Monday, June 26, 2006

The Selection (a Science Fiction story)


Day 01

I am housed in the attic, under the roof of the building of the Academy of Science. As fall turns into winter, and days turn earlier and faster into nights, I watch through the mist of dusk the sinister hulk of the Palace of Culture and Science towering over the cityscape, surrounded by flocks of ravens moving across the canvas of my window frame, spots of darkness in the uniform purple stained grey colour of the approaching night. It’s only three in the afternoon and I am getting sentimental again. It’s all right, I just have another four hours of discussion to go, and then I’ll be free to walk down to the little Jewish restaurant by the old town, the only thing that remained unchanged in the ten years since last I landed in this country. I imagine it much older than it probably is, a corner of the world that stayed untouched through the roller coaster of history and, unlike me, doesn’t care about change. I care too much. I have travelled since then, too far, too often. I was in another continent just less than a week ago, and in another the week before. I have returned from the stars only two years ago. I thought I had gotten used to this type of life, but there are times when I still wonder. I wonder and I keep signing up for this type of duties, and heavy duty it was this time. I spoke for three hours uninterruptedly yesterday at the Academy, and today at the University, plus the discussions, where they corner you at the blackboard and won’t let you go for hours at a time. It’s all going to be over today, anyway, and I’m flying back to the Centre tomorrow night. I even brought the machine with me, thinking that I would have time to do some work. I thought I could perhaps finish the paper we promised to the editors of Geometrical Physics. I didn’t even get to switch the thing on: every night when I got back to my room all I could do was take a hot shower, put on some music, lie down in bed, and start preparing my lectures for the next day.

I am so exhausted by now that I started bleeding again, just days after I was told it was all over and I needn’t worry about it anymore, and, as if this hopping around continents had not been enough, when I last stopped by the Centre for a day on my way here, I found the message announcing that the selection process has begun. I was chosen as one of fifteen people required by the Society to select a handful of promising young talents, across all fields of science, to serve for the next five years in our newly founded colony. With them as resident scientists, it will be the largest colony operating outside of the charted sector. I didn’t want to be part of the process. I hate doing this type of selection. I am already required to do it several times a year for the Centre: nights spent reading applications, curricula, lists of publications, reprints, and recommendation letters, days spent in long meetings deciding whom will be the visiting scientists of the coming year. It’s not just that it’s time consuming and that it subtracts precious energy from all the work we still have to do. The truth is that I don’t like the responsibility of deciding of people’s lives and careers. Anyway, they got me into this fine mess now, and there was no saying no. The selection will happen in four steps. To begin with, the fifteen members of the committee, wherever they are, receive the full set of applications (about four hundreds of them). Among these, the Society assigns to each Examiner some forty to fifty applicants for a quick evaluation aimed at determining whether they should be invited for the final interview. The second step is a joint discussion, to be held via radio telescope, in which the undecided cases should be settled. These preliminary steps will produce a shorter list of candidates. All of them will be then invited to a location still to be disclosed. There, they will meet with the members of the committee, us, the Examiners. Man, how I hate all this! The meeting will be organized as a conference, with applicants giving presentations on their work, achievements, and research projects. The examiners then meet in small groups and interview each candidate separately for half an hour. At the end of the conference, the committee meets for a final session in the course of which the twenty-five positions are assigned. I don’t think I can get out of this too easily.

Day 02

I am back at last. The fatigue hit me just as I got off the Air Transit and boarded the local bus back to the Centre. I was expected at a dinner reception at the Foundation for the Advancement of Science, and I was already a good half an hour late upon arrival. On top of that, I could count on an extra hour of transportation time by streetcar to the luxurious villa housing the Foundation headquarters. The concert would have been over by then, which is a pity, given that they host unusual selections of contemporary classical music and excellent performers. Even worse, there wouldn’t have been any food left at the buffet. Having sustained myself almost entirely on mushroom soup for the duration of the trip, I could not face the idea of skipping dinner. So I abandoned the plan of reaching the Foundation, walked home from the Centre, and fixed a quick meal of canned beans and a glass of rice wine. I like this “coming back home” feeling: it’s good to have a place one returns to every once in a while. I follow a certain ritual: I climb up the nine flights of stairs to my loft in total darkness. I pass quietly in front of my landlady’s door. The wooden steps squeak and I imagine her, beyond the thin line of light filtering beneath the heavy white door, frowning momentarily at the thought of my unusual lifestyle. She has an instinctive distrust for those who have the flying privileges. Nonetheless she likes the girl upstairs and she worries, although she would not admit it, until she hears the steps on the stairs once more. I turn on the generator outside of the apartment door, drop my boots and jacket, and open the door to this private world of mine, which exists somewhere there, in total spatial and temporal dislocation. Cheap Scandinavian bookshelves line the wall: those my mother and I bought some ten years ago, which were shipped several times across the oceans after her death, following the erratic course of my wanderings. They house the only precious possession in the house, my books. They are the only reason why I compromised with the life of the sedentary lot of humanity and accepted to have a place somewhere. Not that I own it, mind it, that would really give me the creeps, but rent I can pay and, as I was saying, it does have a nice feeling to it, coming back into a hundred square meters of familiar space, turning on the light and the heat and slowly recovering a sensation of things past. Scattered pieces of furniture I bought on a graduate student salary quite a few years ago. They also followed me across oceans, out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, or maybe just out of pure laziness. The only shiny new high-tech piece is my workplace, mounted on glass and steel: a totally up-to-date workstation, the state of the art in cyberspace technology, which belongs to the Centre and is directly hooked into their central system. I turn it back on and enjoy the expanding sensation of the slowly growing net of connections invading the privacy of my mind. The immensity of space, up to the boundaries of the explored universe, flows into my own mental space through the connection and I enjoy being once again located nowhere in the mesh of cyberspace.

Day 05

Just before I left for this last trip, I had one day to spend at the Centre, an all too rare moment of rest in this endless sub-orbital hip-hop. Reluctantly, I decided to go through the first step of the selection, as quickly as possible, knowing that I’ll then be off once again for quite a while. I downloaded the list of applicants and the instructions of the Society. All in all, these four hundred men and women we’re expected to evaluate make a remarkable cross section of contemporary science. Candidates in the biomedical sciences are the job of a different committee. I just glance quickly at their file out of curiosity. Biology means mostly the microbial world, as was to be expected, since that’s what constitutes the overwhelming majority of life out there around the stars. Creatures the size of terrestrial plants and animals are such a rarity that nobody would really base a career on the odds of finding any more of them. An exception is, of course, that of the engineers of adaptable species, who design genomes of living things of any visible and invisible size that will be implanted on lifeless planets. We have a few of those among our applicants. The medical scientists are predictably concerned with the effect of long space flight and of prolonged exposure to non-terrestrial planetary environments, as well as with human/machine interfacing. Fine. Now come the physical sciences our committee is assigned to. A good deal of astronomical, astrophysical, cosmological stuff: embarrassingly, we still don’t understand what creates the space-time ``highways’’ we use for navigation and interstellar communication. Given the importance of the phenomenon for human civilization, it understandably attracts a good deal of our best researchers in the field. I browse through the file of a candidate who produced some hundred papers systematically exploring all the suggested hypotheses and systematically dismissing them all against hard evidence from our radio telescope arrays. It’s always humbling to see how human progress is largely made of fumbling in the dark.
Here we are. Mathematicians: that’s where I belong, too familiar, too close. People I know, following so closely on the same footprints. Just some five years ago I was where they are, working on much the same sort of problems, then and now. There it is: gluing solutions of the non-linear elliptic differential equations of a gauge theory, deriving glimpses of a classification of exotic manifolds. Yes, nice progress. Time has passed since I tried that too, good thinking this girl. That boy, instead, the one I know so well, whom I met at a conference just three weeks ago, he seems so proud of that neat stuff he did on quantum fields.

Day 09

The Centre does not have its own radio telescope. A centre for mathematical research does not have a frequent need for hyperspace radio conferences, nor for monitoring extra-galactic activities. A good quantum gate to the virtual archives of cyberspace suffice for most purposes and we host a large visitors program to satisfy our needs for direct communication in a more efficient way. The nearest radio telescope belongs to the Society’s local Radio Astronomy Centre. I’ll take a tour up the hills next Friday, to inspect the premises and make sure that it will all be ready for the hyperspace radio conference next week. Unfortunately, I will miss your medal ceremony, with all these selection duties I am stuck with, and that’s the thing that I regret the most. All our friends will be there, I’m sure, and you’ll be talking about our work. It’ll be a great celebration, with poetry and music. I’ll be up on the hills at that time, talking business into a radio telescope. Got to eat something now: soybean curd, spiced up real hot with green chillies, and I’ll drink some of that seaweed liquor I brought back from that trip last month.

Day 10

It was a perfect day for an outing to the radio telescope. I couldn’t sleep the night before - a combination of accumulated stress and lingering jet lag, I suppose - so I tried some calculations, testing your geometric coupling of gravity and hadronic matter on a fully relativistic neutron star. For a couple of hours I tried to recover the right Oppenheimer-Volkoff equation from the spectral geometry, until I realized I was too tired to continue. It was still dark when the alarm went off. My blood pressure measured up to a meagre ninety and I was still bleeding, but I dragged myself out of bed and on to the railway station. It took still a good half hour walk from the place where the last bus dropped me, after a combination of local transports, but the sky was clear and I could see the shiny white parabola emerge from the valley like a fairytale castle a long distance away: an immense machine capable of turning upon itself with the grace of a ballet dancer, tracing faint signals from the end of the universe. Layers of frost cracked under my boots. I fought an incipient feeling of vertigo as I climbed up the icy cold metal ladder leading to the central mechanism, three hundred meters off the ground. After inspecting the mechanism, I followed the technician to the main control room. I removed my hard hat and sat at the controls. Monitors flashed coordinates at me insistently. I pointed the telescope to the centre of the Galaxy and photographed a star cluster revolving around a massive black hole. I registered the frenetic signalling of rotating pulsars. Yes, I think I can handle it all right for the meeting. I left the premises, taking with me a printout of the star cluster, in colours simulating radio waves frequency and intensity, as a decoration for my office walls.
The return was uneventful and I spent the evening in a scented hot bath, mixing synthetic music and mood altering drugs, until my body began to let go of the accumulated tension.

Day 15

I was the first to show up at the meeting. A technician wearing the insignia of the Society was conversing with two visiting scientists in front of a coffee vendor in the hall of the Radio Astronomy Centre. They kept switching between three different languages, which made eavesdropping an amusing entertainment. I communicated my arrival at the reception desk. After the initial confusion, caused by the fact that the meeting had not been registered in the official list of duties of the radio telescope, a phone call to the director of the Centre reassured the receptionist that everything was in order and I was ushered into a more comfortable room, where I was offered a cup of synthetic coffee and the latest issue of Galactic Astronomy to browse. The coffee was every sip as bad as I had imagined. I set aside the half empty cup and took to reviewing my ranking of the candidates. The whole thing still seemed to make little sense to me. A few weeks ago I was given the list of the names of those candidates I was supposed to report on before this meeting. When I first glanced at the titles of their proposals, I couldn’t even tell which field of science they belonged to. I threw away the list and logged into the complete database of candidates, where I easily found a large set of people whose work I could correctly place by discipline, and even a small subset of them whose research is very closely related to what we do, or to other stuff I had been working on in the past. It dawned on me that the criteria by which candidates were matched to members of the committee were designed to maximize the incompetence of the judgment. This is what happens to people, who like following the rules more than they appreciate good sense. Since the “Acquisition Guidelines and Procedures Manual” states that one should avoid conflicts of interest, somebody high up in the Society’s administrative ranks decided that a specific competence, such as doing research in the same field or similar scientific qualification, constitutes a conflict of interest that can infirm the validity of judgment. I came to the meeting ready for a fight. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it, save for the fact that the signal wasn’t nearly as clear as we had hoped for and a great deal of the conversation was lost, which was probably all for the good.
I began to understand, while I struggled to catch half sentences and glimpses of faces in a fog of white noise, the true purpose of this initial part of the selection. We were testing how badly the colonies labs want these people. When I see how desperate they are to get as many as possible assigned to their sector, I begin to see a logic in having the files looked at by people in a different field who would be less likely to yield to the pressure of their colleagues at the other end of the ``highway’’. We all know the hardship of running an understaffed research unit on a distant planet, and we are especially likely to know what the life of our closest colleagues, sometimes friends and collaborators, is like out there.
A few hours of work and a good half of the names have been crossed out. We’ll see all the others in person and make our final pick in a few days. I leave the radio telescope behind and, as I walk down the hill, I turn to watch it dance graciously in large circles, its tip pointing to the stars, searching the heavens for its next target. I walk slowly downhill and think that I am really curious to know what happened today at your medal ceremony: journalists, authorities, concert hall, friends old and new. I wish I had been there to see.

Day 18

I am getting ready for the final stages of the selection. The more I look through the remaining files, the more the arbitrariness of the whole process becomes manifest. How am I going to put a straight face in front of these people, just barely younger than I am, and pretend that I know better who of them should get the jobs. And how to account for the other factors? Are we not going to hire an expert in marine seismology, weeks after an anomalous wave decimated the world population? And what about the candidate who promises to extract renewable energy from our sewers? What priority do we assign to research on turbulence in confined plasma, when the onset of chaotic regimes, both inside and outside of the tokamak, may cause controlled fusion reactors to disintegrate in thermonuclear fireworks? What will prove more valuable outside the charted sectors of the universe: engineering the chemistry of two-dimensional atoms or detecting non-commutative fluctuations in the fabric of space-time? How are we to judge all this? Who are we to judge anything? What is science after all? Is it our collective conscious, a tightly interlaced dance of rigour and imagination, a vertiginous flight of desire and will power? What is this game that brought a species of apes, in the blink of an eye of evolutionary time, from the bushes of the savannah to the stars? After I have been through this exercise of peeping into the professional business of four hundred of the most promising young researcher on and off the planet, I came to realize that the closer you look at it the more the impressive image of big science dissolves into a kaleidoscopic mesh of interwoven rivulets of single experiments, projects, computations: “whole in itself, each a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. What are we to judge, the whole or its molecular constituents? Which part of the latter are we going to declare essential?

Day 19

Sub orbital hopping again: it is the time of the year when I pay a visit to my aging father. I don’t know how he still manages to ignore the global ban on private cars and live out there in the forbidden territory beyond the beltway, off the city boundaries. My father comes to meet me at the train connecting the airport to the city centre. As I get into his old fashioned car, my familiar world begins to fade and I move deeper and deeper into an alien territory. While he drives off the terminal and through the city, I only feel a moderate sense of displacement. The surroundings belong to my everyday experience: high-rises, crowded streets, remote controlled taxi cabs guided by satellites in geo-stationary orbit, magneto-levitating trains, and gaping subway station entrances. All is reassuring, familiar. I only have to fight against my instinctive fear of being in a car whose motion is only decided by the whims of a human driver, without a robotic remote to take over in case of troubles. Then we reach the beltway, where my world and my era come suddenly to an end. Beyond that boundary there is a place unknown and frightening, where humans cannot move around on foot, though being still on their own planet, where oversize truck loads weighting thousands of tons flash by at immense speed. A transport system for inanimate objects, for freight cargo delivery, a robotic inferno no human eyes were supposed to look upon. Out on the planets if there is one rule we hold sacred it is the divide between places where humans are or are not supposed to go. The utter disregard for this basic principle back here on earth is appalling to anyone who ever travelled to the stars. Not my father, no, he knows nothing of the world out there, nothing of the life I lived and to which I will hopefully return as soon as I have the chance. After about a half hour of nightmarish ride, watching my father negotiate the traffic flow, mentally extrapolating the trajectories of all the near collisions, we finally leave the beltway behind. Its booming sound disappears, softened by the thick fog that lies over this side of the city. The city so infinitely far away, cordoned off by the impenetrable beltway. This side is just fog and the occasional shadows of abandoned buildings.

Day 21

It’s hard to write from here. We’re at the limit of the city network and the connection breaks down more often than not. I caught a satellite signal: I hope it’ll last long enough to send you a few lines. I got your file. It was a nightmare to download. I checked your calculation: it works perfectly. I’ll be out of here tomorrow if all goes as it should and I’ll be back in touch with the world. Everything is so archaic and time passes so slowly. Where are the stars? Why did I come back? It’s not coming back at all: this place is more foreign to me than the depth of space, the people so alien, even my own family.

Day 22

The first time I suffered a dystopic episode I didn’t pay much attention to it. It lasted a few seconds at most. When they became frequent I began to worry. Now that they happen all the time, I no longer care. Getting off a flight and suddenly not knowing where and when: a superposition of times and places, of memories. Where am I? What day, month, year is this? What season? Which part of the planet? Which world? And then a flood of images, a shower of all pervading, utterly real fragments, flashbacks, one after the other, come rushing through the mind. Finally, reality slowly emerges and takes back the helm of perception.

Flashback N.1: looking out of the window, thirty something floors above a landscape of urban desolation. Behind my back a dinner party, a friend celebrating a good deal at selling math to the military - an age-old occupation. He opens the window and flashes a blue laser pointer through the night, showing off the little friendship token he got from his business partners. My eyes dumbly following the beam, rendered visible by the fumes rising from a maze of lurid violent alleys. It hits the distant ground somewhere, between once prosperous brick houses now locked in perpetual blackout darkness. My eyes, fixed on a needle of light, catching a glimpse of an armoured vehicle rushing by. Farther away towards the horizon one can make out the shape of campus buildings painted against remnants of a twilight sky: one of those universities where the Cold War was fought by other scientists, a long time ago. A splash of electric blue light hits the tallest building, painting halos around widows. Blue brightness dissolving.

Flashback N.2: city splendour rising in the early morning sunshine. Ideograms streaming down the sides of high-rises announcing the landing of the Red Orient and the return of the taikonauts. Down the river, slowly, the barges sail by. One after the other, immense, loaded to sinking point with coal from the mines, they feed the energy extravaganza of our radiant future. City of cement and crystal, of vertigo and frenzy, of audacious perspectives: floating building tops above knotted highways that encircle them like silk ribbon coils. A portrait of progress painted in sharp elegant brushstrokes over a background of pollution haze.

Flashback N.3: I timed the symphony to our last flyby. Jupiter: a majestic finale, a fugue in five parts invertible counterpoint. Jupiter: the gravitational pull of a giant planet that will propel us on our route to the interstellar highways. I was on my first trip off the Earth and I was watching every cloud formation, keeping a diary of observations, readings of magnetic fields, lines of poems inspired by tumbling asteroids, Zen meditation on emptiness.

Day 23

I think I am going to give myself a second intravenous injection of cortisone. The last sub-orbital re-entry crushed my inner ear again. I should have gotten an implant long ago, before things got this bad, but I was young and I thought I would just get used to the pressure changes over time. Music has a weird cavernous sound now, barely filtering through all that swelling, and voices sound more like faint indiscernible noise. No more trips could be another solution. Not a single flight for long enough for my ears to recover. What a joke! Can you imagine me earthbound for that long? I’ve got only a few minutes to write. The selection is about to begin.

Day 26

Three days of seclusion, an endless stream of holographic presentations, of question sessions and discussions, no meals, no sleep. Twenty scientists selected: young men and women who will be negotiating sapphire shores of sulphuric lakes, methane clouds and subterranean oceans, tens of hundreds of light years away. What is it that drives them? With humanity divided between the few who go to the stars and the many whose existence is confined to a backyard, did these kids embrace hard science as their only escape route? I admit that my own motivations were not entirely idealistic either when I began my scientific career: I liked the idea of acquiring the flying privilege, of suddenly enlarging the scale of my existence from the boundaries of the local public transport to the planetary and the interplanetary level. I see my own reflection in their youthful enthusiasm. They are still all edge, out to get whatever comes their way. Why do I look at them like this? Am I slowly getting tired? Envy, yes, I cannot deny it. They’re the ones who will go to the stars this time. I look at the other members of the committee. The room is divided clearly between those who never went to the stars and those who went and came back. The first group, looking like a collection of dusty knick-knacks, manage nonetheless to exert a great contempt, typical of those who harbour too many certainties, not last among them that about their own value. The latter instead have the dismissed look of those who only wish to fit in where they no longer belong. They are typically younger and less than ten years past the last interstellar journey, but they seem all too eager to blend in with the rest. They cannot fool me, though, because I know of the metal eating up their bodies, replacing bones that crumble after many low gravity years. I know of tumours caused by solar flares, by streams of particles carried on magnetic fields around giant planets and alien stars. I can read clear through their counterfeit normality, because they are just like me. I am struck by the thought that we have just created the new generation of those who will go and live the experience only to come back later and pretend that nothing happened.