Contact by Carl Sagan is a sci-fi story where we finally receive a message from somewhere in the vicinity of Vega star system which is about 26 light-years away from us. The civilization which ...(more)
Surrounding the blue-white star in its equatorial plane was a vast ring of orbiting debris--rocks and ice, metals and organics--reddish at the periphery and bluish closer to the star. The worldsized polyhedron plummeted through a gap in the rings and emerged out the other side. In the ring plane, it had been intermittently shadowed by icy boulders and tumbling mountains. But now, carried along its trajectory toward a point above the opposite pole of the star, the sunlight gleamed off its millions of bowl-shaped appendages. If you looked very carefully you might have seen one of them make a slight pointing adjustment. You would not have seen the burst of radio waves washing out from it into the depths of space.
For all the tenure of humans on Earth, the night sky had been a companion and an inspiration. The stars were comforting. They seemed to demonstrate that the heavens were created for the benefit and instruction of humans. This pathetic conceit became the conventional wisdom worldwide. No culture was free of it. Some people found in the skies an aperture to the religious sensibility. Many were awestruck and humbled by the glory and scale of the cosmos. Others were stimulated to the most extravagant flights of fancy. At the very moment that humans discovered the scale of the universe and found that their most unconstrained fancies were in fact dwarfed by the true dimensions of even the Milky Way Galaxy, they took steps that ensured that their descendants would be unable to see the stars at all. For a million years humans had grown up with a personal daily knowledge of the vault of heaven. In the last few thousand years they began building and emigrating to the cities. In the last few decades, a major fraction of the human population had abandoned a rustic way of life. As technology developed and the cities were polluted, the nights became starless. New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and that had stimulated the modern age of science and technology. Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that ended only with the dawn of space exploration.
Ellie would look up at Venus and imagine it was a world something like the Earth--populated by plants and animals and civilizations, but each of them different from the kinds we have here. On the outskirts of town, just after sunset, she would examine the night sky and scrutinize that unflickering bright point of light. By comparison with nearby clouds, just above her, still illuminated by the Sun, it seemed a little yellow. She tried to imagine what was going on there. She would stand on tiptoe and stare the planet down. Sometimes, she could almost convince herself that she could really see it; a swirl of yellow fog would suddenly clear, and a vast jeweled city would briefly be revealed. Air cars sped among the crystal spires. Sometimes she would imagine peering into one of those vehicles and glimpsing one of them. Or she would imagine a young one, glancing up at a bright blue point of light in its sky, standing on tiptoe and wondering about the inhabitants of Earth. It was an irresistible notion: a sultry, tropical planet brimming over with intelligent life, and just next door.
She consented to rote memorization, but knew that it was at best the hollow shell of education. She did the minimum work necessary to do well in her courses, and pursued other matters. She arranged to spend free periods and occasional hours after school in what was called "shop"--a dingy and cramped small factory established when the school devoted more effort to "vocational education" than was now fashionable. "Vocational education" meant, more than anything else, working with your hands. There were lathes, drill presses, and other machine tools which she was forbidden to approach, because no matter how capable she might be, she was still "a girl." Reluctantly, they granted her permission to pursue her own projects in the electronics area of the "shop." She built radios more or less from scratch, and then went on to something more interesting. She built an encrypting machine. It was rudimentary, but it worked. It could take any English language message and transform it by a simple substitution cipher into something that looked like gibberish. Building a machine that would do the reverse--converting an encrypted message into clear when you didn't know the substitution convention--that was much harder. You could have the machine run through all the possible substitutions (A stands for B, A stands for C, A stands for D...), or you could remember that some letters in English were used more often than others. You could get some idea of the frequency of letters by looking at the sizes of the bins for each letter of type in the print shop next door.
"ETAOIN SHRDLU," the boys in print shop would say, giving pretty closely the order of the twelve most frequently used letters in English. In decoding a long message, the letter that was most common probably stood for an E. Certain consonants tended to go together, she discovered; vowels distributed themselves more or less at random. The most common three-letter word in the language was "the." If within a word there was a letter standing between a T and an E, it was almost certainly H. If not, you could bet on R or a vowel. She deduced other rules and spent long hours counting up the frequency of letters in various schoolbooks before she discovered that such frequency tables had already been compiled and published. Her decrypting machine was only for her own enjoyment. She did not use it to convey secret messages to friends. She was unsure to whom she might safely confide these electronic and cryptographic interests; the boys became jittery or boisterous, and the girls looked at her strangely.
Soldiers of the United States were fighting in a distant place called Vietnam. Every month, it seemed, more young men were being scooped off the street or the farm and packed off the Vietnam. The more she learned about the origins of the war, and the more she listened to the public pronouncements of national leaders, the more outraged she became. The President and the Congress were lying and killing, she thought to herself, and almost everyone else was mutely assenting. The fact that her stepfather embraced official positions on treaty obligations, dominoes, and naked Communist aggression only strengthened her resolve. She began attending meetings and rallies at the college nearby. The people she met there seemed much brighter, friendlier, more alive than her awkward and lusterless high school companions. John Staughton first cautioned her and then forbade her to spend time with college students. They would not respect her, he said. They would take advantage of her. She was pretending to a sophistication she did not have and never would. Her style of dress was deteriorating. Military fatigues were inappropriate for a girl and a travesty, a hypocrisy, for someone who claimed to oppose the American intervention in Southeast Asia. Beyond pious exhortations to Ellie and Staughton not to "fight," her mother participated little in these discussions. Privately she would plead with Ellie to obey her stepfather, to be "nice." Ellie now suspected Staughton of marrying her mother for her father's life insurance--why else? He certainly showed no signs of loving her--and he was not predisposed to be "nice."
One day, in some agitation, her mother asked her to do something for all their sakes: attend Bible class. While her father, a skeptic on revealed religions, had been alive, there was no talk of Bible class. How could her mother have married Staughton? The question welled up in her for the thousandth time. Bible class, her mother continued, would help instill the conventional virtues; but even more important, it would show Staughton that Ellie was willing to make some accommodation. Out of love and pity for her mother, she acquiesced. So every Sunday for most of one school year Ellie went to a regular discussion group at a nearby church. It was one of the respectable Protestant denominations, untainted by disorderly evangelism. There were a few high school students, a number of adults, mainly middle-aged women, and the instructor, the minister's wife. Ellie had never seriously read the Bible before and had been inclined to accept her father's perhaps ungenerous judgment that it was "half barbarian history, half fairy tales." So over the weekend preceding her first class, she read through what seemed to be the important parts of the Old Testament, trying to keep an open mind. She at once recognized that there were two different and mutually contradictory stories of Creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. She did not see how there could be light and days before the Sun was made, and had trouble figuring out exactly who it was that Cain had married. In the stories of Lot and his daughters, of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, of the betrothal of Dinah, of Jacob and Esau, she found herself amazed. She understood that cowardice might occur in the real world--that sons might deceive and defraud an aged father, that a man might give craven consent to the seduction of his wife by the King, or even encourage the rape of his daughters. But in this holy book there was not a word of protest against such outrages. Instead, it seemed, the crimes were approved, even praised. When class began, she was eager for a discussion of these vexing inconsistencies, for an unburdening illumination of God's Purpose, or at least for an explanation of why these crimes were not condemned by the author or Author. But in this she was to be disappointed. The minister's wife blandly temporized. Somehow these stories never surfaced in subsequent discussion.
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