The relation of our species to plant life is one of total dependence and total exploitation—the relation of an infant to its mother. Without plants the earth would have remained bare rock and water; without plant respiration we'd suffocate promptly; without vegetable food (firsthand or, as in meat, secondhand) we starve. There is no other food.
Deo, Demeter, the grain-mother, and her daughter/self Kore the Maiden called Persephone, raped by the Godfather's brother and buried to rise again, are myth-images of this relationship, recognized by 'primitive'farmers as fundamental. It is still fundamental, but can be completely ignored by a modem city dweller whose actual experience of plants is limited to florists' daisies and supermarket beans. The ignorance of the urban poor is blameless; the arrogant ignorance of the urban educated, particularly those in government, is inexcusable. There is no excuse for deforestation, for acid rain, or for the hunger of two-thirds of the children of the earth.
A very savvy genre, science fiction often acknowledges our plant-dependence—filling a room in the spaceship with hydro-panic tanks, or 'terraforming1the new planet so the colonists can raise grain—but with some notable exceptions (such as the filmSilent Running), science fiction lacks much real interest in whafs green. The absolute passivity of plants, along with their absolute resistance to being replaced by an industrial-age substitute (we can have iron horses, steel eagles, mechanical brains, but robot wheat? Plastic spinach? If you believe in that you must eat the little green hedge on your sushi plate) probably makes them terminally uninteresting to the metal-minded and those to whom technology is not a way of living in the world, but a way of defeating it.
All the same, both the stories that follow are quite conventional science fiction. "The Direction of the Road" is yet another point-of-view shift, but with the attention focused on Relativity. 'Vaster" is a story about boldly going where, etc. In it I was, in part, trying to talk about the obscure fear, calledpanic, which many of us feel when alone in wilderness. I have lost the trail on an Oregon mountain in logged-over second-growth forest, where my individual relation to the trees and undergrowth and soil and my relative position in their earth-and-ocean-wide realm, as an animal and as a human, were, you might say, brought home to me—but then, who's afraid of a goddam tree? We can wipe 'em all out—in a century by clearcutting in a generation by pollution, in the twinkling of an eye...
IT WAS ONLY DURING THE EARLIEST DECADES of the League that the Earth sent ships out on the enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds which had not been seeded or settled by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds. All the Known Worlds went back to the Hainish Origin, and the Terrans, having been not only founded but salvaged by the Hainish, resented this. They wanted to get away from the family. They wanted to find somebody new. The Hainish, like tiresomely understanding parents, supported their explorations, and contributed ships and volunteers, as did several other worlds of the League.
All these volunteers to the Extreme Survey crews shared one peculiarity: they were of unsound mind.
What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries? Cosmic mass interference had not yet been eliminated from the operation of the ansible, and so instantaneous communication was reliable only within a range of 120 lightyears. The explorers would be quite isolated. And of course they had no idea what they might come back to, if they came back. No normal human being who had experienced time-slippage of even a few decades between League worlds would volunteer for a round trip of centuries. The Surveyors were escapists, misfits. They were nuts.
Ten of them climbed aboard the ferry at Smeming Port, and made varyingly inept attempts to get to know one another during the three days the ferry took getting to their ship, Gum. Gum is a Cetian nickname, on the order of Baby or Pet. There were two Cetians on the team, two Hainishmen, one Beldene, and five Terrans; the Cetian-built ship was chartered by the Government of Earth. Her motley crew came aboard wriggling through the coupling tube one by one like apprehensive spermatozoa trying to fertilize the universe. The ferry left, and the navigator put Gum underway. She flitted for some hours on the edge of space a few hundred million miles from Smeming Port, and then abruptly vanished.
When, after 10 hours 29 minutes, or 256 years, Gum reappeared in normal space, she was supposed to be in the vicinity of Star KG-E-96651. Sure enough, there was the gold pinhead of the star. Somewhere within a four-hundred-million-kilometer sphere there was also a greenish planet, World 4470, as charted by a Cetian mapmaker. The ship now had to find the planet. This was not quite so easy as it might sound, given a four-hundred-million-kilometer haystack. And Gum couldn't bat about in planetary space at near lightspeed; if she did, she and Star KG-E-96651 and World 4470 might all end up going bang She had to creep, using rocket propulsion, at a few hundred thousand miles an hour. The Mathematician/Navigator, Asnanifoil, knew pretty well where the planet ought to be, and thought they might raise it within ten E-days. Meanwhile the members of the Survey team got to know one another still better.
"I can't stand him," said Porlock, the Hard Scientist (chemistry, plus physics, astronomy, geology, etc.), and little blobs of spittle appeared on his mustache. "The man is insane. I can't imagine why he was passed as fit to join a Survey team, unless this is a deliberate experiment in non-compatibility, planned by the Authority, with us as guinea pigs."
"We generally use hamsters and Hainish gholes," said Mannon, the Soft Scientist (psychology, plus psychiatry, anthropology, ecology, etc.), politely; he was one of the Hainishmen. "Instead of guinea pigs. Well, you know, Mr. Osden is really a very rare case. In fact, he's the first fully cured case of Render's Syndrome—a variety of infantile autism which was thought to be incurable. The great Ter-ran analyst Hammergeld reasoned that the cause of the autistic condition in this case is a supernormal empathic capacity, and developed an appropriate treatment Mr. Osden is the first patient to undergo that treatment, in fact he lived with Dr. Hammergeld until he was eighteen. The therapy was completely successful."
"Why, yes. He certainly is not autistic."
"No, he's intolerable!"
"Well, you see," said Mannon, gazing mildly at the saliva-flecks on Porlock's mustache, "the normal defensive-aggressive reaction between strangers meeting—let's say you and Mr. Osden just for example—is something you're scarcely aware of; habit, manners, inattention get you past it; you Ve learned to ignore it, to the point where you might even deny it exists. However, Mr. Osden, being an empath, feels it Feels his feelings, and yours, and is hard put to say which is which. Let's say that there's a normal element of hostility towards any stranger in your emotional reaction to him when you meet him, plus a spontaneous dislike of his looks, or clothes, or handshake—it doesn't matter what He feels that dislike. As his autistic defense has been unlearned, he resorts to an aggressive-defense mechanism, a response in kind to the aggression which you have unwittingly projected onto him." Mannon went on for quite a long time.
"Nothing gives a man the right to be such a bastard," Porlock said.
"He can't tune us out?" asked Harfex, the Biologist, another Hainishman.
"It's like hearing" said Olleroo, Assistant Hard Scientist, stopping over to paint her toenails with fluorescent lacquer. "No eyelids on your ears. No Off switch on empathy. He hears our feelings whether he wants to or not"
"Does he know what we're thinking?" asked Eskwana, the Engineer, looking round at the others in real dread.
"No," Porlock snapped. "Empathy's not telepathy! Nobody's got telepathy."
"Yet," said Mannon, with his little smile. "Just before I left Hain there was a most interesting report in from one of the recently discovered worlds, a hilfer named Rocannon reporting what appears to be a teachable telepathic technique existent among a mutated hominid race; I only saw a synopsis in the HILF Bulletin, but—" He went on. The others had learned that they could talk while Mannon went on talking he did not seem to mind, nor even to miss much of what they said.
"Then why does he hate us?" Eskwana said.
"Nobody hates you, Ander honey," said Olleroo, daubing Eskwana's left thumbnail with fluorescent pink. The engineer flushed and smiled vaguely.
"He acts as if he hated us," said Haito, the Coordinator. She was a delicate-looking woman of pure Asian descent, with a surprising voice, husky, deep, and soft, like a young bullfrog "Why, if he suffers from our hostility, does he increase it by constant attacks and insults? I can't say I think much of Dr. Hammergeld's cure, really, Mannon; autism might be preferable..."
She stopped. Osden had come into the main cabin.
He looked flayed. His skin was unnaturally white and thin, showing the channels of his blood like a faded road map in red and blue. His Adam's apple, the muscles that circled his mouth, the bones and ligaments of his wrists and hands, all stood out distinctly as if displayed for an anatomy lesson. His hair was pale rust, like long-dried blood. He had eyebrows and lashes, but they were visible only in certain lights; what one saw was the bones of the eye sockets, the veining of the lids, and the colorless eyes. They were not red eyes, for he was not really an albino, but they were not blue or grey; colors had canceled out in Osden's eyes, leaving a cold water-like clarity, infinitely penetrable. He never looked directly at one. His face lacked expression, like an anatomical drawing or a skinned face.
"I agree," he said in a high, harsh tenor, "that even autistic withdrawal might be preferable to the smog of cheap secondhand emotions with which you people surround me. What are you sweating hate for now, Porlock? Can't stand the sight of me? Go practice some auto-eroticism the way you were doing last night, it improves your vibes. Who the devil moved my tapes, here? Don't touch my things, any of you. I won't have it"
"Osden," said Asnanifoil in his large slow voice, "why are you such a bastard?"
Ander Eskwana cowered and put his hands in front of his face. Contention frightened him. Olleroo looked up with a vacant yet eager expression, the eternal spectator.
"Why shouldn't I be?" said Osden. He was not looking at Asnanifoil, and was keeping physically as far away from all of them as he could in the crowded cabin. "None of you constitute, in yourselves, any reason for my changing my behavior."
Harfex, a reserved and patient man, said, "The reason is that we shall be spending several years together. Life will be better for all of us if—"
"Can't you understand that I don't give a damn for all of you?" Osden said, took up his microtapes, and went out Eskwana had suddenly gone to sleep. Asnanifoil was drawing slipstreams in the air with his finger and muttering the Ritual Primes. "You cannot explain his presence on the team except as a plot on the part of the Terran Authority. I saw this almost at once. This mission is meant to fail," Harfex whispered to the Coordinator, glancing over his shoulder. Porlock was fumbling with his fly-button; there were tears in his eyes. I did tell you they were all crazy, but you thought I was exaggerating.
All the same, they were not unjustified. Extreme Surveyors expected to find their fellow team members intelligent, well-trained, unstable, and personally sympathetic. They had to work together in close quarters and nasty places, and could expect one another's paranoias, depressions, manias, phobias and compulsions to be mild enough to admit of good personal relationships, at least most of the time. Osden might be intelligent, but his training was sketchy and his personality was disastrous. He had been sent only on account of his singular gift, the power of empathy: properly speaking, of wide-range bioempathic receptivity. His talent wasn't species-specific; he could pick up emotion or sentience from anything that felt He could share lust with a white rat, pain with a squashed cockroach, and phototropy with a moth. On an alien world, the Authority had decided, it would be useful to know if anything nearby is sentient, and if so, what its feelings towards you are. Osden's title was a new one: he was the team's Sensor.
"What is emotion, Osden?" Haito Tomiko asked him one day in the main cabin, trying to make some rapport with him for once. "What is it, exactly, that you pick up with your empathic sensitivity?"
"Muck," the man answered in his high, exasperated voice. "The psychic excreta of the animal kingdom. I wade through your feces."
"I was trying," she said, "to learn some facts." She thought her tone was admirably calm.
"You weren't after facts. You were trying to get at me. With some fear, some curiosity, and a great deal of distaste. The way you might poke a dead dog to see the maggots crawl. Will you understand once and for all that I don't want to be got at, that I want to be left alone?" His skin was mottled with red and violet, his voice had risen. "Go roll in your own dung you yellow bitch!" he shouted at her silence.
"Calm down," she said, still quietly, but she left him at once and went to her cabin. Of course he had been right about her motives; her question had been largely a pretext, a mere effort to interest him. But what harm in that? Did not that effort imply respect for the other? At the moment of asking the question she had felt at most a slight distrust of him; she had mostly felt sorry for him, the poor arrogant venomous bastard, Mr. No-Skin as Olleroo called him. What did he expect, the way he acted? Love?
"I guess he can't stand anybody feeling sorry for him," said Olleroo, lying on the lower bunk, gilding her nipples.
"Then he can't form any human relationship. All his Dr. Hammergeld did was turn an autism inside out..."
"Poor frot," said Olleroo. "Tomiko, you don't mind if Harfex comes in for a while tonight, do you?"
"Can't you go to his cabin? I'm sick of always having to sit in Main with that damned peeled turnip."
"You do hate him, don't you? I guess he feels that But I slept with Harfex last night too, and Asnanifoil might get jealous, since they share the cabin. It would be nicer here."
"Service them both," Tomiko said with the coarseness of offended modesty. Her Terran subculture, the East Asian, was a puritanical one; she had been brought up chaste.