Blowin’ in the wind

Winner of the 2015 Booker Prize Foundation Universities Initiative Short Story Prize There is a universal tendency for life, once it has become intelligent, to make some extremely unintelligent decisions. These always result in self-annihilation. Except in one case. Eleven billion lightyears from Earth, orbiting a dwarf star and a SuperGiantSpaceWhale, floats the oldest civilisation in the Universe. They call themselves the Hippies. And while everywhere else in the Universe intelligent life extinguishes at a rate of two thousand megacivilizations per nanosecond, the Hippies endure. How they manage this is plain to anyone who bothers looking. The subject of building a lasting and laid-back civilization is clearly addressed in Hieronymus Plop’s bestselling trilogy of novels: Respect Your Fellow Species, Live in a Marijuana Rainforest and his most recent work, Ensure Frequent Bushfires. Like most great stories, ours begins with an invasive herbivorous invertebrate. This invertebrate has munched its way through vast swathes of the Hippies’ Marijuana Rainforest, curiously prompting an unseen level of cerebral functioning amongst the Hippies. With this newfound functionality the Hippies have decided to take a wider interest in the fates of civilisations dwindling around them. The 2015 United Nations Climate Summit. Paris, France, Earth. Around about lunchtime. ‘…decline in marine and bird species and a huge dip in mammal diversity in neo-tropical zones…’ The impassioned speech reverberated around a brightly lit conference hall filled 40% with leading scientists and 60% with Heads of State and their associates. Every head was nodding vigorously—40% of these nods were genuine, the other 60% were the sort of jerky nods the neck manufactures when the brain is being bypassed. Angela was smugly considering her country’s economy. Vladimir was contemplating invading a neo-tropical zone. David was wondering if the rampant decline in fish stocks would mean no tuna and watercress sandwiches at the buffet. ‘Thank you, Dr Coles, for that disturbing projection on species diversity.’ The white-coated speaker adjusted his spectacles. ‘If everybody’s ready, we shall now move on to our next topic of discussion, concerning our dependency on fossil fuels.’ For the first time in the meeting all ears pricked to attention. Politicians leaned forward in their chairs, and thoughts on compound inflation, neo-tropical annexation and tuna and watercress sandwiches were temporarily paused. Even an Italian media tycoon, whose entire morning had been spent trying to make eye-contact with princesses of the Swedish royal family, stopped to listen. The conversation that followed went something like this. ‘We scientists are opposed to further drilling for oil and strongly recommend a huge investment in renewables.’ ‘Well, we politicians are opposed to leaving perfectly good oil in the ground and strongly recommend a huge investment in bigger drills.’ ‘What about the long-term environmental impacts?’ ‘What about them?’ ‘Are you not at least willing to compromise?’ ‘But of course! As long as the compromise reached involves increased oil extraction and an investment in bigger drills.’ A dinner bell rang before tensions could rise further and politicians immediately sauntered out of the conference hall into the adjacent café. Scientists looked at each other and then trudged after them. The café housed a twenty-foot long table with oak legs bowing under the weight of a smorgasbord of dishes. Frankfurter hotdogs flown from Germany, beef jerky shipped from America and a worldwide selection of cheeses were just a few of the dishes which encircled an enormous bowl centrepiece holding the calamari remains of a giant squid that had been floating contentedly off the coast of Japan a mere twenty hours before. Several scientists smiled guiltily at the irony of a buffet at the climate change summit having a bigger carbon footprint than a transatlantic airline. Most just miserably joined the queue for the celery and mushroom quiche, which, although criminally under-salted, at least hadn’t been paid for in the currency of drowned polar bears. To the left of this growing queue, David was just tucking into his seventh tuna and watercress sandwich. He couldn’t shake off a niggling suspicion that something important was missing from the buffet. He was just giving shaking another go when something incredible happened. Or rather, several incredible somethings of equal improbability happened in quick succession. First, the bowl of calamari reassembled itself into a giant squid and began to hum. Then, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George, spontaneously grew a sense of morality. Finally, a boulder sized capsule rocketed through the ceiling and crash-landed on a plate of unethically sourced salmon roe. The capsule’s temperature blended the roe into a pink paste and smashed a huge crater in the floor. ‘How much are the damages going to cost?’ shouted Angela. ‘We’re under attack!’ shouted Vladimir. ‘Hummmmmmmmm,’ said the recently reassembled and still slightly battered giant squid. A cloud of shock hung in the air during the silence that followed. Flummoxed and flabbergasted had to be hybridised into a single adjective in order to describe the general mood in the café. David, whose mouth was wide enough to fit a decently sized mole, was particularly flummergasted. An appetite for fish meant he had been next to the mysterious capsule when it collided with the salmon roe. His mood flipped when he spotted the pool of pink paste surrounding the capsule and realized his niggle had vanished. ‘Ah! Taramasalata! Just what was missing! Barack, pass me a slice of pitta.’ As David leaned forward to dip the bread, the capsule suddenly clicked open. There was eyeball-searing bright light followed by a bowel-emptying bang. Only after eyeballs had recovered and a great many tissues distributed did people at last notice that standing in the capsule with his hips on his hand and with six eyes surveying the room was a hologram of Hippie novelist, Hieronymus Plop. ‘Hello there,’ said Hieronymus. That David’s mouth had become wide enough to be co-opted as a burrow for an entire colony of moles clearly demonstrated that flummergasted had ceased properly to relay the scale of shock in the room. Now, you may at this point be pondering what exactly a Hippie hologram was doing on Earth. If not, you clearly don’t know much about Hippies. Their very survival over the eons has stemmed from a narcotized lack of interaction with the Universe’s current affairs. Communication between vastly different cultures is wrought with perils, and misunderstandings are the main cause for intergalactic warfare: whole races of hitchhiking Jimples have been pulverized for taking an invitation to ‘come aboard’ too literally. However, a certain herbivorous invertebrate ended the Hippies’ state of non-involvement. Starved of their beloved fumes, Hippies instead partake in a nobler hobby. They have become the Universe’s foremost agony aunts. To avoid dangerous misunderstanding and ensure their advice has the greatest impact, the Hippies deliver their message in whichever form best arouses the sensory modalities that their target lifeform has evolved. This has included such activities as fondling Belminthian Warlords’ nipples in just the way that advises unilateral nuclear disarmament, or using the medium of interpretative dance to convey what a blockheaded idea it is for a Mentos-based lifeform to invest so heavily in a Coca-Cola industry. ‘Hello there,’ repeated the hologram of Hieronymus Plop. Everybody looked at him suspiciously. ‘Why are you talking to the squid?’ David finally asked. ‘I have come to deliver a message to Earth’s most advanced lifeform.’ ‘That would be me,’ David said. The squid—one of the Indo-Pacific’s leading aqua-physicists—gargled derisively and continued humming its rendition of Fishbaithoven’s ninth symphony. Heironymus looked at the oversized monkeys before him, decided he didn’t get paid nearly enough for this job and then continued anyway. ‘My mistake. If you are ready I shall deliver my spiel.’ ‘Now you just wait a minute!’ shouted Vladimir, who incidentally thought a spiel was a military strategy. ‘Who the hell are you and where have you come from?’ The ethologists had mentioned Homosapiens had an obsession for informalities—though clearly not for courtesy—so Hieronymus indulged the monkey with a reply and fought the itch to incongrobobulate him where he stood. ‘My name is Hieronymus Plop, galactically-acclaimed author, disappointed father and agony aunt. I’m broadcasting this hologram through a network of black holes via SuperGiantMegaWhale sonar from my home galaxy of Pingaling. My favourite colour is plorinje, I’m a saver not a spender, and I once beat a paddle-armed-octopus in a game of pong ping. May I please proceed?’ Everybody gulped and nodded. The squid finished humming Fishbaithoven, considered moving on to HumpBach but then settled for Tchaicodsky. The melody mingled with Hieronymus’ next words, sending a ripple down the spine of every human in the café. ‘If evolution had foresight of what you’d become, It would never have granted the opposable thumb, You could never then shoot a shot from a gun, And the noble white rhino would still yet run.’ A long silence filled the room as those gathered considered this stanza. Even the Giant Squid’s humming stopped in appreciation. Very clever, it thought, to deliver a message in the form of a poem to these rod-bearing, net-casting, plastic-bag-throwing, ocean-acidifying monkeys. Even the most ignorant of cephalopod neurologists could look at a sunken sailor’s brain and tell you that there were underlying neural pathways which inclined humans to an enjoyment of rhythm and rhyme. Heironymus Plop waited a while longer for the meaning of the poem to sink in. Ethologists had warned him to allow plenty of time for the humans to digest his words. They were apparently relatively new to conscious thought, with brains better suited for tracking woolly mammoths than considering abstract ideas. When the umming and ahhing died down he recited another poem. ‘Were dodos still alive today, Here’s a snippet of what they’d say: SQUAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWK!’ Hieronymus’ squawk lilted like molten silver floating on a breeze fashioned by Bob Dylan’s fingers strumming on a guitar. It chimed like the ring of distant church bells, deflected on a gently flowing stream and then listened to through velvet-covered honeycomb. It caused the very air to thrum and become heavy with dulcet charge. Not an eye in the room remained dry. People cried that they would never again hear this beautiful sound. They cried at the tragedy that had befallen this remarkable bird. They thought about all the ornithologists who had spent their lives unenriched by its song, convinced that the dodo had sounded like a glorified pigeon. They cried some more. They were still crying when Hieronymus, fed up and just about ready to incongrobobulate everybody in the room, huffed one last sentence. ‘In your doomed treatment of biodiversity as if it is timeless, You remain the only vertebrate metaphorically spineless.’ With his spiel complete, the hologram of Hieronymus incongrobobulated into its component atoms, a few of which bonded to form sodium chloride and then sprinkled themselves over the under-seasoned celery and mushroom quiche. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s newly acquired morality disappeared also. He looked down at his napkin, saw, much to his embarrassment, a list of economic policies scrawled across it in his own handwriting, then decided to blow his nose on clamp down on unlawful corporate tax avoidance, certain once more that the poorest in society should bear the brunt of austerity. What a very strange day this has turned out to be, everybody thought. It was Dr Coles who broke what felt like the longest silence of the day so far. ‘What a very strange day this has turned out to be,’ she started. People turned to listen. Politicians and scientists alike seemed invigorated with innocence, as if Heironymus’ words had transported them back in time and forced them to re-examine the world through the eyes of an infant. It filled Dr Coles with hope. She continued. ‘Whilst the media coverage following this summit will focus on our extra-terrestrial visitor, we should not forget the message that was given to us today.’ Everybody nodded. All were of the opinion that Hieronymus’ message was of incalculable importance. ‘And that message is that we must absolutely stop all exploitation and maltreatment of the other species.’ Great Clams, thought the squid, the poetry worked! It actually worked! ‘That’s not the message I got at all,’ said a Chinese ambassador. The squid started to feel sad. ‘Me either!’ said David. The squid started to feel miserable. ‘It’s neither,’ Angela said. The squid appreciated the grammatical intervention but still felt thoroughly miserable. ‘With all due respect Dr Coles, I think you’re taking the message too literally and in doing so are missing some of the subtler undertones,’ said Ian, whose name was coincidentally the suffix for the things that, in present company, made his own view more important than that of a scientist’s: Etonian, Oxfordian and politician. ‘What undertones?’ Dr Coles asked incredulously. ‘The alien, by highlighting the ecological shortcomings of adults was conveying a simple message.’ Ian puffed his chest arrogantly. ‘For those of us versed in poetry—I once read Green Eggs and Ham you know—the message was clear. It was that children… are the future!’ There was a spatter of applause as the politicians recognised that a product of the ageing process was that children were, in fact, the future. Ian received several hearty pats on the back. ‘My own interpretation is similar to my friend Ian’s. I too believe children are the future,’ George paused to receive a few back pats of his own, ‘and it’s furthermore my belief that by hinting this, the alien was advocating the continued exploitation of Earth’s resources and species. After all, what child wants to live in a world without petroleum? What child wants their desires made secondary to that of a great crested newt? No my friends, children of today want one thing and one thing only…’ ‘A future?’ asked Dr Coles. ‘Unadulterated economic growth!’ roared George. This interpretation was met with even more popularity than its predecessor and there was an explosion of cheers and a series of firm handshakes. Humans are already marvellous at missing the obvious but politicians have mastered the art. To them, nothing was more intuitive than Hieronymus saying the exact opposite of what he had meant. They charged towards the buffet in a stampede of delirium, chuffed that an alien had bothered broadcasting a message from eleven billion lightyears away complimenting them on what a bang-up job they were all doing in sorting out the world’s problems. Alas, the dangers of poetical misinterpretation, thought the squid. Its dinner-plate sized eyes fixed onto the Chancellor of the Exchequer as he produced a knife. Vertebrate and Cephalopod irises, corneas and pupils locked in one of those fleeting moments where convergent evolution stares upon itself. Then George starting hacking at the squid’s tentacles, partly due to an urge for calamari but mostly to remind convergent evolution why its moments of self-appreciation tended to be fleeting. Oh well, thought the squid, your loss. And it was indeed humanity’s loss. For when the aqua-physicist squid perished for the second time that day, it carried the secret to producing unlimited green energy from water molecules to its grave. It was as Vladimir contacted the Russian Federal Space Agency to demand that the galaxy of Pingaling be invaded that the squid constructed one last thought. If humans stopped underestimating their fellow species, they might actually get to somewhere worth going. An orb-weaving spider in the corner clinked its pedipalps in agreement.

Gianluca Cerullo