Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

His Master's Voice, Page 6

Stanisław Lem

  But Baloyne decided to go see Laserowitz, in a purely personal capacity, because—he told me this himself—he felt sorry for the cosmic-contact maniac. He thought that if he offered him, in private, some minor position in the Project, everything would be set to rights. A foolish step, as it turned out, though dictated by the best intentions. Baloyne, who did not know Laserowitz, was taken in by the "Dr.," and believed that, though the man he had to deal with might be somewhat touched in the head, publicity-hungry, and not overly fastidious about how he made a buck, he was nevertheless a colleague, a scientist, a physicist. Instead he found himself face to face with a feverish little man who, upon hearing that the "letter from the stars" was genuine, informed him with a kind of hysterical nonchalance that the tapes, and consequently the "letter," too, were his property, of which he had been robbed. As the conversation progressed, he drove Baloyne into a rage. Laserowitz, seeing that he would gain nothing from Baloyne by words, ran out into the hall shouting that he would turn the matter over to the United Nations, to the Tribunal of Human Rights, then got into an elevator and left Baloyne to his unpleasant reflections.

  Baloyne, seeing the mischief he had done, went immediately to Rush and told him everything. Rush feared for the future of the Project. However unlikely it was that someone somewhere would listen seriously to Laserowitz, the possibility could not be ruled out, and if the affair ever made its way into a major metropolitan newspaper, it would for certain assume a political character.

  The initiates could well imagine the hue and cry that would be raised: that the United States was seeking to appropriate for itself what by rights belonged to all humanity. Baloyne suggested that this might be forestalled by a brief, at least semiofficial press release; but Rush did not have the authorization to issue one, nor did he intend to request it, because—he explained—the thing still was not absolutely certain. Even if the government wished to back the undertaking with the full weight of its influence before the forum of nations, it could not do so until preliminary work had proved the truth of what so far were assumptions. However, since the matter was of a highly sensitive nature, Rush nolens volens had to turn to his friend Barnett, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, who, in turn, after consulting with his people, turned to the FBI; who, however, referred him to the CIA. A top FBI legal adviser told him that the Universe, lying mainly outside the nation's borders, did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau; it was the CIA that concerned itself with foreign problems.

  The unfortunate consequences of this step did not show themselves at once, but the process, once begun, was irreversible. Rush, as an individual at the interface of science and politics, well knew the undesirable ramifications of placing the Project under such protection; therefore, asking the Senator to wait twenty-four hours, he sent two trusted men to Laserowitz in an effort to talk some sense into the man. Laserowitz not only refused to listen, he caused such a scene with his visitors that fisticuffs ensued and the hotel manager had to call the police.

  The following days saw a flood of articles that were altogether fantastic—ridiculous accounts of various "dyads" and "triads" of silence sent to Earth by the Universe, of lights in the sky, of the landing of little green men wearing "neutrino clothes," and similar nonsense, in which reference was made, over and over, to Laserowitz, now promoted to Professor. But shortly thereafter, in less than a month, the "renowned scientist" turned out to be a paranoiac and was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Nor was this, unfortunately, the conclusion to his story. The syndicated press and the national magazines carried echoes of Laserowitz's phantasmagorical struggle (twice he escaped from the hospital, the second time in a radical manner, leaving via a window eight floors up) to defend his discovery, a discovery so insane—according to the versions published later—and yet so near the truth. I confess I get the shivers when I recall that fragment of the prehistory of our Project.

  It is not hard to guess that filling the newspaper columns with items one more nonsensical than the next was nothing more or less than a diversionary tactic engineered by the skilled professionals of the CIA. Because to deny the business, and in the pages of the major publications at that, would have meant focusing attention on it in absolutely the most undesirable way. But to show that the thing was all delirium, to bury the grain of truth under an avalanche of imbecilic fictions—all attributed to "Professor" Laserowitz—was a clever move, particularly when the operation could be crowned with the insertion of a brief paragraph about the suicide of the madman, which, with its simple eloquence, completely laid to rest all rumors.

  The fate of that fanatic was truly horrible. I did not at first believe that either his insanity or his last step from the window into an emptiness of eight stories was genuine, but people whom I have to trust convinced me of that version of events. Yet the sign of the times had been stamped at the head of our great undertaking—times that mix, perhaps as no other, the seamy and the sublime. The zigzag of coincidences, before it threw into our hands that colossal opportunity, crushed like a flea a man who, albeit in blindness, was still the first to approach the threshold of the discovery.

  If I am not mistaken, Rush's emissaries had thought Laserowitz crazy at the point when he refused to accept a considerable sum of money in exchange for giving up his claims. But in that case he and I were of the same faith, with this one difference, that we practiced it in different monasteries. Had it not been for that great wave in which he became caught, Laserowitz would undoubtedly have prospered, a low-grade maniac devoting himself, undisturbed, to his flying saucers and all the rest of it, for there is surely no shortage of such people. But the knowledge that he was being relieved of his most sacred possession, a discovery that divided the history of mankind into two parts, tore his hardiness like an explosion and drove him to his death. In my opinion we owe more than a sneer to the man's memory. Every great matter has, among its circumstances, some that are ludicrous or pitifully banal, which does not mean that they do not play an integral role. Ludicrousness, anyway, is a relative thing. I, too, cut a ludicrous figure every time I spoke of Laserowitz in this vein.

  Of all the dramatis personae of this prologue, Swanson probably came out the best, because he was satisfied with money. His fine was paid (whether by the CIA or the Project administration, I do not know), and, with a generous sum as compensation for the mental anguish he had suffered in being falsely accused of fraud, he was dissuaded from filing an appeal. All this so that the Project could begin its work in peace and quiet, in the complete isolation finally allotted it.


  NOT ONLY THESE events, whose description here in general—though not in every respect—agrees with the official version, but the whole first year of the Project as well, passed without my participation. As to why I was approached only after the Science Council had become convinced of the necessity of acquiring academic reinforcements, I was told so many different things so often, and given such weighty reasons, that probably none of it was the truth. My exclusion, however, I did not hold against my colleagues, particularly not against Yvor Baloyne. Though they were for quite some time unaware of it, their organizational activity was not entirely free. Not that there was any open interference then, any obvious pressure. But the whole thing was of course managed by specialists in stagecraft. In my exclusion, I believe, High Places had a hand. The Project, practically from the beginning, was classified—an operation, that is, whose secrecy was a sine qua non of government policy, vital to the national security. The scientific directors of the Project, it should be emphasized, learned of this gradually, and as a rule separately, one by one, at special meetings during which discreet appeal was made to their political wisdom and patriotic feelings.

  How it was exactly, what means of persuasion, what compliments, promises, and arguments were enlisted, I do not know, because that side of things the official record passes over with absolute silence; nor were the people of the Science Council quick to come forward later on, now as my fellow workers, wi
th admissions touching that preliminary phase of research in His Master's Voice. If one or another turned out to be a bit uncooperative, if appeals to patriotism and the national interest were insufficient, resort was made to conversations "at the highest level." At the same time—and this perhaps was the most important factor contributing to the psychological accommodation—the hermetic nature of the Project, its severance from the world, was seen purely as a stopgap, a temporary, transitional arrangement that would be changed. Psychologically effective: for despite the misgivings felt by this or that scientist about the administration's representatives, the attention given the Project now by the Secretary of State and now by the President himself, the warm words of encouragement, expressive of the hope placed in "such minds"—all this created an atmosphere in which the posing of a plain question as to the time limit, the deadline for lifting the secrecy on the work, would have sounded discordant, impolite, positively boorish.

  I can also imagine, though in my presence no one ever breathed a word on that delicate subject, how the noble Baloyne gave instruction in the principles of diplomacy (coexistence, that is, with politicians) to his less worldly colleagues, and how with his characteristic tact he kept putting off inviting and qualifying me to join the Council. He must have explained to the more impatient that first the Project had to win the trust of powerful patrons; only then would it be possible to follow what in all conscience the scientific helmsmen of HMV considered the most appropriate course. And I do not say this with irony, for I can put myself in Baloyne's shoes: he wished to avoid friction on both sides, and was well aware that in those high circles I had the reputation of being unreliable. So I did not take part in the launching of the enterprise; this, however—as I was told a hundred times—was all to my advantage, because the living conditions in that ghost town situated a hundred miles east of the Monte Rosa mountains were at first quite primitive.

  I think it best to present what happened in chronological order, and therefore will begin with what I was doing just before the arrival at New Hampshire, where I was teaching, of the emissary from the Project. Best, because I entered its course when many of the general concepts had already been formed; as a "greenhorn" I needed to be introduced to—to acquaint myself with—everything, before I could be harnessed, like a new draft horse, to that huge machine (numbering twenty-five hundred people).

  I had only recently come to New Hampshire, invited there by the chairman of the Mathematics Department, my old classmate Stewart Compton, to conduct a summer seminar for doctoral candidates. I accepted the offer; with a load of only three hours a week, I could spend whole days roaming the woods and fields in the area. Even though I had a full vacation coming to me, having completed, that June, a year-and-a-half collaboration with Professor Hayakawa, I knew—knowing myself—that I would not be able to relax unless I had at least some intermittent contact with mathematics. Rest gives me, immediately, the guilty feeling that I am wasting valuable time. Besides, I have always enjoyed meeting new practitioners of my esoteric discipline, about which prevail more false notions than about any other field.

  I cannot call myself a "pure" mathematician; too often have I been tempted by outside problems. Such temptation led to my work with young Thorpe (his contribution to anthropology remains unappreciated, because he died young: in science, too, one's biological presence is required, because, despite appearances, a discovery needs credentials louder than its own merit)—and, later on, with Donald Prothero (whom I found at the Project, to my great surprise), and with James Fenniman (who subsequently received the Nobel Prize), and, finally, with Hayakawa. Hayakawa and I had built a mathematical backbone for his cosmic-origin theory, which was, unexpectedly, to make its way—thanks to one of his rebellious students—into the very center of the Project.

  Some of my colleagues looked down their noses at these guerrilla raids of mine into the preserves of the natural sciences. But the benefit usually was reciprocal: the empiricists not only received my aid, but I, too, in learning their problems, began to see which directions of our Platonic Kingdom's development lay along the lines of the main strategic assault on the future.

  One frequently encounters the sentiment that in mathematics all that is needed is "naked ability," because the lack of it there cannot be hidden; while in other disciplines connections, favoritism, fashion, and—most of all—the absence of that indisputability of proof which is supposed to characterize mathematics, cause a career to be the resultant vector of talents and conditions that are nonscientific. In vain have I tried to explain to such enviers that, alas, in our mathematical paradise things are not ideal. Cantor's beautifully classical theory of plurality was for many years ignored, and for quite unmathematical reasons.

  But every man, it seems, must envy another. I regretted that I was weak in information theory, because in that sphere, and especially in the realm of algorithms governed by recursive functions, phenomenal discoveries were in the air. Classical logic, along with Boole's algebra, the midwives of information theory, were from the beginning burdened with a combinatorial inflexibility. Thus the mathematical tools borrowed from those domains never worked well. They are, to my taste, unwieldy, ugly, awkward; though they yield results, they do it in a graceless way. I thought that I would be better able to study the subject by accepting Compton's offer. Because it was precisely about this region of the mathematical front line that I would be speaking at New Hampshire. It sounds odd, perhaps, that I intended to learn through lecturing, but this had happened to me more than once before. My thinking always goes best when a link forms between me and an active and critical audience. Also, one can sit and read esoteric works, but for lectures it is imperative to prepare oneself, and this I did, so I cannot say who profited more from them, I or my students.

  The weather that summer was good, but too hot, even out in the fields, which became dreadfully parched. I am particularly fond of grass. It is thanks to grass that we exist; only after that vegetation revolution that covered the continents with green could life establish itself on them in its zoological varieties. But I do not claim that this fondness of mine derives only from evolutionary considerations.

  August was at its height when one day there appeared a herald of change—in the person of Dr. Michael Grotius, who brought me a letter from Yvor Baloyne as well us a secret communication delivered orally.

  It was on the second floor of an old, pseudo-Gothic building of dark brick, with a pointed roof half-concealed by reddening vines, in my rather poorly ventilated room (the old walls contained no ducts for air conditioning), that I received the news—from a small, quiet young man as delicate as Chinese porcelain and wearing a little black crescent beard—that an announcement had reached Earth, but whether good or not, no one yet knew, for despite more than twelve months of effort, they had not succeeded in deciphering it.

  Though Grotius did not say so, and though in the letter of my friend I found no mention of it, I understood that here was research under very high protection—or, if you prefer, supervision. How else could a thing of such importance not have been leaked to the press or other media channels? It was obvious that experts of the first order were engaged in keeping the lid on tight.

  Grotius, his youth notwithstanding, showed himself to be an accomplished fox. Since it was not certain that I would agree to participate in the Project, he could tell me nothing concrete. He had to appeal to my vanity, to emphasize that twenty-five hundred people had chosen—out of all the remaining four billion—me as their potential savior; but even here Grotius knew moderation and did not lay it on too thick.

  Most believe that there is no flattery that the object of the flattery will not swallow. If that is a rule, I am an exception to it, because I have never valued praise. One can praise—to put it this way—only from the top down, not from the bottom up. And I know well my own worth. Grotius either had been warned by Baloyne or simply possessed a good nose. He spoke at length, seemed to answer my questions fully, but at the end of the conver
sation all that I had got out of him could be written on two index cards.

  The main scruple was the secrecy of the work. Baloyne realized that that would be the sore point, so in his letter he wrote of his personal meeting with the President, who had assured him that all the research of the Project would be published, except information that might be detrimental to the national interest of the United States. It appeared that in the opinion of the Pentagon, or at least of that section of the Pentagon which had taken the Project under its wing, the message from the stars was a kind of blueprint for a superbomb or some other ultimate weapon—a peculiar idea, at first glance, and saying more about the general political atmosphere than about galactic civilizations.

  I sent Grotius away for three hours and went, without hurrying, to my fields. There, in the strong sun, I lay on the grass and deliberated. Neither Grotius nor Baloyne in his letter had said a word about the necessity of binding myself by oath to preserve the secret, but that there was some such "initiation" into the Project was self-evident.

  It was one of those typical situations of the scientist of our time—zeroed in on and magnified, a prime specimen. The easiest way to keep one's hands clean is the ostrich-Pilate method of not involving oneself with anything that—even remotely—could contribute to increasing the means of annihilation. But what we do not wish to do, there will always be others to do in our place. Yet this, as they say, is no moral argument, and I agree. One might reply, then, with the premise that he who consents to participate in such work, being full of scruples, will be able to bring them to bear at the critical moment, but even should he be unable, no such possibility would exist if in his place stood a man who was devoid of scruples.

  But I have no intention of defending myself in that way. Other reasons prompted me. If I know that something is happening that is extremely important but at the same time a potential menace, I will always prefer to be at that spot than to await the outcome with a clear conscience and folded hands. In addition, I could not believe that a civilization incommensurably above us would send out into the Cosmos information convertible to weaponry. If the people of the Project thought otherwise, that did not matter. And, finally, this chance that had suddenly opened up before me was totally beyond anything I could still expect from life.