The Meaning of Life — as Told to me by an Inebriated Science Fiction Writer In New Jersey
I should mention that, as a science fiction writer, I can comment authoritatively and finally on the true meaning of life.
Fifteen billion years ago an unexplained and inexplicable event created all the matter and energy, time and space in the universe apparently out of nothing and for no reason. However, the precise nature of this event allowed primordial plasma to expand, cool, and form the nebulae which one day would give rise to the galaxy, especially one rather small G-type star in the outer arm of an otherwise insignificant galaxy: by yet another coincidence — if coincidence it was — the third planet from that star had the exact chemical conditions to give rise, first to life, then to intelligent life, then to civilization, then to technical civilization.
Unbeknown to the dwellers on that small insignificant sphere, all galaxies, including this one, are teaming not merely with life, but with ultra-intelligent life, but this world is strictly quarantined for reasons that will soon become apparent.
You see, the first experiments in time travel have already taken place.
H.G. Wells is the first man to have crossed the time barrier, and beheld the grim and final destiny to which the race of homo sapiens is doomed, to devolve into subhuman Eloi and grisly cannibal Moorlocks.
Olaf Stapledon was the second man to cross the barrier of the abyss of eternity, and he beheld, as if in a vision, the eighteen separate human species which will rise and fall after our species, the First Men, devolves into Moorlocks. A second human species, made of finer and nobler character by their descent into subterranean savagery, will again rise, and devote their mechanical knowledge to the investigation of the cosmos.
Mr. Stapledon’s movements in the time stream were of course detected by the later generations of time travelers, including the agents of the world-system of the Third Men known as Nexx in the Eighty-First Century, and the merciless disembodied sub-aquatic superbrains of the One Hundred and Seventh Century, the so-called Fourth Men.
Alfred Elton van Vogt is the final time traveler that later generations of time wardens will permit to bypass the timespace barrier, and he was told in strictest confidence the secret of the meaning of life by the Ultimate Intellect which rules the otherwise barren and lifeless world once called earth in the time of the Eighteenth Men, beneath a reddish, giant and dying star once called Sol. The men of that era have complied themselves into a single mental system, using all the resources of their dying planet to do so.
What Mr. Van Vogt was told, years ago he told his fellow writer Harlan Ellison. Mr. Ellison during an evening of unfortunate inebriation told me these dire secrets when I met him at the Science Fiction Writers of America mansion in New Jersey.
He and I are both confirmed fans of AE van Vogt, and we were toasting his memory. I was frankly expressing my admiration that Mr. Ellison had put forth the effort to get Mr. van Vogt his long overdue Grand Masters award. As the evening progressed, the other drinkers in the bar retired, and soon we two were alone, and both in somewhat of high spirits.
It started innocently enough. We were discussing our favorite Van Vogt monsters, the Coeurl, the Ixtl, the Rull, and I made the offhand remark that with such superhuman nasties in outer space, we humans are lucky the universe is mostly empty of intelligent life.
Mr. Ellison fixed me with his eye. “Empty? What makes you say so?” And there was a look of agitation there. At the time, I put it down to his somewhat peppery temper, but now I know it had a deeper source.
The conversation turned to the Drake Equation, and the estimates that, even if the number of stars with life bearing planets is microscopic, and even if the number of life bearing planets that bring forth spacefaring civilization is submicroscopic, the number of stars in this local arm of the galaxy alone is so astronomical (the pun was his, not mine) that surely we would have detected some sign of alien intelligence. It is not an unusual topic for fans of scientific speculation to discuss.
Mr. Ellison began swearing and cursing, saying that the Drake Equation was not just an underestimation, it was a f**cking dumbsh*t underestimation. It did not take into account the number of artificial races, specifically constructed to fill non-earthlike worlds, that a forerunner race could make to populate the stars at a geometrical rate of increase.
(Mr. Ellison emphasized this point by poking my chest and demanding I pay for the next round of drinks. I was happy to do so, fascinated by what he was saying, and eager to hear more.)
And if each forerunner race created as many new races as its technology permitted, and if as Ellison insisted, the technology level itself increases geometrically as each new species encounters or creates new species in turn, the rate of increase is more than geometrical, more than asymptotic. The limiting factor to growth is only the total amount of matter energy in a solar system, and how much needed to be expended to send a self-replicating machine or organism to the next nearest few thousand solar systems.
No nonsense about cryogenic sleep or carrying air in bottles: a truly advanced race were merely design its deep space crosses races to be adapted to the needs of the journey, long lived enough to outlast the eons slower than light travel required. When they arrived at the target, the nearest few gas giants could be dismantled for parts to create the next generation of races. There was no need to be out of contact with the home worlds in the meanwhile, since vacuum could not disperse laser-carried data streams.
I was skeptical, but he neatly skewered my skepticism with a few back-of-the-envelope type calculations on a bar napkin. I remember this because I handed him my ballpoint pen.
He spoke with conviction, not as if he were speculating or daydreaming. He knew.
Every star has between ten to a hundred inhabited planets, and each planet has six to twenty intelligent races occupying their various landmasses, oceans, and cloud levels; not to mention energy-based intelligences dwelling inside the fires of the sun, or the surfaces of neutron stars; or more exotic intelligences dispersed throughout nebulae, and occupying worldlets, centaurs, asteroids and cometary bodies. And they were all at a much more advanced level of mechanical, energetic, and telepathic technology than ours.
“The stars are crammed! They are packed in like sardines up there!” he shouted. Then, sadly, as if to himself. “And no one else will ever get to see them. Poor Van!”
Trying to ignore the strangeness of this remark, trying to pretend that this was still a normal conversation, I next asked why (as if we were merely still discussing a speculation) why, if all he said were so, we have never heard the least whisper of any radio signals from any of these civilizations?
He made a shushing gesture. “If you knew the meaning of life — the reason behind it all — I could tell you. Van Vogt knew! HG Wells knew!”
“Is the secret of life Dianetics? I had heard that Mr. van Vogt was interested in….”
“Wright! Don’t be an asshole. Or at least be a smaller one! You’d stink less!”
Mr. Ellison pulled me close, and in breaths bleary with beer fumes he spilled out the secret of the universe to me in short, frantic sentences.
He told me a time machine is almost absurdly easy to construct with four gyroscopes, an electromagnet, a moebius strip, and a bicycle frame. Anyone handy with normal house hold tools can make one in his garage.
Ellison took up a napkin from the bar and with a few clear swift strokes of my ballpoint pen (which he still has), he sketched for me the diagram of how to construct a time machine.
The principle is quite simple: the action of the gyroscopes prevents motion in any of three dimensions, and the electromagnetic field of the solenoid is therefore forced, thanks to the twist in the moebius strip, through a prism into the fourth dimension. The field moves the iron frame of the machine a certain number of increments in the time direction, taking the gyroscopes with it, and the process repeats as long as the power to spin the gyroscopes remains.
I asked why, if it were so simple to build, there were not time machines for sale in every bookstore and bicycle shop?
He told me anyone from our period of time attempting to make one will find what seem to be odd coincidences, accidents, including deadly accidents, will always somehow interrupt the investigation before the final moebius coil is complete: this is due to the vigilance of the Nexx Time-Sweepers of AD 8000 and the World-Brains of AD 10600.
The Time-Sweepers have all the time in the world, centuries, to plan the accidents, and can go back to any previous point in time and shift one link in the chain of cause and effect, no matter how small, to undo the event. And if their results are less than perfect the first few hundred times they try, later expeditions of later generations can try again a thousand times a thousand times.
I smiled at this revelation, and this seemed to enrage him. With many an oath and a blistering curse, dragging me by the tie to my feet, Mr. Ellison took me to the basement of the mansion and showed me a mechanism stored there, but warned me not to touch it.
No one had apparently touched it for many a year, not even to clean it. It was draped with dry spiderwebs and crusts of oil.
It was a crude and unimpressive-looking mechanism, consisting of little more than a seat, two levers and a dial connected to a set of gyroscopes wrapped in electrical wire, and connected to a piezoelectric bar no bigger than my thumb.
The construction had curious details, such as decorations on some of the brass struts, the imprecision of the rivets, the whirling governor of a small steam cylinder and the chain to spin the gyroscopes, all of which gave it a Victorian look that was unmistakable.
It looked like an amateurish, poorly made thing. And yet a sensation of dread overcome me when I looked at it.
For it did not look well made enough, not slick enough, to be a prop or a joke. It looked like something a British middle class gent of the last century could have made in his garden shed, a man who knew how to putter with tools, and had the idle time to study the mechanical sciences. A man, for example, like Herbert George Wells.
“That is the Time Machine,” I said. And I backed up from the damn thing until a dusty shelf holding old paint cans poked me in the back, and I could back no more.
Ellison nodded grimly. Then, in the airless basement, he told me the rest of the secret.
Because of the invention of the time machine technology here on Earth, our world is the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, the paradox planet! Three events make our world unique among all the worlds of the cosmos.
First, on our world and none other, intelligent life arose of itself by time paradox, rather than being created by a natural process of evolution. A time sorcerer named Sise-Neg from the 31st Century propelled himself back to the African plains in the early paleolithic. His method of time travel relied on psychic powers to produce the electromagnetochronic displacement field out of the ambient earth current, rather use than the more solid and trustworthy moebius coil of Wells’ invention. When the field passed through one of the periodic shifts in the global magnetic field polarization, the ambient current failed, and therefore left Sise-Neg stranded.
Sise-Neg entertained himself in his exile by experimenting on Neanderthal and prehuman eugenics, crossbreeding until he created the Adam and seven sisters of Eve our current knowledge of genetics has detected.
Humanity would have, of course, remained at the hunter-gatherer level for all time had not Martin Padway (who accidentally fell through a time-wake caused by the passage of the million-year chronoliner from the era of the Fifth Men) become stranded in the past. Padway, also called Prometheus, befriending a local maiden of a tribe of Nile-dwelling savages, taught our ancestors the basics of agriculture, fire-making, and writing.
Second, our world is naturally lifeless and has no ability to bring forth life of itself. The existence of microscopic one-cellular life in the primal seas of earth was due to the wreckage of a time machine. The dead body of a time traveler named Stephen Crane collapsed into the primal seas, and the microorganisms in his body, as he decayed, started the evolutionary process. It is suspected that Stephen Crane’s death was arranged by the Nexxal assassins, so that their own time line would come into existence.
Third, in the year 4784 of Isher, a man named McAllister from 1951 was (or will be) accidentally swept up into the operation of a time energy machine which reverses entropy. This is a side effect of a deadly struggle between the imperium of Isher and the Weapon Shops, both of whom unwisely attempted to use time machine technology rather than face defeat.
McAllister was, or will be, sent seesawing back in time gathering ever larger amounts of matter-energy into his disintegrating body with each swing. Eventually, once he has gathered all the energy in the universe and brought it to the origin point of timespace at the moment and location of the Big Bang, he will not observe, but will witness the formation of the cosmos.
All other intelligent races of outer space are careful never to interfere with any of the events, no matter how small, taking place on our world, since any smallest change, even something as little as stepping on a butterfly, would not only effect election results and lead to Republican victories, but could abort the events that give rise to the time travelers Crane, Padway, Sise-Neg and most importantly McAllister.
The time events that give rise to the creation of life on Earth, the rise of homo sapiens, and of Mediterranean civilization, of course, are all needed in order for McAllister to come into being, and for him to return to the origin and accidentally create the energy-illusion we called timespace.
It should go without saying that the other races of the myriad other worlds, since they were not created by the fumbling and inexperienced meddling with ape-genes by the amateurish Sise-Neg, are immensely older and wiser than mankind, and therefore none of them are foolish enough to experiment with time travel. Their superior brains can detect both past and future events perfectly, and so the temptation to interfere with the course of events or to create a time paradox is unimaginable to them.
We and we alone have that dubious distinction, since we are smart enough to reproduce the time-bypass effect, but not wise enough to leave well enough alone.
It is for their own self preservation that the cosmic minds of the alien stars prevent any interference with our world, and maintain strict radio silence, hiding all evidence of their countless billions of civilizations.
There are, for example, three intelligent species living on the Moon alone, the Va-Gas and U-Gas and the Senelites under the Grand Lunar; and nine races dwell on Mars, including Barsoomians and Malacandrines, Therns and Pfifltriggi, but all are careful to hypnotize astronauts and falsify recordings and readings from probes we send, or to retreat beneath their planetary crusts or the behind the veil of the unseen in order to preserve the illusion that man is alone in the cosmos. We have all noticed how oddly John Glen and other returning astronauts behave. This is due to the side effect of space hypnosis.
Of course the higher races move among us in disguise, and have contact with the races living in the hollow interior of our world, and call upon them from time to time to use their Vril power, an ultimate form of spiritual electro-gravitic force, to erase memories, sink ships, or cause ‘Tunguska’ type events to abolish the evidence of anything that threatens to alter the foretold events of the time stream.
The meaning of life, and the purpose of the earth, is to give rise to all these experiments and events in the future, in order that the past, and the universe itself, should be created.
All human religion, philosophy, and investigation into the meaning of life is, of course, carefully monitored and curtailed by the superior intelligences of the remote future and the distant stars so that these investigations do not create any events unforeseen or that might derail the established self-creating past and future.
Why, you may wonder, are science fiction writers aware of the true meaning of life, when men of much greater genius and spiritual stature, thinkers and philosophers and theologians, are kept in ignorance of this great truth?
It is not due to any cruelty or love of irony by the superior races of the later eras, but merely to the fact that Wells and Stapledon first stumbled across the secret, and their published results were taken as fiction by unbelieving editors and in incredulous public.
We can be safely told, because no one will believe us.
That is the dreadful secret revealed to me by Mr. Ellison. Naturally, I would not have believed so fantastical a tale had I not seen the time machine with my own eyes.
Even then I was skeptical. The names he whispered, Sise-Neg, Padway, and Crane, I recognized from stories by Alfred Bester or L Sprague de Camp. The time agents of Nexx I recognized from a book by Keith Laumer. So I laughed and demanded that Mr. Ellison confess he was merely having me on. Surely it was a jest! It was not as if these science fiction writers had any sort of records or unpublished manuscripts from Wells or Stapledon that they mined for names or ideas, or that they used the time machine themselves.
He fixed me with his bloodshot eyes and assured me it was merely a joke he was having at my expense.
Nothing else could have so completely convinced me of the utter and horrific truth of what he revealed. Suddenly the closeness of the basement, the rusted and angular shape of the Wells time machine sitting under its cobwebs seemed stifling and oppressive. My head was pounding with drink and whirling with dread. I pushed myself free from Ellison, and ran up the crooked stairs, flung myself out into the cool midnight air, staggering and breathing in deep gulps.
Behind me, there came a flare of red-gold brilliance, brighter than the glare of electricity, flashing through the basement windows and throwing blood-colored wedges of light across the lawn. With horror the words and the warning returned to me. Ellison had said — practically his last words! — that any attempt to investigate these matters would bring instant retaliation from the stars or from our own remote future, deadly retaliation from beings willing to do anything needed to preserve their own existence, and the existence of the sidereal universe.
Back I ran, down the stairs and to the door. As I took hold of the handle of the door I heard an exclamation, oddly truncated at the end, and a click and a thud. A gust of air whirled round me as I opened the door, and from within came the sound of broken glass falling on the floor. Harlan Ellison was not there. I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment – a figure so transparent that the bench behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The time machine had gone. Save for a subsiding stir of dust, the further end of the basement was empty. A pane of the basement windows had, apparently, just been blown in.
One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times.
Or was what I had seen the operation of some fantastic weapon operated by intelligences vast and cool and unsympathetic from some remote location on the moon or beyond Arcturus, set merely to obliterate anyone attempting to operate the forbidden machine?
The meaning of life, it seems, is not something that it is safe for living men to inquire.
And yet I still have, drawn in a few, short, clear strokes in a bar napkin, the diagram for building a time machine of my own. While I sit and type these words, I can hear my children playing downstairs, and I can see the sunlight shining through my study windows, and I rejoice in the goodness of life. It is only at midnight, when no one is near, that I take out the napkin, study the diagram, and vow to myself that someday I must plumb the secrets of time. Perhaps my actions are ones the universe will require to bring the universe into being? Perhaps the star beings will spare me?
Perhaps I, I, will be allowed to see what other eyes have never looked upon? It that not worth any risk? Surely it was not for no reason this diagram on this stained napkin came into my hands!
Always, I remind myself of my wife and children and tell myself to burn the diagram.
And always, with trembling fingers, I fold the withered napkin carefully and replace it in my wallet.