Reading-wise this is the final frontier for me [stop rolling your eyes], in that Science Fiction is something that I have always avoided as though it were an embarrassingly drunk girl at a club. His Master’s Voice, however, is different from, and I would say less ridiculous than, your average Sci-Fi novel, because at no point do the participants leave earth. They are grounded men, staring wonderingly, near ignorantly, at the sky; and this is infinitely more appealing to me than space suits, strange new planets and weird alien beings.
The plot, such as it is, involves human beings intercepting, in space, what they believe to be a message from another life-form. A group of shit-hot scientists [think Ocean’s 11 without the charm or good-looks] are brought together in order to crack the code of the message. And they fail miserably, of course. But their failure raises many interesting philosophical questions. His Master’s Voice, although presented as some kind of research paper, or memoir of his time working on the project by one of the scientists, is really no more than Lem’s thought experiment; it is ultimately an exploration of the idea that human beings are fundamentally incapable of understanding something other or alien, on the basis that we cannot apply anything other than human thoughts, concepts, etc, to it. So, logically, even an attempt to understand something truly alien is pointless, and borderline arrogant.
There is, I ought to mention, an often noted cold war angle which is, in my opinion, although most definitely there, rather overstated. The scientists manage to decipher a small proportion of the message and use it to create a substance that may have the capacity to be used as a nuclear weapon. But even here Lem seems more concerned with highlighting the probability that the scientists haven’t actually deciphered anything. They are more likely, he maintains, to have misinterpreted the message, because they are using human reasoning, human science, human mathematics, to try and make sense of something that is not human. In conclusion, for a novel about first contact the overwhelming feeling I was left with upon finishing the book was that no matter how many other species may exist in the universe we really are truly alone.