Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Michael Kandel), “His Master’s Voice” (1968, 1983, 1999) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Dispossessed” (1974, 2003)


Then anthropocentric view of extraterrestrial life, which forms the basis of our attempts to communicate with the stars (I.E. SETI), is the inevitable result of our general pattern of thinking: that the human organism is, for whatever reason, an evolutionary constant, that things have meaning that we can ultimately define, and that our knowledge has no limitations. If one civilization has arisen, why not another? And if there are multiple civilizations, no matter the differences between them, they should be able to communicate through sheer will, and the fact that communication is possible at all.

Lem will have none of that. His novel is made entirely to argue against these points – and he even specifically goes after American science fiction, whose unimaginative and banal ideas directly influenced our approach to stellar exploration.

His Master’s Voice is primarily a philosophical dissection of the idea of human knowledge being “pure” and limitless, with Lem, through the mathematician Hogarth, wondering if basic linguistic and cultural roadblocks would ever allow us to understand a message from an alien civilization. Scientific knowledge, despite the idea that being based in physical phenomenon prevents bias and agenda from leaking in, is entirely hobbled by our individual mentality and cultural consensus, and is subtly dependent on context (the personalities of the scientists and the political atmosphere of the times, with the Cold War setting of the novel being a perfect example.) Hogarth’s preface, where he goes over his defects as a human being and how they are intrinsically tied to his work in mathematics, are meant to demonstrate just that – no matter his arguments about mathematics as a “pure” science, he knows that it, and the knowledge derived from it, are not wholly removed from the people who devise them.

During the His Master’s Voice project (which is as much another game in the arms race as an attempt to advance human civilization,) the message from space is “decoded” in several different ways, all of which lead to multiple theories that prove inconclusive. Especially in the chemical-biological interpretations, the creation of the “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the Flies” substances, the interpretation goes further than simply reading the message, but attempt to put a face on their origins – the motivation for the message, and thus some inkling of the alien civilization. The suggestion that the message itself, which might encode some part of a species genetics or may have even kick-started life on earth, provides the most openly anthropocentric possibility – either way, the senders are trying to create (or have already successfully created) a kinship with humanity. But no theories in the novel can be proven, and its entirely possible that the biological functions of the message are entirely coincidental.

The other possibility, that the message may in fact be destructive in nature, becomes the basis for one of the more intense episodes, where Hogarth and a fellow scientist think they may have discovered a weaponized use for one of the substances derived from the code – fearing that it would allow atomic weapons to become inescapable, and that the discovery would be inevitable. This, like all the other theories, turns out to be wrong or inconclusive, but the very idea – and the fact that something of that nature might be what the government and their cronies in the project were after all along – is another fearful constant in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, that it could end up being misused (though not specifically connected, Rappaport’s Holocaust memories remind us of the destructive capabilities of humanity.) This Armageddon scenario could have been a coincidence as well, but that only adds more unwanted baggage to the project – not only denying us the meaning we want, but also making the very act of trying to find into something self-destructive.

The story ultimately becomes Lem turning our belief in the inevitability of discovery into the inevitability of failure. On one hand, it is entirely possible that any civilization capable of sending an interstellar message might be too advanced for us to understand – but Lem seems even sceptical of that notion, wondering if inevitable evolutionary-linguistic distinctions would render any attempts to communicate more or less impossible. This leaves any message to be more or less interpreted in any way one can wish – so when we want to see us in the unknown, we will, and no amount of scientific method will mitigate that “impurity.”


Though maybe more optimistic, Le Guin is working in the same context as Lem (six years later) – the Cold War exerting its influence on the practice and purpose of science. The novel being more concerned with the method and mode of societal/political thought, Shevek, the protagonist, finds himself brushing up against the idea of scientific “utility” – whether he was in the anarchist society of Anarres or the capitalistic country he visits on Urras, his value as a physics researcher was in what he can produce – either some benefit to his society, or a technological advancement to win the space race. Though his research was able to produce certain things (which was why the government of A-lo was willing to house him), his theoretical approach is the exact opposite of “practical science”, but is essential to his work. In His Master’s Voice, that overbearing oversight was more subtle – but not so in The Dispossessed, where Shevek has to deal with either societal disapproval or conspiracy in order to protect the “purity” of his research.

Le Guin is likewise also upfront about the relationship between science and ideology – but posits a more stable relationship, the two working in tandem rather inhibiting one another. Shevek’s theories were ultimately meant to be a reflection of the revolution his society represents but has fallen away from – in his attempt to more or less rethink time, he is taking the Odonian belief system and applying it to physics, butting heads with the increasingly rigid views of the current Anarres. One kind of revolution begets another – a society needs to be able to rethink the basis for their ideologies before they can truly make a change. In that regard, the broad implications of Shevek’s theory can be seen as more important than the substance, which is what the A-lo government completely misunderstood, and even the anarchists refuse to get.

Of the sections where the novel turns to Shevek’s life on Anarres, the development of that revolutionary ideology is put into greater context. From the earliest chapters, Le Guin sets Shevek as someone who is ill-at-ease among his people, and with the rest of the book revolving around his (literal) flight from that society, we may be led to believe that he has in some way abandoned the anarchist way of life. But the further it goes, the way he works his way through the traditional cycles of work of the Odonian, and overcomes his frustrations and finds peers in his wife and friends, Shevek comes to understand and revere his society far better – and his trip to Urras is seen in a different light, as someone willing to sacrifice his own place in his society in order for it to continue. Especially when he speaks with the Terrans and other aliens near the end of the book, Shevek becomes a figure of idealization – he believes in the morality of his society, and though it may be in a conservative era, the basis and everyday workings of it (through him we can see how the inhospitable nature of Anarres’ environment shapes the society, both negatively and positively) is still something he is willing to fight for, and his assurance inspires the off-worlders.

Much like Lem, Le Guin is also interested in language and how it shapes ways of thinking – and limits them. Even beyond the fact that Urras and Anarres have developed different languages (which for the reader is only implied), their languages are based on such diametrically opposed political systems, that even when Shevek can speak with his hosts on Urras, they find that there are many terms and phrases that each cannot grasp – how can Shevek understand all the ideas about ownership and money and class when he comes from a society without any of those things? At first, Shevek and his counterparts on the homeworld seem to avoid this by speaking through a third, seemingly neutral language – physics – but very quickly, he learns that even that has walls, when considering how those sciences are thought of and used (going back to the discussion of “practical” science.) Eventually, Shevek seems unable to even stand the upper crust citizens of Urras (and, especially when he gets drunk for the first time, could even see them as a corrupting influence, though his trip was partially to prove to Anarres that such an influence did not exist), and goes on his own to seek out the working class, and then to the extraterrestrial emissaries. Through conversation and through language, he seems to come to the same conclusion the propaganda about Urras on Anarres did – but he tries to hold out hope for them still.

Ideology, language, and knowledge are all seen as three interrelated systems – but that is not something that necessarily prevents change and expansion, as Shevek’s beliefs strongly influence his important theoretical work. There are limitations, things that lock out the minds of others and prevent them from seeing future possibilities – the governments of Urras fear the alien visitors and hope to push them aside with technological advances, while Shevek is ultimately willing to give his findings to the Terrans and Hainish because there is a greater chance they will be understood, both in use and in implication. And with that idea, he can then offer those other people, and the people of Urras as well, the chance to understand how his seemingly impossible society could continue – the seeds of something new.


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