Głos Pana (His Master's Voice) (1968)
This review is based on the German translation Die Stimme des Herrn by Roswitha Buschmann.
The sky is talking. Unfortunately we don't understand a thing. Starting from this premise, Lem's novel develops into an analysis of the limits of human comprehension. Astronomers accidentally detect a modulated neutrino beam from the constellation of Canis Minor. In response, the U.S. government quickly sets up the huge, secret "Master's Voice" project to decipher what is assumed to be a message from another civilization. An effort that is doomed to failure from its very outset. The top scientists from various disciplines make the strangest findings about the physical properties of the beam as well as the message it carries but still hardly manage to scratch the surface of the problem. When they finally have to admit defeat it even remains uncertain whether there is a message at all.
Published seventeen years earlier, Głos Pana might be seen as a kind of prior antithesis to Carl Sagan's Contact. Lem covers all the speculations about what kind of interstellar message we could receive, from form to intent, only to dismiss all this guesswork as implausible and tainted by our own pitiful preconceptions. Where Sagan is an optimist, Lem is a stark pessimist.
A fair share of the (pseudo-)science surrounding the peculiar properties of the neutrino beam may be nonsense, but the message from the stars is less an end in itself than it serves Lem as a prop to hold up a mirror to our faces and point to the flaws so painfully obvious to a keen observer of human affairs like him. Lem roundly and sharply criticizes the humanists, whose claim to providing solutions to those questions science can't answer remains unfulfilled; the scientists, whose actions often betray the workings of a very unscientific mind; the politicians, for their shortsighted selfishness and stupidity; and the military, for its foolish rush towards global destruction. Lem is a voracious opponent of the Cold War, so of course the military in the novel sees the letter from the stars only as a means to develop superior weapons. More interestingly, Lem posits that there is no pure, clean science, that science is always shaped by the culture it is embedded in.
Głos Pana reads old-fashioned and overbearingly intellectual, but it contains an immense amount of food for thought. Truly, a master's voice speaks from its pages.
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