Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.I find myself tempted by Hofstadter's notion of a story that ends before the book runs out of pages. You cannot end unexpectedly, because the reader can always see how many pages are left, so if you want a real surprise ending, you must tie off the story at some point and then have the text go on in a similar but (to the insightful reader) identifiably different way. Out of 200 pages, the first and last 30 are entirely different things, each in their own way.
A message was detected in the stars, a stream of neutrinos that repeated itself. The government assembled a crack team of scientists to decode the message. This is the story of Prof. Peter Hogarth, a mathematician and contrarian brought to the secluded His Master's Voice project to find new approaches across the specialists' narrow paths of inquiry.
This is a thoughtful book with almost no action to speak of, the kind of thing that even Isaac Asimov might have found uneventful. The subject is scientific inquiry. The object of inquiry has been fixed for billions of years. You will find this on the science fiction shelves, but you will not find any lasers, invading aliens, or trips to other worlds. There are a few discoveries, but the book says from the beginning that the project was ultimately a failure.
This gives me a narrow range of people to whom I could recommend the book. It is Star-Begotten, if it had been better. It is Contact without success or mysticism. It is Spin with no action, less politics, and minimal characterization. It is a book about thinking, in which our narrator is a mathematician (although there is no math in the book). If that does not excite you, feel free to jump ship here.
The opening is a rumination on human psychology and ethics. The narrator effectively describes himself as a sociopath who built an artificial conscience because it seemed like a better idea than pursuing congenital destructive tendencies. He then went on to deconstruct others' scientific and sociological theories, making a career of creative destruction. His self-description might seem monstrous to the intellectual and boring to the less cerebral.
Prof. Hogarth next enters the project. To keep the story from being purely dry contemplation, he spends about the same amount of time considering personalities, politics, and philosophy. He discusses some leaders in the project, mostly with brief portraits while giving his neighbor a long story. He sketches the policy and budget battles beyond and within the project's walls. The characters spend their downtime pondering the implications of it all, from theology to Freud to global apocalypse.
Other than stories, mostly in flashback, the few successes of the project pass as events. They provide things wondrous or horrifying to display and consider, sources of life and death. A more sensationalist light might have made them standard sci fi fare, but this story limits them to the preliminary stages, before anything especially useful can be done with them.
The inquiry fails, the project is abortive, and that tone carries throughout. Some stand, frustrated, needing breakthroughs from others that may never come before their own specialties can be brought to bear. You could summarize some sections as, "We were working out some ideas, and we engaged in some minor mischief while we worked them out." For a short book, it feels slow.
There is a climax of sorts. I classify the ending as a gradual denouement, since the story itself seems done even as "events" trail off. In the end, someone proposes the obvious answer (which would make the entire project pointless), and the later pages spin off into fantastical theorizing with a claimed but never shown mathematical foundation. Flights of fancy dismissed earlier on, perhaps angrily so, are entertained as the project founders.
The more I write here, the less I feel that I can recommend the book. That narrow, intellectual audience remains, although I find the book marginal even placing myself in that group. The return for effort invested is poor, although Mr. Lem's writing is good and the higher points in writing make it worth more. If nothing else, you find few works of fiction where the topic is scientific inquiry, with that inquiry being anything but a fig leaf over an adventure or detective story. The characters are quite happy to discuss the abstract meta-issues of research and the insanity of the species generally.