Contact by Carl Sagan
“Oh, no. It’s all right. It’s true I’m busy. I’m trying to regularize my affairs, because I’m gonna make a big change in my life…”
“For the Millennium?” She tried to imagine him giving away S. R. Hadden and Company, the Wall Street brokerage house; Genetic Engineering, Inc.; Hadden Cybernetics; and Babylon to the poor.
“Not exactly. No. It was fun to think about. It made me feel good to be asked. I looked at the diagrams.” He waved at the commercial set of eight volumes spread in disarray on a worktable. “There are wonderful things in there, but I don’t think that’s where the primer is hiding. Not in the diagrams. I don’t know why you think the primer has to be in the Message. Maybe they left it on Mars or Pluto or in the Oort Comet Cloud, and well discover it in a few centuries. Right now, we know there’s this wonderful Machine, with design drawings and thirty thousand pages of explanatory text. But we don’t know whether we’d be able to build the thing if we could read it. So we wait a few centuries, improving our technology, knowing that sooner or later we’ll have to be ready to build it. Not having the primer binds us up with future generations. Human beings are sent a problem that takes generations to solve. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Might be very healthy. Maybe you’re making a mistake looking for a primer. Maybe it’s better not to find it.”
“No, I want to find the primer right away. We don’t know it’ll be waiting for us forever. If they hang up because there was no answer, it would be much worse than if they’d never called at all.”
“Well, maybe you have a point. Anyway, I thought of as many possibilities as I could. I’ll give you a couple of trivial possibilities, and then a nontrivial possibility. Trivial first: The primer’s in the Message but at a very different data rate. Suppose there was another message in there at a bit an hour—could you detect that?”
“Absolutely. We routinely check for long-term receiver drift in any case. But also a bit an hour only buys you—let me see—ten, twenty thousand bits tops before the Message recycles.”
“So that makes sense only if the primer is much easier than the Message. You think it isn’t. I think it isn’t. Now, what about much faster bit rates? How do you know that under every bit of your Machine Message there aren’t a million bits of primer message?”
“Because it would produce monster bandwidths. We’d know in an instant.”
“Okay, so there’s a fast data dump every now and then. Think of it as microfilm. There’s a tiny dot of microfilm that’s sitting in repetitious—I mean in repetitive—parts of the Message. I’m imagining a little box that says in your regular language, ‘I am the primer.’ Then right after that there’s a dot. And in that dot is a hundred million bits, very fast. You might see if you’ve got any boxes.”
“Believe me, we would have seen it.”
“Okay, how about phase modulation? We use it in radar and spacecraft telemetry, and it hardly messes up the spectrum at all. Have you hooked up a phase correlator?”
“No. That’s a useful idea. I’ll look into it.”
“Now, the nontrivial idea is this: If the Machine ever gets made, if our people are gonna sit in it, somebody’s gonna press a button and then those five are gonna go somewhere. Never mind where. Now, there’s an interesting question whether those five are gonna come back. Maybe not. I like the idea that all this Machine design was invented by Vegan body snatchers. You know, their medical students, or anthropologists or something. They need a few human bodies. It’s a big hassle to come to Earth—you need permission, passes from the transit authority—hell, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But with a little effort you can send the Earth a Message and then the earthlings’ll go to all the trouble to ship you five bodies.
“It’s like stamp collecting. I used to collect stamps when I was a kid. You could send a letter to somebody in a foreign country and most of the time they’d write back. It didn’t matter what they said. All you wanted was the stamp. So that’s my picture: There’s a few stamp collectors on Vega. They send letters out when they’re in the mood, and bodies come flying back to them from all over space. Wouldn’t you like to see the collection?”
He smiled up at her and continued. “Okay, so what does this have to do with finding the primer? Nothing. It’s relevant only if I’m wrong. If my picture is wrong, if the five people are coming back to Earth, then it would be a big help if we’ve invented spaceflight. No matter how smart they are, it’s gonna be tough to land the Machine. Too many things are moving. God knows what the propulsion system is. If you pop out of space a few meters below ground, you’ve had it. And what’s a few meters in twenty-six light-years? It’s too risky. When the Machine comes back it’ll pop out—or whatever it does—in space, somewhere near the Earth, but not on it or in it. So they have to be sure we have spaceflight, so the five people can be rescued in space. They’re in a hurry and can’t sit tight until the 1957 evening news arrives on Vega. So what do they do? They arrange so part of the Message can only be detected from space. What part is that? The primer. If you can detect the primer, you’ve got spaceflight and you can come back safe. So I imagine the primer is being sent at the frequency of the oxygen absorptions in the microwave spectrum, or in the near-infrared—some part of the spectrum you can’t detect until you’re well out of the Earth’s atmosphere…”
“We’ve had the Hubble Telescope looking at Vega all through the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared. Not a hint of anything. The Russians have repaired their millimeter wave instrument. They’ve hardly been looking at anything besides Vega and they haven’t found anything. But we’ll keep looking. Other possibilities?”
“Sure you wouldn’t like a drink? I don’t drink myself, but so many people do.” Ellie again declined. “No, no other possibilities. Now it’s my turn?
“See, I want to ask you for something. But I’m not good at asking for things. I never have been. My public image is rich, funny-looking, unscrupulous—somebody who looks for weaknesses in the system so he can make a fast buck. And don’t tell me you don’t believe any of that. Everybody believes at least some of it. You’ve probably heard some of what I’m gonna say before, but give me ten minutes and I’ll tell you how all this began. I want you to know something about me.”
She settled back, wondering what he could possibly want of her, and brushed away idle fantasies involving the Temple of Ishtar, Hadden, and perhaps a charioteer or two thrown in for good measure.
Years before, he had invented a module that, when a television commercial appeared, automatically muted the sound. It wasn’t at first a context-recognition device. Instead, it simply monitored the amplitude of the carrier wave. TV advertisers had taken to running their ads louder and with less audio clutter than the programs that were their nominal vehicles. News of Hadden’s module spread by word of mouth. People reported a sense of relief, the lifting of a great burden, even a feeling of joy at being freed from the advertising barrage for the six to eight hours out of every day that the average American spent in front of the television set. Before there could be any coordinated response from the television advertising industry, Adnix had become wildly popular. It forced advertisers and net-works into new choices of carrier-wave strategy, each of which Hadden countered with a new invention. Sometimes he invented circuits to defeat strategies that the agencies and the networks had not yet hit upon. He would say that he was saving them the trouble of making inventions, at great cost to their shareholders, which were at any rate doomed to failure. As his sales volume increased, he kept cutting prices. It was a kind of electronic warfare. And he was winning.
They tried to sue him—something about a conspiracy in restraint of trade. They had sufficient political muscle that his motion for summary dismissal was denied, but insufficient influence to actually win the case. The trial had forced Hadden to investigate the relevant legal codes. Soon after, he applied, through a well-known Madison Avenue agency in which he was now a major silent partner, to advertise his own product on comm
There had always been people who enjoyed the commercials, of course, and they had no need for Adnix. But they were a dwindling minority. Hadden made a great fortune by eviscerating broadcast advertising. He also made many enemies.
By the time context-recognition chips were commercially available, he was ready with Preachnix, a submodule which could be plugged into Adnix. It would simply switch channels if by chance a doctrinaire religious program should be tuned in. You could preselect key words, such as “Advent” or “Rapture,” and cut great swaths through the available programming. Preachnix was a godsend for a long-suffering but significant minority of television viewers. There was talk, some of it half-serious, that Hadden’s next submodule would be called Jivenix, and would work only on public addresses by presidents and premiers.
As he further developed context-recognition chips, it became obvious to him that they had much wider applications—from education, science, and medicine, to military intelligence and industrial espionage. It was on this issue that the lines were drawn for the famous suit United States v. Hadden Cybernetics. One of Hadden’s chips was considered too good for civilian life, and on recommendation of the National Security Agency, the facilities and key personnel for the most advanced context-recognition chip production were taken over by the government. It was simply too important to read the Russian mail. God knows, they told him, what would happen if the Russians could read our mail.
Hadden refused to cooperate in the takeover and vowed to diversify into areas that could not possibly be connected with national security. The government was nationalizing industry, he said. They claimed to be capitalists, but when push came to shove they showed their socialist face. He had found an unsatisfied public need and employed an existing and legal new technology to deliver what they wanted. It was classic capitalism. But there were many sober capitalists who would tell you that he had already gone too far with Adnix, that he had posed a real threat to the American way of life. In a dour column signed V. Petrov, Pravda called it a concrete example of the contradictions of capitalism. The Wall Street Journal countered, perhaps a little tangentially, by calling Pravda, which in Russian means “truth,” a concrete example of the contradictions of communism.
He suspected that the takeover was only a pretext, that his real offense had been to attack advertising and video evangelism. Adnix and Preachnix were the essence of capitalist entrepreneurship, he argued repeatedly. The point of capitalism was supposed to be providing people with alternatives.
“Well, the absence of advertising is an alternative, I told them. There are huge advertising budgets only when there’s no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that’s better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid. A strong country needs smart people. So Adnix is patriotic. The manufacturers can use some of their advertising budgets to improve their products. The consumer will benefit. Magazines and newspapers and direct mail business will boom, and that’ll ease the pain in the ad agencies. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Adnix, much more than the innumerable libel suits against the original commercial networks, led directly to their demise. For a while there was a small army of unemployed advertising executives, down-and-out former network officials, and penniless divines who had sworn blood oaths to revenge themselves on Hadden. And there was an ever-growing number of still more formidable adversaries. Without a doubt, she thought, Hadden was an interesting man.
“So I figure it’s time to go. I’ve got more money than I know what to do with, my wife can’t stand me, and I’ve got enemies everywhere. I want to do something important, something worthy. I want to do something so that hundreds of years from now people will look back and be glad I was around.”
“I want to build the Machine. Look, I’m perfectly suited for it. I’ve got the best cybernetics expertise, practical cybernetics, in the business—better than Carnegie-Mellon, better than MIT, better than Stanford, better than Santa Barbara. And if there’s anything clear from those plans, it’s that this isn’t a job for an old-time tool-and-die maker. And you’re going to need something like genetic engineering. You won’t find anybody more dedicated to this job. And I’ll do it at cost.”
“Really, Mr. Hadden, who builds the Machine, if we ever get to that point, isn’t up to me. It’s an international decision. All sorts of politics is involved. They’re still debating in Paris about whether to build the thing, if and when we decrypt the Message.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I’m also applying through the usual channels of influence and corruption. I just want to have a good word put in for me for the right reasons, by the side of the angels. Yon understand? And speaking of angels, you really shook up Palmer Joss and Billy Jo Ran-kin. I haven’t seen them so agitated since that trouble they had about Mary’s waters. Rankin saying he was deliberately misquoted about supporting the Machine. My, my.”
He shook his head in mock consternation. That some long-standing personal enmity existed between these active proselytizers and the inventor of Preachnix seemed probable enough, and for some reason she was moved to their defense.
“They’re both a lot smarter than you might think. And Palmer Joss is…well, there’s something genuine about him. He’s not a phony.”
“You’re sure it’s not just another pretty face? Excuse me, but it’s important that people understand their feelings on this. It’s too important not to. I know these clowns. Underneath, when push comes to shove, they’re jackals. A lot of people find religion attractive—you know, personally, sexually. You ought to see what happens in the Temple of Ishtar.”
She repressed a small shiver of revulsion. “I think I will have that drink,” she said.
Looking down from the penthouse, she could see the gradated tiers of the Ziggurat, each draped with flowers, some artificial, some real, depending on the season. It was a reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Miraculously, it was so arranged that it did not closely resemble a Hyatt Hotel. Far below, she could make out a torchlit procession headed back from the Ziggurat to the Enlil Gate. It was led by a kind of sedan chair held by four burly men stripped to the waist. Who or what was in it she could not make out.
“It’s a ceremony in honor of Gilgamesh, one of the ancient Sumerian culture heroes.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
“Immortality was his business.”
He said this matter-of-factly, by way of explanation, and looked at his watch.
“It’s at the very top of the Ziggurat, you know, that the kings would go to receive instruction from the gods. Especially from Anu, the sky god. By the way, I looked up what they called Vega. It was Tiranna, the Life of Heaven. It’s a funny thing to call it.”
“And have you gotten any instructions?”
“No, they went to your place, not mine. But there’ll be another Gilgamesh procession at nine o’clock.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay that long. But let me ask you something. Why Babylon?” she asked. “And Pompeii. Here you are, one of the most inventive people around. You’ve created several major industries; you defeated the advertising industry on its own ground. Okay, so you got whipped on that security issue on the context-recognition chip. There’s lots of other things you could have done. Why…this?”
Far away, the procession had reached the Temple of Assur.
“Why not something more…worthy?” he asked. “I’m just trying to satisfy societal needs that the government overlooks or ignores. It’s capitalism. It’s legal. I
“But I didn’t think all that through at the time. It’s very simple. I can remember exactly the moment when the idea for Babylon hit me. I was in Walt Disney World, riding the Mississippi sternwheeler riverboat with my grandson, Jason. Jason was around four, maybe five. I was thinking about how smart the Disney people were to discontinue individual tickets for each ride and instead offer a one-day pass which admitted you to everything. They saved some salaries—some of the ticket takers’, for instance. But much more important, people tended to overestimate their appetites for rides. They’d pay a premium to be admitted to everything, and then they’d be happy with a lot less.
“Now, next to me and Jason was an eight-year-old boy with a faraway look in his eye. I’m guessing his age. Maybe he was ten. His father was asking him stuff and he was answering in monosyllables. The boy was fondling the barrel of a toy rifle he’d propped up on his deck chair. The stock was between his legs. All he wanted was to be left alone and stroke the rifle. Behind him were the towers and spires of the Magic Kingdom, and suddenly everything fell into place. You know what I’m saying?”
He filled a tumbler with diet cola and clicked it against her glass.
“Confusion to your enemies,” he toasted genially. “I’ll have them take you out by the Ishtar Gate. The procession’s gonna make things too crowded toward the Enlil Gate.”
Both escorts magically appeared, and it was evident she was being dismissed. She had little desire to linger.
“Don’t forget about the phase modulation, and looking in the oxygen lines. But even if I’m wrong about where the primer is, don’t forget: I’m the only one to build the Machine.”
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