16: Do You Perceive What I Perceive?

It is important to remember that before Cyrano was captured by the Moon-beings he first took a bite of a purloined apple of knowledge. As Elijah had warned him back in episode 12, the results seem to be mixed: he’s learning a lot from his new-found friend, the “secret agent” to Earth; on the other hand he’s trapped in circumstances that... Well, you’ll see.

“Anyway, I am not from your world or this one; I was born on the Sun. Sometimes our world becomes overcrowded because our people live so long. Our people are almost free of wars and illness, and sometimes our government officials send colonies to neighboring worlds. I was ordered to go to Earth and to head up the group sent there with me. Since then I have come to this world for the reasons I mentioned. Now I stay here and do not leave, because the people love truth: there are no pedants; philosophers are persuaded only by reason; and the authority of neither a scholar nor a majority prevails over the opinion of a thresher if he reasons as well as they. In short, the only people who are considered crazy in this country are sophists and orators.”

I asked him how long they lived. He answered, “Three or four thousand years” and continued in the same vein: “To make myself visible as I am now, when I sense that the cadaver that I occupy is almost worn out or that the organs are no longer working very well, I breathe myself into a young body that has just died.

“Although the inhabitants of the Sun are not as numerous as those of this world, the Sun often becomes overpopulated because the people have a very lively temperament. As a result they move around, they are ambitious, and they digest a lot.

“What I’m telling you must not seem very surprising. Although our world is quite vast and yours is small, and although we die only after living four thousand years and you after half a century, you have to realize that there are not as many stones as there is land, nor as many insects as plants, nor as many animals as insects, nor as many men as animals. Thus, there must not be as many spirits as men because of the difficulties in generating such a perfect composite.”

I asked him if they were material bodies like us. He answered yes, they were, but not like us or anything we considered a material body. The reason is that we commonly call a “body” only what can be touched. Besides, everything in nature was material, and even though they, themselves, were material beings, they could show themselves to us only by taking on bodies that our senses were able to perceive.

I assured him that many people had thought the stories told about them were merely the effect of daydreams of the weak-minded, because appearances occurred only at night. He answered that they were forced to construct hastily the bodies they had to use. As a result they very often did not have the time to make them properly unless they left off a sense. Sometimes it was hearing, as with the voice of oracles. Sometimes it was sight, as with will-o’-the-wisps or specters. Sometimes it was touch, as with incubi and nightmares. Since their bodies were only air that had been thickened in one way or another, the heat of light destroyed them in the same way as it expands and dissipates fog.

He explained so many interesting things to me that they piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to ask him about birth and death, whether individuals on the Sun were born by procreation and whether they died from disorder of their temperament or failure of their internal organs.

“There is too little connection,” he said, “between your senses and the explanation of these phenomena. You imagine that what you can’t understand is either spiritual or does not exist. The conclusion is quite wrong; rather there are obviously a million things in the universe that we would need a million quite different organs to understand. For example, I perceive by my senses what makes a magnet point north, what makes tides rise and fall, and what becomes of an animal after death. Your people are not proportioned to perceive such miracles, just as someone blind from birth cannot imagine the beauty of a landscape, the colors of a painting or the shadings of an iris. He will imagine them as something palpable, edible, audible or olfactory. Likewise, if I were to explain to you what I perceive by the senses you do not have, you would interpret it as something that could be heard, seen, touched, smelled or tasted; but it is not like that.”

He had gotten that far when my mountebank noticed that the people in the room were beginning to become bored with our talk, which they did not understand and took for inarticulate mumbling. He began jerking my rope even harder, to make me jump. When the spectators had laughed their fill and were assured that I was almost as intelligent as the animals in their country, they went home.

Cyrano introduces a concept often found in modern science fiction: organisms that seem to consist of energy patterns. Such a nature would be consistent with their living on the Sun, but Cyrano adds a clever twist: they are subject to limitations such as old age and death, just as corporeal entities are. As a result we have the comic scene of Sun-beings hurrying to jury-rig semi-corporeal bodies when needed and sometimes coming up short in the process.

Yet another commonplace of modern science fiction appears in this episode: extrasensory perception. For Cyrano it is no mere literary device; rather he tackles a question that latter-day writers sometimes have trouble with: what is it? As the Sun-being explains, “extrasensory” perception nonetheless requires senses; and he appears to have senses that enable him to perceive such things as magnetic and gravitational fields directly rather than by observing their effects, as humans do.

When the audience tires of hearing an incomprehensible dialogue in ancient Greek, Cyrano is forced to return to his tumbling act. His ignominy underscores with almost heavy-handed irony what the Sun-being has been saying.