Friday, May 24, 2013

The Voyage of the Space Beagle, part 4: M33 in Andromeda

The nearest galaxy to our own can be observed in the constellation of Andromeda. For that reason, it is often called the Andromeda Galaxy, although it's astronomical designation is M33. For months now, the Space Beagle has been traveling through the intergalactic void towards this galaxy, and now it has almost reached its destination.

It begins with a whisper.

In his lab, Elliot Grosvenor hears a noise like an indistinct whisper in his ear. But no one is around. It's almost as if an aural illusion was being projected into his mind by one of his encephalo-adjusters, but he knows his lab is too well-shielded for that. When he leaves the lab, however, he finds that the entire crew is experiencing psychic bombardment from an outside force. It's not as incapacitating as the contact they had with the Riim, but it's damned unnerving.

Acting Director Kent calls a meeting of the department heads. Since Morton's incapacitation during the Ixtl affair, Kent has been in charge of the expedition. The chemist's leadership style is decidedly different from Morton's and Kent's dislike of Grosvenor has not moderated in the least.
Undeniably, the men no longer felt so free to speak up as they had under the leadership of Morton. One way or another, Kent had made it rather plain that he deemed the opinions of those other than department heads impertinent. It was also evident that he personally declined to regard nexialism as a legitimate department. For several months, he and Grosvenor had been polite to each other on a basis of minimum contact. During that time, the Acting Director had, by way of consolidating his position, intoduced several motions in the council giving his office more authority in certain activities, the ostensible reasons being to avoid duplication of effort. 
The importance to this ship's morale of encouraging individual initiative, even at the cost of some efficiency, was a point that could have been demonstrated only to another Nexialist, Gorsvenor felt sure. He had not bothered to protest. And so a few more slight restrictions had been imposed on the already dangerously regimented and confined shipload of human beings.
At the meeting, Grosvenor distinctly hears someone say: "This is an opinion... the ship ought to go home." No one else hears the comment. Grosvenor surmises that it is another psychic message, one which he can pick up because his encounter with the Riim has made him more sensitive to these things. Kent is skeptical., but McCann the geologist observes "I think, gentlemen, we had better face the fact that we have entered somebody else's stamping ground. And it's some somebody!"

They continue to discuss what kind of "somebody" they may be facing, when suddenly the 800 words are up. As mentioned earlier, van Vogt liked to throw in "something new" every 800 words or so. Sort of like Raymond Chandler's man coming through the door with a gun in his hand. Except in this case, it's a bunch of thirty-foot long prehistoric monsters which just materialize in the middle of the conference room.

While everyone else is shooting their ray-guns and the beasts keep appearing, Grosvenor has the presence of mind to activate the ship's defensive force fields. This stops the arrival of reinforcements. But he realizes that they are currently still about a thousand light-years from the nearest star. What kind of entity can teleport creatures alive across that kind of distance?

Once again, they turn to Korita, whose cyclical theory of history has been useful in discerning the psychology of alien beings in the past. The archaeologist shrugs helplessly.
"I can't even offer a guess. We shall have to learn somewhat more about the motivation behind the attack before we can make comparisons on the basis of cyclic history. For example, if the purpose was to seize the ship, then to assail us as they did was a mistake. If the intent was merely to scare us, the attack was a howling success."
Captain Leeth offers another possible motive. The entities responsible for the psychic contact and the dinosaur invasion might want to know where the Beagle came from. Grosvenor suggests that they destroy their star maps, and to rig up some large-scale encephelo-adjusters to create the psychic equivalent of radio jamming if they land on any planets. Kent seems annoyed that Grosvenor is once again dominating the meeting but lets him continue. Grosvenor has one more comment: "The department heads might make a survey of any material they control with a view to destroying any that might endanger our race if the Beagle were captured."

The ship enters the galaxy with no further incident and begins surveying the planets they encounter. The first few habitable planets they find are quite similar: each "a world of mists and jungles and giant beasts" with no signs of civilization. Then they come across a system with three habitable planets bunched closely together, each with the same antediluvian climate. Gunlie, the ship's chief astronomer is certain that two of the three were moved to their present orbit from someplace else. He wants to land and examine one of these jungle worlds. Grosvenor objects, but manages to do so in such a way that he convinces Gunlie and avoids directly challenging Kent's authority. He's getting better at politics.

After the meeting, Grosvenor has a brief conversation with McCann, whom you might recall had attended the lecture Grosvenor gave on Nexialism shortly before the Riim incident. They talk about Kent and his leadership qualities.
He was turning away when Grosvenor stopped him. Grosvenor said, "What, in your opinion, is the basis for Kent's popularity as a leader?" 
McCann hesitated, and seemed to be deliberating. Finally he said, "He's human. He has likes and dislikes. He gets excited about things. He has a bad temper. He makes mistakes, and tries to pretend that he didn't. ... It's hard to put Kent's appeal into words, but I think that scientists are constantly on the defensive about their alleged unfeeling intellectualism. So they like to have someone fronting for them who is emotional but whose scientific qualifications cannot be questioned."
"Strictly logical men like you have always had a hard time understanding the mass appeal of the Kents. They haven't much chance against his type, politically." 
Grosvenor smiled grimly. "It's not their devotion to the scientific method that defeats the technologists. It's their integrity. The average trained man often understands the tactics that are used against him better than the person who uses them, but he cannot bring himself to retaliate in kind without feeling tarnished."
This remark bothers McCann. He asks what Grosvenor would do if he thought Kent needed to be ousted. "At the moment my thoughts are quite constitutional," Grosvenor assures him, but McCann is not satisfied.
"Ever since that lecture you gave, I've realized what hasn't yet dawned on anyone else -- that you are potentially the most dangerous man on this ship. The integrated knowledge you have in your mind, applied with determination and purpose, could be more disastrous than any outside attack."
The Beagle investigates some more planets. Each one which is remotely habitable follows the same pattern: a jungle worlds, covered with swamps and populated with megafauna. The thirty-first system they visit, however shows something different: in the geological layers of mud, sandstone, clay and granite, their scans show traces of steel. Excavation using remote-controlled equipment, (they are still leery about leaving the protection of the Beagle's shields), reveals a city which has been buried under two hundred and fifty feet of earth. And this is not the gradual accumulation of sediment over eons of time; analysis of one of the crushed skeletons they find in the city suggests that two hundred and fifty feet of rock and soil was dumped, plop! on the city no more than a century ago.

Grosvenor has been putting the pieces together. He knows now what they're up against and how to fight it. But experience has taught him that it's not enough to be right; he has to convince others as well. And if he's right, they won't have the time.

He sends a memo to Kent, stating that he has "accumulated evidence supporting action on the largest scale" and requesting a meeting to present his solution to all the department heads. Predictably, Kent has an underling reply telling him to fill out "enclosed form A-16-4". Grosvenor does do, meticulously detailing the evidence he's complied, but not stating his conclusions. Under the space marked "Recommendations" he merely writes: "The conclusion will be instantly obvious to any qualified person."

Yes, this is a dig at Kent. If Kent can't figure it out himself, that implies that he's not qualified. But it's also part of Grosvenor's technique throughout the book. His goal as a Nexialist is to teach people how to think better; and frequently he states the facts he used to draw his conclusions so that others may follow his reasoning and draw the same conclusions themselves. But in this case, goading Kent is a part of his strategy. He does not foresee his plan being immediately accepted and is taking steps of his own to prepare for battle.

One of these steps is to dose himself with a cocktail of drugs to give himself symptoms of influenza. The doctor does not think it odd that he should catch the flu on a spaceship. "It's amazing. No matter how much protection we give on these landings, some virus or bacteria break through occasionally." The doctor wants to put Grosvenor in isolation, but agrees to let him stay in his department, since he has no one else working there anyway. Now, when Kent does call Grosvenor to a meeting to spell out his ideas, Grosvenor can ask to give his presentation by video conferencing rather than in person.

Grosvenor has determined that the intelligence they face is a diffuse, gaseous life-form spread out through the entire galaxy. It has the ability to teleport huge amounts of matter across vast distances, and to "terraform" planets to suit it's needs. Having filled it's own galaxy, it's getting hungry and looking for another; which is why it wants to scare the Beagle into going home, so it can follow them. Grosvenor's plan is to begin building an arsenal of atomically unstable missiles and seed this galaxy with them, making it inhospitable for the entity. Then to set a course for the farthest galaxy they can find, luring the entity out into the most remote reaches of space until it starves to death. Only then will it be safe to go home.

This will add at least five years to their mission. "Earth years," Grosvenor reminds them, since the on-ship calender is longer than the terrestrial one. Still, it's way longer than the crew expected. What Grosvenor has presented sounds largely like speculation, and the department heads are dubious. Grosvenor baldly states that the others don't have the training and background to fully comprehend the situation, which does not exactly win him any friends.

This too is deliberate. He's pushing things to a crisis, because he fears he doesn't have time to convince people slowly through persuasion and reason. He also wants to keep Kent off-balance. And now he delivers an ultimatum:
"If by 1000 hours tomorrow my plan has not been accepted, I take over the ship. Everybody aboard will find himself doing what I order whether he likes it or not. Naturally, I expect that the scientists aboard will pool their knowledge in an attempt to prevent my carrying out such a stated purpose. Resistance, however, will be useless."
When McCann had called him "dangerous," Grosvenor had joked that "One man is too easy to kill." Except that he wasn't really joking. Kent has already tried to have a couple goons rough him up. Forcing the issue the way he has is Grosvenor's way of assuring that this next battle takes place on his terms. He has already spent the past few days preparing for a siege. Now comes the deluge.McCann comes to talk with him. The geologist is sympathetic towards Grosvenor, but frankly conflicted about his methods. He finds himself at a ringside seat as Kent's forces try unsuccessfully to break through Grosvenor's defenses.

"I wanted you to know you were not completely alone. Several executives asked me to tell you they were with you." McCann says. "I feel sure you're right. But your tactics are too unethical for me."
"There's only one other possible tactic and that is to run for election against Kent. Since he's only Acting Director, and was not himself elected, I could probably force an election within about a month," Grosvenor says. But a month may be too long. He's afraid the entity might make a try for another galaxy before then. He is not afraid of losing such an election, though.
"You may not believe that on my say-so. But the fact is that people who are wrapped up in pleasure, excitement or ambition are easily controlled. I didn't devise the tactics I'd use. They've been around for centuries. But historical attempts to analyze them just didn't get at the roots of the process."
McCann finds this even more disturbing. "What kind of future do you envision for man? Do you expect us all to become Nexialists?"

"On board this ship it's a necessity. For the race as a whole, it's still impractical. In the long run, however, there can be no excuse for any individual not knowing what it is possible for him to know." The kind of societal change he's talking about would break the pattern of cyclical history that Korita has espoused. That is why Nexialism is so important.

The attackers withdraw to regroup, and Grosvenor fires up an organ-like instrument. Instead of playing music, this device directly stimulates the brain, producing an emotional reaction. "So this is how you can win an election," McCann says. "One of the methods," Grosvenor replies. "You frighten me. I regard that as unethical. I can't help it," McCann says. Grosvenor disagrees:
"Please note that I have never used this device before. I have never used hypnosis except when Kent invaded my department -- though of course I intend to do so now. From the moment the trip began, I could have lured people up here by stimulating them in a dozen unexpected ways. Why didn't I? Because the Nexial Foundation laid down a code of ethics for itself and its graduates, which is conditioned right into my system. I can break through that conditioning, but only with great difficulty....
"I think you've got a picture in your mind of a dictator -- myself -- taking over a democracy by force. That picture is false, because a ship on a cruise can be run only by quasi-democratic methods. And the greatest difference of all is that at the end of the voyage I can be brought to account."
McCann reluctantly agrees to help him. Using his Mighty Wurlitzser, Grosvenor puts the entire crew of the Beagle to sleep and gives them all post-hypnotic suggestions using patterns of color and mental images similar to those used by the Riim. Having done this, he shuts everything down and surrenders to Kent.

This time, when he asks the department heads to vote on his plan, they unanimously decide that they've changed their mind. They agree the the danger from the galactic entity of M33 warrants his five-year plan. Even Kent agrees.

The plan goes into effect. The gaseous entity which had spread all over the Andromeda Galaxy, which lived off the death of other creatures and which could re-make other planets in the image of its homeworld, so as to provide an ideal breeding grounds for conflict and death, follows theBeeagle as it heads out, away from M33 towards a nebula so distant that it will eventually die. When the crew stop hearing it's psychic whispers, they will know it is safe to turn around and head home.

In the meantime, however, Grosvenor has classes to teach. He finally has students interested in learning more about the science of Nexialism.

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