Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
Peter E. Hogarth
Peter E. Hogarth, a professor of mathematics. A middle-aged man who has died of an undisclosed illness by the time his memoirs are published, Hogarth is a moralist whose actions contradict his opinion of himself as an evil man. An independent thinker and scientific iconoclast, he proves that a neutrino message sent to Earth by unknown aliens is a circular description of an (unknown) object. Confronted with the military application of this knowledge, he despairs, but he is relieved on learning that such an abuse is not possible. Hogarth comes to think that the message was a test that he (like humankind) failed bitterly.
Dr. Saul Rappaport
Dr. Saul Rappaport, a physicist in the vanguard of his science. A skinny Polish Jew with a birdlike head and a bad stomach, Rappaport came to America after barely surviving the Holocaust. He believes that the American government keeps scientists like French farmers keep pigs: to hunt for truffles and feed acorns while the owners collect the prizes. Rappaport defies the idea that future humans should become ultraefficient machines. He disappears after Project His Master’s Voice (HMV) ends.
Yvor Baloyne, a linguist and philologist who is science director of the HMV project. Fat, beardless, and essentially timid, he overcomes his frailties with humor and irony. He tries to keep the project funded and independent. After a military intervention, his threatened resignation gives the scientists a last respite. He ends up as an influential professor and dean in America.
Donald Prothero, a physicist. A pipe-smoking second-generation Anglo-American, Prothero is, to Hogarth, the “personification of averageness” yet possesses a “mind of the first order.” He discovers a potential military application of the message from the stars and envisions a terrible future war. Relieved at the eventual failure of his experiment, he later dies of cancer.
Dr. Eugene Albert Nye
Dr. Eugene Albert Nye, a government lawyer. Well-groomed and diplomatic, yet not without vengefulness, Nye is instructed to keep an eye on the scientists. Immune to their personal insults, he is removed from the project at Baloyne’s insistence, only to be replaced by another man.
Dr. Sam Laserowitz
Dr. Sam Laserowitz, a confidence artist who is the first to suspect that the series of neutrino emissions may be a message from aliens. After defying attempts at bribery and intimidation, he ends up in a mental hospital, where he commits suicide.
Swanson, a rogue physicist who makes available to Laserowitz and Rappaport the tapes with the interstellar message. Paid off by the CIA, he keeps silent and prospers.
Dr. Michael Grotius
Dr. Michael Grotius, a biophysicist who introduces Hogarth to the project and creates a strange substance by using instructions derived from the partially decoded message.
Dr. Romney, a biologist who first discovers the life-promoting qualities of the message.
Dr. Tihamer Dill, Jr.
Dr. Tihamer Dill, Jr., a shiftless physicist and ultrarealist who makes his peace with authority, ridicules the moral concerns of others, and goes to live in Canada. The hostility of Dill’s father toward Hogarth motivated the latter to demonstrate excellence.
Dr. Lerner, a military cosmogonist who postulates that the “message” is nothing but an accidental leftover from cyclical contractions of the universe every sixty billion years.
Dr. Sylvester, an Army astrobiologist, small of stature and with a pasty complexion. He believes that His Master’s Voice is an attempt by a dying civilization to influence the next universe.
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
Even such a brief summary of the plot as the foregoing should suggest that Lem is not primarily interested in simply spinning a good yarn. It must be admitted that not much exciting action transpires in the novel; indeed, Lem’s strategy seems to be to deflate potentially dramatic situations—the “frog eggs”-as-weapon scenario, for example. Lem is far more interested in the characters and how they react to events than in the events themselves.
Especially in the preface and the first two chapters but also elsewhere in the novel, Lem (or Hogarth) suspends discussion of the action to meditate on personality in general, especially the personality of scientists. For example, while the other scientists are studying the neutrino emission, Hogarth speculates that it might be equally productive to study the scientists themselves from an anthropological perspective. He concludes that while they thought that they were analyzing the “letter from space,” the scientists were actually, intentionally or not, attempting “to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”
These speculations on the nature of the scientist are not at all irrelevant to the central action. The reader learns at the outset that the Project was a failure; what is not so clear is why it failed. Hogarth believes that the answer lies within the flawed nature of the scientist, whom “we must have...incorruptible, ideal.” By implication, the scientist is far from incorruptible or ideal, and in analyzing the Project’s failure one must consider if each scientist “represented only himself, with the inspiration for his hypotheses about the contents of the ‘letter’ being supplied by his own—possibly raving, possibly wounded—psyche in its uncontrollable regions.”
Hogarth’s interest in his fellow scientists is manifested in lengthy block descriptions of their physical appearance, intellectual capacity, mannerisms, emotional health, and personal histories. For all the description, however, the secondary characters never pulse with much life for the reader, perhaps because of the suspicion that Hogarth—in all of his speculations on a variety of persons and topics—is revealing more about himself than about others. Indeed, rather than asking why the Project failed, one might more properly ask, why did Hogarth fail?
Hogarth assesses himself with a surprising honesty: “The fundamental traits of my character I consider to be cowardice, malice, and pride.” While one might applaud his honesty, one would not consider such traits desirable in a scientist or anyone else. Unfortunately, Hogarth’s assessment is all too accurate, at least in regard to malice and pride.
It is significant that, brilliant mathematician though Hogarth is, the project directors wait more than a year—until the various specialists seem to be at an impasse—before inviting him to join. Their wariness no doubt stems from the fact that Hogarth’s virtues as a scientist carry as many negative connotations as positive. He might help in breaking the impasse because he is an “iconoclast.” Seen in a positive light, Hogarth’s iconoclasm allows him to be less rigid, more receptive to theories that violate preconceived expectations. In practice, however, his iconoclasm is largely cynical and supercilious.
The destructiveness of his method—based upon the destructiveness of his personality—is most clearly seen in the absence of any significant contribution by Hogarth to the Project. He contributes, in fact, nothing of value. His theory of the benevolent civilization is based entirely on Romney’s research; Hogarth offers no evidence of any nature to support his theory.
To his credit, Hogarth admits to all these failings and at the end returns to and applies to himself his suspicion that the scientific method cannot be divorced from or superior to the scientist wielding it:Can it simply be that, stung for so long by humiliations...I spun for myself—in the image and likeness of my own hopes—the only equivalent available to me of holiness: the myth of the Annunciation and Revelation, which I then—also to blame—rejected as much out of ignorance as ill will?