His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

Tags:  sci-fi, favorite-fiction,

Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice is science fiction of the highest order: a meditation on man’s place in the cosmos, an examination of the limits of our knowledge, and a scathing condemnation of how politics influences the practice of science. Originally published in 1967, this title, along with a number of Lem’s other works, was reissued in 2020 by MIT press.

His Master’s Voice

The opening chapters provide a brief backstory. Australian scientists, granted access to the Palomar Observatory, spent two years studying neutrino emissions raining down from space. Nothing came of their work, and they left behind only the computer tapes containing recordings of the emissions.

Years later, an opportunist looking to earn a quick buck buys the tapes. But there’s no money to be made as the tapes contain only random noise. A second man converts the random bits on the tapes to numbers and publishes the results as a two-volume series of random numbers. (Truly random numbers are difficult to generate, even for computers, and they have value to scientests and researchers whose experiments require random data sets.)

One purchaser of the book sues the publisher for fraud, noting that huge chunks of the random series in book one are repeated in book two. This piques the interest of another scientist, who knows that neutrino radiation patterns are indeed random and do not repeat. He goes back to the source, the original tapes, and finds that, sure enough, the recording has captured a pattern that cycles endlessly every 422 hours. The signal, originating from an area of the sky near Canis Minor, is in fact, still being transmitted.

The scientist approaches the White House science advisor, Mortimer Rush, and tells him the signal should be studied. As soon as the government enters the project, it becomes convoluted:

[Rush] had to turn to his friend Barnett, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, who, in turn, after consulting with his people, turned to the FBI; who, however referred him to the CIA. A top FBI legal adviser told him that the Universe, lying mainly outside the nation’s borders, did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau; it was the CIA that concerned itself with foreign problems.

The US government funds the project to try to decipher the transmissions. This is the mid-1960’s, the height of Cold War paranoia, and the whole project is conducted in secet at an isolated facility in the Nevada desert.

The Pentagon puts a staff of 2500 to work, including “elves” representing the soft sciences (psychology, sociology, linguistics, etc.) and “dwarves” representing the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.). Why so many people? The narrator notes:

Those advisors [from the Pentagon] had mastered only one maxim, but that they mastered for all time: if one man dug a hole with a volume of one cubic meter in ten hours, then a hundred thousand diggers of holes could do the job in a fraction of a second. And likewise, just as such a multitude would crack one another’s heads open with their shovels before they broke the first clod of earth, so our poor “elves” tussled and scuffled–mainly with themselves, but with us as well–instead of “producing.”

Every room of the research facility, including the scientist’s living quarters, is bugged, and all the phones are tapped, in an effort to prevent leaks. The narrator mentions early on that among the scientists, the word “master” in His Master’s Voice referred both to the Senders of the neutrino “letter” and to the government overseeing the project. One of the characters, Rappaport, compares the position of the scientists, under the yoke of the gonvernment, to that of pigs trained to hunt truffles:

He once read me an excerpt from a nineteenth-century volume describing the raising of pigs trained to find truffles. It was a nice passage, telling, in an elevated style typical of that age, how man’s reason made use–in keeping with its mission–of the avid gluttony of the swine, to whom acorns were tossed each time they unearthed a truffle.

This kind of rational husbandry, in Rappaport’s opinion, was what awaited the scientists… The wholesale dealer takes no interest in the inner life of the trained pig that runs about for the truffles; all that exists for him are the results of the pig’s activity, and it is no different between us and our authorities… all our freedoms could vanish the moment we produced what was expected of us.

The narrator, a mathemetician who has worked in physics and astrophysics, describes some of the difficulties in deciphering a message from a culture radically different from our own:

[T]he conceptual convergence of all the languages of Earth’s cultures, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like–from Latin and Hindustani to the dialects of the Apache, Eskimos, or the tribe of the Dobu. We could even do this, no doubt, with the language of the Mousterian period, if we knew it. The reason is that everyone has a mother, who [herself] has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those that divide like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history, and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us…

To begin work on the “letter,” one had to take a first step, and that was the worst thing… It is impossible to commence anything without first making assumptions, and our awareness of this fact in no way diminishes its reality. Those assumptions inhere in the very biology of man, and in the amalgam of civilization…

The narrator begins with the assumption that whoever sent the letter knew that for it to be understood, it would have to be written in an acultural, universal language, something akin to mathematics or physics.

Civilization is a thing both necessary and accidental; like the lining of a nest, it is a shelter from the world, a tiny counterworld that the large world silently tolerates, with the toleration of indifference, because in it there is no answer to the questions of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, laws and customs. Language, the creation of civiliation, is like the framework of the nest; it binds all the bits of lining and unites them into the shape that is deemed necessary by the occupants of the nest. Language is an appeal to the joint identity of the nesting beings, their common denominator, their constant of similarity, and therefore its influence must end immediately beyond the edge of that subtle structure.

The Senders had to know this… With ethnic language they could not break free of their planet, because every language is pinned to a local foundation.

The scientists are eventually able to decode part of the message. It contains instructions on how to create a type of living plasma, which the researchers call Frog Eggs because of its resemblance to the clear goop inside frog eggs. (They also call it Lord of the Flies, because even when it’s encased in glass and cannot be smelled or otherwise sensed, flies are invariably attracted to it.)

Like all living organisms, the plasma produces energy internally for its own consumption. Unlike other living organisms, however, the plasma produces energy through tiny nuclear reactions instead of chemical reactions. Radiation from these nuclear reactions invariably damages the cells, and the plasma does not live for long.

Then the researchers discover a second, more curious property of the message: biophilia, a tendency to preserve and promote life. If they replay the neutrino message through the plasma, bombarding it with a constant loop of that 422 hour cycle of radiation, the plasma lives much longer.

The language of the letter, they begin to understand, is somewhat like DNA in that it contains both a description of a living entity and the ability, under the right circumstances, to produce that entity.

“At times,” says the narrator, Hogarth, “it seemed to me, obscurely, that a parallel of the phenomenon confronting me was the ‘doubleness’ of every organism, in the sense that an organism is both itself and the medium of information addressed, causally, to the future, since to its descendents.”

In the course of studying Frog Eggs, two of the scientists note a peculiar phenomenon: the plasma is able to create a tiny nuclear reaction in one place and project the energy of that reaction to a different place. They immediately grasp the significance of this discovery. Here, in the midst of the Cold War arms race, is the ultimate weapon. One country could detonate a bomb anywhere and project the explosion into the cities of its enemies. Unlike missiles, which could be intercepted or shot down, this technology would allow no defense. The country that possesed it could wipe out any enemy at light speed, without warning.

Would any civilized nation ever employ such a technology? Hogarth reflects on human nature:

[E]ven the College of Cardinals can be led to cannibalism, provided only that one proceeds patiently and by small degrees. The mechanism of psychological adaptation is inexorable.

If someone had told Madame Curie that, in fifty years, out of her radioactivity would come megaton payloads and “overkill,” she might have been afraid to continue–she certainly would not have returned to her former tranquility after hearing so dire a prophecy. Yet we have grown accustomed to this, and people who calculate corpses times ten to the eight, to the ninth, to the tenth–no one considers them insane. Our ability to adapt and therefore to accept everything is one of our greatest dangers. Creatures that are completely flexible, changeable, can have no fixed morality.

Hogarth laments humanity’s tendency to misemploy its hard-won knowledge. He had in mind, no doubt, the development of the atomic bomb, but his reflections may apply equally to our present foray into artificial intelligence, whose consequences we cannot predict.

Now is beginning a great anthill proliferation, because the threshold has been crossed–exactly when, no one knows–beyond which the store of accumulated knowledge can no longer be encompassed by any single mind…

…Politics views the globe exactly as it did in preceding centuries (but now translunar space is included)–as a chessboard for contests. But all along, that board has been surreptitiously changing; it is no more a stationary ground, a foundation, but a raft, afloat and splintering under the blows of unseen currents that are carrying it in a direction in which no one has been looking.

…The roles are now reversed: humanity becomes, for technology, a means, an instrument for achieving a goal unknown and unknowable… future discoveries are foreseen with the aid of mass pollings of the appropriate specialists–a dangerous precedent, in that it creates the fiction of knowledge where formerly it was generally conceded that there was complete–but complete–ignorance.

One has only to look through the history of science to reach the most probable conclusion: that the shape of things to come is determined by things we do not know today, and by what is unforeseeable… Because the state of equilibrium is continually being undermined by new discoveries and inventions.

…Surely it was madness, this faith that to do everything that was technologically possible was to act wisely and safely; surely we could not rely on a miraculous helping hand from Nature, more and more portions of which, turned into fuel for bodies and machines, we had incorporated in our civilization. And yet this incorporation may turn out to be a Trojan horse, a sugar-coated poison that poisons not because the world wishes us ill, but because we have proceeded blindly.

The human race, too often, takes the short view, reaching for whatever offers immediate gain without bothering to consider the long-term consequences of its actions and decisions. In the Cold War, the government is less interested in understanding this letter from the cosmos than in exploiting the new weapon it might point to. Hogarth laments this, from both a scientific and human perspective:

[T]he Senders definitely had no itention of sending us a Pandora’s box; but we, like burglars, forced the lock, and stamped upon the plundered contents everything that in Earth’s science was mercenary, predatory. And did not success in atomic physics (I thought) take place precisely in that area where the opportunity opened up for us to obtain the most destructive possible energy?

Our technology has reached a point where we can no longer think in the short term. Hogarth puts it eloquently:

[A]ll contemporary conflicts I considered to be temporary phenomena, as the reigns of Alexander the Great and Napoleon were temporary. Every world crisis could be viewed in strategic terms, as long as the consequence of that approach was not our potential destruction as a biological species. But when the fate of the species became one of the members of the equation, the choice had to be automatic, a foregone conclusion, and appeals to the American way, the patriotic spirit, to democracy, or anything else lost all meaning. Whoever was of a different opinion was, as far as I was concerned, a candidate for executioner of humanity.

What has brought us to this dire point in history? Hogarth observes how political and cultural rivalries direct the use and misuse of scientific knowledge:

A civilization as “spread out” techno-economically as ours, with the front lines swimming in wealth and the rear guard dying of hunger, had by that very spread already been given a direction of future development. First, the troops behind would attempt to catch up with the leaders in material wealth, which, only because it had not yet been attained, would appear to justify the effort of that pursuit; and, in turn, the prosperous vanguard, being an object of envy and competition, would thereby be confirmed in its own value. If others imitated it, then what it did must not only be good, but positively wonderful! The process thus became circular, since a positive feedback loop of motivation resulted, increasing the motion forward, which was spurred on, in addition, by the jabs of political antagonisms.

…[W]e knew, for a certainty, that when the 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.

Eventually, to their great relief, the scientists discover that the Frog Eggs' ability to project nuclear energy is accurate only at short range. At long range, it’s wildly inaccurate and useless as a weapon. But that doesn’t stop the Pentagon from ordering further research. Unconcerned with whatever wisdom a technologically superior race is trying to transmit, they abandon attempts to understand the content of the letter and focus instead on honing the capability of the weapon.

By this time, Hogarth is off the project. He reflects on the scientist’s work:

[T]he 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… If They [the Senders] foresaw such situations, the only way I can understand it is if at one time They were–or, who knows, perhaps still are–like us.

Disillusioned with humanity, Hogarth turns his thoughts to the Senders and their message.

There was a letter, it was sent, it fell to earth, at our feet, and had been falling in a neutrino rain while the lizards of the Mesozoic plowed the mud of the Carbiniferous forests with their bellies, while the paleopithicus, called Promethean, gnawed a bone and saw in it the first club. And Frog Eggs? In Frog Eggs I see fragments–distorted, caricatured by our ineptness and ignorance, but also by our knowledge, which is skewed toward destruction–fragments of what the letter provided for by its very delivery. I am convinced that it was not hurled into darkness as a stone into water. It was conceived as a voice whose echo would return–once it was heard and understood…

Can it simply be that, stung for so long by humiliations, forced to work under the command of the [government managers], 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… I propose we consider it from the opposite end. Is it possible, without falling into madness, to believe that we were sent puzzles, intelligence tests of a sort, charades of galactic descent?

…Earth was being penetrated constantly, hour after hour, century after century, eon after eon, by an immense river of invisible particles, whose current carried a communication…

Wrapped in a network of bugs and taps, we were supposed to establish contact with an intelligence that inhabited the Cosmos. In reality, this was a stake in an ongoing global game… it was placed in some vault, on some shelf, in some file, with the stamp of TOP SECRET on the folder; yet another Operation, with the letters HMV, doomed in the bud, as it were, to insanity–this attempt to hide and imprison a thing that had been filling the abyss of the Universe for millions of years, in order to extract, as from lemon pits, information packed with fatal power.

If this was not madness, there is not and never will be madness. And so: the Senders had in mind certain beings, certain civilizations, but not all, not even all those of the technological circle. What sort of civiliations are the proper addressees? I do not know. I will say only this: if, in the opinion of the Senders, that information is not fitting for us to learn, then we will not learn it.

Like Solaris, His Master’s Voice aims far above run-of-the-mill sci-fi. You can see it in the depth and breadth of the author’s reflections and in the quality of his prose.

This review covers only a single theme of His Master’s Voice. The book itself is much richer, touching on the birth and death of the Cosmos; the structure and limits of language, culture, and mathematics; how the fundamental laws of physics and thermodynamics manifest in both biology and culture, and much more. It’s one of those books you can read a dozen times, coming away with a different reading each time. As in Solaris, Lem packs more thought into a single volume than many writers cover in their entire ouvre. Put this one on your list. You’ll be thinking about it long after you finish reading.