Letter from a Strange Planet II

Transcriber’s note: This piece is definitely related to the ‘Letter from a Strange Planet’ story posted a couple of weeks ago; whether it is a prequel, sequel or reworking I cannot say.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This text is © the estate of the late David Godfrey Stephenson and is reproduced here with permission. Do not reproduce this text in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright holder.

Letter From A Strange Planet II


Drop everything and come at once, whatever the cost in time dilation. Here is a world worthy of your talents; you grumble frequently that there is nothing really new to be done since the sociometric equations were finished. Well, this planet will need new equations, or, at the very least, a whole set of new terms in the old ones!

But to begin at the beginning, as you always insist I should. Did you hear about the electromagnetic radiation anomaly associated with M260? I was on Persis II when the local astronomical team found it, quite by accident, while looking for evidence in support of Jasae’s latest speculations. Great excitement; here was evidence of an advanced civilisation, where the last sky-survey, only a century or so ago, had shown no sign of intelligence. With a new autochthonous civilization within reach, somebody must go to investigate it.

Accordingly, a Mission was hastily cobbled together from the talent available locally. With only the little Celestial Harbinger available to carry everyone, they were reluctant to burden the expedition with a biologist, even if he was the best zoologist in the Known Worlds. (Yes, I admit that Dhil Warrasea is a better biologist, but she is basically a botanist; after all, she started as a gardener.) In the end, I used that testimonial of yours from the Katanal expedition; you know the one: ‘His wide experience of primitive worlds … his intuitive grasp of the dynamics of primitive societies’ and all the rest of it. That did the trick, though somebody ought to have realised that a society churning out electromagnetic waves as fast as this one hardly counts as primitive!

With hindsight, we took the approach too fast. As soon as the Harbinger came down from near-light speeds, it was clear that the planet’s transmissions had increased in the interval. As soon as we had decelerated enough, the recorders were scanning, and the computers were at work analysing the results. They came up with three classes of output: pulsed radiations for surveillance and navigation, which told us that they were warlike, but were not otherwise very helpful; a set of intricate transmissions which might be pictures, but were too complex for quick analysis; and a class of output which seemed to be sound only. This was the one for quick results.

Much of it was speech, not music; I think the linguists were disappointed to find so few languages, but they soon rooted out the principal one, and were using the grammar programme on it. Result: a simple structure suggestive of a high grade creole. Translation was more difficult, but with plenty of redundancy in the transmissions, it was within the power of our computers.

We had the outlines of the language (and the whole Mission were busy learning it), so that the Contact Message went out before we had had a good look at the planet. It is a cold one; ice-caps at both poles. Most of the land is in one hemisphere, which was under winter at the time; the first coarse-resolution pictures showed nothing but snow. I could say nothing useful about them. I don’t know whether any fine-resolution ones were taken; certainly, I never saw them. We had a rapturous welcome, and the Mission were soon queueing for places in our shuttle-craft.

On the ground, after a ceremonial welcome, which added to our vocabulary of political platitudes, we were put into permanent quarters in the top floor of a hotel. I promptly went off on a conducted tour to see something of their biology. It was a series of shocks. The biology of these people is far ahead of ours. Time after time, ideas quite new to me were produced for my approval, with the originators standing humbly by to be told if they were correct or not. My special problem, the adaptation of animals to their environment, had been solved long ago. A theory based on something remarkably like Dhil Warrasea’s Principle of Reproductive Success, which we have been hearing so much about recently, has become the basis of their biology, and it solves the problem… In fact, to dwell on adaptation is seen as old-fashioned and showing a tendency to believe that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

I had to be back in time for the first General Meeting of the Mission. I slipped in a moment or two late; as usual, you will say! Ceralia (Head of Mission, do you know her? Said to be a rising young diplomat) was just reporting the latest counter-blast to her introductory speech; someone had calculated that the average woman had available the equivalent of 2.7 slaves in her “domestic appliances”. This was the signal for a tirade from ‘Ngaula (engineer-physicist; you know how they feel about diplomats and linguists). I gathered that our arrival at the time of a mid-winter festival and the name of our ship had brought us massive good-will, but that he thought that Ceralia had been incompetent to lose it in her opening speech to the assembly which was the embryo of a world government. He said that she could not get the language right. These people had come on fast; they had first flown about a century ago, had discovered the electron about a century ago, but they had put a man on their moon about thirty years ago, and were skilled electron-pushers. They must be suffering severe social disruption; an appeal to brotherhood and for the abolition of slavery must be the correct approach. If they said they were offended because they had advanced beyond this, somebody was mistranslating something!


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