25 Points: His Master’s Voice

His Master’s Voice
by Stanislaw Lem
Northwestern University Press, 1999
199 pages / $16.95 buy from Amazon

1. I first read Stanislaw Lem after seeing an anonymous review of The Cyberiad on HTMLGIANT.

2. I’ve read two of his books. A year or two ago I read Solaris, then last week I read His Master’s Voice.

3. His Master’s Voice, published 7 years after Solaris, echoes the earlier book in pleasing ways. The most obvious to me was that neither ever directly answers the mystery near the heart of each book. A reader will not definitively learn the nature of the ocean on Solaris, or what the letter from the stars says.

4. HMV places human failure more centrally than Solaris. The narrator of HMV, Peter Hogarth, is (after the fact) a complete pessimist about humanity’s time facing their impossible task.

5. The book is philosophical, often profound. For example: “Our ability to adapt and therefore to accept everything is one of our greatest dangers. Creatures that are completely flexible, changeable, can have no fixed morality.”

6. Or, “Psychoanalytic doctrine reveals the pig in man, a pig saddled with a conscience; the disastrous result is that the pig is uncomfortable beneath that pious rider, and the rider fares no better in the situation, since his endeavor is not only to tame the pig but also to render it invisible.” Hogarth does not have much love for psychoanalysis throughout the book.

7. Lem would eventually focus most of his effort on writing philosophical essays and abandon the novel. Knowing this made it hard to separate Lem and Hogarth during these tangents.

8. Something I find particularly engaging about Lem’s writing is his way of introducing the reader to complex scientific and technological ideas on which he was likely not an actual expert, and doing so with authority. I’ll come back to this.

9. At one point in the book Lem uses Hogarth and another of his characters as mouthpieces for his own personal views of pulp science fiction. Lem was famously not a fan of most of his contemporary genre writers, and when the character Rappaport hits a wall in his research he resorts to reading a stack of apparently mediocre SF—“expecting variety, finding monotony.”

10. One of several reasons Lem gave for no longer writing fiction was his inability to keep up with the increasing number of papers being written on the cutting edge of science. This meant that he could no longer keep writing books involving cutting edge ideas with the sense of authority I earlier admired. Maybe he feared that without that he would be just another indistinguishable pulp science fiction author.

11. “My friend Erin says at best we’re all two or three bad decisions away from becoming the ones that we fear and pity.”

12. During his preface to the account of the Project, Hogarth repeatedly warns the reader that he knows he is evil. He tells the story of his first realizing this: upon seeing his dying mother sick in bed and overhearing a doctor tell her the bleak prognosis, he runs to his room and begins jumping on the bed, unable to contain his giggling. “[A]nd in that transgression there was a dazzling revelation.”

13. Hogarth’s main sense of ethics seems to be (during his time at the Project at least) that right and wrong are simply what will maintain the existence of the human species (right) and what will not (wrong). This doesn’t account for his conception of good and evil, or the evil within himself. That evil is just the desire in him to do things that are widely considered bad (like thinking blasphemous thoughts in church, laughing at your mother’s painful and slow death, or experiencing pleasure at the news of a friend’s misfortune). I didn’t think very hard about this gap, because who doesn’t embody a few contradictions?

14. Hogarth finds a Bible on his bedside table when he first arrives at the Project facility. That’s a joke.

15. Later it is not a joke.

16. Hogarth comes to think of the Senders as a kind of god, and it’s not hard to see why. The biophilic properties of the neutrino beam, the incomprehensible nature and indeterminate age of the Senders, the (albeit indirect) creation of life in the form of Frog Eggs and Lord of the Flies, and even that they can be stripped of their godhood by knowledge—that is, if humans were ever to progress to a point where they could decode the letter they would stand alongside the Senders, not firmly beneath them.

17. This is essentially Hogarth’s religion, a Cult of the Senders. Is it ironic that he, in a fit of frustration, points to the very inception of Western religion, of Judaism, as the beginning of the failure of the Project? No, it’s probably not ironic. Maybe it’s something though.

18. Hogarth is the narrator, so his theory is presented strongly and finally. There are, of course, other theories a reader could choose from. It’s probably possible to read the book with mere appreciation and not see a need to choose from it an explanation for its contents. I don’t know for sure, though, because that’s not in my nature.

19. It wouldn’t do any good for me to tell you whether or not I think HMV is a good book. Stanislaw Lem is superior to me in skill. “One can praise—to put it this way—only from the top down, not from the bottom up.”

20. I don’t know Polish, so I can’t comment on the quality of Michael Kandel’s translation with any real expertise. But it certainly seemed good. For a while I thought Lord of the Flies was an overzealous translation of Beelzebub, but after the demonstration with literal flies in the presence of the substance I relaxed and trusted.

21. If the tone of my writing here seems obnoxious, I apologize and blame completely the effect of the prose in HMV. Have you ever read a book that impacts the way you write and speak for days after you’ve finished?

22. Solaris is paralleled more directly at the end of HMV when Rappaport is suddenly inspired and theorizes that the neutrino beam could have originated as a kind of waste from a planet-sized organism. His theoretical organism is plant based, but the premise’s similarity to the living ocean on Solaris is so striking I’m convinced it was intentional.

23. It’s not completely surprising to me, given the theme of technological militarization in the book, that Lem himself was not a great proponent of advances in technology. He was not a fan of the internet. Nor did he seem to care for older technologies of information, like television.

24. Watching television is mentioned once in HMV. Hogarth, in an attempt to unwind and separate himself from his work on the weaponization of Frog Eggs, turns on the TV in his room. In light of his work on a device that has the potential to annihilate the entire planet at the speed of light, he finds the programs (here specifically, news programs) utterly banal.

25. Maybe as a result of my immersion in current culture, I couldn’t help but think that His Master’s Voice would make for really, really engaging television.

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  1. shaun gannon

      bery nice, love seeing more stuff on Lem on the internet he loathed so much. the cyberiad was probably the first proper sci-fi book i read when i was 11 or 12 and it blew me away, i read a few more collections at the library a couple years back and they held up just as well. i’ll have to try to get HMV from them as well

  2. deadgod

      Good discussion – makes me want to read the book.

      3. “[N]either ever directly answers the mystery near the heart of each book.” This use of the process of reading a novel to leave its ‘question’ unanswered is thematized in Lem’s excellent detective novel, The Investigation.

      5. Adaptation means not complete flexibility, but rather, a hinge attaching what’s mutable to what’s not. Only something with some–but not perfect–stability can ‘adapt’. So, not in opposition to morality, but rather: hence, morality.

      10. Keeping up with the most developed, intricate, or abstruse facts is the source of authority in imagining their implications, but the authority that attaches to fiction is something else: the persuasiveness of imagined contact with what’s only apparently well-explained by experts. For example, one could write convincing sci-fi about the erosion of inertia over distances, and just make up a ‘field’ explanation for such an effect.

      13. “Evil” is comfortably predicated equivocally: one can mean it categorically (or definitively), and one can also use the term in a more limited, analogical sense. So, objectively (say), “evil” is ‘helpful of or conducive to species survival’, but in local cases, “evil” could just mean ‘takes pleasure from causing pain’. Practicing the latter wouldn’t intrinsically make the species more likely to survive, but it would in some cases (such as disclosing the fittest alpha specimen), and in cases where it might even retard species survival, it would be a species-survival impulse gone astray.

      17. If human knowledge strips Senders of their godhood (‘over’ humans), then irony is surely the mode of HMV’s depiction of its religion.

      19. Wait: of course a layman can praise the effects of expertise. One can say legitimately that a cathedral looks beautiful to the point of inspiring or shaping attention to the divine, and one can remark a cathedral’s standing upright for hundreds of years, without being either an architect, engineer, or even a construction worker. Every time one praises Shakespeare, one does it from below upwards, yes?

  3. Trey

      hi deadgod, thanks for this. w/r/t 10, you’re right of course. I thought of this while writing but couldn’t seem to translate the thought to the page. but definitely Lem is using knowledge of “real life”science to better inform fictionalized versions of sciences (or sometimes, as in HMV, entirely fictionalized sciences). w/r/t 19, again you’re basically right. the quote is from the book, a rather cynical view of Hogarth’s. He’s explaining why it never mattered to him if other mathematicians praised him or something like that. I suppose the essence is that, hm, I can look and see that a cathedral is beautiful but to praise it with authority I need, yeah, authority. need to know something about architecture. not everything, sure. now a better example of yours is Shakespeare, where we need not be superior writers to see his work is good. So yeah, it’s not really a true statement, but I thought it was nice-sounding, for one thing, and indicative of that technique of Lem’s, especially in HMV, to *make things seem true.* if that’s at all an acceptable reasoning to you. thanks again for your thoughts, and sorry if it’s in bad taste to “explain” a review like this. I know it’s bad to explain my poems, a little more unfamiliar with review etiquette.