The story initially follows Parvis, a young pilot on the Saturn's moon Titan, who despite warnings against that, ventures in his walker into the dangerous region of methane geysers to look for missing people, among them famous veteran pilot Pirx. He fails, and is forced to use the emergency procedure of vitrification.
Many years later, a huge starship is sent to a distant system to carry out a historical mission: to contact an alien civilisation discovered there. During the launch preparation, the fatal geyser region of Titan is cleared, and bodies of those lost are uncovered. Only one person, however, can be brought back to life; his identity can be narrowed to no more than "either Pirx or Parvis". Regardless of who he is, the resurrected man joins the crew and plays a crucial role in the mission.
- Continuity Nod: Parvis' mission to rescue the titular character of Tales of Pirx the Pilot.
- Cool Starship: actually two, the smaller ship meant to do the diplomatic work, and a mothership that waits in a black hole's gravity well for its return. They use Ramscoop propulsion and were launched from Titan by a battery of lasers.
- Do a Barrel Roll: to deal with the Quintan anti-spaceship weapon, the ship does a barrel roll through a sun's corona.
- Earthshattering Kaboom
- First Contact: with the Quintan civilisation. Two words are enough to describe the result.
- Fun with Acronyms: the Digital Engrammic Universal System (called the General Operational Device in the original), the ship's quantum computer.
- Human Popsicle: the vitrification.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: even if unintentionally.
- Humongous Mecha: the walkers, which actually are construction vehicles.
- Kill Sat: the humans try a big stick when speaking softly failed. Just, so to say, overdo it in scale.
- Master Computer: DEUS/GOD.
- Minovsky Physics: the properties of black holes. Human ability to grasp them turns out to be major plot device.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: it can be said of the whole crew, but the P in particular.
- Noble Profession: the Jesuit priest is the voice of conscience in the crew. This also marks the change that happened over the years in Lem's writing, that he set a priest in such a role.
- Only Sane Man: dual role—the P (who seems to have the practical common sense of Pirx) and the Jesuit priest. Though the former's good ideas turn out to have unintended consequences...
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: the novel can be described as an in-depth exploration of the concept of "epic fail" -— so many completely avoidable and generally meaningless failures happen there.
- Starfish Aliens: the Quintans. Discussed once the humans force them to open contact by emitting images of humanoids on clouds. The real shapes of the aliens are revealed only at the last moment.
- Mentally, they are staunchly isolationist, but the reason for that is hardly inhuman: the humans conclude they're divided into two blocs locked in a cold war, and the governments of both cover up their arrival in fear of it being exploited by the other bloc.
- We Can Rebuild Him: the P is a Composite Character in a most literal way—there's two bodies in good shape, enough material for one man, but at the cost of dismantling the other body. He's got quite an identity problem afterwards.
- We Come in Peace, Shoot to Kill: humans come in peace to establish contact with Quintans. The aliens are passive-aggressive about the idea. The humans insist.