Authors: Stanislaw Lem
“No, that’s not all. The effect could be the result of something else.”
“A combination of different substances? Of different toxins?”
“But that would definitely make it a case of premeditated murder, wouldn’t it?”
The answer came unexpectedly from Saussure.
“A girl from Lombardy was working as a housemaid for a certain Parisian lawyer living at 48 Rue St-Pierre, on the third floor. One day her sister came to visit her but forgot the name of the street, confusing it with St-Michel. When she came to 48 Boulevard St-Michel, she went upstairs, found a doctor’s nameplate, rang the doorbell, and asked for her sister, Maria Duval. By sheer coincidence it turned out that a woman with the exact same name—Maria Duval—was working for another doctor, on another street, but was in fact somebody else entirely. Now in trying to determine the a priori probability of such a coincidence, we find it impossible to offer a rational, that is to say, mathematically valid explanation. The example may appear trivial, but, believe me, it opens up an endless void. The only model for the theory of probability is Gibbs’s world of recurrent events. When it comes to unique and statistically unclassifiable events, the theory of probability is inapplicable.”
“There are no such things as unique events,” said Mayer, who all this time had been standing there in amusement, grinning wryly.
“Of course there are,” countered Saussure.
“At least not as a set.”
“You happen to be a unique set of events yourself. Everyone is.”
“Distributively or collectively speaking?”
Just when it looked as if we were in for a duel of abstractions, Lapidus placed a hand on each man’s knee and said:
Both men smiled. Mayer went on smirking with tongue in cheek while Saussure tried to pick up where he had left off.
“One can easily run a frequency analysis on the name Duval or the residences of Parisian doctors. But what’s the ratio between confusing Rue St-Pierre with Boulevard St-Michel, and the frequency of these names as street names throughout France? And what numerical value do you assign to a situation in which the woman finds a house with an occupant named Duval but on the fourth, rather than the third floor? In short, the set of possibilities is limitless.”
“But not infinite,” interjected Mayer.
“I can prove it’s infinite in both the classical and the transfinite sense.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, wishing to pick up the thread. “Dr. Saussure, I’m sure your story had a moral to it. What exactly was the moral?”
Mayer gave me a sympathetic glance and strode out onto the patio. Saussure seemed somewhat startled by my lack of perspicacity.
“Have you been out in the garden behind the summerhouse, out where the strawberry patch is?”
“Did you happen to notice the round wooden table standing there, the one trimmed with copper nails?”
“Do you think it would be possible to take an eyedropper and squeeze out as many drops as there are nails so that each drop hits a nail head?”
“Well … if a person were to take careful aim, why not?”
“But not if a person just started firing away at random?”
“Then obviously not.”
“But five minutes of a steady downpour and each nail would be
to get hit by a drop of water.”
“You mean to say…” I was beginning to see his point.
“Yes, yes! My position is an extreme one: there’s no such thing as a mysterious event. It all depends on the magnitude of the set. The greater the set, the greater the chance of improbable events occurring within it.”
“Then the victims do not really form a set…?”
“The victims were the result of a random causality. Out of that realm of infinite possibilities I mentioned earlier, you chose a certain fraction of cases that exhibited a multifactorial similarity. You then treated these as an entire set, and that’s why they seem mysterious.”
“So you would agree with Mr. Lapidus that we should investigate the abortive cases?”
“No. For the simple reason that they would be impossible to find. The class of soldiers stationed at the front includes the subclass of both killed and wounded. While these two groups can be differentiated easily, you’ll never be able to differentiate those soldiers who came within an inch of being hit from those who missed being hit by a kilometer. That’s why you’ll never find out anything except by sheer accident. An adversary who relies on a strategy of chance can only be defeated by the same strategy.”
“Are you at it again, Dr. Saussure?” came a voice from behind us. It was Barth, accompanied by a lean, grizzly-haired man whose name I failed to catch when we were introduced. Barth treated Saussure not as a member of his team but more as a curiosity. I later found out that until a year ago Saussure had been working for Futuribles before joining up with the French CETI investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations, but that he had always been something of a drifter. I asked him whether he believed such civilizations existed.
“That’s not so simple,” he said, rising to his feet. “Other civilizations exist and at the same time do not exist.”
“They do not exist as projections of our own concept of civilization, from which it follows that man is incapable of defining what makes these civilizations be civilizations.”
“Perhaps,” I conceded. “Still, it must be possible to define our place in the cosmos, don’t you think? Either we’re nothing but a drab mediocrity, or we’re an exception, and a glaring one at that.”
Our listeners broke out laughing, and I was surprised to learn that it was precisely this line of reasoning that had persuaded Saussure to quit the CETI. At the moment he was the only one not laughing; he just stood there, fingering his calculator as if it were a pendant. After luring him away from the others and maneuvering him over to the table, I offered him a glass of wine, poured myself one, and, while drinking to his version of civilization, asked him to share his views with me.
This was a shrewd tactic, one I’d learned from Fitzpatrick: affecting an air of seriousness bordering on parody. Saussure began by explaining that the progress of human knowledge was a gradual renunciation of the
of the world. “Man wanted everything to be simple, even if mysterious: one God—in the singular, of course; one form of natural law; one principle of reason in the universe, and so on. Astronomy, for example, held that the totality of existence was made up of stars—past, present, and future—and their debris in the form of planets. But gradually astronomy had to concede that a number of cosmic phenomena couldn’t be contained within its scheme of things. Man’s hunger for simplicity paved the way for Ockham’s razor, the principle stating that no entity, no category can be multiplied unnecessarily. But the complexity that we refused to acknowledge finally overcame our prejudices. Modem physics has turned Ockham’s maxim upside down by positing that everything is possible. Everything in physics, that is; the complexity of civilizations is far greater than that of physics.”
I could have gone on listening to him, but just then Lapidus insisted on introducing me to a group of doctors and biologists. All were of the same opinion: not enough data. The consensus was that one should start with the hypothesis that the deaths were caused by a congenitally determined reaction to certain unknown elements in the microbiosphere. Two groups should be singled out for study—forty in each, all men in their fifties, all having an athletic or a pyknic build, all randomly selected—and made to undergo a steady program of sulfur baths, sunbathing, body massages, sudorifics, ultraviolet lamps, horror films, and some titillating pornography, until one of them showed signs of cracking. A genealogical study would then have to be made of their hereditary backgrounds for any sudden or unexplained deaths, which is where the computer would come in handy. They had gone on to discuss the chemical composition of the bathing water and the air, the subject of adrenochromes, the possibility of a chemogenic schizophrenia of metabolic origin—when Dr. Barth came to my rescue and began introducing me to the legal experts on the team. Some of the lawyers argued in favor of the Mafia, others in favor of some new and hitherto undisclosed organization that was in no hurry to claim responsibility for the mysterious deaths. Their motive? But, then, what motive did that Japanese have for slaughtering all those Serbs, Dutchmen, and Germans in Rome? And had I seen today’s papers? A New Zealand tourist had tried to protest the kidnapping of an Australian diplomat in Bolivia by hijacking a charter plane in Helsinki that was carrying pilgrims bound for the Vatican. That principle of Roman law which said
“id fecit cui prodest
” was no longer valid. No, it had to be the Mafia, since any one of the Italians could have been a mafioso: the street vendor, the hotel porter, the bath attendant, the taxicab driver… And the acute psychosis would suggest the presence of hallucinogens; although slipping someone a hallucinogen in a restaurant might have been tricky, where else would a person be apt to gulp down a cool, refreshing drink if not in a health spa after a hot and sweaty bath? The lawyers were then surrounded by the doctors, whose company I had just left, and an argument broke out on the subject of baldness, but without resolving anything. The whole scene was rather comical. Around one o’clock the smaller groups began merging to form a fairly animated crowd, and while champagne was being served the subject of sex came up. All were convinced that the list of drugs and medications found on the victims was incomplete. Why was that? Because it didn’t include any of the latest sex stimulants or aphrodisiacs, and you could be sure the older men were using them, Topcraft, Bios 6, Dulong, Antipraecox, Orkasfluid, Sex Tonicum, Sanurex Erecta, Elixire d’Égypte, Erectovite, Topform, Action Cream—the market was flooded with them. I was overwhelmed by this display of erudition, and also a little embarrassed, since they’d managed to reveal a flaw in the investigation: at no time had anyone bothered to investigate the psychotropic effects of such medications. I was advised to look into it. You mean to say that not one of these medications was found on the victims? That in itself was suspicious. A younger man wouldn’t make any bones about it, but then we all know how older men are apt to be secretive, prudish, and self-conscious when it comes to such matters. They had probably used the stuff and got rid of the wrappers…
The party was getting noisy; windows were thrown open; corks went flying; a smiling Barth kept popping in and out of different doorways; Spanish girls made the rounds with trays; a platinum blonde—Lapidus’s wife, I guessed—not bad-looking in the dark, said I reminded her of an ex-boyfriend… The party was a grand success. And yet I was in such a blue, melancholic mood, mellowed by the champagne: I felt cheated. Not one of these rather amiable hotshots had any of that flair, that special flash of illumination which in art went by the name of inspiration, that ability to sniff out what’s relevant from a pile of facts. They didn’t care about finding a solution to the problem; they only wanted to complicate it by inventing new ones. Randy had the gift but was short on the sort of erudition of which the Barth house was chock full—full but unfired.
I stuck around till the very end, joined my hosts in seeing off the last of the guests, watched as car after car went down the driveway till it was empty, gazed up at the house ablaze with lights, then went upstairs feeling defeated and disaffected. More with myself than with anyone else. Outside, a refulgent Paris loomed beyond the dark stretch of gardens and suburban clutter, but its refulgence was not enough to eclipse the planet Mars, now radiantly ascendant above the horizon: a yellow sphere someone had put there as the final dot.
* * *
There are friends with whom we share neither interests nor any particular experiences, friends with whom we never correspond, whom we seldom meet and then only by chance, but whose existence nonetheless has for us a special if uncanny meaning. For me the Eiffel Tower is just such a friend, and not merely because it happens to be the symbol of a city, for Paris leaves me neither hot nor cold. I first became aware of this attachment of mine when reading in the paper about plans for its demolition, the mere thought of which filled me with alarm.
Whenever I’m in Paris I make a point of going to see it. To look and see, that’s all. Toward the end of my visit I like to step under its foundation, to station myself between its four iron pylons and gaze up at its interlacing arches, the intricate trusswork outlined against the sky, and the grand, old-fashioned wheels used to propel the elevator. The day after the get-together at Barth’s was no exception. Though it was now completely hemmed in by high-rise boxes, the tower was just as impressive as ever.
It was a bright and sunny day. Sitting on a bench, I thought about how I might back out of the whole affair—I’d already made up my mind the moment I woke up that morning. After all that effort, the mission now seemed to me so phony and irrelevant and misguided. Especially misguided was my enthusiasm. It was like a moment of self-revelation: behind all the major decisions in my life I saw the same impulsiveness, the same infantile thinking. On impulse I had enlisted in the commandos as an eighteen-year-old and wound up a spectator of the Normandy invasion—from a stretcher, that is; my glider, after taking enemy flak, had crash-landed off target, with me and a crew of thirty on board, right on top of some German bunkers, and the next day I found myself in an English field hospital with a broken tailbone. Mars was just a repeat performance. Even if I’d made it up there and back I couldn’t have gone on reminiscing about it forever; otherwise I might have gone the route of that astronaut who wound up contemplating suicide because everything else seemed so anticlimactic by comparison, including offers to sit on the board of directors of several large corporations. One of my fellow astronauts had been made managing director of a Florida beer-distributing company; and now, every time I reach for a can of beer, I always see him stepping into the elevator in his angel-white space-suit. That’s why I’d joined the Naples mission: I had no intention of following in their footsteps.