All rights reserved.
Celebrating the Non-Realistic
Tradition in Fiction
His Master's Voice

by Stanislaw Lem

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Science fiction was created mostly by bright-eyed optimists
intoxicated with the potential of technological progress.   A
grand new universe was, it seemed,
only a hyper-drive leap away.   Yet
many of the most memorable writers
in the field adopted a pessimistic tone
The dystopian visions of George Or-
well and Aldous Huxley drew on the
potential of the sci-fi genre to generate
scathing cultural critiques.  Technolo-
gy might progress, these authors
warned, but its benefits were fragile,
compromised by our corrupt institutions.

Stanislaw Lem also belongs in the
pantheon of these pessimists.  He once
summed up his philosophy in a nut-shell:
"People are terrible and the future is bleak."  

But Lem  (unlike Orwell or Huxley) extended his critique
beyond the psychological and sociological spheres.  Even the
pure nuts-and-bolts of science, he argued, was often suspect
and unable to meet its stated goals.

The scientists in Lem’s work, are often dazed and confused.  
We are struck as much by their errors as their successes.  The
story behind the story is now what they know, but what they
have failed to comprehend.

When Lem depicted the grand moments when humans confront
intelligent life from another planet – the impetus for two of his
finest novels,
Solaris and His Master’s Voice--he avoids all of
the clichéd scenes.   His aliens are neither the hostile war-
mongers of H.G. Wells, nor the peace-loving visitors of
E.T.   They neither threaten nor cajole.  They do
not dominate or placate.  No little green visitor proclaims
“Take me to your leader.”

In Lem’s world, the struggle is merely to comprehend.  Lem has
discarded all of the anthropomorphic assumptions that have
long permeated our imaginary encounters with the unknown.  
In his universe, an alien life form might look like part of the
landscape, or communicate to us in patterns that we barely

His Master’s Voice describes one such encounter.  A repeating
signal has been picked up from the cosmos, and its structure
suggests that the source may be an intelligent life form.  The
government sets up a top secret task force, akin to the
Manhattan Project, in an isolated section of the Nevada desert,
and enlist a team of 2,500 scientists to decipher the signal and
understand its significance.  Here are gathered physicists,
linguists, engineers, psychoanalysts, mathematicians,
chemists, humanists, anthropologists and other specialists and

In the hands of another author, this would be the springboard
for a conventional thriller.  But Lem operates at a much higher
level.  In his hands, this story works at multiple levels.  He
forces the reader to question our epistemological certainties,
reconsider our assumptions about the objectivity of science,
and gain new appreciation into the compromises and ethical
blind spots inherent in technological progress.

But even when Lem is most philosophical, he never lets the plot
lag.  The team deciphering the alien message slowly makes
progress in unlocking the meaning of this possible signal from
beyond, and Lem brilliantly conveys the tensions and rivalries
that rise from their work.  To give these proceedings a
necessary veil of realism, Lem dishes out judicious doses of
scientific concepts and hypotheses, and the skill and finesse
with which he mixes in these ingredients is almost breathtaking
at times.  I’m not sure how much research a writer needs to
undertake to achieve this level of believability, but I am
astonished by the end result.   

One of the most memorable passages in the book is a mere
tangent to the plot.   Peter Hogarth, the scientist narrating
Master’s Voice
, encounters one of his colleagues reading
science fiction novels--which he uses, he claims as a “generator
of ideas.”   Hogarth responds with his own view (which we can
assume represents Lem’s own opinion):  “The authors of these
pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it
wants:  truisms, clichés, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed
and made ‘wonderful’ so that the reader may sink into a safe
state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his
philosophy of life.  If there is progress in a culture, the progress
is above all conceptual, but literature, the science-fiction
variety in particular, has nothing to do with that.”

It is to Lem’s credit that he writes science fiction that is
immune to these criticisms.  In the place of truisms, clichés,
stereotypes,” he offers us an open-ended vision of the universe
that defies our best efforts to simplify and sterilize its
meanings.   In a genre that is too often constrained and
demeaned by conventions, Lem offers us powerful examples of
a type of sci-fi that can stand comparison with the finest
literary fiction of our time.  
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian

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