Review: His Master’s Voice by Stanisław Lem

“And yet we knew, for a certainty, that when first emissaries of Earth went walking among the planets, Earth’s other sons would be dreaming not about such expeditions but about a piece of bread.”
~Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice

Plot summary

“A pulsating stream of neutrino radiation from a source with the power of a sun has been detected on earth and a team of scientists assembled to study and decode the mysterious message.

Message from Outer Space. Photo: Maurits Verbiest (CC BY 2.0)
Message from Outer Space. Photo: Maurits Verbiest (CC BY 2.0)

As the scientists wranle [sic!] among themselves, clashing and conspiring while jockeying for favor and position, Lem produces a witty and inventive satire of ‘men of science’ and their thinking. In the race to discover whether the message is a technological gift or the formula for the ultimate weapon, the author grapples with the issue of scientific responsibility in a compelling sci-fi thriller.” More on Goodreads

On Stanisław Lem

“Stanisław Lem was a Polish science fiction, philosophical and satirical writer (…). He is perhaps best known as the author of Solaris, which has twice been made into a feature film. In 1976, Theodore Sturgeon claimed that Lem was the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world.

His works explore philosophical themes; speculation on technology, the nature of intelligence, the impossibility of mutual communication and understanding, despair about human limitations and humankind’s place in the universe. They are sometimes presented as fiction, but others are in the form of essays or philosophical books. Translations of his works are difficult and multiple translated versions of his works exist.

Bookshelf with many of Lem's novels. Photo: Marcin Wichary (CC BY 2.0)
Bookshelf with many of Lem’s novels. Photo: Marcin Wichary (CC BY 2.0)

He gained international fame for The Cyberiad, a series of humorous short stories from a mechanical universe ruled by robots, first published in English in 1974. His best-known novels include Solaris (1961), and the late Fiasco (1987), expressing most strongly his major theme of the futility of mankind’s attempts to comprehend the truly alien. Solaris was made into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972; in 2002, Steven Soderbergh directed a Hollywood remake starring George Clooney.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Failure of human cooperation
  • Ridiculous measures to respond to a message from outer space
  • Absurd tale of science politics
Review

Lem is simply a sweetheart, a kind soul seldom seen in a human form. Philip K. Dick might have a differing opinion about this, though. He is also a master of coming up with excellent titles for his novels and stories. He also invents rather lovable characters, such as the robotic engineers Trurl and Klapaucius in the humorous short story collection The Cyberiad.

His Master’s Voice is a further example of a case where truth, or in this case reality, is stranger than fiction. Humans come to great efforts at deciphering a message from outer space but then everything goes downhill. What seems at a first glance highly well thought and pondered, is actually petty struggling of humans trying to understand what is happening, what should be done and who should do what. But, as we are talking about humans, communications goes lost at some point and academic politics and petty ownership issues take the center stage.

So, in a sense, His Master’s Voice is a rather sad account of failure in communications and inefficiency in the face of a great opportunity to decode a message from far away. I’m going to spare you from revealing the ending, but the novel comes highly praised. It is one of Lem’s finest pieces of literature. If you are into absurd tales and satire, this is the novel for you. And especially if you wish to view human folly through humorous and maybe compassionate lenses, the novel is even more so for you.

Also, the adventures of Ijon Tichy and Pirx the Pilot are definitively worth checking out, they are absolutely hilarious. Solaris offers a more serious tone to Lem’s collection and is a true classic. I would also add One Human Minute, consisting of three philosophical essays, from the latter half of Lem’s production to the list of recommendations. If you are utterly new to Lem, then start with The Cyberiad, it will definitively set the tone and keep you hooked.

More information
– Mikołaj Gliński: Stanisław Lem – A Portrait of the Writer, published in culture.pl on 9 September 2011, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Marta Jazowska: Science Fiction Films Adapted from Lem, published in culture.pl on 16 May 2013, link retrieved on 9 December 2016

Other novels and stories by Lem
  • The Star Diaries: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy (1957)

    Doodle based on Stanisław Lem's books. Photo: El Taller del Bit (CC BY-SA 2.0)
    Doodle based on Stanisław Lem’s books. Photo: El Taller del Bit (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Eden (1959)
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961)
  • Return From the Stars (1961)
  • Solaris (1961)
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1961)
  • The Invincible (1964)
  • Mortal Engines (1964)
  • The Cyberiad (1965)
  • Peace on Earth (1967)
  • The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (1971)
  • A Perfect Vacuum (1971)
  • The Chain of Chance (1975)
  • Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984)
  • Fiasco (1986)
  • One Human Minute (1986)

And many more on Goodreads

“(H)umanity is a hunchback who, in ignorance of the fact that it is possible not to be hunchbacked, for thousands of years has sought an indication of a Higher Necessity in his hump, because he will accept any theory but the one that says that his deformity is purely accidental, (…).”
~Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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