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His Master's Voice, Page 22

Stanisław Lem

  We had failed to read it because for us, with our knowledge, with our physics and chemistry, to read it completely was impossible. Yet from pieces of the knowledge recorded in the pulse we made ourselves a recipe—for Frog Eggs! And therefore the signal directed and did not inform; it was addressed to the Universe and not to any beings. All we could do was try to deepen our knowledge by studying the signal itself—as we studied Frog Eggs.

  When Sylvester finished, there was much consternation. Here was an embarras de richesses! The signal either was a natural phenomenon, a "last chord" of a dying Universe, hammered out by a "fissure" between world and antiworld onto a neutrino wave; a deathbed kiss planted upon the front of the wave—or else it was the last will and testament of a civilization that no longer lived. An impressive choice!

  And both views found adherents among us. It was pointed out that in ordinary—that is, natural—hard radiation there were fractions that increased the tempo of mutation and thereby could speed up the rate of evolution, while other fractions did not do this, from which it did not follow that the first fractions meant something and the second did not. For a while everyone attempted to talk at once. I had the feeling that I was standing at the cradle of a new mythology. A last will and testament … we as the posthumous heirs of Them…

  Because it was expected of me, I took the floor. I began with the observation that through any number of points on a plane one could draw any number of curved lines. I had never considered it my objective to produce the greatest possible number of different theories, because one could come up with an endless amount of those. Rather than tailor our Universe and its antecedents to the signal, it sufficed to admit, for example, that our receiving apparatus was primitive in the sense that a radio of low selectivity was primitive. Such a radio would pick up several stations at a time, and the result would be a mishmash; but someone who did not know any of the languages in which the programs were being broadcast might simply record everything as it came out, and rack his brains over that. We might have fallen victim to just such a technological mistake.

  Perhaps the so-called letter was a recording of several emissions at once. If one assumed that in the Galaxy automatic transmitters were operating on precisely that "frequency," in that band, which we were treating as a single channel of communication, then even the constant repetition of the signals could be explained. They could be signals used by societies in some "civilizational collective" to keep in systematic synchronization certain technological devices of theirs, possibly astroengineering devices.

  This would account for the "circularity" of the signals. But it fit poorly with Frog Eggs; although, stretching things a little, one could put its synthesis also into this scheme. In any case, the scheme was more modest and therefore more sensible than the giant visions that had been unfolded before us. There existed a mystery outside the signal, namely, the fact that it was alone. There should have been a great many of them. But to refashion the whole Universe to "explain" this mystery was a luxury we could ill afford. Why, the "signal" could be declared to be a "music of the spheres," a kind of hymn, a neutrino fanfare with which the High Civilization would greet, say, the ascension of a supernova. The letter also could be apostolic: we had, here, a Word that became Flesh. And we had, in opposition to it, Frog Eggs, which as Lord of the Flies—the work, therefore, of darkness—indicated the Manichean nature of the signal, and of the world. To pursue any further this sort of exegesis should not be allowed. Basically, both ideas were conservative, and Lerner's in particular, because it boiled down to a defense, a desperate defense, even, of the empirical position. Lerner did not want to leave the traditional points of view of the exact sciences, which from their inception had dealt with the phenomena of Nature and not of Culture, for there does not exist a physics or chemistry of Culture, but only of the "stuff of the Universe." Not willing to give up treating the Universe as a purely physical object, devoid of "meanings," Lerner acted like a man prepared to study a handwritten letter as if it were a seismogram. In the final analysis, handwriting, like a seismogram, was a lot of complicated curved lines.

  Sylvester's hypothesis I characterized as an attempt to answer the question "Do successive Universes inherit from one another?" He supplied an answer in which our "code," though remaining an artifact, ceased to be a letter. I concluded by showing the incredible number of assumptions that both had pulled out of the air: the negative umbilicus of matter compressed into information at the bottom of the contraction—well; the branding of the wave front with the "atom-generating" stigmata—it would never be possible to verify any of this, ex definitione, because presumably these things would occur where there would no longer be beings of any kind, or physics. This was a discussion about life after death, decked up in the terminology of science. Or it was a sort of "philosophy fiction"—by analogy to science fiction. The mathematical robe concealed a mythology. In this I could see the signum temporis, but nothing more.

  Naturally, the discussion then took off like wildfire. Toward the end of it, Rappaport suddenly rose with "one more hypothesis." It was so original that I present it here. He defended the thesis that the difference between "artificial" and "natural" was not entirely objective, not an absolute given, but a relative thing and dependent on the cognitive frame of reference. Substances excreted by living organisms in the course of their metabolism we considered to be natural products. If I ate a great quantity of sugar, its excess would be eliminated by my kidneys. Whether the sugar in the urine was "artificial" or "natural" depended on my purpose. If I ate so much sugar intentionally, in order to eliminate it, knowing the mechanism involved and able to predict the effects of my action, the sugar would be "artificially" present; but if I ate it because I had a craving for it, and for no other reason, its presence would be "natural." One could demonstrate this. If someone examined my urine and if I had arranged this with him accordingly, the presence of sugar which he would discover could acquire the meaning of an informational signal. The sugar might signify, for instance, "yes," and the lack of sugar "no." This process of symbolic signaling would be as artificial as could be, but only between the two of us. Whoever did not know of our arrangement would learn nothing of it from an examination of the urine. So, then, in Culture as well as in Nature only the "natural" phenomena existed "really and truly"; the "artificial" were artificial only insofar as we related them, by agreement or action, in a definite way. Only miracles were "absolutely artificial," and they were impossible.

  After this introduction Rappaport delivered the main blow. Let us suppose that biological evolution could take a double path: it could create separate organisms, and then, from them, intelligent beings; or it could create, on the other branch, biospheres that were "nonintelligent" but at the same time highly organized—and let us call these "forests of living flesh," or vegetation of still another type, one that in the course of a very long development would master even nuclear energy. The vegetation's evolution would master it, however, not in the way that we mastered bomb or reactor technology, but in the way that our bodies "mastered" metabolism. In this case the products of the metabolism would be phenomena of a radioactive type—and, at a later stage, even streams of neutrinos, which would be nothing but the "excretion" from such globes, of the organisms on them, excretion which we would receive precisely in the form of a "stellar code." In this case we would have a completely natural process, because beings would not be intending to send anything to anyone, or to communicate, and the streams in question would be only the inevitable result of their metabolic activity, an "excretory emission." But it could also be that other planetary organisms would learn of their presence by this "spoor" left in space. Then it would constitute a kind of signal between them.

  Rappaport added that his hypothesis fit into the class of things native to science, because science did not divide phenomena into "artificial" and "natural," and therefore he had entered into the spirit of its rules. The hypothesis, in principle at least, could be tested (by detecting t
he presence, or merely proving the theoretical possibility, of "neutrino organisms"), because it did not refer us to "other Universes."

  Not everyone grasped that this was more than just an exhibition of wit. It was possible, in principle, to predict and calculate any type of organic metabolism when one began with physics and chemistry, whereas it was not possible, beginning with the same physics and chemistry, to predict or calculate a culture in which certain beings would write and send "neutrino letters." This second phenomenon was of another, nonphysical, order. If civilizations spoke to one another in different languages, and their differences in development were considerable, at best those who were less knowledgeable would extract from the received communication only (or nearly only) what was physical in it (or natural, the same thing). They would understand nothing more. And in fact, with a sufficiently large gap between civilizations, the same concept-symbols, even if they functioned in both cultures, would have totally different referents.

  There was discussed, among other things, the question of whether or not the probable "civilization of the Senders," either existing or (according to Sylvester) no longer among the living, was rational. And how could we say that a civilization that concerned itself about what would be "in the next Universe," thirty billion years away, was rational? Even for a fantastically wealthy civilization, what had to be the cost, the price paid in the fates of living beings, for it to become the helmsman of the Great Cosmogony? This also, analogously, held for the "life-causing effect." One might say that for them this was rational—or that there was no intercivilizationally constant sense of "rationality."

  A dozen of us gathered at Baloyne's after the closing of the meeting, and talked long into the night. If Sylvester and Lerner failed to convince us, they definitely poured oil on the troubled waters of the past. There was discussion about what Rappaport had presented. He added to it and made clarifications, and from this emerged a strange picture indeed—of leviathan biospheres that "sent" into the Universe, unaware of what they were doing; of an advanced stage of homeostasis, unknown to us; of amalgamations of vital processes which, drawing upon the sources of nuclear energy, began to equal, in their metabolic conversions, the power of suns. The biophilia of their "neutrino excretion" represented an effect exactly like that of the plants, whose activity had filled the atmosphere of Earth with oxygen, thus making life possible for other organisms, organisms that did not know of photosynthesis. And surely it was unintentional on the part of the grass to give us the opportunity to exist! Frog Eggs and the whole "informational" side of the letter became the products of an incredibly complex metabolism. Frog Eggs was a kind of waste, a cinder whose structure derived from planetary metabolisms.

  When Donald and I returned to the hotel, he said at one point that he felt basically cheated: the leash on which we ran in circles had been lengthened, but that changed nothing in our situation of confinement. We were spectators at a nice display of intellectual fireworks, but when the show was over, we were left empty-handed. Perhaps—he went on—something had even been taken away from us. Before, the consensus omnium had stood behind the concept of a "letter" in whose envelope was found a little sand (meaning Frog Eggs). As long as we believed that we had received a letter, however incomprehensible it was, however mysterious, the knowledge of the existence of a Sender had value in itself. But now, when it turned out that perhaps the thing was not a letter but a meaningless scrawl, nothing remained to us except the sand … and even if the sand was gold dust, we felt reduced to poverty—more, we felt robbed.

  I thought this over when I was alone. I tried to figure out where the certainty in me came from which allowed me to dispose of other views, no matter how well buttressed by arguments they were. I was convinced that we had received a letter. It is very important to me to convey to the reader not just this belief of mine—the belief does not matter so much—but the reasoning behind it. If I fail here, I should not have written this book. For that was its goal. A man who, like myself, has grappled long and often, on many changing fronts of science, with the problems of solving "Nature's ciphers," truly knows more about them than you will find in his mathematically tidy publications.

  On the authority of this unconveyable knowledge, I maintain that Frog Eggs, with its reservoir of nuclear energy, with its "tele-explosion" effect, should have been turned into a weapon under our hands, because we strove so very hard, and desperately, to do this. That we were unsuccessful can be no accident. We had succeeded—in other situations, which were "natural"—all too often. I have no difficulty imagining the beings who sent the signal. They said to themselves: We will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready; but we must go further in our caution—so that even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them.

  Not atoms, not galaxies, and neither planets nor our own bodies has Anyone cordoned off with such a system of safeguards, and we bear all the dismal consequences of that Neglect. Science is the part of culture that rubs against the world. We scrabble out pieces from the world and consume them—not in the order that would be best for us, because No One was so kind as to arrange this, but in an order that is regulated only by the resistance that matter itself presents. The atoms and stars have no reasons; they cannot defy us when we fashion models in their image; they will not bar our way to knowledge that may possibly be lethal. Whatever exists outside man is like a corpse: it can possess no intention. But the moment the forces not of Nature but of Reason direct a message at us, the situation changes completely. The One who sent out the letter was motivated by a purpose that was definitely not indifferent to life.

  From the first, what I feared the most was a misunderstanding. I was sure that we were not being sent an instrument of murder; but everything indicated that what we had received was the description of some instrument—and it is well known what use we put instruments to. Even man is a tool for man. Familiar with the history of science, I did not imagine that there was any perfect safeguard against abuse. All technologies were, after all, completely neutral, and we could assign to any one of them the goal of death. During that unimportant but desperate conspiracy—stupid, no doubt, yet by impulse inevitable—I believed that we could no longer count on Them, because They apparently had not been able to foresee what we might do with the information mistakenly. The safeguarding against what was planned and deliberate—that I could believe; but not against what constituted our error or our filling in the gaps with faulty substitutions. Even Nature herself, who for four billion years had instructed biological evolution in how to avoid "errors," how to operate under the protection of all possible safety measures, could not keep an eye on life's molecular slips and twists, its side streets, dead ends, and wrong turns, its "misunderstandings"—proof of which was the innumerable degenerations in the development of organisms, such as cancer. But if They succeeded, that meant that They had gone far beyond the perfection, unattainable for us, of biological systems. I did not know, however—how, indeed, was I to have known?—that Their systems, more effective than the biological, were so universally certain, so airtight: against trespass by the unqualified.

  That night in the huge hall of the inverter, bending over the sheets of scrawled paper, I had felt a sudden weakness, a moment of dizziness, and it had grown dark before my eyes, not only because the dread hanging over my head for all those weeks unexpectedly melted away; but also because in that instant I experienced, palpably, Their greatness. I understood what a civilization could be based on, and what a civilization could be. We think of an ideal equilibrium, of ethical values, of rising above one's own weakness, when we hear the word "civilization," and we associate it with what is best in us. But it is, above all, knowledge, a knowledge that from the sphere of possible situations eliminates precisely those (common, for us) like this one: where the finest brains out of a billion beings address themselves to the task of sowing universal death, doing what they would rather not do and what they stand i
n opposition to, because there is no alternative for them. Suicide is no alternative. Would we have changed one bit the course of further research, the invasion of metal locusts from the sky, had the two of us killed ourselves? If They foresaw such situations, the only way that I can understand it is if at one time They were—or, who knows, perhaps still are—like us.

  Did I not say at the beginning of this book that only a fundamentally evil creature knows what freedom it attains when it does good? There was a letter, it was sent, it fell to Earth, at our feet, and had been falling in a neutrino rain while the lizards of the Mesozoic plowed the mud of the Carboniferous forests with their bellies, while the paleopithecus, called Promethean, gnawed a bone and saw in it the first club. And Frog Eggs? In Frog Eggs I see fragments—distorted, caricatured by our ineptness and ignorance, but also by our knowledge, which is skewed toward destruction—fragments of what the letter provided for by its very delivery. I am convinced that it was not hurled into the darkness as a stone is into water. It was conceived as a voice whose echo would return—once it was heard and understood.

  The by-product, so to speak, of a proper reception was to be a return signal, informing the Senders that contact had been established, and at the same time telling Them the place where this occurred. I can make only a vague guess as to the mechanism that was to do this. The energy autonomy of Frog Eggs, its ability to direct nuclear reactions upon itself, which served no purpose other than to continue the state that made this possible—is evidence, proof, of an error on our part, because in our further incursion we came upon an effect as mysterious as it was dramatic, able under completely different circumstances to liberate, focus, and hurl back into space an impulse of tremendous power. Yes, if the code had been read correctly, the TX effect, discovered by Donald Prothero, would have been revealed as a return signal, an answer directed at the Senders. What convinces me of this is its fundamental mechanism: an action traveling at the greatest cosmic speed, carrying energy of any magnitude across a distance of any magnitude. The energy, of course, is to serve the transmittal of information, and not destruction. The form in which TX made itself known to us was the result of a distortion that the knowledge recorded in the neutrino stream underwent during our synthesis. Error bred error—it could not be otherwise. This is only logical, yet I am still amazed by Their versatility, that could thwart even the potentially fatal consequence of mistakes—of more than mistakes, because ours was a premeditated effort to turn a ruined instrument into a deadly blade.