Tag Archives: Stanislaw Lem

The voice of that SF master, Stanislaw Lem

hmvMy 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.

Returning from the stars to an alien Earth

lemreturnStanislaw Lem is well known for one of the major themes in his fiction: the impossibility and futility of communicating with aliens (as in Solaris, for instance). In Return from the Stars (1961), he brings that theme a little closer to home, by suggesting that communication and understanding are problematic even within our own species, between peoples separated by different cultures or times. The separation in this novel comes about when the crew of an exploratory voyage to other stars returns to Earth. Due to the effects of relativity, the crew has aged ten years, while one and a quarter centuries has passed at home. When Hal Bregg and his companions get back, they find a society vastly different from the one they left, a society profoundly disturbing and exceedingly difficult to adjust to.

The first chapter really gets across the sense of alienation, as Bregg (and the reader along with him) is lost and confused, and wanders around in a city so complex and bewildering as to seem completely inhuman. Later, as he begins to have more interaction with the people of this city, he realizes, to his discomfort and dismay, that it’s not only the buildings that seem alien:

I looked at her, silent. The language had not changed so very much, and yet I didn’t understand a thing. Not a thing. It was they who had changed.

Society had indeed changed, drastically so, and the primary reason is a process called “betrization,” discovered shortly after Bregg’s mission left Earth. In the roughest, most general terms, betrization is a sort of chemical lobotomy. More specifically, it involves a mixture of enzymes administered in childhood which act on the developing brain to almost entirely eliminate any desire for violence. This new treatment quickly became mandatory and swept throughout the world, fundamentally changing human society. The betrizated subject is unable to commit violent acts, and most are unable to even imagine such acts. Also lost, along with the instinct for violence, is any tolerance for risk. In this future world, every task with any level of danger is performed by machines or robots. Only the most innocent of sports are engaged in (no contact sports, no boxing or football). Vehicles have safety features that make accidents unheard of. People have lost interest in space exploration — too dangerous. It’s a society that has lost all sense of adventure, and along the way they’ve lost some fundamental essence of human vitality; they exist but they don’t really live. One of Bregg’s companions observes:

“Today there is no tragedy. Not even the possibility of it. We eliminated the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything is now lukewarm…”

As Bregg researches the betrization process, he tries to imagine what it’s like inside a betrizated person’s head, how it actually feels, how such a person really views the world. And he fails utterly, he just can’t get a grasp on it. Modern humanity remains distant and inexplicable to him.

In one of the most significant scenes in the book (to me at least), Bregg visits a recycling plant that processes scrap metal, including outdated or malfunctioning robots (which outnumber humans 18-to-1). He listens to a pile of robots waiting to be melted down in the furnace, and as they complain about their fate and beg to be rescued, these artificial creatures exhibit more passion and will to live, in this short scene, than all of modern humanity in the rest of the book.

In addition to the difficulties of adapting to a new and bizarre society, Bregg also struggles with the fact that the world he knew, and everyone he loved, is gone. He briefly considers, and then rejects, the idea of contacting any relatives who may still live, finding that his sense of deep alienation extends even to them:

How had my father died? My mother? I had died to them earlier and now had no right, as their surviving child, to ask. It would have been — or so I felt at that moment — an act of treachery, as if I had tricked them, evading fate in a cowardly escape, hiding myself within time, which had been less mortal for me than for them. It was they who had buried me, among the stars, not I them, on Earth.

This future world is neither an obvious utopia, nor an obvious dystopia. Betrizated society certainly has some benefits, but they come at a steep cost. There are no easy answers here; there is only the struggle by Bregg and the other returned astronauts to find their place in this altered world. Lem does an excellent job of portraying that struggle, and the intense psychological stresses acting on these men, especially Bregg. This is definitely one of the most mature and thoughtful novels I’ve ever read exploring the concept of alienation.