When a neutrino beam with a possible message from an advanced civilization is discovered, scientists from many different fields try to decode the letter from the stars. Impeded by political and military interests, and limited by their own narrow-mindedness and hubris, they struggle to make sense of the transmission and to gain any useful knowledge from it.
This is a deeply philosophical book, and Lem’s reasoning is absolutely sound. Since it is told from the viewpoint of one of the leading scientists, a mathematician, it is also often dry and technical, even unwieldy, although, on the other hand, there are some parts that are immensely elevated by fine irony and wit. In some places, the fact that it was written during the Cold War is also very obvious and makes it a little dated, while in others, it is timelessly relevant. In general, this book is not light reading in any way, and it made me rather easily lose the plot when my concentration wavered even a little. It also took me about 50 pages to get at least somewhat invested in the story, but in the end, it was definitely worth it, because it is a book that lingers for a long time after you have finished it.
What Lem is really interested in, and what he wants the reader to think extensively about, is the state of humanity. He comes to the conclusion that an event like a possible proof of an extraterrestrial civilization only exposes the preoccupation mankind has with itself, and has to have with itself at this state of its evolution. We have progressed from small groups, tribes, to countries and supranational unions, but the old instincts are always there, just under the surface, the tribalism, the chauvinism, the xenophobia. Every tool that is put into the hands of man can and will be used as a weapon, and humankind, as a species that is highly adaptable, does not possess the kind of morale that is not extremely elastic. Subsequently, the veneer of civilization is very thin, so how would mankind be able to handle encountering an alien and possibly very advanced society in a productive manner, especially if it is not united as a species?
Due to all this, the message from the stars fails to be an impetus for the expansion of narrow views, and instead forces the look inside rather than outside. The very traits that brought humanity to where it is are also, in a lot of ways, the ones holding it back from going further. The project was doomed from the start, and when the scientist admits this, and the limitations of the world man created, to himself, any other conclusion becomes impossible.
CBR11 Bingo: Reading the TBR