Saturday, December 05, 2015

Carl Sagan Contact, Chapter 24 - The Artist's Signature


This is the an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s novel ‘Contact’. The novel differs from the film in several key respects. The character of Theodore Arroway, the father of the central protagonist Ellie Arroway still dies in the book. Although Ellie has a mother and she remarries a man, John Staughton, whom Ellie grows to despise. When she returns from her mission to meet the senders of the cosmic message, Ellie devotes her time to deciphering more of the message received from space. This is done using a computer to run different pattern recognition algorithms.

SHE RUSHED up the steps of the nursing home and, on the newly repainted green veranda, marked off at regular intervals by empty rocking chairs, she saw John Staughton--stooped, immobile, his arms dead weights. In his right hand be clutched a shopping bag in which Ellie could see a translucent shower cap, a flowered makeup case, and two bedroom slippers adorned with pink pom-poms.

"She's gone," he said as his eyes focused. "Don't go in," he pleaded. "Don't look at her. She would've hated for you to see her like this. You know how much pride she took in her appearance. Anyway, she's not in there."

Almost reflexively, out of long practice and still unresolved resentments, Ellie was tempted to turn and enter anyway. Was she prepared, even now, to defy him as a matter of principle? What was the principle, exactly? From the havoc on his face, there was no question about the authenticity of his remorse. He had loved her mother. Maybe, she thought, he loved her more than I did, and a wave of self-reproach swept through her. Her mother had been so frail for so long that Ellie had tested, many times, how she would respond when the moment came. She remembered how beautiful her mother had been in the picture that Staughton had sent her, and suddenly, despite her rehearsals for this moment, she was wracked with sobs.

Startled by her distress, Staughton moved to comfort her. But she put up a hand, and with a visible effort regained her self-control. Even now, she could not bring herself to embrace him. They were strangers, tenuously linked by a corpse. But she had been wrong--she knew it in the depths of her being--to have blamed Staughton for her father's death.

"I have something for you," he said as he fumbled in the shopping bag. Some of the contents circulated between top and bottom, and she could see now an imitation-leather wallet and a plastic denture case. She had to look away. At last he straightened up, flourishing a weather-beaten envelope.

"For Eleanor," it read. Recognizing her mother's handwriting, she moved to take it. Staughton took a startled step backward, raising the envelope in front of his face as if she had been about to strike him.

"Wait," he said. "Wait. I know we've never gotten along. But do me this one favor: Don't read the letter until tonight. Okay?"

In his grief, he seemed a decade older. "Why?" she asked.

"Your favorite question. Just do me this one courtesy. Is it too much to ask?"

"You're right," she said. "It's not too much to ask. I'm sorry."

He looked her directly in the eye. "Whatever happened to you in that Machine," he said, "maybe it changed you."

"I hope so, John."

She called Joss and asked him if he would perform the funeral service. "I don't have to tell you I'm not religious. But there were times when my mother was. You're the only person I can think of whom I'd want to do it, and I'm pretty sure my stepfather will approve." He would be there on the next plane, Joss assured her.

In her hotel room, after an early dinner, she fingered the envelope, caressing every fold and scuff. It was old. Her mother must have written it years ago, carrying it around in some compartment of her purse, debating with herself whether to give it to Ellie. It did not seem newly resealed, and Ellie wondered whether Staughton had read it. Part of her hungered to open it, and part of her hung back with a kind of foreboding. She sat for a long time in the musty armchair thinking, her knees drawn up limberly against her chin.

A chime sounded, and the not quite noiseless carriage of her telefax came to life. It was linked to the Argus computer. Although it reminded her of the old days, there was no real urgency. Whatever the computer had found was not about to go away; would not set as the Earth turned. If there was a message hiding inside, it would wait for her forever.

She examined the envelope again, but the echo of the chime intruded. If there was content inside a transcendental number, it could only have been built into the geometry of the universe from the beginning. This new project of hers was in experimental theology. But so is all of science, she thought. "STAND BY," the computer printed out on the telefax screen.

She thought of her father. . . well, the simulacrum of her father ... about the Caretakers with their network of tunnels through the Galaxy. They had witnessed and perhaps influenced the origin and development of life on millions of worlds. They were building galaxies, closing off sectors of the universe. They could manage at least a limited kind of time travel. They were gods beyond the pious imaginings of almost all religions--all Western religions, anyway. But even they had their limitations. They had not built the tunnels and were unable to do so. They had not inserted the message into the transcendental number, and could not even read it. The Tunnel builders and the inscribers were somebody else. They didn't live here anymore. They had left no forwarding address. When the Tunnel builders had departed, she guessed, those who would eventually be the Caretakers had become abandoned children. Like her, like her.

She thought about Eda's hypothesis that the tunnels were wormholes, distributed at convenient intervals around innumerable stars in this and other galaxies. They resembled black holes, but they had different properties and different origins. They were not exactly massless, because she had seen them leave gravitational wakes in the orbiting debris in the Vega system. And through them beings and ships of many kinds traversed and bound up the Galaxy.

Wormholes. In the revealing jargon of theoretical physics, the universe was their apple and someone had tunneled through, riddling the interior with passageways that crisscrossed the core. For a bacillus who lived on the surface, it was a miracle. But a being standing outside the apple might be less impressed. From that perspective, the Tunnel builders were only an annoyance. But if the Tunnel builders are worms, she thought, who are we? The Argus computer had gone deep into this puzzle, deeper than anyone on Earth, human or machine, had ever gone, although not nearly so deep as the Caretakers had ventured. This was much too soon, she thought, to be the long-un-decrypted message about which Theodore Arroway had told her on the shores of that uncharted sea. Maybe this was just a gearing up, a preview of coming attractions, an encouragement to further exploration, a token so humans would not lose heart. Whatever it was, it could not possibly be the message the Caretakers were struggling with. Maybe there were easy messages and hard messages, locked away in the various transcendental numbers, and the Argus computer had found the easiest. With help.

At the Station, she had learned a kind of humility, a reminder of how little the inhabitants of Earth really knew. There might, she thought, be as many categories of beings more advanced than humans as there are between us and the ants, or maybe even between us and the viruses. But it had not depressed her. Rather than a daunting resignation, it had aroused in her a swelling sense of wonder. There was so much more to aspire to now.

It was like the step from high school to college, from everything coming effortlessly to the necessity of making a sustained and disciplined effort to understand at all. In high school, she had grasped her coursework more quickly than almost anybody. In college, she had discovered many people much quicker than she. There had been the same sense of incremental difficulty and challenge when she entered graduate school, and when she became a professional astronomer. At every stage, she had found scientists more accomplished than she, and each stage had been more exciting than the last. Let the revelations roll, she thought, looking at the telefax. She was ready.

"TRANSMISSION PROBLEM. S/N<10 .="" by.="" please="" span="" stand="">

She was linked to the Argus computer by a communications relay satellite called Defcom Alpha. Perhaps there had been an attitude-control problem, or a programming foul-up. Before she could think about it further, she found she had opened the envelope.

ARROWAY HARDWARE, the letterhead said, and sure enough, the type font was that of the old Royal her father had kept at home to do both business and personal accounts. "June 13, 1964" was typed in the upper right-hand corner. She had been fifteen then. Her father could not have written it; he had been dead for years. A glance at the bottom of the page confirmed the neat hand of her mother. My sweet Ellie, Now that I'm dead, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I know I committed a sin against you, and not just you. I couldn't bear how you'd hate me if you knew the truth. That's why I didn't have the courage to tell you while I was alive. I know how much you loved Ted Arroway, and I want you to know I did, too. I still do. But he wasn't your real father. Your real father is John Staughton. I did something very wrong. I shouldn't have and I was weak, but if I hadn't you wouldn't be in the world, so please be kind when you think about me. Ted knew and he gave me forgiveness and we said we'd never tell you. But I look out the window right now and I see you in the backyard. You're sitting there thinking about stars and things that I never could understand and I'm so proud of you. You make such a point about the truth, I thought it was right that you should know this truth about yourself. Your beginning, I mean.

If John is still alive, then he's given you this letter. I know he'll do it. He's a better man than yon think he is, Ellie. I was lucky to find him again. Maybe you hate him so much because something inside of you figured out the truth. But really yon hate him because he isn't Theodore Arroway. I know.

There you are, still sitting out there. You haven't moved since I started this letter. You're just thinking. I hope and pray that whatever you're seeking, you'll find. Forgive me. I was only human.

Love, Mom

Ellie had assimilated the letter in a single gulp, and immediately read it again. She had difficulty breathing. Her hands were clammy. The impostor had turned out to be the real thing. For most of her life, she had rejected her own father, without the vaguest notion of what she was doing. What strength of character he had shown during all those adolescent outbursts when she taunted him for not being her father, for having no right to tell her what to do.

The telefax chimed again, twice. It was now inviting her to press the RETURN key. But she did not have the will to go to it. It would have to wait. She thought of her Fa... of Theodore Arroway, and John Staughton, and her mother. They had sacrificed much for her, and she had been too self-involved even to notice. She wished Palmer were with her.

The telefax chimed once more, and the carriage moved tentatively, experimentally. She had programmed the computer to be persistent, even a little innovative, in attracting her attention if it thought it had found something in? But she was much too busy undoing and reconstructing the mythology of her life. Her mother would have been sitting at the desk in the big bedroom upstairs, glancing out the window as she wondered how to phrase the letter, and her eye had rested on Ellie at age fifteen, awkward, resentful, rebellious.

Her mother had given her another gift. With this letter, Ellie had cycled back and come upon herself all those years ago. She had learned so much since then. There was so much more to learn.

Above the table on which the chattering telefax sat was a mirror. In it she saw a woman neither young nor old, neither mother nor daughter. They had been right to keep the truth from her. She was not sufficiently advanced to receive that signal, much less decrypt it. She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all. She had been fierce in debunking the creation myths of others, and oblivious to the lie at the core of her own. She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

The Argus computer was so persistent and inventive in its attempts to contact Eleanor Arroway that it almost conveyed an urgent personal need to share the discovery.

The anomaly showed up most starkly in Base 11 arithmetic, where it could be written out entirely as zeros and ones. Compared with what had been received from Vega, this could be at best a simple message, but its statistical significance was high. The program reassembled the digits into a square raster, an equal number across and down. The first line was an uninterrupted file of zeros, left to right. The second line showed a single numeral one, exactly in the middle, with zeros to the borders, left and right. After a few more lines, an unmistakable arc had formed, composed of ones. The simple geometrical figure had been quickly constructed, line by line, self-reflexive, rich with promise. The last line of the figure emerged, all zeros except for a single centered one. The subsequent line would be zeros only, part of the frame.

Hiding in the alternating patterns of digits, deep inside the transcendental number, was a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in afield of noughts.

Behold, I tell you a mystery;
we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.


The universe seems ... to have been determined and ordered in accordance with number, by the forethought and the mind of the creator of all things; for the pattern was fixed, like a preliminary sketch, by the domination of number pre-existent in the mind of the world-creating God.

Arithmetic I, 6 (ca. A.D. 100)

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