Earth has received a mysterious message from space, and several thousand scientists are tasked with decoding it. They fail (this isn’t a spoiler—it’s revealed early in the book).
His Master’s Voice feels very much like Richard Feynman’s insider look at the Manhattan Project: a scientific quest of huge importance, staffed with ridiculously smart people, many of them trustworthy, and all interfered with by various military and political factions. Lem completely embraces human limitations and foibles, rare for a science fiction author.
But it’s not about the drama in the lab. Lem focuses on the actual intellectual quest of deciphering an alien transmission, and he doesn’t dumb it down. He tackles philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and probably some other stuff I missed; it’s dense in spots.
The science is hard enough to be an anvil to forge other books on, but still feels human at the core. It’s told from the perspective of one of the scientists, certainly a mathematical genius, but whose role seems to mostly be to cause intellectual trouble and ask uncomfortable questions.
More than any other SF author I’ve come across, Stanislaw Lem had a greater appreciation for how alien the rest of the universe could be. Most authors present alien life as something that can eventually be understood, and without an enormous amount of difficulty, but Lem is comfortable in assuming that we will never figure out what the hell is really going on, even as we do our best to understand, alternating between genius and tripping over our own feet.
Recommendation: Get His Master’s Voice at the library. If you like it, buy it and put it on a shelf. When I see it now, I’m suddenly motivated to push myself a little harder. It’s good medicine by a master.