.

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  • One thing which does not fit into this theory: why did they build the ice ring but then left it in a severe state of disrepair? – vsz Dec 23 '17 at 21:05
  • @vsz I didn't think about it, but fortunately somebody on Stack Exchange got an idea: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/14324/43248 :) – Ijon Dec 28 '17 at 20:41
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I tend to go with the third alternative.

Elsewhere in the book it's said that the sensors of Hermes have identified a lot of underground activity on Quinta. Maybe the humans have missed the "window of contact". As they were already taking the risk of arriving at the planet in the upper region of this window, some three hundred years after the discovery of its first radio waves emissions on the gigawatts class and of the beginnings of electromagnetic bursts directed to planetary engineering of its poles. And then there is the information the scouts brought back, with images one could interpret as historical reminiscences of a multitude of tiny figures going inside huge stalagmites/space rockets that instead of taking off actually sank into the ground. From then on Quintians must have shut themselves away from the outside world and evolved to a race of motionless symbionts sharing a collective consciousness and being served by armies of nanobots. It would then make sense to abandon all previous large scale projects, in vicinity space or on the planet itself, and set up the noise generators and an aggressive automatic technowarsphere so as to not be disturbed in the foreseeable future by any prying alien eyes... Moreover, due to their physical form at the time of attempted contact; colonies of organic moulds/humps lost in a collective Nirvana, it would have been almost impossible for them to figure out what was actually happening. Only the imminent destruction of the whole biosphere of Quinta was able to push them out of their lethargy and force a humanly intelligible response. Sadly, due to escalation and fundamentally different paces, it was to late...

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this is an old discussion but I'm reading Fiasco (in English, I sadly don't speak Polish) for the third time now and I'd like to leave my ideas:

The nature of the Quintans is deliberately left mysterious and ambiguous, I don't think Lem wanted the reader to be able to come to a full picture of what they really were because the point is that we can't ever really understand the truly alien. However, it's possible to get some idea of what Lem had in mind for them by looking at some of his other books and certain clues in Fiasco.

At one point the Hermes scans the planet and finds large areas of bone-like structures on the surface. This brings to mind his earlier novel Eden, where the "Doubler" civilization kept large buildings full of unformed skeletons create as a result of a massive failed eugenics project. I think this is one good possibility for why the Quintans are immobile mounds: they genetically engineered themselves into that form for whatever reason. It's possible that they were more mobile in the past. In Eden, the eugenics project is paired with "procrustics", an advanced attempt at information control where the organism is adapted to a standard and compelled to self-regulating oppression.

Meanwhile, the Quintan "warsphere" occurs in at least two other novels: peace on Earth and The Invincible. In both, the swarm is the result of "auto-evolution", a process Lem likens to cancer where a technological process that is initially controlled loses its teleological bearings and becomes a runaway process with its own internal logic, essentially a rebirth of natural processes within artificial ones. The cancer metaphor occurs in several places in Fiasco as well, and the prologue on Titan is full of imagery of "wild growths" of nature, the result of undirected, raw nature asserting itself.

Finally someone noted that nobody has been able to account for the ice ring, but something similar can, again, be found in another novel: the Star Diaries. On Dichotica, the originally human-like aliens have also fallen into an auto-evolutionary trap, whereby they have transformed their bodies into horrible forms as the result of a kind of informational discourse and an attempt to reach immortality. Ijon Tichy initially finds their planet because it is surrounded by a ring of garbage, the detritus of their auto-evolutionary process. This may be what the ice ring is: the Quintans changed their body shapes, and since they are anchored on land they need more land for increasing their population, so they threw their ocean into space as a kind of waste product.

Someone above posted that the novel seems to suggest that the mounds are in fact single organisms instead of colonies, but I'm not sure if the quoted passage really rules out the possibility of a colonial organism, but I think it's pretty strong evidence (along with the physical description of the mounds' interior, which is like "ropy dough").

All of this leads me to believe that the Quintans subjected themselves to a eugenics project, the result of some misguided attempt to "improve" themselves or to control information and dialectics, or because their technology required them to take such a shape. The "warsphere" is the technological product of the same autoevolutionary process. Ultimately this results in the disintegration and scattering of the individual intelligence, like on Eden (whose inhabitants are not exactly individuals but are described as "binary"), and on Dichotica (where individuals are physically shaped by the whims of a runaway process, in the same way fashion dictates what our clothes look like), and in The Invincible (where a swarmlike techno-biology has stripped away the natural biosphere completely).

I hope this makes sense, it's not intended as "proof" of what the Quintans are, rather I tried to synthesize elements that are made more clear in Lem's other novels into a theory of what happens in Fiasco.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. This doesn't need to be spoilers at all, and it just makes it hard to read. – DavidW Dec 3 '20 at 14:30
  • Excellent collection of various info throughout Lem's oeuvre! – David Tonhofer Dec 3 '20 at 14:47
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I would say all your options are partially true. Nanotech gets important role here - every action from Quintans is performed by it - would lead to 2), but this + mounds gives mounds being source of nanotech and using it instead of eyes, hands etc. They didn't devolve and aren't cut from they world - in this case nanotech would have had mind on its own and mounds wouldn't be needed.

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I've found some intersting thoughts on polish forum:

"Hello there; in my opinion there are a lot of clues about the Quintians being fungus-like beings.

1st - They like rain; a lot of it. They built the ice ring that causes so much rain. In one of the -few- messages the Quintians send, they boast happily about that point, as a sign of prosperity.

2nd - They don't understand the concept of personal movility. The Quintians refuse to have face-to-face contact. Even at the end, being menaced, they allow the humans to take land and walk a bit in the cosmodrom, but don't speak about a possible face-to-face contact. They built and left a present to the visitor, a puzzling one because they can not understand the human desire to have a face-to-face contact. Heck, they don't even have a face being fungus!

3rd - A tomographic scan of the whole planet shows massive groups of underground, calcic bulbs. The crew thinks -surely wrongly - that they are seeing the result of huge masacres.

4th - and last. Antennas, cords, and the final finding. What we see is that Quintians are static beings, that live buried.They communicate and feed using tubular extensions. Now you can understand why the reject (or don't understand) physical contact, and most of the happenings of the book can be seen under a different ligth. The space war - a war of communications - has sense for a static race as the Quintians, but it can be seen as a non-bloody war (maybe is even an sport or a religious ritual).

The result of that fantastic and huge misunderstanding is the death of the whole Quintian race at hand of the humans. And that's the real Fiasco!"

This is very good explanation in my opinion.

Link https://forum.lem.pl/index.php?PHPSESSID=cd9cff67ada9958085b53c4761532750&topic=339.0

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I think the 'Quintans' are termites and Tempe recognizes that fact.He has seen them on Earth.That is why Lem put in the earlier story.

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    Noting the comment to the question that the book explicitly states sensor readings taken were not those of ants or other small creatures, but more like elephants or whales, how would you explain this discrepancy? – RDFozz Aug 21 '18 at 19:52
  • Just something Lem through in to confuse as no such creatures are seen by Tempe or anyone else. Re '2001' or 'The Prisoner' endings etc. – chris Aug 29 '18 at 14:05

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