“THE ANTHROPOMORPHIC PROBLEM”
“Seriously,” Norman said, “I think somebody has to ask the question: should we consider not opening it up?”
“Why?” Barnes said. “Listen, I just got off the phone-”
“-I know,” Norman said. “But maybe we should think twice about this.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tina nodding vigorously. Harry looked skeptical. Beth rubbed her eyes, sleepy.
“Are you afraid, or do you have a substantive argument?” Barnes said.
“I have the feeling,” Harry said, “that Norman’s about to quote from his own work.”
“Well, yes,” Norman admitted. “I did put this in my report.”
In his report, he had called it “the Anthropomorphic Problem.” Basically, the problem was that everybody who had ever thought or written about extraterrestrial life imagined that life as essentially human. Even if the extraterrestrial life didn’t look human-if it was a reptile, or a big insect, or an intelligent crystal-it still acted in a human way. “You’re talking about the movies,” Barnes said.
“I’m talking about research papers, too. Every conception of extraterrestrial life, whether by a movie maker or a university professor, has been basically human-assuming human values, human understanding, human ways of approaching a humanly understandable universe. And generally a human appearance-two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and so on.”
“So,” Norman said, “that’s obviously nonsense. For one thing, there’s enough variation in human behavior to make understanding just within our own species very troublesome. The differences between, say, Americans and Japanese are very great. Americans and Japanese don’t really look at the world the same way at all.”
“Yes, yes,” Barnes said impatiently. “We all know the Japanese are different-”
“-And when you come to a new life form, the differences may be literally incomprehensible. The values and ethics of this new form of life may be utterly different.”
“You mean it may not believe in the sanctity of life, or ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ ” Barnes said, still impatient.
“No,” Norman said. “I mean that this creature may not be able to be killed, and so it may have no concept of killing in the first place.”
Barnes stopped. “This creature may not be able to be killed?”
Norman nodded. “As someone once said, you can’t break the arms of a creature that has no arms.”
“It can’t be killed? You mean it’s immortal?”
“I don’t know,” Norman said. “That’s the point.”
“I mean, Jesus, a thing that couldn’t be killed,” Barnes said. “How would we kill it?” He bit his lip. “I wouldn’t like to open that sphere and release a thing that couldn’t be killed.”
Harry laughed. “No promotions for that one, Hal.” Barnes looked at the monitors, showing several views of the polished sphere. Finally he said, “No, that’s ridiculous. No living thing is immortal. Am I right, Beth?”
“Actually, no,” Beth said. “You could argue that certain living creatures on our own planet are immortal. For example, single-celled organisms like bacteria and yeasts are apparently capable of living indefinitely.”
“Yeasts.” Barnes snorted. “We’re not talking about yeasts.”
“And to all intents and purposes a virus could be considered immortal.”
“A virus?” Barnes sat down in a chair. He hadn’t considered a virus. “But how likely is it, really? Harry?”
“I think,” Harry said, “that the possibilities go far beyond what we’ve mentioned so far. We’ve only considered threedimensional creatures, of the kind that exist in our threedimensional universe-or, to be more precise, the universe that we perceive as having three dimensions. Some people think our universe has nine or eleven dimensions.”
Barnes looked tired.
“Except the other six dimensions are very small, so we don’t notice them.”
Barnes rubbed his eyes.
“Therefore this creature,” Harry continued, “may be multidimensional, so that it literally does not exist-at least not entirely-in our usual three dimensions. To take the simplest case, if it were a four-dimensional creature, we would only see part of it at any time, because most of the creature would exist in the fourth dimension. That would obviously make it difficult to kill. And if it were a five-dimensional creature-”
“-Just a minute. Why haven’t any of you mentioned this before?”
“We thought you knew,” Harry said.
“Knew about five-dimensional creatures that can’t be killed? Nobody said a word to me.” He shook his head. “Opening this sphere could be incredibly dangerous.”
“It could, yes.”
“What we have here is, we have Pandora’s box.”
“Well,” Barnes said. “Let’s consider worst cases. What’s the worst case for what we might find?”
Beth said, “I think that’s clear. Irrespective of whether it’s a multidimensional creature or a virus or whatever, irrespective of whether it shares our morals or has no morals at all, the worst case is that it hits us below the belt.”
“Meaning that it behaves in a way that interferes with our basic life mechanisms. A good example is the AIDS virus. The reason why AIDS is so dangerous is not that it’s new. We get new viruses every year-every week. And all viruses work in the same way: they attack cells and convert the machinery of the cells to make more viruses. What makes the AIDS virus dangerous is, it attacks the specific cells that we use to defend against viruses. AIDS interferes with our basic defense mechanism. And we have no defense against it.”
“Well,” Barnes said, “if this sphere contains a creature that interferes with our basic mechanisms-what would that creature be like?”
“It could breathe in air and exhale cyanide gas,” Beth said. “It could excrete radioactive waste,” Harry said.
“It could disrupt our brain waves,” Norman said. “Interfere with our ability to think.”
“Or,” Beth said, “it might merely disrupt cardiac conduction. Stop our hearts from beating.”
“It might produce a sound vibration that would resonate in our skeletal system and shatter our bones,” Harry said. He smiled at the others. “I rather like that one.”
“Clever,” Beth said. “But, as usual, we’re only thinking of ourselves. The creature might do nothing directly harmful to us at all.”
“Ah,” Barnes said.
“It might simply exhale a toxin that kills chloroplasts, so that plants could no longer convert sunlight. Then all the plants on Earth would die-and consequently all life on Earth would die.”
“Ah,” Barnes said.
“You see,” Norman said, “at first I thought the Anthropomorphic Problem-the fact that we can only conceive of extraterrestrial life as basically human-I thought it was a failure of imagination. Man is man, all he knows is man, and all he can think of is what he knows. Yet, as you can see, that’s not true. We can think of plenty of other things. But we don’t. So there must be another reason why we only conceive of extraterrestrials as humans. And I think the answer is that we are, in reality, terribly frail animals. And we don’t like to be reminded of how frail we are-how delicate the balances are inside our own bodies, how short our stay on Earth, and how easily it is ended. So we imagine other life forms as being like us, so we don’t have to think of the real threat-the terrifying threat-they may represent, without ever intending to.”
There was a silence.
“Of course, we mustn’t forget another possibility,” Bames said. “It may be that the sphere contains some extraordinary benefit to us. Some wondrous new knowledge, some astonishing new idea or new technology which will improve the condition of mankind beyond our wildest dreams.”
“Although the chances are,” Harry said, “that there won’t be any new idea that is useful to us.”
“Why?” Barnes said.
“Well, let’s say that the aliens are a thousand years ahead of us, just as we are relative to, say, medieval Europe. Suppose you went back to medieval Europe with a television set? There wouldn’t be any place to plug it in.”
Barnes stared from one to another for a long time. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is too great a responsibility for me. I can’t make the decision to open it up. I have to call Washington on this.”
“Ted won’t be happy,” Harry said.
“The hell with Ted,” Barnes said. “I’m going to give this to the President. Until we hear from him, I don’t want anybody trying to open that sphere.”
Barnes called for a two-hour rest period, and Harry went to his quarters to sleep. Beth announced that she was going off to sleep, too, but she remained at the monitor station with Tina Chan and Norman. Chan’s station had comfortable chairs with high backs, and Beth swiveled in the chair, swinging her legs back and forth. She played with her hair, making little ringlets by her ear, and she stared into space.
Tired, Norman thought. We’re all tired. He watched Tina, who moved smoothly and continuously, adjusting the monitors, checking the sensor inputs, changing the videotapes on the bank of VCR’s, tense, alert. Because Edmunds was in the spaceship with Ted, Tina had to look after the recording units as well as her own communications console. The Navy woman didn’t seem to be as tired as they were, but, then, she hadn’t been inside the spaceship. To her, that spaceship was something she saw on the monitors, a TV show, an abstraction. Tina hadn’t been confronted face-to-face with the reality of the new environment, the exhausting mental struggle to understand what was going on, what it all meant.
“You look tired, sir,” Tina said.
“Yes. We’re all tired.”
“It’s the atmosphere,” she said. “Breathing the heliox.” So much for psychological explanations, Norman thought. Tina said, “The density of the air down here has a real effect. We’re at thirty atmospheres. If we were breathing regular air at this pressure, it would be almost as thick as a liquid. Heliox is lighter, but it’s far denser than what we’re used to. You don’t realize it, but it’s tiring just to breathe, to move your lungs.”
“But you aren’t tired.”
“Oh, I’m used to it. I’ve been in saturated environments before.”
“Is that right? Where?”
“I really can’t say, Dr. Johnson.”
She smiled. “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Is that your inscrutable smile?”
“I hope so, sir. But don’t you think you ought to try and sleep?”
He nodded. “Probably.”
Norman considered going to sleep, but the prospect of his damp bunk was unappealing. Instead he went down to the galley, hoping to find one of Rose Levy’s desserts. Levy was not there, but there was some coconut cake under a plastic dome. He found a plate, cut a slice, and took it over to one of the portholes. But it was black outside the porthole; the grid lights were turned off, the divers gone. He saw lights in the portholes of DH-7, the divers’ habitat, located a few dozen yards away. The divers must be getting ready to go back to the surface. Or perhaps they had already gone.
In the porthole, he saw his own face reflected. The face looked tired, and old. “This is no place for a fifty-three-year-old man,” he said, watching his reflection.
As he looked out, he saw some moving lights in the distance, then a flash of yellow. One of the minisubs pulled up under a cylinder at DH-7. Moments later, a second sub arrived, to dock alongside it. The lights on the first sub went out. After a short time, the second sub pulled away, into the black water. The first sub was left behind.
What’s going on, he wondered, but he was aware he didn’t really care. He was too tired. He was more interested in what the cake would taste like, and looked down. The cake was eaten. Only a few crumbs remained.
Tired, he thought. Very tired. He put his feet up on the coffee table and put his head back against the cool padding of the wall.
He must have fallen asleep for a while, because he awoke disoriented, in darkness. He sat up and immediately the lights came on. He saw he was still in the galley.
Barnes had warned him about that, the way the habitat adjusted to the presence of people. Apparently the motion sensors stopped registering you if you fell asleep, and automatically shut off the room lights. Then when you awoke, and moved, the lights came back. He wondered if the lights would stay on if you snored. Who had designed all this? he wondered. Had the engineers and designers working on the Navy habitat taken snoring into account? Was there a snore sensor? More cake.
He got up and walked across to the galley kitchen. Several pieces of cake were now missing. Had he eaten them? He wasn’t sure, couldn’t remember.
“Lot of videotapes,” Beth said. Norman turned around.
“Yes,” Tina said. “We are recording everything that goes on in this habitat as well as the other ship. It’ll be a lot of material.”
There was a monitor mounted just above his head. It showed Beth and Tina, upstairs at the communications console. They were eating cake.
Aha, he thought. So that was where the cake had gone. “Every twelve hours the tapes are transferred to the submarine,” Tina said.
“What for?” Beth said.
“That’s so, if anything happens down here, the submarine will automatically go to the surface.”
“Oh, great,” Beth said. “I won’t think about that too much. Where is Dr. Fielding now?”
Tina said, “He gave up on the sphere, and went into the main flight deck with Edmunds.”
Norman watched the monitor. Tina had stepped out of view. Beth sat with her back to the monitor, eating the cake. On the monitor behind Beth, he could clearly see the gleaming sphere. Monitors showing monitors, he thought. The Navy people who eventually review this stuff are going to go crazy. Tina said, “Do you think they’ll ever get the sphere open?” Beth chewed her cake. “Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know.” And to Norman’s horror, he saw on the monitor behind Beth that the door of the sphere was sliding silently open, revealing blackness inside.