His Master's Voice

Although Stanisaw Lem’s Gos pana was published in Poland in 1968, it did not appear in English translation—as His Master’s Voice—until 1983. Such, however, is the quality of both Lem’s perceptiveness and his scientific insight that most readers, especially those not familiar with Lem’s other fiction, are unlikely to be aware of the time gap. In total effect, His Master’s Voice is midway between Solaris (1961; English translation, 1970), a philosophical novel about a sentient planet, dealing with the relation of the creator to the created and the ever-shifting nature of reality, and Lem’s satiric novels and short stories, which range from broad comedy to mordantly black humor.

At first, His Master’s Voice appears to be a philosophical essay in the form of a novel, but soon the voice and character of the narrator, Professor Peter E. Hogarth, become distinctive as he recounts events, his impressions of the people involved, and his own shortcomings with analytic, Voltairean detachment and many ironic, aphoristic asides to the reader. Upon initial acquaintance, Lem’s fiction, often narrated in the first person, would not seem to have characterization as one of its strong points. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in his works, he has created essentially three characters: the detached observer, a scientist who is entangled in events and theories that enter his life by accident rather than design; the inventive genius, ranging from charmingly eccentric, if bungling, to completely mad and malevolent; and the inanimate or nonhuman that acquires a life and character of its own. There is Solaris itself, a sentient and protean planet, the most remarkable creation in the novel of that title; Ijon Tichy, a robot whose voice resembles that of Professor Hogarth and a number of Lem’s other narrators; and in His Master’s Voice, the two unearthly creations of animate matter, synthesized in the laboratory—Frog Eggs and Lord of the Flies.

Reviewing a novel with a similar theme, Lem pointed out the difficulties in the creation of alien beings. Only by maintaining a complete mystery about the subject or by anthropomorphic analogy, creating contradictions, can one describe a truly other being, such as God. To describe reasonable nonhuman beings, the first science-fiction writers, beginning with H. G. Wells in War of the Worlds (1898), chose to create monsters, differing from human beings only in appearance. Aliens, then, became primarily malevolent invaders, and science fiction became, claims Lem in Science-Fiction Studies, a “fantasy of imposture and paranoid delusions.” In the final analysis, Lem observes, such an outlook is “antithetical to science.”

In His Master’s Voice, Lem explores various human responses to a mysterious communication from space. No matter how objectively the scientists attempt to approach the problem of interpreting the tape of electromagnetic impulses, the presumption of invasion, of a coded weapon, of a genetic super-being, or other concepts of warfare are ultimately at the root of their interpretations. Through a series of twists and turns of logic, Professor Hogarth, with patient, baffled analysis of the nature of language, the nature of reasonable beings, and the layers upon layers of research and concealment arising from the project, accepts and discards one hypothesis after another. As both Professor Hogarth and Lem suggest, a genuine alien must remain forever a mystery, and Hogarth concludes his adventure no wiser as to the true nature of the Sender of the message.

In actual fact, serious research into extraterrestrial intelligence has been going on, intermittently at first and with increasing public awareness and scientific respectability, since the physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppi Cocconi suggested the possible use of radio telescope to detect signals from outer space. The theory is that because natural emissions of electromagnetic radiation occur at random in nature, a consistent and regular signal must have been sent from outer space for the purpose of establishing communication. NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research is funded at only $1.5 million (Americans paid more than three hundred million dollars to see the film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, 1982); even this modest allocation was challenged in 1978 by Senator William Proxmire with one of his notorious Golden Fleece awards. The efforts of Carl Sagan and others restored the funding, however, and the research continues, with plans to orbit a telescope sometime in the 1980’s. In addition, the Planetary Society, an organization of “grass-roots space activists” numbering 100,000, have funded an independent search at Harvard University. Lem’s novel, of course, appeared when such research was still new enough to be equated in many minds with science fiction rather than science fact.

His Master’s Voice,...

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Engel, Peter, and John Sigma. “An Interview with Stanisaw Lem,” in The Missouri Review. VII (1984), pp. 218-237.

Library Journal. CVIII, January 15, 1983, p. 147.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 20, 1983, p. 7.

Observer. December 18, 1983, p. 28.

Potts, Stephen W. “Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem,” in Bridges to Science Fiction, 1980.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, December 17, 1982, p. 65.

Scarborough, John. “Stanisaw Lem, 1921-,” in Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, 1982.

Ziegfeld, Richard E. Stanisaw Lem, 1985.

Zirkovic, Zoran. “The Future Without a Future: An Interview with Stanisaw Lem,” in The Pacific Quarterly. IV (1979), pp. 255-259.