Saturday, April 25, 2015

His Master's VoiceHis Master's Voice by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This extraordinary novel from the favorite writer of my youth, Stanisław Lem, defies categorizations. While on the surface it is a suspense novel or a "mystery" (more precisely, a scientific and philosophical mystery/suspense), it is actually more of a treatise on the human species' place in the Universe. Mr. Lem, who began in 1940s as a science-fiction writer and became the world's most widely read science-fiction author, left his mark on the 20th century as one of the deepest thinkers writing about science, technology, and the future of human race. He was a philosopher, serious futurologist, humanist, and popularizer of science. "His Master's Voice" (Polish title "Głos Pana") is one of his first "serious" books, and definitely my favorite. I read it for the first time in 1968, immediately after it had come out, and loved it. I have now re-read it, and it is still one of the most enthralling books I know and certainly one of the most thought-provoking.

The events described in the novel take place in the near future. A non-random, repeating pattern has been discovered in a neutrino stream recorded by astrophysicists at the Mount Palomar observatory. American government establishes a secretive project, dubbed "His Master's Voice", aimed at deciphering the "message from the stars". After a year of work, with the scientists no closer to understanding the message, new people are recruited to the project. A famous mathematician, Peter Hogarth, who is the narrator of the story, is among them. Dr. Hogarth is able to prove that the message has a topological property of "closure", which indicates that it is an object (a thing or a process) separate from the rest of the world. In the meantime, the project's biochemists and biophysicists manage to translate fragments of the message into physical substances that exhibit unusual properties. Perhaps most interestingly, it is discovered that the particular structure of the neutrino stream helps in creating the configurations of molecules that constitute the chemical backbone of life, and thus that the message increases the probability of creation of life.

However, let's not forget that the project is largely controlled by the military who are hoping that the message will help construct some kind of super-weapon. Of course, their argument is that the other side (the novel was written in the times when there were just two superpowers - the U.S. and the Soviet Union) is probably also working to decipher the message and convert its contents into a super-weapon. I will not divulge how this subplot develops, but it is extremely successful in portraying the mechanisms of arms race, and the denouement is - I am sorry for using big words but they fully belong here - phenomenally clever. Neither will I divulge the overall conclusion of this scientific suspense novel - it is absolutely credible and it uniquely fits the premise. Find it for yourself!

I am sort of a mathematician, albeit not a very good one, no wonder then that I totally love Mr. Lem's presentation of differences between mathematics and social sciences - I was laughing for an entire day having read how Dr. Hogarth's results were not recognized by social scientists working on the project because his "style of thinking [...] provided no scope for rhetorical counterargument". Hilarious! On the other hand, Mr. Lem expertly shows the natural arrogance of a mathematical genius, who knows that the statements he has proved will always remain true, regardless of current political trends and prevailing philosophy.

When I came back to this book after 47 years, I expected I will find it dated and full of obsolete references. Amazingly, this is not the case at all. Written in pre-Internet times, "His Master's Voice" reads like an absolutely contemporary novel; it could have been written last year. The translation from Polish by Michael Kandel is superb.

I have left what is the best for me for last - "His Master's Voice" does not read like fiction. It makes the reader feel this is a chronicle of actual events, something like the story of Manhattan Project from the 1940s or any other big-scale scientific project. Several times, when reading the novel, I caught myself thinking the events have actually happened, and I had to forcefully remind myself that what I was reading was only fiction.

Trying to maintain balance, I need to mention that I do not like the Preface and the first chapter. They are a little overwrought and pompous, which makes me chip a quarter of a star off the rating for this masterpiece.

Four and three quarter stars.

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