Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars

Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars

Jeremy Brett

His Master’s Voice. Translated by Michael Kandel. Forward by Seth Shostak. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 259 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538459.

Return from the Stars. Translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. Forward by Simon Ings. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 295 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538480


MIT Press’s decision to reissue the translated works of the incomparable, singular cosmic visions of Stanislaw Lem in lovely paperback versions is fortunate indeed for readers of philosophical and satirical fiction. Lem is one of those relatively rare authors of both profound ideas and deep prose; he provides each subsequent reading generation with renewed consideration of the impacts of technology on society, the inexplicability and utter foreignness to humanity of alien intelligence, and the complexities inherent in communication both between humans and between humans and aliens. These are longstanding and important concerns in speculative fiction, and it is a tribute to Lem that he remains, after six decades, one of the preeminent voices asking the kinds of foundational human questions that go to the very heart of the speculative fiction enterprise.

All the more appropriate, then, that these works started being released last year in advance of the 2021 centennial of Lem’s birth; their reissue signals the perennial interest in Lem and his lasting value as a thoughtful writer whose works constitute a truly deep literary dive into humanity’s relationship to the rest of the universe. And small wonder that Lem’s native Poland has declared 2021 the “Year of Stanislaw Lem”: a year of celebrations and commemorations of Lem and his place in world literature. But Lem’s work, with his lasting curiosity about the universe and our place in it, transcends a mere year of remembrance and tribute: in the best traditions of fiction, he is an author for all years, and all time.

His Master’s Voice, first published in 1968 and translated into English in 1983 by Michael Kandel (the version reissued and reviewed here), is centered around two of Lem’s more common themes: the limits of science’s ability to understand the universe around us, and how those limits are reflected in our own behavior. Lem wrote the book during the early years of the mid-20th century worldwide search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and Voice is an artifact of that time when concerted efforts were being made to seek out evidence of alien life and ask serious questions about how we as a species would receive that evidence and interpret messages received. The novel is narrated by mathematician Peter Hogarth, a brilliant, caustic, and self-aware professor attached to a secret US government project seeking to decipher a signal from deep space that arrived on Earth carried by neutrinos. Voice is less a straight narrative and more an extended philosophical essay about humanity disguised as an exhaustive description of the His Master’s Voice Project by Hogarth.

It is also the story of a massive failure, as evidenced by failed hypotheses and theories that the official project record will never show and the public will never see: as Hogarth notes, “the history of His Master’s Voice is the tale of a defeat: of wrong turns that were not followed by a straightened path. Thus one should not wipe away the zigzags of our journey, because those zigzags are all that is left us” (35-36). Finally, it is a chronicle, ultimately, of human insignificance and imperfection. “We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant” (36). Ironically, it is that very imperfection that not only causes its failure (through a lack of suitable intellect) but jump-starts the project in the first place – the initial theory that captured neutrinos are carrying an alien signal is inspired by the inadvertent efforts of con artists and pseudoscientists. Hogarth posits that “[e]very great matter has, among its circumstances, some that are ludicrous or pitifully banal, which does not mean that they do not play an integral role. Ludicrousness, anyway, is a relative thing” (60). Our imperfections and the ironies inherent in human activity are baked right into all our endeavors, Hogarth (and Lem) supposes. Although he notes at one point that “I do not know what it was among the people of the Project that determined finally the Project’s fate” (72), it seems clear that it is something stemming from humanity’s fallible nature that does it.

Explanations for the source and purpose of the signal all fail in the absence of proof. Was it sent containing information for starting life? For building an efficient mechanism for processing information? As a precursor to an alien invasion of Earth? As a symbolic extended hand of friendship? Hogarth himself dismisses all these as the fevered dreams of science fiction and the truth of the signal as being ultimately unknowable. “All these hypotheses (and there were more) I considered not just wrong but ridiculous. In my opinion, the stellar code denoted neither a plasmic brain nor an informational machine nor an organism nor a spore, because the object it designated simply did not figure in the categories of our conceptualizations. It was the plan of a cathedral sent to australopithecines, a library opened to Neanderthals. In my opinion, the code was not intended for a civilization as low on the ladder of development as ours, and consequently we would not succeed in doing anything meaningful with it” (121-122).  For Hogarth, the Senders broadcast their signal too early in humanity’s evolution to be of any use. In addition to the sheer time gap between human and Sender civilization, the project would have been doomed because the definition of words and concepts and contexts would differ between the two so widely. (All that, even so, assumes that the signal is indeed artificial: one Project scientist, Lerner, presents a reasonable case that it is merely a natural phenomenon.) In the end, the Project and Earth both have failed what Hogarth calls “a test of cosmic—or at least more-than-terrestrial—universality” (41), suggesting that much time will still be needed to straddle the gaps between our knowledge and the nature of the wider universe. In this, His Master’s Voice is a pointed rejoinder to the old strand of optimism and scientific progress running through classic science fiction, which Lem himself so derided.

“I took nothing with me, not even a coat” (1).

So begins the wholly undramatic return to his home planet by Prometheus astronaut Hal Bregg, following a long mission of exploration to the star Fomalhaut, some 23 light years from Earth. He comes home to no parades, no media interviews, and no serious reintegration into a society that has long passed him by. (Thanks to time dilation, only a decade has passed for Bregg, while 127 years have gone by at home.) What follows is a perilous new form of navigation by Astronaut Bregg, through a completely altered social order in which his experiences and social mores have no place. 

1961 was a prolific year for Lem: in those 12 months he wrote three significant works – his nightmarish riff on Kafka, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub; probably his most famous work, the graceful Solaris; and finally, Return from the Stars. Return was translated into English in 1980 by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, the edition featured here in this 2020 reissue. Of those three 1961 works, Return may be the least memorable, but it is still a very interesting, even poignant exploration of the relativity of the utopian concept. And there are moments of literary brilliance: I am always taken with the dizzying and disorienting mood of the first chapter, in which Bregg is emptied out back onto Earth and forced to weave his way through a vast, confusing, and alienating metropolis. His emotional burden is extreme: “[f]rom the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair” (2). He sees things whose function he cannot uncover, geographies he cannot follow, behaviors he cannot decipher; all this, as Lem accelerates the pace and the mass of details, contributes to Bregg’s growing fear and sense of alienation (which the reader keenly feels as well). The contradiction between Bregg’s decade spent inside spacecraft with a small group of fellow crewmembers and his new life in a sprawling city of countless strangers creates a feeling of real unreality that never leaves the reader (and it is a literary precursor to the disorientation felt some years later by American soldiers returning home from Vietnam, thrown back into unfamiliar civilian life with little or no assistance after a year or more of intense tours of duty) in the course of the novel.

That feeling of unreality, of unease, sets Return apart as a utopian novel, wholly appropriate because the Earth to which Bregg has returned is a utopia from the inside, less so from Bregg’s 127 year-out of date viewpoint. Poverty on Earth is gone, war is gone. Resources appear to be unlimited and free to all. People are happy, and no one is being turned into food or killed at the age of 30 or relying for their good condition on the abuse of one single poor child. But… social stability relies on a process called ‘betrization’, a medical procedure performed universally across the globe that eliminates the psychological need or capacity for aggression. As a result, Bregg and his fellow returnees, who go unbetrized, find themselves even more isolated and foreign, in a world where the mission for which they gave years of their lives is no more than a footnote from Earth’s aggressive and assertive past. At one point in the novel, Bregg has a conversation with an aged doctor who notes:

“There is a great deal you do not understand, Bregg. If you intended to live like a monk for the remainder of your days, your ‘I don’t mind’ might be in order, but… the society to which you have returned is not enthusiastic about what you gave more than your life for… Apart from a handful of specialists, no one cares about it, Bregg. You know that?…

The society to which you have returned is stabilized. Life is tranquil. Do you understand? The romance of the early days of astronautics is gone… You are alone. A man cannot live alone. Your interests, the ones you have returned with, are an island in the sea of ignorance. I doubt if many people would want to hear what you could tell them” (75-76)

Bregg, still a man wracked by strong emotions (among them guilt for causing the death of a fellow crew member), is shocked to hear that, thanks to betrization, “everything is now lukewarm” (82) – no hatreds, but no passions; no danger, but no need for adventure; no risks, but no rewards for challenging risks; no struggles, but no strivings. It is a world that runs neither hot nor cold. Lem asks us to consider whether a utopia is truly so – even if want has been eliminated – if human nature has been neutered or cast out of society. And are those qualities that Bregg possesses and notes the absence of, truly desirable parts of ourselves? Do we need them to be truly human, else our existence is ultimately sterile? It is in these questions that Return from the Stars may be of particular interest to researchers of utopian studies or scholars of SF concerned with the exploration of the human condition.

            Bregg’s solution to his crisis is to flee the city, abduct a young woman named Eri (certainly today the most troubling portion of the novel), and wrestle with his emotions, eventually reuniting with several of his fellow returnees and questioning the importance of their deep space mission that ended up robbing them of their lives and identities. It is in the light of a utopia made for others that Bregg clearly comes to see, in the end, a true understanding of himself as a contradictory human being. As Simon Ings puts it in his helpful introduction to the novel, Return is less about a future Earth and more about the story of a single man. “About his impulse towards solitude and his need for company. About the nonheroic risk and beauty of exploration, and about what it means to carry wounds and beauty home to a world that does not care” (xii). These are facets of ourselves that so many of us wrestle with in the real, and Lem asks whether a society can deny space for those of us who think, and act, and feel differently and strongly, and whether that society can still be called a utopia.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice..

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