16. Conversations with Starglider
Of all the thousands of questions put to Starglider during its transit of the solar system, those whose answers were most eagerly awaited concerned the living creatures and civilisations of other stars. Contrary to some expectations, the robot answered willingly, though it admitted that its last update on the subject had been received over a century ago.
Considering the immense range of cultures produced on Earth by a single species, it was obvious that there would be even greater variety among the stars, where every conceivable type of biology might occur. Several thousand hours of fascinating – often incomprehensible, sometimes horrifying – scenes of life on other planets left no doubt that this was the case.
Nevertheless, the Starholmers had managed a rough classification of cultures according to their standards of technology – perhaps the only objective basis possible. Humanity was interested to discover that it came number five on a scale which was defined approximately by: 1 – Stone tools. 2 – Metals, fire. 3 – Writing, handicrafts, ships. 4 – Steam power, basic science. 5 – Atomic energy, space travel.
When Starglider had begun its mission, sixty thousand years ago, its builders were, like the human race, still in category Five. They had now graduated to Six, characterised by the ability to convert matter completely into energy, and to transmute all elements on an industrial scale.
“And is there a Class Seven?” Starglider was immediately asked. The reply was a brief “Affirmative”. When pressed for details, the probe explained: “I am not allowed to describe the technology of a higher grade culture to a lower one.” There the matter remained, right up to the moment of the final message, despite all the leading questions designed by the most ingenious legal brains of Earth.
For by this time Starglider was more than a match for any terrestrial logician. This was partly the fault of the University of Chicago's Department of Philosophy; in a fit of monumental hubris, it had clandestinely transmitted the whole of the Summa Theologica, with disastrous results.