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I understand

his masters voice stanislaw lem coverFrom the moment I landed on the roof, through all the meetings and conversations, the feeling never left me that I was playing a scientist in a grade-B movie. The feeling was strengthened by the room — or, rather, suite — in which they put me. I cannot remember ever having at my disposal so many unnecessary things. In the study stood a desk of presidential proportions; opposite it, two television sets and a radio. The armchair had controls for being raised, turned around, and lowered, no doubt so that between bouts of mental struggling one could take a little nap on it. Near it there was a large shape beneath a white cover. At first I took this for some piece of gymnastic equipment or a rocking horse (even that would not have surprised me), but it was a brand-new, very handsome IBM cryotronic calculator, which indeed proved useful to me. Wanting to join man more closely to the machine, the engineers at IBM had him work it also with his feet. Every time I pressed the “clear” pedal I expected, by reflex, to drive into the wall — the pedal was so much like a car accelerator. In the wall cabinet behind the desk I found a dictaphone, a typewriter, and also a small, scrupulously furnished bar.

But the most peculiar thing was the reference library. Whoever had assembled it must have been absolutely convinced that the more a book cost, the more valuable it was. Thus there were encyclopedias, thick volumes on the history of mathematics and the history of science — even one on Mayan cosmogony. Perfect order reigned among the backs and bindings; and complete nonsense in the printed contents. During that whole year I did not use my library once.

The bedroom was also done up nicely. In it I found an electric heating pad, a medicine chest, and a small hearing aid. To this day I do not know whether this was a joke or a mistake. Taken together, everything expressed the careful execution of the order: “Top quarters for a top mathematician.” Glancing at the night table, I saw a Bible and was reassured — yes, they truly had my welfare at heart.

The tome that contained the stellar code, delivered over to me with great ceremony, was not especially interesting — at least not at first reading. The beginning went: “0001101010001111100110111111001010010100.” The rest was more of the same. The only additional information given me said that the code unit definitely was made up of nine elementary signs (zeros and ones).

Taking possession of this new abode, I put on my thinking cap. I reasoned more or less as follows: Civilization is a thing both necessary and accidental; like the lining of a nest, it is a shelter from the world, a tiny counterworld that the large world silently tolerates, with the toleration of indifference, because in it there is no answer to the questions of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, laws and customs. Language, the creation of civilization, is like the framework of the nest; it binds all the bits of lining and unites them into the shape that is deemed necessary by the occupants of the nest. Language is an appeal to the joint identity of the nesting beings, their common denominator, their constant of similarity, and therefore its influence must end immediately beyond the edge of that subtle structure.

The Senders had to know this. It was expected that the content of the signal from the stars would be mathematics. Great stock, as you know, was placed in the almighty Pythagorean triangles; we were going to greet, across space, other civilizations — with Euclid’s geometry. The Senders chose another way, and I believed that they were right. With ethnic language they could not break free of their planet, because every language is pinned to a local foundation. Mathematics, on the other hand, is a severance too complete. It cuts bonds not only locally; it parts with the limitations that have become parameters for villainies and virtues; it is the result of a search for a freedom that dispenses with every tangible verification. It is the act of builders whose wish is that the world should never be able, not in any way, to disturb their work. Consequently, with mathematics one can say nothing about the world — it is called “pure” for the very reason that it has been purified of all material dross, and its absolute purity is its immortality. But precisely therein lies its arbitrariness, for it can beget any sort of world, as long as that world is consistent. Out of the infinite number of possible mathematics we have chosen one; our history decided this for us with its various unique and irreversible vicissitudes.

With mathematics one may signal only that one Is, that one Exists. If one wishes to act more effectively at a distance, the sending of a “production recipe” becomes inevitable. But such a recipe presupposes a technology, and technology is a transient, mutable condition, a passing from one set of materials and methods to another. And what of a description of an “object”? But an object, too, may be described in an infinite number of ways. It was an impasse.

There was one thing that bothered me. The stellar code had been transmitted in a continuous fashion, in uninterrupted repetitions, and this made no sense, because it hindered recognition of the signal as a signal. Poor Laserowitz had not been altogether mad: zones of periodic silence indeed seemed necessary — more, imperative — as an indication of the artificial nature of the signal. Periods of quiet would have drawn the attention of any observer. Why, then, was this not done? The question haunted me. I tried turning it around: the lack of interruptions seemed a lack of information, information indicating the intelligent source of the emission. But what if actually that was additional information? What could such a thing mean? That the “beginning” and the “end” of the message were nonessential. That one could read it starting at any point.

The idea fascinated me. I understood now why my friends had been so careful not to tell me anything about the ways in which the “letter” had been attacked. I was, as they wanted me to be, entirely without preconceptions. At the same time I had to wage the battle, so to speak, on two fronts at once: the main “opponent,” of course, whose motives I tried to guess, was the unknown Sender, however, at the same time I could not help also thinking, at every step of my reasoning, about whether or not the mathematicians of the Project had taken the same path as I. All I knew about their work was that it had yielded no definitive result, not merely in the sense that they had failed to decipher the “letter,” but in the sense, too, that they remained uncertain — in other words, they had not proved — that the “letter” belonged to the category of information that had been hypothesized: the “thing-process.”


Translated by Michael Kandel, Harcourt Brace