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His Master's Voice

I picked this up way back because I was told its conclusion might be relevant to my master's thesis. Only as an example at the tail end of a point, but that is what I do: I procrastinate by reading books that are only vaguely possibly a bit relevant if I am really lucky. I need to stop that.

At any rate. I had read Stanisław Lem before, but only Cyberiad (somehow I managed to completely bypass his more famous Solaris. My expectations were therefore that I would find something quirky, mad, entirely different and genuinely interesting. And so I wasn't surprised; but I wasn't disappointed, either.

His Master's Voice is not like any science fiction I have ever read. Including Cyberiad -- in fact the two are nothing alike. It is a much more coherent story, it is more complicated, it requires more attention. But at the same time it is wonderfully intriguing, perhaps especially to someone with some grasp of the theory of language and communication.

Lem takes a taken-for-granted premise of so much science fiction, that communication with an alien race is possible, and questions it in a theory-heavy context of most major sciences. It is not an action novel. It is not plot-driven, not fast-paced. I may be mistaken in thinking it will appeal mostly to those of an academic turn, but I doubt it. Lem leaves most classics of the genre (even books like Contact, which were written after this one) looking naive and unsophisticated.

The premise is that a repetitive pattern is found in neutrinos. The regularity of the irregularity is taken to be a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence, and scientists from all manner of disciplines (mathematicians to linguists to all the rest) are brought into a secret project to decode it. But without a common context, decoding is not easy, and the attempts to make sense of the signal lead to a number of discoveries and aborted breakthroughs that together raise any number of questions regarding the nature of language and communication, the role and ethics of military involvement in and results of science, and the basic nature of academia (or human nature, for that matter -- because believe it or not, academics are human. Generally. Or at least quite often).

It is well written. I don't read Polish and had to read it in English translation, and so I cannot really comment on the language directly; but the narrative is breathtaking, the concepts so very intriguing. It seems technical at times, but once the details form a whole, the effect is well worthy of Lem.

Science fiction is a genre with a possibly undeserved (or, let's be honest, partially very deserved) reputation as generic. But here is the perfect example of a science fiction novel that is not genre literature. It may sound self-contradictory, but it is not. It falls within the genre of science fiction in playing with the message from the stars; but it is not determined by that genre. It does not follow the pattern. You may consider that a warning or a promise as you choose. I liked it. If you like Lem, you probably will too. If you prefer your science fiction simple and easily resolved, this is not your type of book. It will certainly make you think.


Tor,  14.03.10 01:24

Did it turn out to be relevant to you thesis?

Camilla,  14.03.10 01:25

It does show up in the last part of half a sentence, I think. In the context of the Babel Fish, I believe.

Are,  15.03.10 20:25

I am tempted! But I should finish The Time Traveler's Wife first. (Yes, yes, I know, I'm slow.)
Stanislaw Lem
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his masters voice- calcutta