The Stargazers

On this next world, the dominant animal phylum shared a remarkable sense organ: a forest of piezoelectric peptide nanotubes, sheltered in a front-facing cavity, to be subjected to deformation by the oscillating pressure front of a sound wave, producing an information-dense electrical signal carried to the brain and experienced as sound. In this the creatures were not so different from evolved humans, if superficially exotic.

But, remarkably, many species developed the ability to excite these tiny structures by an act of will. The reciprocity of the piezoelectric effect, aided by a fortuitous matching of acoustic and electric impedances, meant that the same electrical signal, when directly applied to the forest, produced the same oscillatory deformation, which in turn pushed the air from the aural/vocal cavity in acoustic waves. To the extent that the mechanical response faithfully preserved the information content of the oscillating pressure, the organ could produce that same sound. This was the only method of vocalization ever evolved on this planet.

The organ was not so versatile as even the microphones and speakers of our Earth’s twentieth century; we would hear in its song mostly an indistinct rasp and buzz. But to those properly equipped to listen—which is to say, those equipped as well to sing—the variety of shapes and textures was as rich as that of any orchestra.

At first I felt certain that this was the solution, the key development that would finally allow humane life to flourish. For how could misunderstanding occur, when to hear was to know the very impulses that shaped the words! What lies could propagate, when their promulgation was not merely ontologically but neurally reciprocal with their perception? Even the most adept liar knows the lie, and subtle cues slip into the voice. Every utterance would betray intent.

As I became habituated to the sounds, I marveled at the variance in voices. It was ages yet before the implications of this individuality fully dawned on me. Language did indeed develop and spread rapidly in the most intelligent species inhabiting this world, since neural commonalities played an even larger role than in communication among evolved humans.

But to my eventual dismay, I found vicious argument and deception prominent in the discourse of the budding civilization—perhaps, I was reluctant to admit, even more so than in familiar species! I studied these beings intently, searching for the source of the psychological defect that had overwhelmed their natural advantage of true communication.

It was not until a much later stage in their civilization that I found the answer to my confusion, in a place where I in my idealism had not thought to look. For all the lovely gradations of sonic texture, the distinctions among the sexes, the patterns of maturation of an individual’s vocal/aural forest and cavity: these served to drive individuals apart as strongly as the commonalities drew them together. The listener did not experience the very impulses that had driven the speech, as I had first assumed, but rather an analogue according to the listener’s own sense organ and neural circuitry.

This need not have been disastrous, had the individual differences been great enough that a layer of indirection between hearing and understanding was required, as in the vast majority of intelligent species. But for these beings, the vocal/aural system was deeply entangled with the rest of the brain, and the boundary between linguistic and abstract thought had vanished. Or, if there was a true distinction, then one invoked the other automatically.

Evolution had thus capped the individual variation: too far astray, and a mutant was unintelligible and itself heedless to the cries of its folk. This did cause some strife when long-separated branches of the species later made contact, but it was a bland and straightforward strife. The conflict in which each side sees the other as incomprehensible and monstrous is a morality play that you do not need me to repeat. The truly chilling folly arose from the barely-imperfect correspondence between minds within a society.

Imagine that, brimming with novel and nuanced insight, you made to convey your wisdom to me, but all that I heard was my own inner monology generating those thoughts. Without even a chance to notice the difference in inflection, I rounded down your nuance to my preconceptions. As to novelty, I either did it great violence in deforming it into the mold of my own worldview, or felt visceral disgust at the intrusion of an alien thought.

You imagine that you would be distressed at this misunderstanding. Now imagine it playing out across society, in every relationship, over all scales. Then realize that this is not the worst of it.

You see, there is a peculiar subtlety to this mode of communication. If you happen to come across a grand piano, try this experiment. Weight the damper pedal, so that all the strings are free to vibrate. Attack and release a key, any number of keys: hear how they are sustained as though the initial attack were held. But attend more closely, and notice the reverberation beyond the sustained tones. Now manually but slowly depress a number of keys, such that the dampers rise but the hammers do not sound the strings. Attack and release other keys, while holding these first strings open: listen to the sounds sustained on the open strings. You should not be surprised to find that harmonic overtones are sustained, the fifths and octaves with their small-whole-number frequency ratios. But keep in mind that these are not the tones as they sound on the attacked strings, but as resonances of the open strings. Finally, weight the damper pedal again, carry an ordinary conversation, and listen to the piano sing back to you. What of your voice remains? Is it sustained, or subverted? Magnified, or mocked?

Evolution had equipped the individual with protection from positive feedback, in which the reverberation of one’s own voice stimulated the very nerves modulating the voice. (Some interesting disorders involved the failure of this mechanism. An afflicted individual might be unable to speak without risking what you would call migraines, or might sing continuously, or might echo or amplify any sound they heard.) But our friends’ acoustic forests were exquisitely sensitive. Even in the act of speaking, a speaker could detect the reverberation of its audience. And because the feedback-eliminating circuitry filtered out exact echoes of the spoken sound, that reverberation was heard as a caricature, emphasizing almost exclusively the absence of some of the original sounds and the presence of extraneous sounds where mismatched structures were partially excited. And recall, please, that here “sound” is essentially synonymous with “thought.”

Ah! But this, you say, this must be a silver lining. Any misunderstanding is immediately and automatically communicated, and can be corrected at leisure! And indeed in the tribal stages of civilization the difference was often appropriately diagnosed and common ground was found. Pair-bonded individuals, whose sense organs were induced to become more similar over time (and were generally quite similar to begin with), could close an especially harmonious aural loop. Deliberate invocation of a feedback cycle became a ritual as intimate as intercourse.

But the discourse of broader society admitted little harmony, and a speaker could not help but mishear the reverberation itself. The visceral distress at misunderstanding was amplified in the discordant echoes between interlocutors, in a positive feedback loop that Nature had not prepared them for. The voice determined personal enmity or friendship in a few words. Politics was quite literally sloganeering. The best, most sensitive minds confined themselves to painful solitude.

The ultimate futility of their discourse lay in the thin experience of the individual, both Echo and Narcissus. The scientific and philosophic faculties were circumscribed, never to lift a mind from squalor, and thus the story ends. For how can you understand the fullness of a Universe which speaks to you only in your own voice? Every telescope is a mirror. Awe becomes onanism. The gaze of man casts a light; the eye of man sees it. The hand of God moves the stars, and not a man heeds it.

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