Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Like all the best writers, Lem so integrates plot, characterization, and theme that it is difficult to extract one from the others. The conflict (to solve the riddle of His Master’s Voice) transpires the way it does (that is, failure to solve the riddle) because of the kind of characters which are involved: fallible men too small for their huge undertaking. Plot, characterization, and other facets of the novelist’s craft are all in service of a broad theme: the pervasive uncertainty of contemporary life. Indeed, the reader should consider himself forewarned at the outset not to expect many answers, simply because of the makeup of the human animal: “It is a curious thing that the marks of our imperfection, which identify the species, has never been, not by any faith, recognized for what they simply are, that is, the results of uncertain processes.”

Uncertainty works its way into the most mechanical features of the novel. Hogarth’s memoir, for example, is only a fragment, unfinished. Had he lived long enough to revise and finish it, it is possible that Hogarth would have made important changes. Similarly, the method by which the tape of the emission finds its way into the hands of legitimate scientists—only after being fumbled from charlatan to crackpot and so on—seems inspired more by the Keystone Cops than by dignified scholarly pursuit.

His Master’s Voice is not a parody of scientific research, however, although there is much wit in the novel. Rather, Lem’s point is that uncertainty is the inevitable legacy even of capably conducted research. To the scientist, for example, raw data are “full of gaps and uncertainties,” which only to the uninformed layperson provide “an impression of tidiness.” One might almost conclude that the more one knows, the less certain one becomes. “Genius,” says Hogarth, “is not so much a light as it is a constant awareness of the surrounding gloom.”

The conflict of any novel is in a state of uncertainty until it passes through a climax to the resolution. Lem, however, underscores uncertainty as his theme by leaving the conflict—to find the meaning and source of the emission—pointedly unresolved.