Knowing of Vaygay’s careless smoking habits, they had decreed that no cigarettes could be carried on board the Machine. Lunacharsky had uttered fluent maledictions in ten languages.
“I asked him, If he could talk with a stone, could he communicate with the dead?” Xi told her.
“And what did he say?”
“He said the dead were easy. His difficulties were with the living.”
There was the heady feeling of arriving unprepared for a school test and finding that you can figure out the answers from your general education and your common sense. As in all competently designed examinations, taking it was a learning experience.
The record will show that no psychic, see, prophet, or soothsayer, no person with claimed precognitive abilities, no astrologer, no numerologist, and no late-December copywriter on “The Year Ahead” had predicted the Message or the Machine—much less Vega, prime numbers, Adolf Hitler, the Olympics, and the rest. There were many claims, however, by those who had clearly foreseen the events but had carelessly neglected to write the precognition down. Predictions of surprising events always prove more accurate if not set down on paper beforehand. It is one of those odd regularities of everyday life. Many religions were in a slightly different category: A careful and imaginative perusal of their sacred writings will reveal, it was argued, a clear foretelling of these wondrous happenings.
He looked up once more at the cold flickering blue-white light from Vega, and then turned to her.
“Don’t you ever feel … lost in your universe? How do you know what to do, how to behave, if there’s no God? Just obey the law or get arrested?”
“You’re not worried about being lost, Palmer. You’re worried about not being central, not the reason the universe was created. There’s plenty of order in my universe. Gravitation, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, superunification, they all involve laws. And as for behavior, why can’t we figure out what’s in our best interest—as a species?”
“That’s a warmhearted and noble view of the world, I’m sure, and I’d be the last to deny that there’s goodness in the human heart. But how much cruelty has been done when there was no love of God?”
“And how much cruelty when there was? Savonarola and Torquemada loved God, or so they said. Your religion assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they’ll obey the law. That’s the only means that occurs to you: a strict secular police force, and the threat of punishment by an all-seeing God for whatever the police overlook. You sell human beings short.”
He suspected that the takeover was only a pretext, that his real offense had been to attack advertising and video evangelism. Adnix and Preachnix were the essence of capitalist entrepreneurship, he argued repeatedly. The point of capitalism was supposed to be providing people with alternatives.
“Well, the absence of advertising is an alternative, I told them. There are huge advertising budgets only when there’s no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that’s better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid. A strong country needs smart people.”
This statistical approach to message decryption was familiar to Ellie since high school. But the subroutines supplied by the experts from the National Security Agency—made available only as a result of a presidential directive, and even then armed with instructions to self-destruct if examined closely—were brilliant.
What prodigies of human inventiveness, Ellie reflected, were being directed to reading each other’s mail.
“Look, we all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”
There were vast areas of the Midwest intricately geometrized with squares, rectangles, and circles by those with agricultural or urban predilections; and, as here, vast areas of the Southwest in which the only sign of intelligent life was an occasional straight line heading between mountains and across deserts. Are the worlds of more advanced civilizations totally geometrized, entirely rebuilt by their inhabitants? Or would the signature of a really advanced civilization be that they left no sign at all?
Humans are good, she knew, at discerning subtle patterns that are really there, but equally so at imagining them when they are altogether absent.