Characters Discussed

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

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...

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The Characters

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)