The Blue Star
Penfield twirled the stem of his port-glass between thumb and finger.
“I don’t agree,” he said. “It’s nothing but egocentric vanity to consider our form of life as unique among those on the millions of worlds that must exist.”
“How do you know they exist?” said Hodge.
“Observation,” said McCall. “The astronomers have proved that other stars beside our sun have planets.”
“You’re playing into his hands,” observed Penfield, the heavy eyebrows twitching as he cracked a nut. “The statistical approach is better. Why doesn’t this glass of port suddenly boil and spout all over the ceiling? You’ve never seen a glass of port behave that way, but the molecules that compose it are in constant motion, and any physicist will tell you that there’s no reason why they can’t all decide to move in the same direction at once. There’s only an overwhelming possibility that it won’t happen. To believe that we, on this earth, one of the planets of a minor star, are the only form of intelligent life, is like expecting the port to boil any moment.”
“There are a good many possibilities for intelligent life, though,” said McCall. “Some Swede who wrote in German—I think his name was Lundmark—has looked into the list. He says, for instance, that a chlorine-silicon cycle would maintain life quite as well as the oxygen-carbon system this planet has, and there’s no particular reason why nature should favor one form more than the other. Oxygen is a very active element to be floating around free in such quantities as we have it.”
“All right,” said Hodge, “can’t it be that the cycle you mention is the normal one, and ours is the eccentricity?”
“Look here,” said Penfield, “what in the world is the point you’re making? Pass the port, and let’s review the bidding.” He leaned back in his chair and gazed toward the top of the room, where the carved coats of arms burned dully at the top of the dark panelling. “I don’t mean that everything here is reproduced exactly somewhere else in the universe, with three men named Hodge, McCall and Penfield sitting down to discuss sophomore philosophy after a sound dinner. The fact that we are here and under these circumstances is the sum of all the past history of—”
Hodge laughed. “I find the picture of us three as the crown of human history an arresting one,” he said.
“You’re confusing two different things. I didn’t say we were elegant creatures, or even desirable ones. But behind us there are certain circumstances, each one of which is as unlikely as the boiling port. For example, the occurrence of such persons as Beethoven, George Washington, and the man who invented the wheel. They are part of our background. On one of the other worlds that started approximately as ours did, they wouldn’t exist, and the world would be altered by that much.”
“It seems to me,” said McCall, “that once you accept the idea of worlds starting from approximately the same point—that is, another planet having the same size and chemical makeup, and about the same distance from its sun—”
“That’s what I find hard to accept,” said Hodge.
“Grant us our folly for a moment,” said McCall. “It leads to something more interesting than chasing our tails.” He snapped his lighter. “What I was saying is that if you grant approximately the same start, you’re going to arrive at approximately the same end, in spite of what Penfield thinks. We have evidence of that right on this earth. I mean what they call convergent evolution. When the reptiles were dominant, they produced vegetable-eaters and carnivores that fed on them. And among the early mammals there were animals that looked so much like cats and wolves that the only way to tell them apart is by the skeleton. Why couldn’t that apply to human evolution, too?”
“You mean,” said Penfield, “that Beethoven and George Washington would be inevitable?”
“Not that, exactly,” said McCall. “But some kind of musical inventor, and some sort of high-principled military and political leader. There might be differences.”
Hodge said: “Wait a minute. If we are the product of human history, so were Beethoven and Washington. All you’ve got is a determinism, with nothing really alterable, once the sun decided to cast off its planets.”
“The doctrine of free will—” began McCall.
“I know that one,” said Penfield. “But if you deny free will completely, you’ll end up with a universe in which every world like ours is identical—which is as absurd as Hodge’s picture of us is unique, and rather more repulsive.”
“Well, then,” said Hodge, “What kind of cosmology are you putting out? If you won’t have either of our pictures, give us yours.”
Penfield sipped port. “I can only suggest a sample,” he said. “Let’s suppose this world—or one very like it—with one of those improbable boiling-port accidents left out somewhere along the line. I mentioned the wheel a moment ago. What would life be like now if it hadn’t been invented?”
“Ask McCall,” said Hodge. “He’s the technician.”
“Not the wheel, no,” said McCall. “I can’t buy that. It’s too logical a product of the environment. Happens as soon as a primitive man perceives that a section of tree-trunk will roll. No. If you’re going to make a supposition, you’ll have to keep it clean, and think in terms of something that really might not have happened. For example, music. There are lots of peoples, right here, who never found the full chromatic scale, including the classical civilizations. But I suppose that’s not basic enough for you.”
For a moment or two, the three sipped and smoked in the unspoken communication of friendship. A log collapsed in the fireplace, throwing out a spray of sparks. McCall said: “The steam engine is a rather unlikely invention, when you come to think of it. And most modern machines and their products are outgrowths of it in one way or another. But I can think of one more peculiar and more basic than that. Gunpowder.”
“Oh, come,” said Hodge, “that’s a specialized—”
“No it isn’t,” said Penfield. “He’s perfectly right. Gunpowder destroyed the feudal system, and produced the atmosphere in which your steam engine became possible. And remember that all the older civilizations, even in the East, were subject to periodic setbacks by barbarian invasions. Gunpowder provided civilized man with a technique no barbarian could imitate, and helped him over the difficult spots.”
McCall said; “All the metal-working techniques and most of chemistry depend on the use of explosives—basically. Imagine digging out all the ores we need by hand.”
“All right, then,” said Hodge, “have your fun. Let’s imagine a world like this one, in which gunpowder has never been invented. What are you going to have it look like?”
“I don’t know,” said McCall, “but I think Penfield’s wrong about one point. About the feudal system, I mean. It was pretty shaky toward the end, and the cannon that battered down the castles only hurried up the process. There might be a lot more pieces of the feudal system hanging around without gunpowder, but the thing would be pretty well shot.”
“Now, look here,” said Hodge. “You’ve overlooked something else. If you’re going to eliminate gunpowder and everything that came out of it, you’ll have to replace it with something. After all, a large part of the time and attention of our so-called civilization have been spent in working out the results of the gunpowder and steam engine inventions, If you take those away, you’ll have a vacuum, which I’m told, nature abhors. There would have to be a corresponding development in some other field, going ‘way beyond where we are.”
Penfield drank and nodded. “That’s fair,” he said. “A development along some line we’ve neglected because we have been too busy with mechanics. Why couldn’t it be in the region of ESP, or psychology or psychiatry—science of the mind?”
“But the psychologists are just operating on the ordinary principles of physical science,” said McCall. “Observing, verifying from a number of examples, and then attempting to predict. I don’t see how another race would have gone farther by being ignorant of these principles or overlooking them.”
“You’re being insular,” said Penfield. “I don’t mean that in another world they would have turned psychology into an exact science in our terms. It might be something altogether different. Your principles of science are developed along the lines of arithmetic. The reason they haven’t worked very well in dealing with the human mind may be because they aren’t applicable at all. There may be quite a different line of approach. Think it over for a moment. It might even be along the line of magic, witchcraft.”
“I like that,” said McCall. “You want to make a difference by substituting something phoney for something real.”
“But it might not be phoney,” insisted Penfield. “Magic and witchcraft are really pretty late in our world. They began to be talked about at the same time and on the same terms as alchemy, everything surrounded by superstition, lying and plain ignorance. In this world we’re imagining, somebody might have found the key to something as basic in that field as gunpowder was to the physical sciences. Some people say we almost made the discovery here. You know the story about this house?”
McCall nodded, but Hodge said: “No. What is it? Another ghost story?”
“Not quite. The old part of the house, the one where the bedrooms are now, is supposed to have been built by one of the Salem witches. Not one of those they hanged on false charges, but a perfectly genuine witch, who got away before she was suspected—as a real witch probably would. The story is that she came here and set up business among the Indians, and as they weren’t very expert at carpentry, she helped them build that part of the house with spells, so it would be eternal. The old beams haven’t a bit of iron in them; they’re all held together with pegs and haven’t rotted a bit. There’s also a story that if you make the proper preparations at night, something beyond the normal will happen. I’ve never done the right thing myself, apparently.”
“You probably won’t,” said Hodge. “The essence of the whole witchcraft business is uncertainty. Haven’t you noticed that in all the legends, the spells never quite come off when they’re needed?”
“That’s probably because there isn’t any science of witchcraft, with predictable results,” said McCall.
Penfield said: “It may be for another reason, too. Have you ever noticed that magic is the only form of human activity which is dominated by women? The really scary creatures are all witches; when a man becomes a magician, he’s either possessed of a devil or is a glorified juggler. Our theoretical world would have to start by being a matriarchy.”
“Or contain the relics of one,” said Hodge. “Matriarchies are socially unstable.”
“So is everything,” said McCall. “Flow and change from one form to another is a characteristic of life—or maybe a definition of life. That goes for your witchcraft, too. It would change form, there’d be resistance to it, and an effort to find something to replace it.”
“Or to remove the disabilities,” said Hodge. “The difficulty with any power we don’t really know about is not to define the power itself, but to discover its limitations. If witchcraft were really practical, there would be some fairly severe penalties going with it, not legally I mean, but personally, as a result of the practice. Or to put the thing in your terms, McCall, if there weren’t any drawbacks, being a witch would have such high selection value that before long every female alive would be a practicing witch.”
McCall carefully poured more port. “Hodge,” he said, “you’re wonderful, and I love you. But that’s typical of the way you put things. You cover up a weak point by following it with one that attracts everyone’s attention away from the feebleness of your real case. Penalties for everything? What’s the penalty for having an electric icebox?”
“A pampered digestive system,” said Hodge, readily. “I doubt whether you could survive the food Queen Elizabeth ate for very long, but she lived to be well over sixty. If there were witchcraft, or ESP or telepathy running around in the world, there couldn’t but be defenses against it and troubles for the practitioners. Had it occurred to you that even a witch couldn’t spend all her time stirring cauldrons, and might want to lead a normal life, with a husband and children?”
Penfield got up and stepped to the window, where he stood looking out and down at the midnight Atlantic, throwing its surges against the breast of the rocks. “I wonder if it really does exist,” he said.
Hodge laughed; but that night all three men dreamed: and it was as though a filament ran through the ancient rooms; for each knew that he dreamed, and dreamed the same dream as the others; and from time to time tried to cry out to them, but could only see and hear.