Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 4

I Travel Again

I MUST have spent several years on the Other Earth, a period far longer than I intended when I first encountered one of its peasants trudging through the fields. Often I longed to be at home again. I used to wonder with painful anxiety how those dear to me were faring, and what changes I should discover if I were ever to return. It was surprising to me that in spite of my novel and crowded experiences on the Other Earth thoughts of home should continue to be so insistent. It seemed but a moment since I was sitting on the hill looking at the lights of our suburb. Yet several years had passed. The children would be altered almost beyond recognition. Their mother? How would she have fared?

Bvalltu was partly responsible for my long spell on the Other Earth. He would not hear of my leaving till we had each attained a real understanding of the other’s world. I constantly stimulated his imagination to picture as clearly as possible the life of my own planet, and he had discovered in it much the same medley of the splendid and the ironical as I had discovered in his. In fact he was far from agreeing with me that his world was on the whole the more grotesque.

The call to impart information was not the only consideration that bound me to Bvalltu. I had come to feel a very strong friendship for him. In the early days of our partnership there had sometimes been strains. Though we were both civilized human beings, who tried always to behave with courtesy and generosity, our extreme intimacy did sometimes fatigue us. I used, for instance, to find his passion for the gustatory fine art of his world very wearisome. He would sit by the hour passing his sensitive fingers over the impregnated cords to seize the taste sequences that had for him such great subtlety of form and symbolism. I was at first intrigued, then aesthetically stirred; but in spite of his patient help I was never at this early stage able to enter fully and spontaneously into the aesthetic of taste. Sooner or later I was fatigued or bored. Then again, I was impatient of his periodic need for sleep. Since I was disembodied, I myself felt no such need. I could, of course, disengage myself from Bvalltu and roam the world alone; but I was often exasperated by the necessity of breaking off the day’s interesting experiences merely in order to afford my host’s body time to recuperate. Bvalltu, for his part, at least in the early days of our partnership, was inclined to resent my power of watching his dreams. For though, while awake, he could withdraw his thoughts from my observation, asleep he was helpless. Naturally I very soon learned to refrain from exercising this power; and he, on his side, as our intimacy developed into mutual respect, no longer cherished this privacy so strictly. In time each of us came to feel that to taste the flavor of life in isolation from the other was to miss half its richness and subtlety. Neither could entirely trust his own judgment or his own motives unless the other were present to offer relentless though friendly criticism.

We hit upon a plan for satisfying at once our friendship, his interest in my world, and my own longing for home. Why should we not somehow contrive to visit my planet together? I had traveled thence; why should we not both travel thither? After a spell on my planet, we could proceed upon the larger venture, again together.

For this end we had to attack two very different tasks. The technique of interstellar travel, which I had achieved only by accident and in a very haphazard manner, must now be thoroughly mastered. Also we must somehow locate my native planetary system in the astronomical maps of the Other Men.

This geographical, or rather cosmographical, problem proved insoluble. Do what I would, I could provide no data for the orientation. The attempt, however, led us to an amazing, and for me a terrifying discovery. I had traveled not only through space but through time itself. In the first place, it appeared that, in the very advanced astronomy of the Other Men, stars as mature as the Other Sun and as my own Sun were rare. Yet in terrestrial astronomy this type of star was known to be the commonest of all throughout the galaxy. How could this be? Then I made another perplexing discovery. The galaxy as known to the Other Astronomers proved to be strikingly different from my recollection of the galaxy as known to our own astronomers. According to the Other Men the great star-system was much less flattened than we observe it to be. Our astronomers tell us that it is like a circular biscuit five times as wide as it is thick. In their view it was more like a bun. I myself had often been struck by the width and indefiniteness of the Milky Way in the sky of the Other Earth. I had been surprised, too, that the Other Astronomers believed the galaxy to contain much gaseous matter not yet condensed into stars. To our astronomers it seemed to be almost wholly stellar.

Had I then traveled unwittingly much further than I had supposed, and actually entered some other and younger galaxy? Perhaps in my period of darkness, when the rubies and amethysts and diamonds of the sky had all vanished, I had actually sped across intergalactic space. This seemed at first the only explanation, but certain facts forced us to discard it in favor of one even stranger.

Comparison of the astronomy of the Other Men with my fragmentary recollection of our own astronomy convinced me that the whole cosmos of galaxies known to them differed from the whole cosmos of galaxies known to us. The average form of the galaxies was much more rotund and much more gaseous, in fact much more primitive, for them than for us.

Moreover, in the sky of the Other Earth several galaxies were so near as to be prominent smudges of light even for the naked eye. And astronomers had shown that many of these so-called “universes” were much closer to the home “universe” than the nearest known in our astronomy.

The truth that now flashed on Bvalltu and me was indeed bewildering. Everything pointed to the fact that I had somehow traveled up the river of time and landed myself at a date in the remote past, when the great majority of the stars were still young. The startling nearness of so many galaxies in the astronomy of the Other Men could be explained on the theory of the “expanding universe.” Well I knew that this dramatic theory was but tentative and very far from satisfactory; but at least here was one more striking bit of evidence to suggest that it must be in some sense true. In early epochs the galaxies would of course be congested together. There could be no doubt that I had been transported to a world which had reached the human stage very long before my native planet had been plucked from the sun’s womb.

The full realization of my temporal remoteness from my home reminded me of a fact, or at least a probability, which, oddly enough, I had long ago forgotten. Presumably I was dead. I now desperately craved to be home again. Home was all the while so vivid, so near. Even though its distance was to be counted in parsecs and in aeons, it was always at hand. Surely, if I could only wake, I should find myself there on our hill-top again. But there was no waking. Through Bvalltu’s eyes I was studying star-maps and pages of outlandish script. When he looked up, I saw standing opposite us a caricature of a human being, with a frog-like face that was scarcely a face at all, and with the thorax of a pouter-pigeon, naked save for a greenish down. Red silk knickers crowned the spindle shanks that were enclosed in green silk stockings. This creature, which, to the terrestrial eye, was simply a monster, passed on the Other Earth as a young and beautiful woman. And I myself, observing her through Bvalltu’s benevolent eyes, recognized her as indeed beautiful. To a mind habituated to the Other Earth her features and her every gesture spoke of intelligence and wit. Clearly, if I could admire such a woman, I myself must have changed.

It would be tedious to tell of the experiments by which we acquired and perfected the art of controlled flight through interstellar space. Suffice it that, after many adventures, we learned to soar up from the planet whenever we wished, and to direct our course, by mere acts of volition, hither and thither among the stars. We seemed to have much greater facility and accuracy when we worked together than when either ventured into space by himself. Our community of mind seemed to strengthen us even for spatial locomotion.

It was a very strange experience to find oneself in the depth of space, surrounded only by darkness and the stars, yet to be all the while in close personal contact with an unseen companion. As the dazzling lamps of heaven flashed past us, we would think to one another about our experiences, or debate our plans, or share our memories of our native worlds. Sometimes we used my language, sometimes his. Sometimes we needed no words at all, but merely shared the flow of imagery in our two minds.

The sport of disembodied flight among the stars must surely be the most exhilarating of all athletic exercises. It was not without danger; but its danger, as we soon discovered, was psychological, not physical. In our bodiless state, collision with celestial objects mattered little. Sometimes, in the early stages of our adventure, we plunged by accident headlong into a star. Its interior would, of course, be inconceivably hot, but we experienced merely brilliance.

The psychological dangers of the sport were grave. We soon discovered that disheartenment, mental fatigue, fear, all tended to reduce our powers of movement. More than once we found ourselves immobile in space, like a derelict ship on the ocean; and such was the fear roused by this plight that there was no possibility of moving till, having experienced the whole gamut of despair, we passed through indifference and on into philosophic calm.

A still graver danger, but one which trapped us only once, was mental conflict. A serious discord of purpose over our future plans reduced us not only to immobility but to terrifying mental disorder. Our perceptions became confused. Hallucinations tricked us. The power of coherent thought vanished. After a spell of delirium, filled with an overwhelming sense of impending annihilation, we found ourselves back on the Other Earth; Bvalltu in his own body, lying in bed as he had left it, I once more a disembodied view-point floating somewhere over the planet’s surface. Both were in a state of insane terror, from which we took long to recover. Months passed before we renewed our partnership and our adventure.

Long afterwards we learned the explanation of this painful incident. Seemingly we had attained such a deep mental accord that, when conflict arose, it was more like dissociation within a single mind than discord between two separate individuals. Hence its serious consequences.

As our skill in disembodied flight increased, we found intense pleasure in sweeping hither and thither among the stars. We tasted the delights at once of skating and of flight. Time after time, for sheer joy, we traced huge figures-of-eight in and out around the two partners of a “double star.” Sometimes we stayed motionless for long periods to watch at close quarters the waxing and waning of a variable. Often we plunged into a congested cluster, and slid amongst its suns like a car gliding among the lights of a city. Often we skimmed over billowy and palely luminous surfaces of gas, or among feathery shreds and prominences; or plunged into mist, to find ourselves in a world of featureless dawn light. Sometimes, without warning, dark continents of dust engulfed us, blotting out the universe. Once, as we were traversing a populous region of the heaven, a star suddenly blazed into exaggerated splendor, becoming a “nova.” As it was apparently surrounded by a cloud of non-luminous gas, we actually saw the expanding sphere of light which was radiated by the star’s explosion. Traveling outward at light’s speed, it was visible by reflection from the surrounding gas, so that it appeared like a swelling balloon of light, fading as it spread.

These were but a few of the stellar spectacles that delighted us while we easefully skated, as on swallow wings, hither and thither among the neighbors of the Other Sun. This was during our period of apprenticeship to the craft of interstellar flight. When we had become proficient we passed further afield, and learned to travel so fast that, as on my own earlier and involuntary flight, the forward and the hinder stars took color, and presently all was dark. Not only so, but we reached to that more spiritual vision, also experienced on my earlier voyage, in which these vagaries of physical light are overcome.

On one occasion our flight took us outwards toward the limits of the galaxy, and into the emptiness beyond. For some time the near stars had become fewer and fewer. The hinder hemisphere of sky was now crowded with faint lights, while in front of us lay starless blackness, unrelieved save by a few isolated patches of scintillation, a few detached fragments of the galaxy, or planetary “sub-galaxies.” Apart from these the dark was featureless, save for half a dozen of the vague flecks which we knew to be the nearest of the alien galaxies.

Awed by this spectacle, we stayed long motionless in the void. It was indeed a stirring experience to see spread out before us a whole “universe,” containing a billion stars and perhaps thousands of inhabited worlds; and to know that each tiny fleck in the black sky was itself another such “universe,” and that millions more of them were invisible only because of their extreme remoteness.

What was the significance of this physical immensity and complexity? By itself, plainly, it constituted nothing but sheer futility and desolation. But with awe and hope we told ourselves that it promised an even greater complexity and subtlety and diversity of the psychical. This alone could justify it. But this formidable promise, though inspiring, was also terrifying.

Like a nestling that peers over the nest’s rim for the first time, and then shrinks back from the great world into its tiny home, we had emerged beyond the confines of that little nest of stars which for so long, but falsely, men called “the universe.” And now we sank back to bury ourselves once more in the genial precincts of our native galaxy.

As our experiences had raised many theoretical problems which we could not solve without further study of astronomy, we now decided to return to the Other Earth; but after long and fruitless search we realized that we had completely lost our bearings. The stars were all much alike, save that few in this early epoch were as old and temperate as the Other Sun. Searching at random, but at high speed, we found neither Bvalltu’s planet nor mine, nor any other solar system. Frustrated, we came to rest once more in the void to consider our plight. On every side the ebony of the sky, patterned with diamonds, confronted us with an enigma. Which spark of all this star-dust was the Other Sun? As was usual in the sky of this early epoch, streaks of nebular matter were visible in all directions; but their shapes were unfamiliar, and useless for orientation.

The fact that we were lost among the stars did not distress us. We were exhilarated by our adventure, and each was a cause of good spirits in the other. Our recent experiences had quickened our mental life, still further organizing our two minds together. Each was still at most times conscious of the other and of himself as separate beings; but the pooling or integration of our memories and of our temperaments had now gone so far that our distinctness was often forgotten. Two disembodied minds, occupying the same visual position, possessing the same memories and desires, and often performing the same mental acts at the same time, can scarcely be conceived as distinct beings. Yet, strangely enough, this growing identity was complicated by an increasingly intense mutual realization and comradeship.

Our penetration of one another’s minds brought to each not merely addition but mutiplication of mental riches; for each knew inwardly not only himself and the other but also the contrapuntal harmony of each in relation to the other. Indeed, in some sense which I cannot precisely describe, our union of minds brought into being a third mind, as yet intermittent, but more subtly conscious than either of us in the normal state. Each of us, or rather both of us together, “woke up” now and then to be this superior spirit. All the experiences of each took on a new significance in the light of the other; and our two minds together became a new, more penetrating, and more self-conscious mind. In this state of heightened lucidity we, or rather the new I, began deliberately to explore the psychological possibilities of other types of beings and intelligent worlds. With new penetration I distinguished in myself and in Bvalltu those attributes which were essential to the spirit and those mere accidents imposed on each by his peculiar world. This imaginative venture was soon to prove itself a method, and a very potent method, of cosmological research.

We now began to realize more clearly a fact that we had long suspected. In my previous interstellar voyage, which brought me to the Other Earth, I had unwittingly employed two distinct methods of travel, the method of disembodied flight through space and a method which I shall call “physical attraction.” This consisted of telepathic projection of the mind directly into some alien world, remote perhaps in time and space, but mentally “in tune” with the explorer’s own mind at the time of the venture. Evidently it was this method that had really played the chief part in directing me to the Other Earth. The remarkable similarities of our two races had set up a strong “physical attraction” which had been far more potent than all my random interstellar wanderings. It was this method that Bvalltu and I were now to practice and perfect.

Presently we noticed that we were no longer at rest but slowly drifting. We had also a queer sense that, though we were seemingly isolated in a vast desert of stars and nebulae, we were in fact in some kind of mental proximity with unseen intelligences. Concentrating on this sense of presence, we found that our drift accelerated; and that, if we tried by a violent act of volition to change its course, we inevitably swung back into the original direction as soon as our effort ceased. Soon our drift became a headlong flight. Once more the forward stars turned violet, the hinder red. Once more all vanished.

In absolute darkness and silence we debated our situation. Clearly we were now passing through space more quickly than light itself. Perhaps we were also, in some incomprehensible manner, traversing time. Meanwhile that sense of the proximity of other beings became more and more insistent, though no less confused. Then once again the stars appeared. Though they streamed past us like flying sparks, they were colorless and normal. One brilliant light lay right ahead of us. It waxed, became a dazzling splendor, then visibly a disc. With an effort of will we decreased our speed, then cautiously we swung round this sun, searching. To our delight, it proved to be attended by several of the grains that may harbor life. Guided by our unmistakable sense of mental presence, we selected one of these planets, and slowly descended toward it.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30