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His Master's Voice, Page 23

Stanisław Lem

  The Metagalaxy is a limitless throng of psychozoic enclaves. Civilizations deviating from ours by a certain number of degrees, but, like ours, divided, mired in internal quarrels, burning their resources in fratricidal struggles, have for millennia been making—and still are making, again and again—readings of the code, readings as unsuccessful as our own. Just like us, they attempt to fashion the strange fragments that emerge from their efforts into a weapon—and, just like us, they fail. When did the conviction take root in me that this was the case? It is hard to say.

  I told only those closest to me—Yvor, Donald—and before my final departure from the compound I shared this private property of mine with the acrimonious Dr. Rappaport. They all—a curious thing—at first nodded with the growing satisfaction of comprehension, but then, after some thought, said that for the world as it was given to us, my idea made too pretty and complete a picture. Perhaps. What do we know of civilizations "better" than ours? Nothing. So perhaps it is not suitable to paint such a panorama, in which we figure somewhere in the frame as a blot on the Galaxy, or as one of the embryos stuck fast in labor contractions that go on for centuries; or, finally, to use Rappaport's metaphor, as a fetus, quite handsome at birth, but strangling on its own umbilical cord, the cord being that arm of culture which draws the vital fluids of knowledge up from the placenta of the natural world.

  I can present no incontrovertible proof in support of my conviction. I have none. No evidence in the stellar code, in its information, nothing to indicate that it was produced for beings somehow better than us. Can it simply be that, stung for so long by humiliations, forced to work under the command of the Osters and the Nyes, I spun for myself—in the image and likeness of my own hopes—the only equivalent available to me of holiness: the myth of the Annunciation and Revelation, which I then—also to blame—rejected as much out of ignorance as ill will?

  If a man no longer worries about the movement of the atoms and planets, the world becomes defenseless with regard to him, since he can then interpret it as he pleases. He who wields the imagination shall perish in the imagination. And yet imagination is supposed to be an open window on the world. For two years we examined a thing—at its destination, from the final results that streamed to Earth. I propose that we consider it from the opposite end. Is it possible, without falling into madness, to believe that we were sent puzzles, intelligence tests of a sort, charades of galactic descent? Such a point of view, in my opinion, is ridiculous: the difficulty of the text was not a shell that had to be pierced. The message is not for everyone: that is how I see it, and I cannot see it otherwise. First of all, the message is not for a civilization low on the ladder of purely instrumental progress, because it is obvious, surely, that the Sumerians or Carolingians would not have been able even to notice the signal. But is the limitation of the circle of receivers determined solely by the criterion of technological ability?

  Let us look beyond ourselves. Enclosed in the windowless room of the former atomic test site, I could not help thinking about the great desert outside the walls, and the black canopy hanging above it, and that the whole Earth was being penetrated constantly, hour after hour, century after century, and eon after eon, by an immense river of invisible particles, whose current carried a communication that hit equally the other planets of the solar system, and other such systems, and other galaxies, and that this current had been sent from an unknown time past and across an unknown gulf—and that this was actually true.

  I did not accept this knowledge without a fight; it was too much at odds with all that I had grown accustomed to. I saw, at the same time, our undertaking: the throng of scientists overseen discreetly by the government of which I was a citizen. Wrapped in a network of bugs and taps, we were supposed to establish contact with an intelligence that inhabited the Cosmos. In reality this was a stake in an ongoing global game; it became part of the pot, entered the pleiad of countless cryptonym-acronyms that filled the concrete bowels of the Pentagon; it was placed in some vault, on some shelf, in some file, with the stamp of TOP SECRET on the folder; yet another Operation, with the letters HMV, doomed in the bud, as it were, to insanity—this attempt to hide and imprison a thing that had been filling the abyss of the Universe for millions of years, in order to extract, as from lemon pits, information packed with fatal power.

  If this was not madness, there is not and never will be madness. And so: the Senders had in mind certain beings, certain civilizations, but not all, not even all those of the technological circle. What sort of civilizations are the proper addressees? I do not know. I will say only this: if, in the opinion of the Senders, that information is not fitting for us to learn, then we will not learn it. I place great confidence in Them—because They did not let me down.

  And yet, could not the whole thing have been only a series of coincidences? Absolutely. Was not the neutrino code itself discovered by accident? And could not the code in turn have arisen by accident, and by accident impeded the decomposition of large organic molecules, and by accident repeated itself, and, finally, by sheer chance produced Lord of the Flies?

  That is all possible. Accident can also cause such a swirling of waves at high tide that when the water recedes there will appear, on the smooth sand, the deep print of a foot.

  Skepticism is like a microscope whose magnification is constantly increased: the sharp image that one begins with finally dissolves, because it is not possible to see ultimate things: their existence is only to be inferred. In any case, the world, after the closing of the Project, continued on its merry way. The popularity of statements made by scientists, political figures, and celebrities of the hour on the subject of cosmic intelligence has passed. Frog Eggs has been put to good use, so the millions from the budget did not go to waste. Over the code, now published, anyone from the legion of loose screws can rack his brains—those who used to invent perpetual-motion machines and trisect angles—and, in general, anyone can believe what he wants to believe. Particularly if his belief, like mine, has no practical consequence. Because it did not, after all, reduce me to dust and ashes. I am as I was before entering the Project. Nothing has changed.

  I would like to conclude with a few words about the people of the Project. I already mentioned that my friend Donald is not alive. He suffered a statistical deviation in the stream of cellular divisions: cancer. Yvor Baloyne is not simply a professor and a dean, but a man so overworked that he does not even know how happy he is. About Dr. Rappaport I know nothing. The letter that I sent several years ago to the Institute for Advanced Study was returned. Dill is in Canada—neither of us has time to correspond.

  But what, really, do these remarks signify? What do I know of the secret fears, ideas, and hopes of those who were my colleagues for a time? I was never able to conquer the distance between persons. An animal is fixed to its here-and-now by the senses, but man manages to detach himself, to remember, to sympathize with others, to visualize their states of mind and feelings: this, fortunately, is not true. In such attempts at pseudo merging and transferral we are only able, imperfectly, darkly, to visualize ourselves. What would happen to us if we could truly sympathize with others, feel with them, suffer for them? The fact that human anguish, fear, and suffering melt away with the death of the individual, that nothing remains of the ascents, the declines, the orgasms, and the agonies, is a praiseworthy gift of evolution, which made us like the animals. If from every unfortunate, from every victim, there remained even a single atom of his feelings, if thus grew the inheritance of the generations, if even a spark could pass from man to man, the world would be full of raw, bowel-torn howling.

  We are like snails, each stuck to his own leaf. I retreat behind the shield of my mathematics, and recite, when that does not suffice, these final lines from Swinburne's poem:

  From too much love of living,

  From hope and fear set free,

  We thank with brief thanksgiving

  Whatever gods may be

  That no life lives for eve

  That dead men rise up never;

  That even the weariest river

  Winds somewhere safe to sea.

  Then star nor sun shall waken,

  Nor any change of light:

  Nor sound of waters shaken,

  Nor any sound or sight:

  Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,

  Nor days nor things diurnal;

  Only the sleep eternal

  In an eternal night.

  Zakopane, June 1967

  Kraków, December 1967