My experience with Stanislaw Lem’s work has been limited so far, but the few times I have read one of his books I’ve gotten the inescapable impression that I was reading something written by one of science fiction’s true masters. Lem’s writing is full of philosophical depth and intellectual intensity; and there are emotional tensions in his characters that can be uncomfortable at times, but that let you know you’re reading about a realistic person with realistic struggles. By the time you get to the end of a Lem novel, your brain will have gotten a serious workout; you will have thought and you will have felt, and you will have loved it. Lem is just that good.
His Master’s Voice is a novel from 1968 that definitely fits the above description. The basic theme is a Lem trademark: the impossibility (or near impossibility) of communication with alien life. That’s an assumption I happen to disagree with, but that in no way lessens its value as one of a multitude of viewpoints to consider. Lem goes against the general trend in science fiction, which is overwhelmingly optimistic about alien communication. I tend to share that optimism, but nevertheless I think Lem’s opinion serves as a useful counterpoint to the majority view and provides some needed perspective. After all, that widespread optimism is also based on assumptions, and who knows if they could turn out to be wrong?
The basic plot concerns an alien signal that is picked up; it is unknown whether it was intended for Earth, or if it was merely intercepted on its way somewhere else. A research group, half-jokingly called His Master’s Voice, is formed to study and try to decipher the signal. The group consists of a wide variety of specialists: mathematicians, physicists, biologists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and representatives of any other discipline you can name. The project is kept strictly secret and controlled by the military. The story is told through the eyes of one of the lead mathematicians, writing a memoir of the project years later.
The book touches on a great many scientific, philosophical, and political issues, and really says much more about our modern world than it does about extraterrestrial contact. One of the tensions among the project members is the “two cultures,” the divide between the social sciences and the physical sciences; the members of the project almost naturally sort themselves into these two camps, referring to themselves as “elves” and “dwarves,” respectively. Lem lays some well-deserved (in my opinion) criticism on the soft social “sciences” and their defensiveness when anyone intrudes on their territory, their “Mystery of Man” as Lem puts it; he also has some comments about the influence of Freud. But the tensions are not limited to soft vs. hard science. Lem portrays science as a whole as not quite the idealistic model we tend to see it as.
Another of the big issues is the relationship between scientists and the government/military. The main character muses frequently on the morals and responsibilities of scientists, and chafes under the military’s domination of the project and scientists “renting out their consciences.” At one point Lem makes an analogy with pigs that are trained to search for truffles, and refers to “scientist-pigs” who are likewise trained to search out new weapons technologies for their governments. Lem is definitely not one to hold back his opinions!
Yet another major theme is the modern world’s relationship with technology and how it has changed our lives for better or worse. Lem refers to our time as an….
… era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress….
And he questions the need for that never-ending technological progress, always churning out new gizmos and racing to provide the latest, fastest, newest versions of old ones:
Thus the means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values.
What I’ve said so far gives only the barest taste of the depth of this novel and the wide array of topics commented upon therein. It’s a very serious look at many of the complexities and ugly realities of our modern society. The basic thrust of this book is that maybe humanity isn’t as mature or advanced as it likes to think it is, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding ourselves before we can ever hope to understand life from other worlds.
And that alien signal? It never does get deciphered. The task turns out to be beyond our abilities:
The hypotheses popular before the existence of the Project seemed to me incredibly shallow; they ricocheted back and forth between the pole of pessimism, which called the silentium universi a natural state, and the pole of mindless optimism that expected announcements clearly and slowly spelled out, as if civilizations scattered among the stars would communicate with one another like children in kindergarten. Yet another myth has bitten the dust, I thought, and yet another truth has ascended overhead — and, as is usually the case with truths, it is too much for us.
His Master’s Voice is simply one of the best “signal from an alien species” novels, and stands right alongside such classics as Gunn’s The Listeners and Sagan’s Contact.