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Settled Science in the Asteroid Belt: Quant Suff! and the Religion of the “Scientific” People

Modern smart devices are purposely designed to be operated even by an idiot. Technology has allowed the burden of intelligence to be shifted away from the user to the machine. As a result people routinely use tools they barely understand implicitly believing they will work. It works but there’s a danger. As Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In our high technology present an increasing percentage of the global population must relate to their world in terms of magic. — Richard Fernandez, The Coming Age of Magic

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from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester: CHAPTER TWO

BETWEEN MARS AND JUPITER is spread the broad belt of the asteroids. Of the thousands, known and unknown, most unique to the Freak Century was the Sargasso Asteroid, a tiny planet manufactured of natural rock and wreckage salvaged by its inhabitants in the course of two hundred years.

They were savages, the only savages of the twenty-fourth century; descendants of a research team of scientists that had been lost and marooned in the asteroid belt two centuries before when their ship had failed. By the time their descendants were rediscovered they had built up a world and a culture of their own, and preferred to remain in space, salvaging and spoiling, and practicing a barbaric travesty of the scientific method they remembered from their forebears. They called themselves The Scientific People. The world promptly forgot them.

S.S. “Nomad” looped through space, neither on a course for Jupiter nor the far stars, but drifting across the asteroid belt in the slow spiral of a dying animalcule. It passed within a mile of the Sargasso Asteroid, and it was immediately captured by The Scientific People to be incorporated into their little planet. They found Foyle.

He awoke once while he was being carried in triumph on a litter through the natural and artificial passages within the scavenger asteroid. They were constructed of meteor metal, stone, and hull plates. Some of the plates still bore names long forgotten in the history of space travel: INDUS QUEEN, TERRA; SYRTUS RAMBLER, MARS; THREE RING CIRCUS, SATURN. The passages led to great halls, storerooms, apartments, and homes, all built of salvaged ships cemented into the asteroid.

In rapid succession, Foyle was borne through an ancient Ganymede scow, a Lassell ice borer, a captain’s barge, a Callisto heavy cruiser, a twenty-second-century fuel transport with glass tanks still filled with smoky rocket fuel. Two centuries of salvage were gathered in this hive: armories of weapons, libraries of books, museums of costumes, warehouses of machinery, tools, rations, drink, chemicals, synthetics, and surrogates.

A crowd around the litter was howling triumphantly. “Quant Suff!” they shouted. A woman’s chorus began an excited bleating: Ammonium bromide gr .11/2 Potassium bromide gr .3 Sodium bromide gr .2 Citric acid quant. suff.

“Quant Suff!” The Scientific People roared. “Quant Suff!” Foyle fainted.

… Foyle gazed around dimly. A devil face peered at him. Cheeks, chin, nose, and eyelids were hideously tattooed like an ancient Maori mask. Across the brow was tattooed JOSEPH. The “0” in JOSEPH had a tiny arrow thrust up from the right shoulder, turning it into the symbol of Mars, used by scientists to designate male sex.

“We are the Scientific Race,” Joseph said. “I am Joseph; these are my people.” He gestured. Foyle gazed at the grinning crowd surrounding his litter. All faces were tattooed into devil masks; all brows had names blazoned across them.

“How long did you drift?” Joseph asked. You are the first to arrive alive in fifty years. You are a puissant man. Very. Arrival of the fittest is the doctrine of Holy Darwin. Most scientific.”

“Quant Suff!” the crowd bellowed.

Joseph seized Foyle’s elbow in the manner of a physician taking a pulse. His devil mouth counted solemnly up to ninety-eight. “Your pulse. Ninety-eight-point-six,” Joseph said, producing a thermometer and shaking it reverently. “Most scientific.”

“Quant Suff!” came the chorus.

Joseph proffered an Erlenmeyer flask. It was labeled: Lung, Cat, c. s., hematoxylin & eosin. “Vitamin?” Joseph inquired. When Foyle did not respond, Joseph removed a large pill from the flask, placed it in the bowl of a pipe, and lit it. He puffed once and then gestured.

Three girls appeared before Foyle. Their faces were hideously tattooed. Across each brow was a name: JOAN and MOIRA and POLLX. The “0” of each name had a tiny cross at the base.

“Choose.” Joseph said. “The Scientific People practice Natural Selection. Be scientific in your choice. Be genetic.” As Foyle fainted again, his arm slid off the litter and glanced against Moira.

“Quant Suff!”

He was in a circular hall with a domed roof. The hall was filled with rusting antique apparatus: a centrifuge, an operating table, a wrecked fluoroscope, autoclaves, cases of corroded surgical instruments. They strapped Foyle down on the operating table while he raved and rambled. They fed him. They shaved and bathed him.

Two men began turning the ancient centrifuge by hand. It emitted a rhythmic clanking like the pounding of a war drum. Those assembled began tramping and chanting. They turned on the ancient autoclave. It boiled and geysered, filling the hall with howling steam. They turned on the old fluoroscope. It was short-circuited and spat sizzling bolts of lightning across the steaming hall.

A ten foot figure loomed up to the table. It was Joseph on stilts. He wore a surgical cap, a surgical mask, and a surgeon’s gown that hung from his shoulders to the floor. The gown was heavily embroidered with red and black thread illustrating anatomical sections of the body. Joseph was a lurid tapestry out of a surgical text. “I pronounce you Nomad!” Joseph intoned.

The uproar became deafening. Joseph tilted a rusty can over Foyle’s body. There was the reek of ether. Foyle lost his tatters of consciousness and darkness enveloped him… He was in a bed. The girl, Moira, was in bed with him. “Who you?” Foyle croaked.

“Your wife, Nomad.”

“What?”

“Your wife. You chose me, Nomad. We are gametes.”

“What?”

“Scientifically mated,” Moira said proudly. She pulled up the sleeve of her nightgown and showed him her arm. It was disfigured by four ugly slashes. “I have been inoculated with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.”

Foyle struggled out of the bed. “Where we now?”

“In our home.”

“What home?”

“Yours. You are one of us, Nomad. You must marry every month and beget many children. That will be scientific. But I am the first.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • MMinLamesa June 19, 2019, 10:34 AM

    uhhh…OK.

    I guess about when REgressives went off the rails and began openly championing the disbelief that are their policies & goals, was about when my life long interest in sci-fi disappeared.

    The world in your piece is plenty weird but weirder then a 150 million people who feel no qualms about the murder of 60,000,000 of their own species for nothing much more than convenience?

    Srsly, what in the f*ck is stranger then some of the shit they believe?

  • Eskyman June 19, 2019, 11:58 AM

    The Stars My Destination, still one of my favorite books of all time.

    Bester had so much understanding of the human condition, and today we see The Scientific People all around us: “The science is settled!” “A consensus of scientists all agree!” “The computer doesn’t lie, global cooling/warming/climate change is real!” “Diversity makes us stronger!”

    Quant suff! indeed!

  • Walter Sobchak June 19, 2019, 1:27 PM

    One of the best novels of the 20th Century. Download it here and read it: https://www.pdfdrive.com/alfred-bester-the-stars-my-destinationpdf-d23572356.html

  • DrTedNelson June 19, 2019, 2:27 PM
  • John the River June 20, 2019, 6:13 AM

    “Climate Change=Quant suff! ”

    It works!

  • mushroom June 20, 2019, 10:18 AM

    I suspect Corey, the writer whose book is the basis for “The Expanse” tv series, absorbed a lot from Bester.

  • Charles R Harris June 20, 2019, 5:11 PM

    Read it at my uncle’s house when it was serialized in Galaxy. That is one of the scenes that has stuck with me ever since. My uncle subscribed to Galaxy, my father to Astounding, each in accordance with their different approach to life.