THE ANTHROPOLOGIST by Carlton Herzog
The Simmons public library was a melting pot of the haves and have nots, a mixture of homeless people and the wealthy older residents of the neighbourhood.
It was the last place anyone would have expected to meet an extra-terrestrial. But there he was, larger than life at a strapping seven feet tall, clad in a metallic silver encounter suit.
When he approached the reference desk, Gladys Newcomb took him for a prankster pretending to be a robot.
Gladys laughed and said, “Well, that is some get up. I expect you’ll be wanting a book on robotics.”
The alien did not answer right away. He studied her at various wavelengths of light from the infrared to the x-ray. After a moment, he said, in a tinny mechanical voice: “No, I am here to have a word with your patrons. I am an anthropologist. You and your kind are my objects of study. I thought some direct interaction with my subjects would help me understand your kind better.”
Gladys raised her eyebrows and frowned: “Really. An alien who speaks English and knows our idioms. Imagine that. Well, I guess all those episodes of Star Trek got it right: everybody in the galaxy speaks English.”
He said, “I have a built-in translator, not unlike that in your laptops. A kind of extra-terrestrial Word Hippo.”
Gladys said, “But underneath that suit, I’ll bet you have a bumpy forehead and pointy ears.”
He said, “No. I am different from you in more ways than I can enumerate. This encounter suit lets me interact with you in a familiar form while protecting us both from the risk of cross-contamination.”
By now, the other patrons, their curiosity aroused, had sidled over to the reference desk.
Bill Nash, a homeless veteran and arch sceptic, injected himself into the conversation.
He said, “So, you’re ET. Shouldn’t you be abducting somebody on a country road and probing them?”
“Yes, the myth of the grey aliens. If I wanted to know the specifics of your physiology, then I would take a sample of your blood or saliva. No need to take you hostage and subject you to torture.”
Jack Gatsby, a retired financier, threw himself into the mix by asking, “Suppose we believe your wild tale. Why in God’s name would you visit a public library? Shouldn’t you be having a meeting at the White House or the U.N.?”
The alien said, “I am not here to open diplomatic relations. Nothing would be served by such a meeting, since your world’s political leaders would co-opt it for their own narrow purposes. As I told this lady, I am here to study man. No more no less. What better place than in a repository of his wisdom?”
Bill Nash said, “If knowledge is what you’re looking for, then why not go to the university and talk to the students and professors?”
“You misunderstand. Our science is far beyond anything taught on your campuses. It would be an exercise in futility. But mingling with the common folk I can learn a lot about who you are beneath your titles and social roles. As will studying your fiction.”
Gladys exclaimed, “You plan to sit down and start reading everything in the fiction section?”
“Hardly. Even now I am downloading your files from the Gutenberg Project, as well as everything on Kindle. Your fiction is a window into how your minds work, how you see the world. Your hopes, aspirations and fears.”
Jack asked, “If you can get all that from books, why bother coming in here? Surely you could hack our mainframes from space.”
“Yes, but this little exchange is valuable indeed. After all, the library holds a cross-section of this society. The downtrodden and the well-heeled, human perspective from two opposite poles. Most fascinating.”
Gladys the librarian asked, “So you don’t have a world split down the middle with the haves on one side and have nots on the other?”
“Property is communally owned. We have much in common with your ants: a hive mind, limited individuality, and uncompromising self-sacrifice for the whole.”
Jack Gatsby asked, “I’ve read Marx’s Das Kapital and other communist tripe. You sound like a communist, a communist from outer space. Got you a cosmic Lenin or Stalin running the whole shebang? Maybe a Politburo of cronies on the side?”
“We govern through democratically elected steering committees. The committee members are randomly selected by lottery. So there are no election campaigns. Nor does anyone handpick a successor. It is a stochastic process, utterly random and bereft of personal bias.”
Gladys asked, “Doesn’t a system like that would produce ill-prepared and incompetent leaders?”
“Hardly. On the one hand, the lottery pool is drawn from only the best and brightest, such as mathematicians and scientists. On the other, our leaders are constrained by computer generated algorithms based on the available data. Personal beliefs and sentiments have been taken out of the picture and we are the better for it.”
“Sounds sterile, like the workings of a machine. Do you have different nations or is it all one?”
“We have geographic districts. The steering committees in those districts comprise the global legislature.”
The alien said, “Not for five thousand of your years. To use the human vernacular, ‘we are all on the same page.’ We learned the hard way that fighting among ourselves accomplishes nothing. It took several millennia of bloody conflict before we realized that we did not learn from our mistakes, and more importantly that we did not learn that we did not learn. It is not a perfect system by any means. But to our credit, we do not have a stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of incinerating our world a thousand times over as you do.”
“We have a good reason for having all those nukes. It’s called MAD—mutually assured destruction. If the Russians or the North Koreans get it in their heads that they want to nuke us first, then bingo! we retaliate with overwhelming force. They know that, so they don’t mess with us. But if they do—Whammo!”
The alien derisively observed, “Revenge is such a barbaric practice. And what do you get for all that carnage but a cold dead irradiated planet? Not exactly what I would call the art of the deal.”
Indignant, Bill said, “You sound like a limp-wristed latte-sipping peacenik liberal. The sort who dodged the draft. Not because of moral conviction, but because of cowardice. This generation wants freedom with none of the work.”
Jack Gatsby added his voice to Bill’s: ‘I studied anthropology as an undergraduate. We are a tribal, warrior species. And like it or not, it is that sectarian fighting spirit that drives progress. Many of the technological benefits we enjoy today began as military applications. The V-2 rocket became the Saturn V rocket that launched us to the moon. The Second World War gave us the atom bomb, and that evolved into clean nuclear power in our ships and space probes. Obviously, we need to cultivate the better angels of our nature, but you seem to be throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
The alien asked, “Am I? Haven’t you ever wondered why the galaxy seems to be devoid of intelligent life? Why is it nobody answers your question ‘Is anybody out there?’ You are not getting an answer to that question because civilizations invariably acquire the ability to exterminate themselves without simultaneously acquiring the wisdom to keep themselves from doing so. Doesn’t it strike you as ironic that all of you would never give a child a loaded gun yet think nothing of handing over launch codes to an immature, emotionally unstable leader?” And that same flip attitude colours all your other existential issues. For example, your cavalier lack of preparedness for pandemics. As I understand it, the latest one has already capsized your world’s economy. And those are just microbes, a billion of which could fit on the head of a pin. Bigger things such as space born ballistic threats leave no wiggle room. An asteroid or comet could send you all back to the stone age, assuming you’re not wiped out from the initial blast. Yet, you pretend as if those things could never happen. Otherwise, you would be taking precautions to protect yourselves and your legacy. To our mind, humanity is not only ripe for extinction but also deserving of it. You are playing on the railroad tracks with reckless abandon.”
Bill Nash retorted, “Now hold on there, ET. You have a lot to say about our shortcomings. What about all that we have accomplished? We’ve been to the moon a few times. Our rovers have scoured the face of Mars. We’ve seen the geysers on Enceladus and mapped the rings of Saturn. We sent the New Horizon probe out as far as Pluto. Pretty soon we’ll be terraforming Mars.”
“Your logic is that of a child. You are destroying this planet and all the creatures on it through pollution. Yet you want to expend exorbitant amounts of time and energy to remake another one in the image of this one. Would it not be easier and more efficient to stop destroying this one and repair the damage here?”
“From where I sit, your biggest problem is pride. Since this is a library, might I suggest you read a copy—it’s in the science section—of the Siderius Nuncius, or the Starry Messenger by Galileo? Crude telescope in hand, Galileo proved Copernicus’s theory that the sun and not the Earth was the centre of the Solar System. Those who followed Galileo, including Darwin who is also represented in this library, amassed considerable data that man is a temporary and negligible creature evolved from animal forebearers. Yet humans still believe they are the centre of the universe and divinely empowered to do as they please with the planet. In the Pale Blue Dot, also on the shelf here, Carl Sagan observes it is time to reassess the conjecture that there is intelligent life on earth, given the rampant destruction of the environment by the dominant organism.
“Let me be clear: there is nothing special about the earth; there is nothing special about you. If you wipe yourselves out, the earth will spin on, and eventually repopulate itself with new forms of life. As for the universe itself, it could care less whether humanity goes belly-up either by a cosmic catastrophe or human stupidity. To be frank, our legislature on more than one occasion has entertained the question of whether we should put you out of your misery and take the planet for ourselves. After all, you, as a self-described ‘tribal, warrior’ species should be comfortable with the notion of conquest and slaughter for gain. It would be of no moral consequence to us any more than crushing an ant hill would be to you.”
Before anyone could say anything else two police officers approached the desk. Officer Bradley spoke directly to the alien: “We need you to come with us, sir.”
“Why?” asked the alien.
“Because you are upsetting some of the patrons. They feel that your outlandish outfit and bizarre statements pose a threat. So, we need to find out who you are under that suit and what your deal is here.”
“And if refuse to cooperate?”
Officer Bradley, maintained his composure and asked, “Why would you do that? It won’t take long. We just need to verify your identity. Frankly, I want to see the face beneath that helmet.”
The alien did not break stride: “I cannot accommodate your request. As I told the librarian, I am not of this Earth. This suit is necessary to protect me and the people here from cross-contamination by micro-organisms. And equally important, my form is semi-solid and needs a closed suit to contain it.”
Officer Bradley said, “That doesn’t work for us.”
While Bradley stood in front of the visitor, Officer Swick moved behind the alien and tried to cuff him. Unfortunately, he could not move the alien’s arms try as he might.
Swick told the alien to “Stop resisting and put your hands behind your back.”
The alien refused to comply.
Swick said, “We can’t Mace him through the helmet. Try the Taser.”
Officer Bradley applied the Taser to the alien’s mid-section several times to no effect. He then motioned for Swick to baton the back of the alien’s legs. That had no effect either.
The alien said, “You lack the ability to subdue and restrain me. I suggest you stop this foolishness and let me finish my interviews.”
Everyone in the library had witnessed the confrontation. Some had fled, others were transfixed by the drama playing out before them.
Some patrons shouted at the officers to leave the alien alone, while others advocated shooting him.
Bradley called for back-up. A few minutes later, two more patrol cars arrived. Now there were six officers trying to take the alien into custody. They failed.
The alien gave the officers an ultimatum: “Either let me finish my work here unmolested or suffer the consequences.”
The police officers ignored him as more officers arrived. To no effect, they tried wrestling the alien to the ground, beating it with nightsticks, and even tried a battering ram to knock it over.
When they had exhausted themselves, the alien said, “I have done nothing to warrant your brutality. It is not anchored in either law or logic. It is the sort of behaviour one would expect from a troop of chimpanzees when they see a snake. But I am not a snake. I am a sentient being like you. So, it is no wonder your world is a churn. You murder one another on the smallest of pretexts and then throw up your hands in dismay at the killing.
“I could kill everyone in this facility with a snap of my fingers. You see this encounter suit is fitted with a hypersonic wave projector capable of splintering hardened steel or shattering your skulls by sound alone. If I were of your mindset and given over to lethal reprisals for the most trivial insults you would all be splayed out on the floor with your brains oozing out from your skulls. Thankfully for you, I am somewhat more evolved.
“However, you have sufficiently hindered my work here that I can brook no further interference. For the remainder of my stay, I shall levitate everyone here up to the ceiling and seal all the door with a magnetic pulse. When I am finished, I will lower you all back to the floor and unseal the library.
“During the time you are airborne and helpless, I will continue my interviews of the staff, patrons, and yes, even the police officers. I expect cooperation. The more resistance I encounter, the longer you will remain in my aerodynamic thrall.”
And so, it was that the Simmons public library, an unassuming and egalitarian repository of public knowledge, became the point of first contact between humanity and an alien race. For his part, the alien was not about to leave any mental or physical residue of his visit. Although he may have been garrulous during his time in the library, he belonged to a race that believed it ought not to interfere in the natural social and technological evolution of less advanced ones.
You could say that the alien race practiced the Prime Directive with a twist. So, while Star Trek and other books and movies might play fast and loose with the universality of the English language, they did get the essence of non-interference by superior beings more or less correct.