His Master's Voice

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045

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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, published during the nadir of the Vietnam War and at a time when, in Poland, science fiction had become more acceptable to the authorities and was dealing with the relationship of humankind’s relationship to technology is, among other things, a satire on the Manhattan Project. Not least of the novel’s disconcerting aspects, and a telling comment on both the state of the world and of human nature, is its contemporaneity. Pentagon-based scientists and other government-sponsored scientific researchers still regard one another with suspicion; duplication, waste, and bureaucracy persist; and people are as likely in the 1980’s as they were in 1968 to regard a message from the stars as inevitably related to conquest, colonization, and warfare. The His Master’s Voice Project, with its isolated location, its massive security precautions, and lack of awareness by any of the participants as to the precise nature and intent of the research, parallels the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. The massive amounts of sophisticated hardware and equipment initially available to the researchers do not.

Professor Hogarth is a mathematician, and Lem depicts his wrestling with the problem of decoding the message on the tape as, among other things, a detailed and sophisticated insight into and analysis of the process of scientific creativity. Lem himself became interested in science at an early age; his father was a physician, and Lem as a boy read many of his books, though forbidden to do so. After surviving the World War II years in Poland—as he says in The New Yorker—“only the Nazi legislation ... brought home to me the realization that I had Jewish blood in my veins,” he became a junior research assistant for Konwersatorium Naukoznawcze (the Circle for the Science of Science), which was, among other things, a clearinghouse for scientific information for all the Polish universities. Even as a boy, Lem recalls, his fantasies were complete with documented imaginary worlds, and when he began to write serious science fiction, it was with both a respect for and knowledge of scientific theory, training in medicine, and a perception of science fiction as dealing with human beings as a species. During the war years, he observes that he came to “understand the fragility that all systems [of government and society] have in common, and . . . learned how human beings behave under extreme conditions.” Impressed with the role of both chance and order in the universe, he nevertheless, because of his experiences, can “well imagine . . . a preëstablished disharmony, ending in chaos and madness.”

Lem’s philosophy and experience, particularly his interest in the relationship between chance and survival and his determination to “incorporate cognitive problems in fictions that do not oversimplify the world, as did [his] earliest, naïve science-fiction novels” are especially evident in His Master’s Voice. The latter observation, indeed, is a major understatement with regard to this novel: The scientific problems and possibilities inherent in a kilometer-long tape (upon which the message from space is recorded) are presented in a dizzying series of contradictory alternatives. Also, a hint of the relationship of chance to any order and reason in the universe is suggested when Dr. Saul Rappaport describes to Hogarth his experiences during the Holocaust, but the full significance of the scene becomes clearer in the light of Lem’s own experiences.

At the opening of the novel, contact has been established with space, and scientists must solve the problem of what message, if any, is encoded in the signals preserved on the famous tape. Two groups of scientists, one consisting of mathematicians and biophysicists, the other of biologists, philosophers, and sociologists, are gathered for the His Master’s Voice Project. The title of the English translation of Lem’s novel obviously refers to the venerable RCA advertisement of a dog listening to a phonograph record, an ironic comment on the relationship of humanity to the Sender of the message. Michael Kandel, who has translated a number of Lem’s novels (two of which were nominated for the National Book Award in 1975), is adept at rendering Lem’s idiosyncratic language, including his wordplay, into English. Lem’s style is both masterful and distinctive; in Kandel’s renderings one often forgets that one is reading a translation.

Translating the tape from the stars is a considerably more formidable undertaking, complicated by the preconceptions that human beings bring to the task. Through Hogarth, through whose account the other researchers’ thoughts are presented, Lem describes the extreme difficulty of freeing oneself from all basic presuppositions. Only thus will one become receptive to new concepts.

The biologists produce a biological entity, a mass of protoplasm synthesized in the laboratory from the “instructions” interpreted from the tape; they name their creation “Frog Eggs.” Working from the same data, the biophysicists create a similar substance but one larger and more menacing; they dub it “Lord of the Flies” and house it in a suitably sinister underground vault. Lem summarizes the technology for the reader in a supposed manual for distinguished government figures who tour the facility. The biologists and the biophysicists quickly become two mutually hostile groups; Lem satirizes the infighting and mutual ignorance among members of the scientific community as well as the incomprehension of the outside world. Inevitably, the demonic aspect of the outcome is the one that the researchers choose to emphasize and explore. When Hogarth and his colleague Prothero learn that the mass of matter is capable not only of producing a nuclear explosion but also of transmitting it to any portion of the globe with the speed of light, they are confronted, both as scientists and as human beings, with several dilemmas. They must verify their hypotheses first, yet maintain secrecy all the while. If they do not follow through with the research, someone else will. Just as they learn that the theory is flawed, they are discovered; they also learn that the entire Project, the “real” one, has been duplicated all along by the Pentagon. In a further irony, it is only when the weaponlike possibilities are discovered that they begin to think of the consequences of another nation discovering the same information from the same radio waves.

Lem, however, downplays the Cold War aspect of the problem, concentrating instead on the interplay between the ideal of the pure and detached scientific mind and the human fallibility that keeps earthlings earthbound mentally and spiritually as well as physically. The novel ends with a debate among all the scientists who have worked on the Project; their theories contradict one another, and not one offers significant progress toward a solution of the message of the Sender. Hogarth muses, in conclusion, “Wrapped in a network of bugs and taps, we were supposed to establish contact with an intelligence that inhabited the Cosmos,” consoling himself with the conviction that the Senders, if of superior intelligence, would never send a lethal message to a civilization “where the finest brains out of a billion beings address themselves to the task of sowing universal death, doing what they would rather not do and what they stand in opposition to, because there is no alternative for them.” Or, he muses further, the whole thing could have been chance, a random series of electromagnetic impulses that seemed coherent. Oblivion and death are the inevitable end of human endeavor, and if “even a single atom” of each person’s feelings remained behind, “the world would be full of raw, bowel-torn howling.” Hogarth (and Lem) end with a quotation from Algernon Charles Swinburne, which thanks “whatever gods may be” that no one lives forever and that beyond is “Only the sleep eternal/ In an eternal night.”


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 107

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.


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