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Peace on Earth, Page 4

Stanisław Lem

  Tarantoga was silent, only glancing at me from time to time. As usual on eastward flights, with the Pacific beneath us, the calendar tripped and dropped a day. BOAC was belt-tightening, apparently, because all we got to eat was chicken salad. We landed in Miami. It was early in the afternoon. Customs dogs sniffed our suitcases. We stepped out into the heat. Melbourne had been much cooler. A rental car was waiting for us; Tarantoga must have ordered it in Melbourne. We put our luggage in the trunk and set off down a highway full of traffic, and still said nothing, because I had asked the professor not to tell me our destination. Overcaution, perhaps, but I would stick to that policy until a better one suggested itself. And he didn’t need to say anything, because after more than two hours on back roads we arrived at a large white building surrounded by pavilions, palms, and cacti, and I knew at once that my trusted friend had brought me to an insane asylum. Not a bad place to hide, I thought. In the car, I had looked over my shoulder now and then to see if we were being followed, but it never entered my head that I was such an important, valuable person that they would follow me by a method less conventional, not found in any spy novel. From a modern satellite not only can a car be observed but wooden matches counted on a garden table. That never entered my head—more precisely the half of my head that could understand without sign language the mess Ijon Tichy had got himself into.


  The worst mess in my life. I got into it quite by accident, while trying to see Professor Tarantoga after my return from Encia. He wasn’t at home; he’d flown to Australia for some reason. He’d be back in a few days. Since he had a special kind of primrose that demanded constant watering, he asked his cousin to apartment-sit for him. Not the cousin who collects public-toilet graffiti around the world; another cousin, a paleobotanist. Tarantoga has a lot of cousins. I didn’t know this one. When I saw that he was in a bathrobe and had just risen from a typewriter, I apologized and turned to leave, but he said no, I wasn’t interrupting anything, I had arrived just in time: he was writing a difficult, trail-blazing book and he always liked to marshal his thoughts by telling someone, even a stranger, the idea of the chapter at hand. I feared he was writing some botanical treatise and would fill my head with weeds, bulbs, and perennials, but thank heaven it wasn’t like that. It was actually quite interesting. From the dawn of history, he said, in the savage tribes there were unconventional individuals, no doubt considered mad, who tried to eat whatever their eyes fell on: leaves, sprouts, stems, roots both fresh and dried, and all kinds of vegetation. They must have dropped like flies because so many plants are poisonous. Which didn’t deter the next generation of nonconformists, who carried on this dangerous work. It is only thanks to them that we know today how to use laurel leaves and nutmeg, that asparagus and spinach are worth the trouble, and that it’s better to give wild berries a wide berth. Tarantoga’s cousin acquainted me with the fact, ignored by world science, that to find which plant was the best to smoke, these Sisyphuses of antiquity had to gather, dry, ferment, roll, and turn into ash a good forty-seven thousand varieties of leaf before they discovered tobacco, because there was no sign on any sprig or branch that said this one will be good for cigars and snuff. Over many centuries whole armies of these prehistoric saints took into their mouths, bit, chewed, tasted, and swallowed everything that grew by a fence or from a tree, and this in every conceivable way, cooked and raw, with water and without, strained and unstrained, and in countless combinations, thanks to which we know today that cabbage goes with pork and beets with rabbit. The fact that in certain regions it’s not beets but red cabbage that goes with hare Tarantoga’s cousin attributes to the early rise of nationalities. One cannot imagine a Slav, for example, without borscht. Each nationality had its own experimentalists, and when they finally decided on beets, its descendants remained loyal to beets even though their neighbors turned up their noses at that vegetable. Tarantoga’s cousin plans to write another book, later, about cultural differences in gastronomy and the influence of national character (the correlation between mint sauce and English spleen, for example, in the case of the loin chop). He will disclose in it why the Chinese, who have been so many for so long, eat prechopped food with chopsticks and always have rice.

  “Everyone knows,” his voice rose, “who Stephenson was and everyone honors him for his locomotive, his steam engine, but what is that banal relic next to artichokes, which will be with us forever? Vegetables do not age like technology…” The paleobotanist warmed even more to the subject. Was Stephenson risking his life when he put Watt’s steam engine on wheels? Did inventing the phonograph place Edison in mortal danger? They risked at most their families’ anger or bankruptcy. How unfair, that inventors of old-fashioned technology are all famous while no one even thinks about the great gastronomical inventors, or about raising a monument to the Unknown Chef as we do for the Unknown Soldier. And yet so many anonymous heroes fell in terrible agony after they made their brave experiments, with mushrooms, for example, where the only way of distinguishing poisonous from nonpoisonous is to eat and wait for the results.

  Why are the schoolbooks full of kings who became king for no other reason than that daddy was king? Why do children learn about Columbus, the discoverer of America who discovered it only by accident, on his way to India, while there’s not one word about the discoverer of the pickle? We could have managed without America, sooner or later America would have discovered itself, but not the pickle, and then there would have been nothing to sit on our plate beside a roast beef sandwich. No, gastronomy’s nameless heroes were more heroic than those who found a soldier’s death! A soldier had to charge the enemy trench or face a court-martial, but nobody ever forced a person to brave the danger of an unknown berry. Tarantoga’s cousin would like to see a commemorative tablet over the door of every restaurant, with the inscription MORTUI SUNT UT NOS BENE EDAMUS.

  The telephone rang. Tarantoga’s cousin handed me the receiver, saying it was for me. I was surprised, because no one knew about my return from the stars. It was someone from the office of the Secretary General of the UN. He had called Tarantoga for my address, and the cousin short-circuited the call, as it were, by giving the phone to me. Dr. Kakesut Wahatan, plenipotentiary extraordinaire and adviser on global security, wanted to see me as soon as possible. We made a date for the next day. I jotted the time into my notebook, having no idea what I was getting myself into. But I was glad for the call, because it had interrupted the flood of eloquence from Tarantoga’s cousin, who wanted to tell me next about spices and pepper. I took my leave, saying I had to go and promising (insincerely) that I’d drop in again soon.

  Tarantoga told me later that the primroses died: his cousin, in his paleobotanical-gastronomical fervor, forgot to water them. A common phenomenon: he who devotes himself to the general does not concern himself with the particular. Thus the meliorists who would make the whole world happy but have no time for an individual.

  I wasn’t told straight off that I would be asked to risk my neck for humanity by flying to the moon to see what those intelligent weapons were up to. Dr. Wahatan received me with smiles, coffee, and old cognac. He was Asian, a perfect Asian, because I learned nothing from him: he knew how to keep a secret. The Secretary General, he said, intended to read me, but being so very busy, he wondered if I could recommend the ten books I felt were the most important. Seemingly by coincidence, a couple of people dropped by and asked me for my autograph. It was hard to refuse. The talk turned naturally to robots, to the moon, but the moon mainly in its historical role: as a decoration in romantic literature. I learned much later that this was no normal conversation but a screening for security clearance, because the armchair in which I sat so comfortably was riddled with sensors that analyzed my reactions, through microscopic changes in muscle tension, to such key stimulus words as “moon” and “robot.” The diagnostic situation since I left Earth for the Calf constellation had reversed itself: I was evaluated by computer, my human interlocutors serving only to gath
er data. The next day, I went again to the UN office, I don’t know exactly why, and then they invited me again. They kept wanting to see me; I began having lunch with them in the cafeteria, which wasn’t bad, but the reason for these appointments remained unclear. There was talk about the United Nations publishing my collected works in all the languages of the world: more than four and a half thousand languages. I am not a vain man, but that seemed like a good idea to me. These new acquaintances all turned out to be fans of my Star Diaries. They were Dr. Rorty, Engineer Tottentanz, and the brothers Cybbilkis, identical twins whom I learned to tell apart by their ties. Both mathematicians. The older, Castor, worked in algomathematics, which is the algebra of conflicts that end fatally for all parties. (This branch of game theory is sometimes called sadistics.) The other Cybbilkis, Pollux, was not a sadistician but a statistician and had the curious habit of suddenly interrupting a conversation with such questions as “How many people on earth at this very moment are picking their nose?” A phenomenal calculator, he could come up with answers to such things instantly. One of the four was always waiting for me in the vestibule as big as a hangar to take me to the elevator. We went either to the Cybbilkis’ workshop or to Professor Jonas Kuschtyk, who also loved my books and quoted from them, giving the page number and year of publication. Kuschtyk (like Tottentanz) worked with telefer theory, a new field of remote robotics. The telefer slogan: “Where a man can’t go, a remote can.” Kuschtyk and Tottentanz urged me to try remoting. It’s quite an experience to have all your senses connected by radio to a machine.

  I was willing. It was only much later that I realized they weren’t Ijon Tichy fans at all but had read me strictly in the line of duty. Their task, with many other Lunar Agency people (whom I won’t mention so as not to immortalize them), was to pull me gradually into the Mission. Why gradually? Because I could refuse, after all, and go home, taking with me all the secrets of the Mission. And what if you did? asks someone from the audience, a heckler. Would that be the end of the world? The point is yes, possibly, it would. The person selected from thousands by the Lunar Agency had to be both extremely capable and extremely loyal. Capable we understand, but loyal? And loyal to whom, to the Agency? Yes, inasmuch as it represented the interests of humanity. No nation or coalition of nations could be allowed to learn the results of the lunar reconnaissance, assuming it succeeded, because whoever knew the state of the weapons there first would gain, by that strategic information, immediate supremacy on Earth. The peace, in other words, was far from idyllic.

  So the friendly scientists who let me play with the remotes as a child with a toy were actually dissecting my mind, that is, the computers were, invisible but analyzing our every conversation. Castor Cybbilkis, with his surrealist ties, was there as a theoretician of disastrous endgames, because precisely such a game was being played with me, against me. In order to accept or reject the Mission, I first had to learn about it, but then if I rejected it or if I accepted, returned, and then divulged the results of the reconnaisance, known only to me, it would create a situation the algomathematicians called pre-catastrophic.

  The candidates were of different nationalities, races, professions, and accomplishments. I was one of many though I had no idea of that. The person selected would be a delegate of humanity, not a spy—or potential spy—for any country. His code name would be Missionary. But I was kept in the dark as much as possible. When they finally made me Missionary and I had crawled into the rocket for the nth time only to crawl back out two hours later in my space suit bristling with wires and tubes because again something had gone wrong during countdown, I finally had time to think about the past few months and put two and two together. I understood now the game the LA had been playing with me for the highest possible stakes. If not the highest for humanity and the world, certainly the highest for me: I didn’t need algomathematics and game theory to see that the simplest way for them to ensure secrecy in this situation was to do away with the pilot immediately after his return to Earth, as soon as he made his report. Knowing that they had to send me now, since I had shown myself to be the best of the candidates, I told this to my dear colleagues, the Cybbilkis brothers, Kuschtyk, Blahouse, Tottentanz, and Garraphizi (more about Garraphizi later) who along with a few dozen communications technicians would be the ground support for my selenological expedition, that is they would be for me what Houston was for Armstrong and Co. during the Apollo mission. To make those hypocrites as uncomfortable as possible I asked them if they knew who would take care of me after my return as a hero—the Lunar Agency itself or a hired gun?

  That’s what I said, in those exact words, to see their reaction. If they had considered that scenario, they would understand me immediately. They froze. It made quite a picture: the small area in the cosmodome called the Waiting Room, with its Spartan décor—coke machines, card chairs, metal tables covered with bilious green plastic—and I in my angel-white space suit, my head under my arm (actually my helmet, but that’s how you say it: your head’s under your arm when you’re ready to fly), and facing me, my loyal comrades, scientists, doctors, engineers. I think it was Castor who spoke first. That it wasn’t their doing, it was the equation, the computer, because if you looked at the thing mathematically, abstractly, the solution to the problem of ensuring secrecy did not take into account any coefficient of ethics, and I was insulting them all by suggesting, at such a moment, that they were in on it.

  “I’ve heard that before,” I answered. “Blame it on the computer! Sure, sure. But forget ethics for the moment. I know, you’re all saints and I’m one too. But didn’t any of you, the computer included, think of this?”

  “Of what?” asked a hangdog Cybbilkis.

  “That I might suspect, and might confirm my suspicion, as I’ve done just now. Surely that will affect the equation of my loyalty…”

  “Oh of course that was taken into account,” said the other Cybbilkis. “It’s the ABC of algomathematical statistics: I know that you know that I know that you know that I know. The infinite series of conflict theory.”

  “Very well,” I said, getting interested in the scientific aspect of the thing. “Then how did it work out for you in the end? Does or doesn’t the confirmed suspicion affect my loyalty?”

  “It does,” admitted Castor Cybbilkis reluctantly. “But the second derivative of the curve of your loyalty after a scene like this one (taking place as we speak) shows a leveling off to zero.”

  “Aha.” I scratched my nose, shifting the helmet from my right arm to my left. “So that what is now happening decreases the mathematical expectation of reduction of my loyalty?”

  “It decreases it,” he said. And his brother added, looking at me both kindly and searchingly: “You yourself probably feel…”

  “Exactly,” I muttered, realizing, not without surprise, that they were right, they or the computer, in this psychological calculation: my indignation had noticeably diminished.

  The green light went on over the exit to the launch pad and all the buzzers sounded, indicating that the problem had been corrected and I was to get in the rocket again. I turned without a word and walked, they in attendance, and as I walked I thought. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I have to finish. After I left stationary earth orbit and they couldn’t touch me, when they asked me how I felt, I answered fine, and that I was considering whether I shouldn’t make friends with the “nation” of the moon in order to give a few people I knew on Earth a good kick in the pants. How hollow was their laughter in my earphones…

  But that came later, after my trips to the simulated lunar testing range and the visit to Gynandroics. That corporation has greater earnings than IBM, even though it began as a small subsidiary of the company. I should explain here that Gynandroics, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t manufacture robots or androids, if by those terms we mean humanlike machines endowed with human intelligence. It’s practically impossible to put a human mind in a machine. The computers of the eightieth generation and beyon
d are more intelligent than we, but their minds bear no resemblance to a human being’s. Man is a highly illogical creature and therein lies his humanity. He has reason, yes, but it is heavily polluted with prejudices, emotions, and attitudes carried from childhood or the genes of the mother and father. That’s why a robot passing for a person (over the telephone, for instance) is fairly easily unmasked. Nevertheless the porn industry put a limited line of S-dolls on the market, S for sex. These didn’t catch on; they were too logical, too intelligent; a man going out with one would end up with an inferiority complex. And they were expensive. Why pay $90,000, not counting local taxes, when you could have a natural partner for much, much less? The real revolution in the sex market was caused by remotes, or “empties,” dolls also fashioned in the image of humans but brainless, brainless not in a pejorative sense but literally: the remote woman and the remote man were empty shells operated at a distance by humans.

  By putting on a suit that pressed hundreds of electrodes to the skin, anyone could link with a male or female remote. Little did people dream how this technology would change their lives, especially their sex lives. From marriage to the oldest profession in the world. The courts were faced with unprecedented problems, legal dilemmas. The law didn’t recognize intimate relations with a doll as grounds for divorce. Whether stuffed or inflated by a bicycle pump, whether with automatic transmission or without, it didn’t matter; that was no more adultery than if a person was cohabiting with a chest of drawers. But teleferic products forced judges to determine whether or not a married individual entering into a liaison with a male remote or a female remote was thereby committing adultery. The concept of “remote adultery” was the subject of heated debate not only in the legal journals but also in the daily press. And adultery was just the tip of the iceberg. Can you deceive your wife, for example, with her own self but younger? A certain Adlai Groutzer ordered from the Boston branch of Gynandroics a remote of his wife at age twenty-one, not fifty-nine, her actual age. A further complication was that when Mrs. Groutzer was twenty-one, she wasn’t Mrs. Groutzer at all but the wife of James Brown, whom she divorced twenty years later to marry Adlai Groutzer. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. A ruling also had to be made as to whether a wife who wouldn’t operate the remote bought by her husband, for sex, was refusing him his conjugal rights. And whether remote incest was possible, and remote sadism and masochism. And remote sodomy. One company put out a line of dolls with modular private parts, so that you could quickly switch from male to female or even have it both ways. Among the customers of Gynandroics were quite a number of elderly prostitutes, no longer able to ply their trade; their years of experience made them masters, by remote, of the art of love. But the technology wasn’t limited to the erotic in its application. Take for example the twelve-year-old schoolboy who, receiving a poor grade for spelling errors in composition, used his father’s muscular remote to beat the English teacher to a pulp and break all his furniture. This remote, called Body Guard, sold like hotcakes. It was kept in the garden shed to protect the family from burglars. The boy’s father wore electrode pajamas to bed, and when the alarm went off, signaling the presence of an intruder, he could deal with the culprit or even culprits without having to get out of bed, because the remote would hold them until the police arrived. The son borrowed his father’s pajamas while his father was out. I had also seen picketing and street demonstrations against Gynandroics and comparable Japanese companies. The protesters were mostly women. In the few states where homosexuality was still against the law, legislators were trying to decide whether a homosexual, in love with a man who was not, was breaking the law if he sent him a female remote which he, the homosexual, was operating. When the Supreme Court finally ruled that relations per procura (with the aid of a remote) lay within the lawful bounds of matrimony provided both parties consented, the Kuckerman case came up. Mr. Kuckerman was a traveling salesman; Mrs. Kuckerman ran a beauty salon. They spent little time together: she couldn’t leave the salon, and he was on the road a lot. They agreed to intermediate their union, but couldn’t agree whether it should be by remote-husband or remote-wife. The Kuckermans’ neighbor brought down upon himself the wrath of both when he suggested, trying to be helpful, that they compromise and use a teleferic pair: a remote husband with a remote wife seemed to him a Solomonic solution to the problem. The Kuckermans considered it idiotic and insulting. They had no idea that their argument, after it appeared in the papers, would lead to a phenomenon called teleferic piggybacking—because a remote, too, can put on an electrode suit and operate another remote, and so on ad infinitum. The idea was received with enthusiasm by the underworld, because it is as easy to find the operator of a remote as it is to locate a radio transmitter. The police had no problem solving teleferic burglaries and murders. But if the perpetrator remote was operated by another remote, by the time you got to the second remote the criminal, the human, had broken radio contact with his “middleman” and left no clues.