Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
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 addresses the limits of science and the relationship between science and the scientist as a fallible human.
Not until chapter 3 does Hogarth turn his attention to the “letter from space” and the Project itself. The neutrino emission was discovered by accident, and the pattern detected in the emission seemed to indicate that it was created and sent by an intelligent life form. Once the implications of the discovery become clear, a massive research project is organized by the American government, and eventually Hogarth is asked to join the scientists, who, after a year of work, have reached no more than provocative dead ends.
Hogarth achieves a major success shortly after joining the Project by mathematically proving (or so it seems) that the pattern describes a phenomenon—as opposed to, for example, saying “Hello.” It is characteristic of Hogarth’s honesty that he himself is less taken with this success than others, and he finally acknowledges that he really accomplished very little.
Hogarth’s theory, however, is applauded by others who have already attempted to use the emission as a tool. Working independently, physicists and chemical biologists have used the emission to create a substance—a sort of organic goo—whose properties defy some of nature’s laws. Hogarth himself is more interested in a discovery made by the eminent biologist, Romney: that the emission when concentrated on certain macromolecules seems to make them more resistant to decay. The same macromolecules are the basis for living organisms; hence, the emission seems to propagate and enhance life. From this discovery Hogarth formulates the theory that he never really abandons: that the sender is a benevolent higher form who has, for eons perhaps, been sowing the seeds of life throughout the universe.
All previous theories are soon overshadowed by a discovery which is made by Donald Prothero: that “frog eggs”—the nickname given to the organic goo—appears to have frightening potential as a weapon. Prothero shares his findings with Hogarth, and the two are torn between the desire to verify the findings and the fear of how this weapon would be used by man. They try to work on the findings in secret, but inevitably their activities are discovered. Pentagon officials descend on the Project and take charge of all operations. In outrage, several of the top scientists, including Hogarth, resign, but they agree to return to the Project in exchange for token concessions.
The novel winds down quickly from this point. “Frog eggs,” it turns out, has no potential as a weapon. Some of the new scientists on the Project offer original and interesting theories about the emission, but the very number and variety of theories reinforce the suspicion that the scientists will never know much at all, with certainty, about the emission. At the end, Hogarth clings to his theory of a benevolent higher civilization sending a life signal, but neither he nor the reader has great confidence in his belief.