The Thing Itself - Adam Roberts

EPIGRAPH

Syncretism refers to that characteristic of child thought which tends to juxtapose logically unrelated pieces of information when the child is asked for causal explanations. A simple example would be: ‘Why does the sun not fall down?’ ‘Because it is hot. The sun stops there.’ ‘How?’ ‘Because it is yellow.’

G. H. Bantock

1

Thing and Sick

Unity

The beginning was the letter.

Roy would probably say the whole thing began when he solved the Fermi Paradox, when he achieved (his word) clarity. Not clarity, I think: but sick. Sick in the head. He probably wouldn’t disagree. Not any more. Not with so much professional psychiatric opinion having been brought to bear on the matter. He concedes as much to me, in the many communications he has addressed to me from his asylum. He sends various manifestos and communications to the papers too, I understand. In all of them he claims to have finally solved the Fermi Paradox. If he has, then I don’t expect my nightmares to diminish any time soon.

I do have bad dreams, yes. Visceral nightmares. I wake sweating and weeping. If Roy is wrong, then perhaps they’ll diminish with time.

But really it began with the letter.

I was in Antarctica with Roy Curtius, the two of us hundreds of miles inland, far away from the nearest civilisation. It was 1986, and one (weeks-long) evening and one (months-long) south polar night. Our job was to process the raw astronomical data coming in from Proxima and Alpha Centauri. Which is to say: our job was to look for alien life. There had been certain peculiarities in the radioastronomical flow from that portion of the sky, and we were looking into it. Whilst we were out there we were given some other scientific tasks to be keeping ourselves busy, but it was the SETI task that was the main event. We maintained the equipment, and sifted the data, passing most of it on for more detailed analysis back in the UK. Since in what follows I am going to say a number of disobliging things about him, I’ll concede right here that Roy was some kind of programming genius – this, remember, back in the late 80s, when ‘computing’ was quite the new thing.

The base was situated as far as possible from light pollution and radio pollution. There was nowhere on the planet further away than where we were.

We did the best we could, with 1980s-grade data processing and a kit-built radio dish flown out to the location in a packing crate, and assembled as best two men could assemble anything when it was too cold for us to take off our gloves.

‘The simplest solution to the Fermi thing,’ I said once, ‘would be simply to pick up alien chatter on our clever machines. Where are the aliens? Here they are.’

‘Don’t hold your breath,’ he said.

We spent some hours every day on the project. The rest of the time we ate, drank, lay about and killed time. We had a VHS player, and copies of Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, The NeverEnding Story and The Karate Kid. We played cards. We read books. I was working my way through Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy. Roy was reading Immanuel Kant. That fact, right there, tells you all you need to know about the two of us. ‘I figured eight months’ isolation was the perfect time really to get to grips with the Kritik der reinen Vernunft,’ he would say. ‘Of course,’ he would add, with a little self-deprecating snigger, ‘I’m not reading it in the original German. My German is good – but not that good.’ He used to leave the book lying around: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, transl. Meiklejohn. It had a red cover. Pretentious fool.

‘We put too much trust in modern technology,’ he said one day. ‘The solution to the Fermi Paradox? It’s all in here.’ And he would stroke the cover of the Critique, as if it were his white cat and he Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

‘Whatever, dude,’ I told him.

Once a week a plane dropped off our supplies. Sometimes the pilot, Diamondo, would land his crate on the ice-runway, maybe even get out to stretch his legs and chat to us. I’ve no idea why he was called ‘Diamondo’, or what his real name was. He was Peruvian, I believe. More often, if the weather was bad, or if D. was in a hurry, he would swoop low and drop our supplies, leaving us to fight through the burly snowstorm and drag the package in. The