Thursday, May 9, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle, Part 2: War of Nerves

These are the voyages of the Starship Space Beagle. It's mission: to seek out life beyond our galaxy; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

In our previous reading we encountered the Coeurl, a cat-like alien with the ability to manipulate energy fields around him, and an obsessive and insatiable hunger. The crew were able to defeat the Coeurl, in part due to the analysis of Elliot Grosvenor, the ship's chief (and only) Nexialist. Now they are about to meet a race which can't be destroyed with a blaster, and which will attack their very minds.

Nexialism is a new science; so new that the addition of a Nexialist Department to the Space Beagle was a last-minute decision, which explains why the entire department consists of only one person, Elliot Grosvenor. Most of the other scientists on board the Beagle don't understand what Nexialism is, and regard Grosvenor as irrelevant to their own areas of expertise. Grosvenor finds this annoying, because Nexialism is a cross-disciplinary science -- in an earlier chapter he calls it "applied whole-ism" -- that tries to make connections between the compartmentalized structure of the sciences. He tries not to let it bug him, but it isn't easy.

Grosvenor has put up a notice on the ship's bulletin boards announcing a public lecture on the science of Nexialism which he hopes will help educate some of his fellow scientists. The notice is a device rather like an LED flatscreen television, and is easily the most attention-grabbing note on the board. He sees, however, that there is a political rally scheduled for the exact time of his lecture, and glumly notes that the rally will probably draw away much of his potential audience.

In the previous two hundred years of space travel, about half the interstellar expeditions never returned, due to conflicts within the crew that grew worse the longer the missions went on. For the Space Beagle's expedition, which is to actually travel beyond the galaxy, it was decided to allow the scientists on board to elect their own leaders, rather than rely on the one appointed at the beginning of the mission, with the hopes that this would help defuse tensions. Gregory Kent, the head of the Chemistry Department, is challenging Hal Morton, the current Director, for the position of Directorship.

Grosvenor does not think the election is a good idea, and suspects that it will only intensify divisions within the crew. Personally, he has no problem with Morton; he regards the director as "a shrewd, reasonably honest, and very intelligent man, who handled most situations with automatic skill." Kent, on the other hand, is an aggressive bantam of a man with a quick temper and a habit of holding grudges. He is charismatic enough, and has many partisan supporters, (especially in his own department), but Grosvenor has already gotten on his bad side during the Coeurl incident.

Grosvenor takes lunch in the ships cafeteria and here we have another interesting side note. We've noted that the crew of the Beagle is exclusively male. Here the text observes:
Conversation among the younger men tended toward a certain sameness. Talk leaned heavily on women and sex. In this all-masculine expedition, the problem of sex had been chemically solved by the inclusion of specific drugs in the general diet. That took away the physical need, but it was emotionally unsatisfying.
It makes me wonder if the use of these "specific drugs" was another experiment to try to reduce conflicts among the crew, or if the elimination of the fairer sex from the crew was.

Much as Grosvenor would like to stay uncommitted in this election, one of Kent's partisans is at his table and draws him into a political argument.
Dennison's face was flushed, his voice harsh. "Look, Grove, you can't possibly have anything against a man you don't even know very well. Kent is the kind of person who won't forget his friends." 
"I'll wager he also has special treatment for those he dislikes," said Grosvenor. He shrugged impatiently. "Carl, to me Kent represents all that is destructive in our present civilization."
Which brings up a question. How does van Vogt view democracy? Some of his other novels seem to suggest that he prefers an enlightened monarchy over a democratic government. I don't know how seriously I want to take that though. He seems to follow a long-running theme in science fiction that the best leader is the Superior Man, a meritocracy based on intelligence and science. We get this sometimes in Robert Heinlein and in some of the late works of H.G. Wells where he talks about a New Breed of Humanity with a higher degree of understanding which he hopes will solve the world's problems.

Van Vogt's version of the New Breed here is the Nexialist, whose understanding of a broad range of knowledge makes him superior to the specialist in a single field. But he is also something of a social outcast. Grosvenor's youth makes him out of place among the Department Heads, and his title and encyclopedic knowledge means he doesn't exactly relate to men his own age either. Like van Vogt's later hero, Johnny Cross, Grosvenor is a geek; a social misfit. But a super-geek.

That said, I'm not sure if van Vogt intends a critique of Democracy here. He does however, have an idea about Democracy's limits. A system of government appropriate for a nation, he suggests, may not work so well in the closed environment of a spaceship. What's more, he recognizes an important point: In order for democratic elections to succeed, the losers must be willing to accede to the results of the contest, and the winners to refrain from punitive reprisals against their opponents. Grosvenor worries about what Kent's supporters will do if Kent loses.

That evening, Grosvenor is disappointed when no one shows up for his lecture. He reschedules it an hour later, hoping to snag a few people after the rally; then an hour later still. Finally a handful of stragglers wander in, including a couple from the Chemistry Department, who say little but seem to regard Grosvenor's department with derision. However, the Head Geologist, McCann, also attends and seems impressed. Afterwards McCann and Grosvenor have a discussion about the subliminal sleep teaching techniques which Nexialists use as part of their training.

The next day, the war begins.

Grosvenor arrives at his Department to find that the rooms have been taken over by a team of technicians from the Chemistry Department who have moved out his equipment and are busy installing their own: food-making vats and equipment. In the previous day's dinnertime discussion, Grosvenor had made sarcastic comments about the re-constituted food the Chemistry Department was producing. This is Kent's payback. If Grosvenor complains about Kent moving in, Kent can always say he was taking over space that wasn't being used, (true) to do something beneficial to the ship, (also true).

So Grosvenor holds his temper and tells the men, "I welcome the opportunity to further the education of the staff of the chemistry department... I hope no one will object to learning while he works.
Through duplicitous and morally dubious means, he manages to implant each of the workers with an ear bud which transmits a subliminal teaching message into the worker's brain.

Once he has this set up, he goes to talk with Director Morton. "I hear you've been invaded," Morton says. Grosvenor tells what happened and requests that Morton orders Kent out.
"I have an idea you misunderstand my position aboard the Beagle. Before making a decision involving a department head, I must consult with other department heads... Let us suppose that I placed this matter on the agenda, and then it was decided that Kent could have that part of your department he has already taken over. The status, being affirmed, would thereafter be permanent."
Grosvenor was well aware of that likelihood  and wanted to see how well Morton himself understood the situation. He then turns around and asks Morton to keep the matter off the agenda for the time being so that he can deal with matters himself. Surprised, Morton agrees.

Returning to his department, he sees Siedel, the chief Psychologist there observing the work crew. "Young man, isn't this a little unethical?" Kent noticed that some of his men were acting strangely and asked the psychologist to investigate. Siedel has has discovered the subliminal conditioning devices.
Grosvenor defends himself:
"Mr. Siedel, my department has been invaded by a man who dislikes me because I have openly stated that I will not vote for him. Since he acted in defiance of the laws of this ship, I have every right to defend myself as best I can. I beg you, therefore, to remain neutral in this purely private quarrel."
He admits to having hypnotized the workmen and given them the subliminal instructions, but insists that he has not taken advantage of them or harmed them. The only thing the subliminals contain are information on chemistry.
"That's all I'm giving them," said Grosvenor. "That's all I intend to give them. I regard my department as an educational center. People who force themselves in here receive an education whether they like it or not."
Siedel admits that he can't see Kent objecting to his men learning about chemistry, although privately Grosvenor wonders how much Kent will like his subordinates knowing as much about his specialty as he does. Still, Grosvenor realizes that he will need to change tactics.

He goes to visit Korita, the archaeologist, to ask his advice. Korita, as we have seen, espouses a cyclical theory of history, that each civilization passes through various stages which inevitably repeat. Grosvenor is not sure he fully accepts this theory, but acknowledges that he does not fully understand it, and want's Korita's input as to how the theory applies to his current situation.
"...From what I've read on the subject, I gather we're in the late, or 'winter,' period of our own civilization. In other words, right now we are making the mistakes that lead to decay. I have a few ideas about that, but I'd like more." 
Korita shrugged. "I'll try to put it briefly." He was silent for a while, then he said, "The outstanding common denominator of the 'winter' periods of civilization is the growing comprehension on the part of millions of individuals of how things work. People become impatient with superstitious or supernatural explanations of what goes on in their minds and bodies, and in the world around them. With the gradual accumulation of knowledge, even the simplest minds for the first time 'see through' and consciously reject the claims of a minority to hereditary superiority. And the grim battle for equality is on." 
Korita paused for a moment, then continued. "It is this widespread struggle for personal aggrandizement that constiutues the most significant parallel between all the 'winter' periods in the civilizations of recorded history. For better or wors, the fight usually takes place within the framework of a legal system that tends to protect the entrenched minority. The late-comer to the field, not understanding his motivations, plunges blindly into the battle for power. The result is a veritable melee of undisciplined intelligence. In their resentment and lust, men follow leaders as confused as themselves. Repeatedly, the resulting disorder has led by well-defined steps into the fellahin state. 
"Sooner or later, one group gains the ascendancy. Once in office, the leaders restore 'order' in so savage a blood-letting that the millions are cowed. Swiftly, the power group begins to restrict activities.... It becomes difficult, then impossible, for the individual to engage in any enterprise. And so we progress by swift stages to the familiar caste system of ancient India, and to other, less well-known but equally inflexible societies  such as that of Rome after about A.D. 300. The individual is born into his station of life and cannot rise above it."
Korita paints a grim picture of the 'winter' stage of civilization and this is the stage their own civilization has reached. We can see parallels with our own society today, and the clear implication is that we ourselves are in a decadent culture destined for stagnation until the next turn of the wheel starts the cycle anew. No wonder Grosvenor expresses some misgivings about the cyclical theory.Perhaps Nexial science, properly developed, will allow mankind to understand the process of history and break out of the cyclical pattern of previous civilizations. Grosvenor certainly hopes so.
"As I've already said, I'm trying to solve the problem Mr. Kent has presented me without falling into the egotistical errors of late-civilization man you have described. I want to know if I can reasonably hope to defend myself against him without aggravating the hostilities that already exist aboard the Beagle."
Korita is sympathetic, but not very encouraging. "It will be a unique victory if you succeed. Historically, on a mass basis, the problem has never been solved."

Suddenly the ship comes under attack.

Grosvenor sees a strange image in one of the translucent wall panels in the ship's corridor. He only catches a glimpse -- he gets the impression of a woman with a feathered hat -- then flashes of light and a pain in his eyes.

His Nexial training tells him that he is receiving some kind of hypnotic hallucination. He is able to overcome the illusion, but Korita has already fallen into a trance and Grosvenor must use a hypnotic counter-suggestion to snap him out of it.

The illusions are everywhere. All over the ship, members of the crew have fallen unconscious. Clearly this is some sort of alien attack. Grosvenor tries helping another crewman the way he did Korita, but by now it's too late. "I got to you right away," Grosvenor later explains to Korita. "The human nervous system learns by repetition. For you the light pattern hadn't repeated as often as for the others."
Grosvenor tries to build an electro-mechanical device to counter the flashing lights, but by now the crew is waking up, and under the influence of the hypnosis, they are acting on deep-seated hostilities. And this crew has a lot of hostility. Before he knows it, Grosvenor finds himself in the middle of a three-way war for control of the ship between Kent's partisans, Morton, and the military contingent aboard the ship led by Captain Leeth.

Grosvenor goes to both Morton and Leeth, attempting to break through and convince them of the alien hypnosis threat, but both men are so entrenched in their preconceived hatreds and paranoia, that they barely seem to comprehend what he's saying.

He returns to his lab. His only chance now is to try making contact with the alien attackers. Since the aliens can use hypnosis over a distance, Grosvenor speculates that they may be telepathic. He sets up an encephalo-adjuster, a device capable of artificially transmitting impulses from one mind to another. Viewing the hypnotic images through the adjuster, he is able to safely get a clear view of his adversaries: bird-like creatures with slender bodies which he had initially identified as feminine. (van Vogt does not speculate on whether the lack of women on board might have contributed to that association). The creatures seem to reproduce by budding, which is why some of them seem to be "doubled"; a new being is growing out of the body of another one. The aliens show him images of their planet; a world with tall, slender buildings, but no industry and seemingly no machinery. But in exchange for the information they have given, the aliens demand closer contact. They insist that Grosvenor let himself be hypnotized so that he may join their collective mind.

Here things start to get strange. His mind does not fit well with that of the aliens, which he learns call themselves the Riim. His brain is trying to interpret alien sensations that have no connection with his own body, and it's interpreting them as pain. Then he feels the sensation of something soft against his lips and a voice saying "I am loved." The sensations become more pleasant, but he reminds himself that they are still illusions.

He is still not in full communication with the creatures, and so he attempts to use his connection to take control of one of their bodies. This is extremely difficult, but with some effort he manages to move the arms and head of one of the Riim.

The reaction of the Riim is completely unexpected.
"The cells are calling, calling. The cells are afraid. Oh, the cells know pain! There is darkness in the Riim world. Withdraw from the being -- far from Riim. . . Shadow, darkness, turmoil. . . . The cells must reject him. . . . But they cannot. They were right to try to be friendly to the being who came out of the great dark, since they did not know he was an enemy . . . . The night deepened. All cells withdraw. . . . But they cannot. . . ."
The attack on the Beagle had been intended as a message of friendship all along. But the differences between the two alien psychologies had made the contact disruptive. Grosvenor realizes that he could break contact with the Riim now, but if he does, they may try try to retaliate for what they perceive as his attack on them.

Using what he has learned from the Riim already, he attempts to project soothing thoughts and images to them. "I am loved... I am loved by my parent body, from which I am growing to wholeness. I share my parent's thoughts, but already I see with my own eyes, and know that I am one of the group--"
Korita has speculated that being a telepathic race, these beings might have progressed directily to the final stage in the cycle, a static, convention-bound society. Grosvenor needs to break their assumptions about the universe. And so he floods their group-consciousness with new ideas, about the nature of the universe and their role in it. He explains that their attempt at friendly communication was causing great harm to the people on his ship. And he convinces them. The Riim withdraw.

The crew of the Beagle comes out of their temporary madness. There have been some deaths from the fighting and many injuries, but for the most part the crew is once again whole. Morton and Leeth remember enough of what happened to believe and understand Grosvenor's explaination.
But what of Kent?

Kent, it seems, took a mouthful of poison gas during the battle between his department and the military. He's recuperating, but will be laid up for several weeks. Long past the date of the election, in fact. Kent's deputy in the Chemistry Department has quietly agreed to withdraw from the Nexial Department.

Since Morton will now effectively be running unopposed in the election, Grosvenor suggests that he name Kent his alternative.

"That's a suggestion I wouldn't have expected from you," Morton says. "I'm not, personally, very anxious to boost Kent's morale."

"Not Kent's," Grosvenor says. He's thinking of Kent's supporters, who will feel cheated and angry at their leader's loss. One of his chief objectives on board the Beagle is to try to neutralize tensions in the crew, and this is the best way he can think of. Morton reluctantly agrees.

NEXT: Okay, this is the one we've been waiting for; the one that van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox over; because in space, no one can hear the "Discord in Scarlet!"

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