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His Master's Voice, Page 12

Stanisław Lem


  8

  THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR my being pulled into the Project were Baloyne, Baer, and Prothero. As I came to realize in the course of the first weeks, the task that was given me at the beginning, and crowned with a success that had been anticipated, was not the main reason they co-opted me onto the Science Council. The Project had plenty of specialists, and the finest, too; the rub was, it did not have the right specialists, for there were none in existence. I, who had already several times abandoned the purity of my mathematics, moving from one discipline to another across a vast area that stretched from cosmology to animal behavior, not only picked up in the process a great variety of information—that was not the important thing—but also had acquired the habit, in the course of these repeated relocations, of iconoclasm.

  As a stranger from the outside, and therefore not bound emotionally to the sacred and time-honored rules of the territories I invaded, I found it easy to question what others, ensconced in their given science, never dreamed of challenging. Thus it happened that I did not build so often as I razed existing orders, the fruits of much labor and dedication. It was just such an individual that the directors of the Project wanted. The majority of the people in its ranks—the natural scientists, especially—were content to continue with their previous research, not overly concerned about whether or not that research would form a coherent whole relating to the informational Moloch that came from the stars, that begot a host of interesting, specific problems, and that actually led (as I have indicated) to important discoveries.

  But at the same time the leadership—the Big Four—began to realize, if still somewhat dimly, that they were falling into the situation where the forest became harder and harder to see for the researching of the trees; that the established routine, now finely tuned and quite efficient in its performance of systematic operations, could engulf the Project itself, dissolving it in a sea of isolated facts and findings; and that in this way the chance would be lost of ever grasping what had taken place. Earth had received a signal from the stars, a message so packed with content that the few crumbs pecked from it were sufficient to nourish a multitude of research teams for years on end; and yet the message itself was wrapped in a haze whose impenetrability, veiled by a swarm of tiny achievements, grew less and less provoking. Perhaps at work here was simply a psychological defense mechanism; or perhaps it was the habit of people trained to uncover the laws behind a phenomenon and not pose questions as to what brought those and not other laws into the world.

  To such questions philosophy and religion are traditionally supposed to supply answers, not the natural scientist, who severs himself from the temptation of trying to divine the motives behind Creation. But here it was just the opposite: the approach of the guesser of motives, so discredited in the historical development of the empirical sciences, became the last hope offered for victory. Granted, the attributing of anthropomorphic motives to the Causer of the properties of the atoms remained methodologically prohibited; but some similarity—even the most remote—between Those Who Sent the code and the code's recipients was more than a fantasy to comfort the mind; it was a hypothesis on whose cutting edge hung the future of the entire Project. And I was certain of this from the first, from the moment I set foot on the HMV compound—certain that a lack of any similarity would render futile all efforts to understand the stellar message.

  Not for a minute did I put stock in any of the conjectures about the signal. The telegraphed individual, the blueprint of the "great brain," of the plasmic "informational machine," of the synthetic "ruler" who was to conquer Earth—all this was borrowed from the poverty-stricken repertoire of ideas which civilization, in its current technological form, had at its disposal. These imaginings were a reflection—much like the themes of science-fiction novels—of society, and of society primarily in its American version, whose export outside the States prospered around the middle of the century. They were either fashionable novelties or else conceptions built on the game principle "it's them or us"—and never did the insipidity of invention, its enchainment to Earth in the narrow channel of historical time, appear more obvious to me than when I heard these theories, seemingly bold but in reality pathetically naïve.

  During the discussions held by the Project's chief information theorist, Dr. Mackenzie, when I had managed—by putting down such notions—to antagonize those present, one of Mackenzie's younger colleagues asked what, then, in my opinion, the signal was, for the vehemence of my refutations indicated that I must be in possession of the truth.

  "Perhaps it is a Revelation," I replied. "Holy Scripture need not be printed on paper and bound in gold-embossed cloth. It can be also a plasmatic glob … such as Frog Eggs."

  I was joking, but they, anxious to exchange their ignorance for something, for anything, as long as it bore the semblance of certainty, began to consider my words in all seriousness. And immediately, again, everything worked out nicely for them: the signal was the Word that becomes Flesh (meaning the effect that "favored biogenesis," the Romney-Möller Effect), and whatever the motives that inclined someone to support the development of life on the galactic scale, they could not be "pragmatic," selfish, technological … because, in order to take such action, one first had to regard biogenesis—throughout the Universe—as a phenomenon desirable and good. This was, so to speak, an act of "cosmic good will," which, when seen in that light, amounted to an announcement (but active, enacting) of "Good Tidings," remarkable in that it was capable of self-fulfillment—without the presence of cooperative ears.

  I left them—they were in such a heat, they did not even notice—and went back to my apartment. The one thing I was certain of was the Romney-Möller Effect: that the stellar code increased the probability of the creation of life. Biogenesis was of course still possible without it, but a longer time would be required, and there would be, perhaps, a lower percentage of occurrences. This statement had in it something bracing—beings who operated like that, I could understand.

  Was it possible to believe that the purely physical, life-giving aspect of the signal was completely independent of, totally divorced from, its content? That the signal should represent no information at all, no "sense" beyond its "protective" relation to life, was impossible—Frog Eggs, if nothing else, gave proof of that. Then could it be that the content was in some way parallel to what its medium effected? I knew that I was getting onto slippery ground. The notion of the code as a message which by its content as well was to "make happy," "do good," immediately suggested itself. And yet, as Voltaire put it, when the grain is shipped to the Sultan, does the Captain concern himself about the comfort of the mice on board?

  Visitors from the outside were called by us not VIPs but "Feebs," for "feeble-minded." The pejorative was coined not so much to express the general opinion regarding the mental prowess of our illustrious guests, but simply because we had no end of trouble when problems typical of the Project needed to be explained to people who did not know the professional language of science. In order to give them some idea of the relation between the "life-causing form" of the stellar message and its "content"—from which at that time we had extracted only Lord of the Flies—I came up with the following analogy.

  Let us suppose that a typesetter, on a linotype, composes a poem. The poem has a certain linguistic meaning. But in addition it may happen that if a sufficiently elastic stylus, one able to vibrate, is run across the metal letters, a sound will result, which by accident may have the value of a harmonic chord. It would be altogether improbable for sounds, arising thus, to combine to form—by sheerest chance—the first measures of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Were such a thing to occur, we would naturally think that the music was no product of chance but that someone had intentionally set the type in that way, selecting the right sizes of the letters as well as the spaces between them. What was, as an "incidental harmony," highly improbable for the cast printing type, was for the communication, the letter from the stars, an improbability equal to an impossibili
ty.

  In other words, the life-producing property of that communication could not be the work of chance. The Sender must have deliberately imparted to the neutrino beam such modulated vibrations as brought about the phenomenon of the supporting of biogenesis. Now, this coexistence of "form" and "content" seemed to demand, inexorably, some specific explanation, and the simplest assumption said that if the "form" favored life, then the content, too, ought somehow to be similarly "beneficial." If, on the other hand, one rejected the theory of a "universal good will" that to the letter's direct life-giving action added some corresponding message that benefited the addressee, then one was more or less condemned to accept the diametrically opposite formula, according to which the Sender of the benevolent, life-favoring message was enclosing (diabolically) a content that could lead the receivers to destruction.

  If I say that one was condemned to the diabolical interpretation, it is not because such was my personal opinion; I simply note the actual train of thought within the Project. The stubbornness that manifested itself in the theorizing is evident throughout the published reports that tell the story of HMV. This stubbornness was always bipolar: either the letter was supposed to represent an act of "benevolent patronage," the giving of technological knowledge, which our civilization considers the highest good; or else it was an act of cunningly camouflaged aggression—whereby that which would arise from the materialization of the letter would strive to rule Earth, humanity, or even to annihilate it. I always stood in opposition to this paralysis of imagination. The Senders could have been, for example, rational beings who took advantage of an "energy opportunity": having earlier set in motion a "biophilic emission," and afterward desiring to enter into communication with the intelligent inhabitants of planets, they could have made use, out of simple economy, of the energy source already in operation instead of constructing special transmitters for the purpose; they could have superimposed on the neutrino stream a particular text that did not necessarily have anything to do with the stream's "life-causing" character. By the same token, the meaning of a telegram that we send does not stand in any one-to-one relation with the properties of the electromagnetic waves of the wireless telegraph.

  Although such a thing was conceivable, ideas like this had no following among us. Some of the hypotheses were even highly ingenious—that, for example, the letter worked "on two levels." It effected life as a gardener casts seed upon the ground; but later it came around again, to see if the emergent crop was "right." And then the letter was to act, on its "second" level—that is, through its content—as the gardener's pruning shears: an agent that would remove "degenerated psychozoic enclaves." This meant that the Senders, summarily and without pity, sought to destroy those civilizations, evolutionarily arisen, which had not developed "properly," the sort, for example, that produced classes that were "self-devouring," "warlike," etc. Thus the Senders tended, as it were, the beginning and the conclusion of biogenesis, both the roots and the crown of the evolutionary tree. The content part of the letter was designed to provide a certain type of undersirable addressee with a razor, so that it could cut its own throat.

  This fantasy, too, I rejected. The image of a civilization that was supposed to annihilate, in so unusual a way, the "degenerated" or "retarded," I dismissed as yet another projection—onto the unknown of the letter as an "association test"—of the fears characteristic of our age, and as nothing more. The Romney-Möller Effect appeared to indicate that the Sender held existence—in the form of life—to be a good thing. But I was not prepared to take the next step: either to attribute intentional kindness to the informational "layer" of the code as well, or to set a negative sign upon it. The "black" conceptions came to their creators automatically, because what had been given us by the letter they considered a Trojan horse, deserving only suspicion: an instrument, but one that would subjugate Earth; a being, but one who would rule us.

  All these ideas beat between the diabolical and the angelic like flies between the panes of a double window. I tried putting myself in the place of the Sender. I would send nothing that could be used contrary to my intentions. To provide any kind of tool without knowing to whom would be like handing out grenades to children. What, then, had been sent? A plan for an ideal society, complete with "illustrations" presenting the energy sources for that society (in the form of Lord of the Flies)? But such a plan was a system dependent upon its own elements, that is, on the individual beings. There could exist no one plan optimal for all places and times. It would also have to take into account the particular biology—and I did not believe that mankind represented, in this respect, any sort of cosmic constant.

  It seemed unlikely, at first glance, that the letter could be a communication that was a fragment of an interplanetary dialogue which we happened by pure accident to overhear, because that did not jibe with the constant repetition of the emission. A conversation, surely, did not consist in one of the partners' repeating, in circles, year after year, the same thing from the beginning. But, again, the time scale entered into play here. The communication had streamed to Earth, unchanging, for at least two years—that much was certain. Perhaps the "conversing" was being done by automatic devices, and the equipment of one side would keep sending its statement until it got the signal that the statement had been received. In which case, the repetitions could continue a thousand years, if the civilizations involved were sufficiently distant from each other. We did not know whether or not the "life-causing emission" could be the carrier of various contents—which was, a priori, quite possible.

  Nevertheless, the "overheard conversation" version seemed very unlikely. When "questions" were separated from the "answers" they received by a time that was on the order of centuries, it was hard to call such an exchange a "dialogue." One ought to expect, instead, each of the parties to transmit to the other important facts about itself. Therefore, we should have been receiving not one emission but at the very least two. That, however, was not the case. The neutrino "ether," to the extent that the astrophysicists' instruments could tell, was completely empty—except for that one transmission band. This was perhaps the hardest nut of all to crack in the mystery. The simplest explanation was that there was no dialogue, no second civilization, but only the one, sending out an isotropic signal. After such a statement, you went back to racking your brains over the double nature of the signal … da capo al fine.

  Yes, the letter could contain something relatively simple. It could, for example, be merely the diagram of a machine for us to use to establish communication with the Senders. It would be, then, the "blueprint of a transmitter," with the "components" the stuff of Frog Eggs. And we, like a small child puzzling over the plan of a radio kit, could manage to assemble nothing more than a couple of the most primitive screws. Or the letter could be an "incarnated" psychocosmological theory, showing how intelligent life in the Metagalaxy came to be, how it was distributed, and how it functioned. When one cast off one's "Manichean" prejudices, those sotto voce suggestions that the Sender had to wish us either good or evil (or good and evil at the same time, if, say, by his criteria his intentions toward us were "good," but by ours "evil"), the guessing spawned ideas more freely, ideas similar to the above, and became a morass no less immobilizing than the professional inertia that had caught the empiricists of the Project in the golden cages of their sensational discoveries. They believed—some of them, at any rate—that by studying Lord of the Flies one eventually could get to the bottom of the mystery of the Senders—like untangling a thread. I felt that this was a rationalization after the fact: since they had nothing except Lord of the Flies, they clung to it in their investigation. I would have allowed that they were right if the problem had belonged to the natural sciences—but it did not. From a chemical analysis of the ink with which a letter is written to us, we will never deduce the intellectual attributes of the writer.

  Perhaps it was necessary to put a rein on ambitions and approach the intention of the Senders by gradual approximations. Bu
t here again came the burning question: Why had they combined, in one thing, a message meant for intelligent receivers and a biophilic effect?

  It seemed strange—eerie, even. In the first place, general considerations indicated that the civilization of the Senders had to be incredibly old. The emission of the signal—by our best estimate—required a consumption of power on the order of at least a sun. An expenditure like that could not be a matter of indifference even to a society wielding a highly developed astroengineering technology. The Senders therefore must have acted in the conviction that such an "investment" paid—though not for them—paid in the sense of having real effectiveness in causing life. But at present there were relatively few planets in the entire Metagalaxy on which prevailed conditions that corresponded to Earth's of four billion years ago. Very few, actually. The Metagalaxy was a stellar-nebular organism well past its prime; in another billion years or so it would begin its decline toward old age. The youthful period of exuberant and violent planetary formation, from which had emerged, among others, our own Earth, was over. The Senders must have known this. It was not a matter of thousands of years, then, or even millions, that they had been sending the signal. I feared—how else to name the feeling that accompanied such a thought?—that they had been doing so for billions of years! But if such was the case, then—leaving aside the problem of our total inability to imagine what form a society would assume after the passage of such awesome geologic time—the reason for the "two-sidedness" of the signal turned out to be rather simple, if not trivial. They could have been sending, from the earliest times, the "life-causing factor"—and then, when they decided to take up interplanetary communication, instead of building special transmitters and technologies for that purpose, found it was sufficient to make use of the emission stream already pulsing through the Universe. All that was needed was the right modulation added to that carrier wave. Was it, then, for simple, engineering economy that they saddled us with this riddle? But surely the problems presented by the modulation program must have been technically and informationally monstrous—yes, for us they were, but for them? Here, once more, I lost the ground beneath my feet. Meanwhile the research went on: attempts were made, in endless ways, to separate the "informational component" of the signal from the "biophilic." None of them worked. We were baffled, but still unwilling to admit defeat.