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THE TWENTY-FIFTH VOYAGE (fragment)

One of the main space lanes in the constellation of the Great Bear connects the planets of Mufta and Taffetum. On the way it passes Tairia, a rocky sphere that enjoys the worst sort of reputation among travelers, and this on account of the swarms of boulders that surround it. That whole region presents a picture of primordial chaos and danger, the disk of the planet barely shows from behind those clouds of stone, in which you have incessant lightning and thunder from colliding chunks of rock.

A few years ago the pilots running flights between Taffetum and Mufta began to tell of certain dire monsters, which would emerge suddenly from the whirling debris above Tairia and attack rockets, wrapping their long tentacles about them, attempting to pull them down into their murky lairs. Some passengers had been badly frightened, but so far that was all. Then the news spread that monsters had attacked a traveler while he was taking an after-dinner stroll around his rocket in a spacesuit. This was greatly exaggerated, since the traveler in question (a good friend of mine) had spilled coffee on his spacesuit and hung it out the hatch to dry, when strange, writhing creatures flew up and made off with it.

Finally feelings ran so high on the neighboring planets, that a special expedition was sent to comb the area around Tairia. Some of its members claimed that deep inside the clouds of Tairia they had spotted snakelike things resembling octopuses, this however was never verified and after a month the expedition, not daring to venture into the dark regions of Tairia's flint clouds, returned to Taffetum empty-handed. Other expeditions were undertaken later, but with no results.

At last a famous stellar adventurer, the intrepid Zow Gorbras, set out for Tairia, two hounds in spacesuits at his side, 10 hunt the enigmatic creatures. After five days he returned alone, haggard and drawn. As he told it; not far from Tairia a number of monsters had all at once come charging out from behind a nebula and wound him and his hounds in their tentacles; the brave hunter pulled out a knife and, hacking away blindly, succeeded in freeing himself from the deadly coils, to which— alas—his hounds succumbed. The spacesuit of Gorbras bore, both inside and out, the signs of battle, and in several places green strands of some kind, almost like fibrous stems, were found clinging to it. The college of sciences, having examined these vestiges minutely, announced that they were fragments of a multicellular organism well known on Earth, namely the Solanum tuberosum, a bulbaceous, gametopetalous, multiseminiferous species with individual pinnatipartite segmentations, brought by the Spaniards from America to Europe in the 16th century. That news alone excited the imagination, but it is difficult to describe what took place after someone translated the scholarly explanation into everyday language and it turned out that Gorbras had brought back on bis spacesuit bits of potato leaves.

The intrepid stellar adventurer, stung to the quick by the insinuation that for four straight hours he had been fighting potatoes, demanded an immediate retraction of this vile calumny, the scientists however replied that they could not retract a single word. There was a great furor. Two factions arose, the Potatoists and the anti-Potatoists, which spread first to the Big and later to the Little Dipper; the antagonists hurled dreadful epithets at one another. But this was nothing compared to what happened when the philosophers entered the fray. From England, France, Australia, Canada and the United States they came, the most illustrious theoreticians of knowledge and expounders of pure reason, and the result of their efforts was astounding.

Upon careful consideration of all sides of the issue, the physicalists maintained that when two bodies A and B move, it is a matter of indifference whether you say that A is moving in relation to B, or B is moving in relation to A. Since motion is relative, one can as easily say that a man is moving in relation to a potato as say that the potato is moving in relation to the man. Therefore the question of whether potatoes can move is meaningless, and the whole problem—trivial, i.e. it doesn't really exist.

The semanticists maintained that everything depends on how you interpret the words "potato," "is" and "moving." Since the key here is the operational copula "is," one must examine "is" rigorously. Whereupon they set to work on an Encyclopedia of Cosmic Semasiology, devoting the first four volumes to a discussion of the operational referents of "is."

The neopositivists maintained that it is not clusters of potatoes one directly perceives, but clusters of sensory impressions. Then, employing symbolic logic, they created terms for "cluster of impressions" and "cluster of potatoes," devised a special calculus of propositions all in algebraic signs and after using up several seas of ink reached the mathematically precise and absolutely undeniable conclusion that 0=0.

The Thomists maintained that God has created the laws of nature for the express purpose of working miracles, since miracles constitute a violation of the laws of nature, and where there are no laws, there is nothing to violate. In the abovementioned instance the potatoes move, if such is the will of the Almighty, though we cannot be certain that this is not some trick of accursed materialists bent on discrediting the Church. Therefore one must await the ruling of the Highest Council at the Vatican.

The Neo-Kantians maintained that objects are projections of the spirit and not knowable things; if then the psyche generates the idea of a moving potato, a moving potato shall have existence. Yet this is but a first impression, for our spirit is no more knowable than its projections; hence nothing can be said, either way.

The holists-pluralists-behaviorists-physicalists maintained that, as is well known in physics, laws of nature operate in a statistical fashion only. Just as it is impossible to predict with complete accuracy the path of a single electron, so too you cannot know with certainty the future behavior of a single potato. Thus far observations show that man has mashed potatoes mil-lions of times, but it is not inconceivable that one time in a billion the situation could reverse itself, that a potato could mash a man.

Professor Fustian, a solitary sage of the school of Russell and Reichenbach, subjected each of these conclusions to withering criticism. He argued that a man does not experience sensory impressions, since no one sees a sensory impression of a table, but only the table itself; and since moreover it is known that about the external world not a thing is known, then neither external objects nor sensory impressions exist. "There is nothing," declared Professor Fustian. "And anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong." Consequently nothing can be said about potatoes, but for an altogether different reason than that given by the Neo-Kantians.

While Fustian labored unremittingly, not once leaving his home, which was besieged by anti-Potatoists hefting rotten potatoes, and while passions were clouding every mind, there appeared on the scene—or, to be more exact, there landed on Taffetum—Professor Tarantoga. Paying no heed to the fruitless disputes, he decided to investigate the mystery sine ira et studio, as befitted a true man of science. He began his inquiry by visiting all the nearby planets, gathering information from the inhabitants. In this way he learned that the enigmatic monsters were known under the following names: prucks, borkers, nuffits, gnuttles, garrugulas, malomorps, zops, yots, yuts, batats, rifflers, thycandorines, closh, flibbage and morchmell; which gave him considerable food for thought since, according to the dic­tionaries, all these names were in fact synonyms for the common potato.

With amazing tenacity and indomitable fortitude Tarantoga worked his way to the heart of the riddle and in five years had a completed theory that explained everything:

Long ago, in the vicinity of Tairia, a ship carrying potatoes to the colonists on Taffetum struck a meteor reef. Through a hole cut in its hull the entire cargo tumbled out. The ship was pulled off the reef and towed by tugs to Taffetum, after which the incident passed into oblivion. Meanwhile the potatoes, having fallen onto the surface of Tairia, put out shoots and began to grow as if nothing had happened. However the conditions under which they grew were uncommonly harsh: from out of the sky gravel rained down time and again, smashing the young sprouts and even killing whole plants. The result was such, that of all the potatoes only the most alert survived, those that were able to fend fur themselves and find shelter. The emerging race of perspicacious potatoes developed by leaps and bounds. After a number of generations, wearying of their sedentary way of life, they pulled up roots and took on a nomadic existence. At the same time they completely lost the placid passivity typical of Earth's potatoes, which have been domesticated through constant care and cultivation. Growing more and more wild, they became, at last, potatoes of prey. There are grounds for this in their family tree. The potato, as we know, Solanum tuberosum, belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), and a dog—as we know too—comes from the wolf and, if let loose in the forest, may revert. This is precisely what happened to the potatoes on Tairia. And when they began to get crowded on the planet, a new crisis ensued; the younger potatoes were fired with the need for action; they wanted to accomplish unusual things, things no vegetable had ever done before. Lifting their eyes to the heavens, they beheld there sailing slabs of stone and resolved to settle upon them. (...)

"The Star Diaries", translated by Michael Kandel, HBJ New York, 1985