(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The title of Stanisaw Lem’s novel His Master’s Voice is taken from a nickname given by scientists to a possible communication from outer space: a stream of subatomic particles (neutrinos) in a recurring pattern. The prob-lem which the scientists face is to “read” the pattern, thereby determining its content, sender, and purpose. To accomplish this task, the United States government assembles the nation’s best scientific minds in the desert South-west, in a research facility once devoted to work on the atom bomb. The bulk of the novel is composed of a memoir of one of those scientists, the late mathematician Peter E. Hogarth. A brief “Editor’s Note,” written by Professor Thomas W. Warren, prefaces the memoir. Hogarth’s memoir can, in fact, be read on at least three separate levels: as a simple history of the Project; as a meditation on the nature of the scientific process, especially when faced with uncertainty; and as a meditation on the interplay of communal pursuit and individual personality.

That Hogarth (as well as Stanisaw Lem) is interested in more than a straightforward account of events is suggested by the rather lengthy preface to the memoir, in which crucial events in the history of the Project are virtually ignored in favor of more general speculation on the interplay of good/evil and responsibility/lack of choice. Even in chapter 1 of the memoir, Hogarth seems in no hurry to discuss events or even to pique the reader’s interest. Indeed, in violation of all rules of suspense-building, Hogarth announces at the outset that the Project was a failure, that the scientists learned nothing for certain about the communication—if, indeed, it was such. At this point in the novel, rather than speculating on the Project and its failure, Hogarth seems more interested in discoursing on the unwillingness of scientists (and people in general) to accept any phenomenon outside the realm of what they already know. This line of thought continues throughout the second chapter, in which Hogarth...

(The entire section is 827 words.)