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His Master's Voice, Page 20

Stanisław Lem

  I have skipped ahead like this to show that Nye was not so innocent as he appeared. The only thing that he allowed himself, during that notorious meeting, was to look several times over his glasses at Baloyne, whom without question he suspected of having a hand in our conspiracy. We tried to word our report in such a way that the secrecy of the work would seem dictated by the exigencies of methodology as well as by the uncertainty regarding success (by "success," of course, we meant the thing we most dreaded); but Nye was not taken in, not for a minute, by these justifications.

  Then a discussion got under way. Dill observed, rather unexpectedly, that had TX worked out, it might have brought peace to the world and not annihilation, because it would have put an end to the doctrine of DEW ("distant early warning"), which was based on the interval of time between the firing of the offender's intercontinental rockets and their appearance on the defender's radar screens at the apogees of suborbital flight. A weapon that destroyed at a distance of the Earth's diameter and with the speed of light ruled out any early warning; it would place both sides in the situation of two men holding guns to each other's temples. And that could lead to global disarmament. But such shock treatment could just as well end altogether differently, Donald pointed out in reply.

  Baloyne meanwhile felt himself the object of Nye's suspicion—and then began the conclusive collapse of the Council, which could not be healed or patched for the remainder of the Project's existence. Nye, from that point on, dropped the pose that he was some sort of neutral ambassador or observer from the Pentagon; this showed itself in various ways, none of them pleasant. For example, the invasion of Army specialists in the nuclear and ballistic fields, which commenced twenty-four hours after this meeting, was already in progress—like an occupation of enemy territory, with helicopters descending like locusts—when Nye telephoned Baloyne to inform him of the fact. At the same time, the visit of the notables from the Alter-Project was postponed. I was absolutely certain that the Army's nucleonics people, whom I did not consider scientists in any sense of the word, would only confirm our findings with tests on the proving-ground scale. But the way the data were grabbed out of our hands, along with the apparatus, film, and lab notebooks—whatever illusions I had left, that laid them to rest.

  Donald, barely tolerated in his own laboratory, bore this philosophically, and even explained to me that it could hardly be otherwise, because if it were otherwise, the only appearances that would be kept up would be those that did not really matter … since such actions were the logical consequence of the world situation. And so on. In a sense he was right. But an individual came to me in the morning (I was still in bed) and asked for the sets of calculations. I inquired if he had a search warrant, and if he had come to arrest me. This restrained him somewhat, and I was able at least to brush my teeth, shave, and dress while he waited out in the hall. I had spoken, of course, from a sense of complete helplessness. But I repeated to myself that actually I ought to be glad, for what would have been the state of my soul if I had had to hand over calculations that promised finis terrarum?

  We loitered about the compound like flies while the Army dumped from the sky its seemingly endless personnel and provisions. This operation most certainly had not been improvised at the last minute; they must have had it in readiness for a while, in some outlined form, not knowing, after all, what would pop out of the Project. Three weeks were enough for them to begin the appropriate series of microton blasts. I was not at all surprised that we learned of the results only thanks to leaks from the lower-echelon technicians who were in contact with our people. When the wind was right, the explosions could be heard all over the compound. Their negligible strength, on the payload range, meant there was practically no fallout. No special safety measures were taken. No one approached us, about anything; we were ignored, as if we did not exist. Rappaport said that this was because Donald and I had violated the rules of the game. Perhaps. Nye disappeared for days on end, commuting at supersonic speed between Washington, the compound, and the test site.

  In the beginning of December, when the storms came, the installations in the desert were dismantled and packed away; the fourteen-ton helicopter-cranes, the passenger helicopters, and all the other hovercraft one day lifted off, and as suddenly and efficiently as it had arrived, the Army left us, taking with it—so I heard—a few dozen of the scientific-technical staff who were exposed to high levels of radiation in the last of the experiments, during which had been detonated—according to the rumors—a charge equivalent to a kiloton of TNT.

  And then, as if an enchantment had been lifted from us—more or less as in "Sleeping Beauty"—we all grew active, and in a short time a great many things took place. Baloyne submitted his resignation; Donald Prothero and I demanded to be released from the Project; Rappaport, although very reluctantly, I believe, nevertheless followed suit, out of a feeling of loyalty. Only Dill did not resort to any demonstration; he advised us, in fact, to march around the compound waving appropriate signs and chanting. He did not take our action seriously, and I cannot deny that he had a point.

  Our rebellious quadrumvirate was immediately whisked to Washington. We were spoken to individually and together; besides Rush and McMahon, and our general (whom I personally met for the first time), the President's science advisers also put in an appearance, and it turned out that our continued presence in the Project was absolutely vital. Baloyne—that diplomat, that politician—said at one of these meetings that, seeing as they had placed full confidence in Nye and less in him, they could let Nye now recruit better people and run the Project himself. They treated us, when such dicta fell thick and fast, like ill-tempered, spoiled, but beloved children. I do not know about the others, but I genuinely had my fill of the Project.

  One evening Baloyne came to my hotel room; that day he had had a private tête-à-tête with Rush, and he told me the reason for the constant persuasion. The advisers had come to the conclusion that TX was only a misfire in a beginning series, that actually it pointed clearly to the fruitfulness of further research, and such research was now our be-all and end-all, a matter of life and death. Though I considered this reasoning to be nonsense, I realized, after a little reflection, that we could actually return, provided the Administration met our conditions, which then and there we began, Baloyne and I, to draw up. I knew that if the work went on without me, I would have no peace with myself and could not go back to my pure—that is, unsullied—mathematics, because my belief in a safety mechanism that the Senders had placed upon the stellar code was really only a belief and not certain knowledge. I put this more succinctly to Baloyne: Let us go by Pascal's aphorism about the frail reed. If we cannot oppose, we will at least know.

  The four of us, putting our heads together, figured out why the Project had not been handed over to the Army. The Army had been raising its own special breed of scientist—under the table—the type that would carry out basic assignments and be capable of limited autonomy. When he knew where to start and where to finish, the Army scientist did excellent work. But cosmic civilizations, their motives, the life-causing effects of the signal, the relation between these effects and the signal's content—all this, for him, was black magic. "Yes, and for us as well," remarked the ever-caustic Rappaport. We agreed, finally, to continue with the work. We got our way: Eugene Albert Nye, L.L.D., vanished from the Project (that was one of our conditions). He was immediately replaced, however, by another civilian, a Mr. Hugh Fenton. In this way we exchanged an evil for an evil. The budget was increased, the people from the Alter-Project (the existence of which we also brandished in the faces of the slightly abashed men in command) were incorporated into our research teams, and the Alter-Project itself presumably ceased to exist—but that was not true, either, because according to the official version, it never had existed. So, then, having vented our spleen, having deliberated together, having set conditions that were to be followed to the letter, we returned "home"—back to the desert; and thus began, with the New Year a
lready past, the next and final chapter of His Master's Voice.


  AND SO EVERYTHING went back to the way it was before—except that one new face appeared at the sessions of the Council, that of Hugh Fenton. Fenton the Phantom, he was called, or the Invisible Man, because he somehow existed microscopically—not that he was small, but he kept himself in the shadows. Winter meant frequent storms, but of sand, not rain. Rain hardly ever fell. It was not difficult for us to jump back into our former routine of work—of existence, rather. Again I went to Rappaport's to chat, and again I sometimes met Dill there; it seemed to me that the Project was my life, that the one would end with the other.

  The only new thing were the weekly seminars, quite unofficial, during which various topics would be discussed in turn—such topics as the prospects for the auto-evolution (that is, controlled evolution) of intelligent beings.

  What did that hold for us? Supposedly it would put us on the track of the anatomy, physiology, and thereby the civilization of the Senders. But in a society that had reached a level of development similar to ours, there appeared antithetical long-range trends whose distant outcome could not be foreseen. On the one hand, the technologies already formed exerted pressure on the existing culture and, to some extent, inclined people to subordinate themselves adaptively to the needs of the instrumentalities set in motion. Thus you had indications of competition between intellectual man and the machine, and also of various forms of symbiosis between the two—and both psychology and physio-anatomical engineering discovered "weak links," shoddy parameters in the human organism, and from there the path led to the planning of necessary "improvements." Out of this same trend came the idea of manufacturing "cyborgs," partly artificial people, designed specially for work in space and the exploration of planets whose conditions were drastically different from Earth's; and the idea of connecting a human brain directly to reservoirs of machine memory, of making devices in which an unprecedented marriage of man and instrument would take place, on the mechanical and/or intellectual level.

  This whole stream of technological pressures threatened to cleave the biological homogeneity of the species, hitherto intact. It was not just a single civilization for all men that such changes could render a fossil from the dead past, but even the single, universal physical shape of man. Man might in effect transform his society into a psychozoic type of ant colony.

  On the other hand, the sphere of instrumental technologies might be made subordinate to cultural influences, to social mores. This could result in the biotechnological extension of the factors that determined—for example—fashion. The technologies of fashion as yet did not go beyond the boundary of the human skin. Some claimed, true, that their influence went further, but this was only because at various periods different physical variations of man have been promoted as especially valuable, as models. One need only think of the difference between Rubens's ideal of feminine beauty and the woman of today. It might appear, to an outside observer of human affairs, that in women (who more obviously conformed to the dictates of fashion), in accordance with the requirements of the passing seasons, now the shoulders would widen, and now the hips, now the breasts would grow large, and now diminish, now the legs would fill out, and now they would again be thin and long, and so on. But such waxings and wanings of the flesh were an illusion only, produced by the selection, out of the variety of the entire set, of those physical types that gained the approval of the day. Such a state might be subjected to biotechnological correction. Genetic control would then shift the range of racial variety in the direction desired.

  Of course, genetic selection for purely anatomical traits seemed a frivolous thing in comparison with a multitude of culture-creating transformations, yet at the same time a desirable thing for aesthetic reasons (the opportunity to make physical beauty universal). But we were speaking of the first steps along a path to which one could affix the sign: REASON IN THE SERVICE OF THE URGES. This, because the overwhelming majority of the material products of the mind were channeled into sybaritic pursuits. An ingeniously constructed television set dispersed intellectual garbage; sophisticated transportation technologies made it possible for a degenerate, instead of getting soused in his own backyard, to dress up as a tourist and do the same in the vicinity of Saint Peter's basilica. If this tendency were to lead to the invasion of the human body by technological contrivances, undoubtedly the idea would be to expand the gamut of pleasurable sensations to the maximum, and perhaps even to bring into being—besides sex, narcotics, culinary happiness—other, as yet unknown, kinds of sensual stimulation and gratification.

  If we had, in the brain, a "pleasure center," then what prevented us from connecting to it synthetic sense organs that would allow the reaching of orgasms mystical and nonmystical, through actions specially designed and devised as triggers of multiphase ecstasy? The carrying out of such an auto-evolution would constitute a definitive closure in the culture and mores; it would entail a withdrawal from all things extraterrestrial. It would be an exceptionally pleasant form of intellectual suicide.

  Science and technology without question would be able to come up with devices that would meet equally the requirements of both the first and the second paths of development. The fact that both seemed to us rather monstrous, each in a different way, as yet meant nothing.

  Negative assessments of such transformations were quite groundless. The directive that one should not "overly indulge" oneself could be rationalized only as long as the satisfaction of one individual meant, at the same time, the detriment of another (or the detriment of one's own body or soul, which happened, say, in the case of drug addiction). This directive could be the expression of plain necessity, and then one had better submit to it without argument; but the whole thrust of technology was precisely to eliminate, one by one, all necessities that limited possible action. Those who said that civilization would always face certain necessities, in the form of limits to personal freedom, were in fact adherents of the naïve faith that the Cosmos was arranged not without thought to the "duties befitting" intelligent beings. This was a common extension of the Biblical injunction about working for one's daily bread in the sweat of one's brow. It was not, as such naïve people often thought, an ethical judgment, but one clearly ontological. Existence, as a habitat for us, was furnished in such a way that one could not, not by any discoveries, attain the situation of "dizziness with success."

  But there was no way to base far-reaching forecasts on so primitive a faith. If not on "puritanical" and "ascetic" grounds, people sometimes voiced these sentiments out of a fear of change. That fear sat at the bottom of all scientific arguments that ruled out, to begin with, the possibility of building "intelligent machines." Humankind always felt most at home—though never comfortable—in situations that were slightly desperate: that spice did not bring solace to the body, but did appease the soul. But the call of "all forces and reserves to the front of science" was stirring as long as "intelligent machines" were not able to replace the scientists effectively.

  Of the real nature of both directions—the expansive-"ascetic" and the "encysting"-hedonistic—we could say nothing sensible. A civilization could take either path: storming the Cosmos or cutting itself off from it. The neutrino signal seemed to prove, at least, that certain civilizations did not shut themselves away from the world.

  A civilization as "spread out" techno-economically as ours, with the front lines swimming in wealth and the rear guard dying of hunger, had by that very spread already been given a direction of future development. First, the troops behind would attempt to catch up with the leaders in material wealth, which, only because it had not yet been attained, would appear to justify the effort of that pursuit; and, in turn, the prosperous vanguard, being an object of envy and competition, would thereby be confirmed in its own value. If others imitated it, then obviously what it did must be not only good, but positively wonderful! The process thus became circular, since a positive feedback loop of motivation res
ulted, increasing the motion forward, which was spurred on, in addition, by the jabs of political antagonisms.

  And further: a circle would result because it was difficult to come up with new solutions when the given problem already possessed some solutions. The United States, regardless of the bad that could be said of it, undoubtedly existed—with its highways, heated swimming pools, supermarkets, and everything else that gleamed. Even if one could think up an entirely different kind of felicity and prosperity, this could still only be, surely, in the context of a civilization that was both heterogeneous and—overall—not poor. But a civilization that reached a state of such equality and thereby became homogeneous was something completely unknown to us. It would be a civilization that had managed to satisfy the basic biological needs of all its members; only then, in its national sectors, would it be possible to take up the search for further, more varied roads to the future, a future now liberated from economic constraints. And yet we knew, for a certainty, that when the first emissaries of Earth went walking among the planets, Earth's other sons would be dreaming not about such expeditions but about a piece of bread.


  DESPITE THE DIFFERENCES of opinion that separated us in the affairs of the Project, we represented—and by "we" I do not mean only the Science Council—a sufficiently close-knit team so that the new arrivals, here and there already called "the Pentagon puppets," could be certain that their theses would be received by us with daggers drawn. Although I, too, was rather unfavorably disposed toward them, I had to admit that Lerner and the young biologist accompanying him (or astrobiologist, as he styled himself), pulled off an impressive thing; because it was difficult for us to believe that, after our year of tribulation, after the wringer to which we had collectively surrendered our brains, it was still possible to set forth, on the subject of His Master's Voice, hypotheses that were totally new, never even touched upon by us, and, moreover, different from each other and supported by a well-constructed mathematical apparatus (though not so strong regarding data). Yet this is precisely what happened. What is more, these new ideas, mutually exclusive to a degree, allowed for the establishing of a kind of golden mean, a novel compromise that brought them together not at all badly.