A Report from Orion-13
With Respects to Ursula K. LeGuin and Stanislaw Lem
To begin at the beginning, my arrival on Orion-13 was utterly uneventful. Or, at least, as uneventful as interstellar travel can ever be. To awake on a world apart is no small shock, no matter how many times one may travel by capsule. And then there is the difficulty of time: the eventual realization that it is never an instant to travel through the expanse of space, but years – perhaps decades.
But I digress.
All this is to say that the presence of the usual shocks of awakening from the capsule indicated everything had gone smoothly. The inhabitants of Orion-13, already versed in the science of interstellar travel and communication, did not have much fanfare for my arrival. I was greeted by a small team of scientists, philosophers, artists; a pocketful of Orionian culture. Among this welcoming committee was one F______, a kindly, older gentleman. Indeed, he would not have been out of place in an old fable dispensing wisdom to some foolish, young hero – his single tunic and long, white, prophet’s beard seemed utterly out of place within the magnificent architecture of the city that curved gracefully through the skies of the planet. He called himself a “scientist,” or occasionally a “doctor,” but I never once observed him handling an instrument or curing an ailment. (In fact, I never encountered any sign of ailment, sickness, or injury at all upon the planet).
It was from F_____ that I learned of the marvels of Orion-13. He was enthusiastic in assisting me, answering my questions and giving plenty of his own, though he wasn’t nearly as straightforward as I would have liked. He showed a particular interest in the Foundation. I recall him telling me in one of our early discussions:
“I must admit, it has been some time since I set foot upon the soil of our ancestors. I’m sure much has changed.”
I was shocked, of course, to hear F_______ suggest he had set foot on Earth. No communication had existed between the home planet and Orion-13 until some 100 years ago, when it was discovered via interstellar transmission that an ancient expedition had colonized the planet well before the Foundation existed – all records of its departure being lost to time, it was forgotten and left alone. How could this man have set foot on Earth when I was meant to be the first individual to bridge, in person, the thousand-year gap between the Foundation and Orion-13? When I pressed these questions on the elder gentleman he smiled as a teacher does when a child asks where the sun goes at night.
“Though these feet have never touched the soil of Gaia,” he said, “nor these eyes seen its cities, skies, or seas, I can assure you I have many memories of our first home.”
I did not realize it at the time, but this was my first introduction to the wonders possessed by Orion-13; indeed, the very foundation, the very purpose of this civilization smuggled between the stars. At first, though, I mistook F______’s words for a riddle. Some kind of arrogant (for he was arrogant, though certainly more justified in his pride than most) dismissal to an ignorant off-worlder.
Later that same day I asked R_______, a young attendant who managed the lodgings they had given me, if F_______’s journey to Earth was well known among the Orionians. She simply laughed and said,
“None of us have traveled to or from Earth as we are, but many of the elders have such memories in their mind and soul. They were respected for their memories. Everything that is, is thanks to them.”
Though I still felt dissatisfied and answerless I began to perceive that the Orionians were not simply dismissing me. Rather, they were answering me in earnest, I simply did not comprehend their meaning. I could relate many such encounters – my questions afforded sincere answers beyond my comprehension – and I cannot say who was the naïve one, them or me.
Eventually, nearly two weeks into my stay on this new planet, I asked F______ for a straight answer. I wished to understand the Orionian’s obsession with memory, with the soul. I asked how it could be there were no hospitals, no graveyards, no libraries, seemingly no need for any connection to the past or expectation for the future.Without pause, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, the old man replied
“We have brought the past to the present, and we are living in the end of history.”
With this his reached out and placed his hand upon my shoulder and gripped me, painlessly but with remarkable strength I would not have expected in such an aged body. He began to lead me along the streets of the Orionian Metropolis, and I followed in his footsteps, like an Apostle before the Messiah. “You are right,” he continued, “it is time to stop speaking in riddles, as mystics do. You have been with us, and questioned us, and proven yourself a pursuer of knowledge and a lover of peace. I will answer your questions honestly.”
What an innocuous introduction to immortality! Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, I have put down the word “immortality.” Apologies again, but to look back at the precipice of revelation boggles the mind.
Still holding my shoulder in his firm grip, F_______ looked deep into my eyes – I would dare say he looked into my very soul – and asked in utmost seriousness,
“Who are the unluckiest in all of history? Who suffers the most?”
The question put me on edge. Certainly I overthought, turning the question over and over again, and once I saw that F______ was in no hurry for an answer I continued to mull over and reexamine seemingly all of history. For any group who had suffered I could think of them inflicting suffering upon others. I eventually gave him an answer:
“Everyone in unlucky while they suffer, and any moment of suffering deserves to be rectified.”
He gave a slight nod and with a soft voice responded:
“Your answer is better than most uninitiated, but you are not quite right. You are right that we all suffer at some point, but there comes a time when we all suffer equally – and that is once we are dead.” He must have perceived my surprise at his answer, for he continued, “You would say that death is an end to suffering? How can that be so? What greater suffering can there be to live, to create, to love, to participate in the advancement of the whole human race, only to end up apart and unable to enjoy the very fruits of your labor?”
With this, he stopped, and I realized I had followed this strange shepherd to a building unlike any I had ever seen before. It was made of a steel framework – an interlacing cage of girders and beams – which held great, colored, panes of glass. The whole structure seemed to fold into itself, like two magnificent buildings had collided and overlapped with each other, and with every movement the whole appearance, every angle and dimension, seemed to shift into something new. Had I been alone I would have been wary of entering such a place for fear I could never return, but with F______ ushering me with all certainty, I felt entirely safe. Guiding me through the crystalline latticework of the building, he continued on:
“My life’s work has always been to end the suffering of all humanity, but where most would look to do so by ending only the suffering of the living, I looked beyond. To end suffering, we must end death itself. And to end death…” here he stopped and stood me before a magnificent hallway. Unlike most of the building, the walls were opaque, and through them ran veins of circuitry down into some mechanical heart in the depths of this edifice. Turning to me, F_____ finished, speaking with a passion I had never heard from the man before. “To end death, we must resurrect those who have already died. That is the purpose of this planet, we colonized Orion-13 to pave the way to the stars so that humanity would have space to expand once the dead join us again in life. And this…” he waved his hand towards the hallway, “is where death ends.”
I was dumbstruck. Speechless. Here I was, on an alien world, being led through a construction unlike any other, being spoken to of immortality. Not only about immortality, nor that it was possible, but that it had been achieved. F______ removed his hand from my shoulder, and with great sincerity, said something that still haunts me even now.
“I was born on Earth long ago, but not as I am now. I first died in 1903, and now, centuries later, those who took my words and thoughts to heart have fulfilled my vision. They came to this planet, resurrected me, perfected the immortality of the human form, and then moved beyond the human form itself.” From within his tunic he withdrew a sort of amulet, hung from a string around his neck. It was a sort of small card, almost like a computer chip, carrying small fissures of circuitry much like the walls of the hallway that loomed before us. “This,” he continued, “is me. All of my memories, my personality, my very soul, are inscribed upon the images engraved here. My mind is preserved forever. This chamber before you is the means toward immortality. I offer you the opportunity to join us, bring our gift to the Foundation. Let us end the suffering of mankind.”
I am sure that you all back home must now be wondering how I could refuse such an offer. Surely, I am going to report all about the wonders of immortality! The freedom lifted from my soul! Surely I will expound upon the miraculous process that imparted my very soul into an image! But, alas, I must report that it is not so. I rejected his offer. I write to you from Orion-13 a still mortal man. Let me tell you the reasoning of my decision.
Standing before that hallway, beside a once deceased man, I felt the weight of death press down upon me like never before. My soul yearned to run face first into that well of endless life. But I hesitated. In that fear of death, I felt a second weight – a weight of history. A yearn to be more than alive, to be remembered. I do not know if I can explain, but I will try. Imagine the great writers of the past: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Goethe, all reincarnated with their minds and memories intact. What need would we have of them? What purpose would remain for them to create without some anxiety, some need to last beyond themselves? How could we read Hamlet as anything more than a trivial oddity? “How strange,” we would say, “that a man should contemplate his morality for so long. He should have done away with his doubt and lived!” Perhaps I am a fool, but in death or in life I fear mortality. I fear that we should not truly remember anything if we are all living with the past as the present. So now I write to you from my room, still a mortal man, so that the Foundation may make a choice. Perhaps you will decide I am wrong, perhaps you will ask the Orionians to bring their wonders forth to Earth. It is not my place to stop you. All I ask is that you consider, is eternal life a choice any one can make for everyone? I will remain here, and await your reply.