Thursday, May 23, 2013

"His Master's Voice" by Stanislaw Lem [Review]

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

This is the story of Mankind's first contact with extraterrestrial life, but it's nothing like what you've seen before. I always felt that if the people who created the SETI Project to search for alien signals had read this book, they would have given up. That's because Stanislaw Lem's novel perfectly illustrates how impossible it would be for us to communicate with alien life. Think of it as the evil twin of Contact, written twenty years later.

In His Master's Voice, a group of scientists identify a repeating signal being sent through space. The signal is too organized to be random, leading them to determine that it's sent by extraterrstrial beings. The US sets up a secret project to analyze and interpret the signal in hopes of discovering why it was sent and what it means. The novel takes the form of a memoir written by one of those scientists, Peter Hogarth.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the project fails miserably, because that's stated at the beginning of the novel. Unlike movies like Contact, where the aliens sent a clearly understood and meaningful message, this signal is unfathomable. It's not written in English or mathematics or any other known form. The scientists can't figure out if the signal was sent for them or someone else or even if it is a message at all. As in Contact, the scientists decide that the signal might have a mathematical description of an object inside it. They use the signal to synthesize two substances; a gelatinous blob, and a lump of something that looks like meat, but isn't. Both substances turn out to be entirely useless, and they're not even sure if what they made is something the aliens intended to be made.

If it sounds like a bummer, it is. So what's the point of the novel? I think it's a great novel because it dares to say what is probably more true than not; the idea that extraterrestrial life would be anything like human beings is ridiculous and egocentric. Too many scifi stories make aliens look and act like humans, because it's easier. It's harder and more uncomfortable to imagine aliens as fundamentally different than us, and that's what this novel is about.

So if the book isn't about meeting some cool alien race or building alien technology, what is it about? Wikipedia has a passage that describes what we get: "Throughout the book Hogarth — or rather, Lem himself — exposes the reader to many debates merging cosmology and philosophy: from discussions of epistemology, systems theory, information theory and probability, through the idea of evolutionary biology and the possible form and motives of extraterrestrial intelligence, with digressions about ethics in military-sponsored research, to the limitations of human science constrained by the human nature subconsciously projecting itself into the analysis of any unknown subject." Yes, heavy stuff. Read this book and have your mind opened to new possibilities rarely addressed in science fiction.

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