Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Paperback, 199 pages Published November 25th 1999 by Northwestern University Press

This book had been on my shelf for years, and I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It is considered a classic and certainly Lem's Solaris is one of the best mind screwing sci-fi novels ever written. Lem pretty much broke the forth wall spoke directly to us on page 31: "The Reader who plowed his[their] way to this point and is waiting , with growing impatience, to be lead into a inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him [them]with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now."

Yeah I admit during the first 30 pages I found myself wonder what the hell was the story. If anything this warning was about 30 pages late. Alot of the early pages just came off as philosophical nonsense. I am sure that is on me but I was waiting for a story to begin. Once I got this warning I sat back to enjoy the book for what it was a thin story propping a discussion of how our species would/could handle contact with a intelligent species beyond our world.

So the story centers around a signal discovered to be repeating that is coming from deep space somewhere around Canis Minor. The signal is transmitted by a method that itself is barely understood. So the U.S. Government gathers physicists, linguists, engineers, psychoanalysts, mathematicians, chemists, humanists, anthropologists and many others. We are told 25,000 experts and sub-experts are gathered in the Nevada dessert to study it. Years go by they learn enough to bio-engineer something they call frog-eggs something they don't entirely understand.

The title of the book does a excellent job of expressing the whole point of the 199 page exercise. The title is reference to the record famously played for dog to test him if he would response to a recorded voice. It confused the dog, and that is what happens to humans here. Confusion. I actually wish Lem had kept the the title but not named the Manhatten style project in the book His Master's voice. I doubt the government would name their project that. Maybe the scientists would have but whatever, I think it took away from the power of the title.

This novel is a masterpiece of speculative philosophy, that is held together by a threadbare story. The story is not the point. Thinking about what it means to contact another civilization is the point. The extra-terrestrials here are not typical not war like or peaceful. They are as much a mystery as the nightsky itself. We are not even sure if the senders intended for earth to get the message or was it a accident. The message could have been sent out billions of years ago and the senders may be alive or not.

This may be a spoiler but the novel in the end is not about communication, but lack of communication. It becomes most clear when our lead scientists has to explain to us dummies through a dummy surrogate in the Senate. This dialogue clears up alot of things that frankly flew over my head.

There is plenty of ghee-whiz moments when the team discovers that instead of numbers and math the methods normally considered to be the common language in translation, the language is genetic, and based on chemicals. Lem writes some of the most genius and other worldly science fiction.

It might seem funny to say this is a masterpiece of science fiction and certainly worth of five stars even when I personally gave it three. Lot it is a work of genius and the ideas it brings up and discussion are important. I think it is an important book but it is not exactly a fun read. The opening 25 pages is a not stop pompus blab fest that adds zero to the book. In thinking about this book I would talk myself into it's genius at times and then marvel at how crap other parts were.

I also think it is a interesting counter to Sagan's Contact. I wonder if Carl had this book in his mind when he came up with that one. I can't recommend this as a fun read. But certainly I think the ideas are important, if a dry as sand paper sci-fif novel is something you can live with read it and lets talk.

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