There had to be an answer somewhere—there always was. They wouldn’t give me a problem without a solution, would they? Could they, even if they wanted to? Even Fermat’s been solved—everything has.
Then again, maybe this is part of the problem in itself: the idea that every question requires an answer. What a different world it might be if some things were left open, unquantified, elusive, awesome…
But that’s not this world, to be sure. Multilayered complex problems require equally robust solutions, which tend to create further complications, requiring more solution-oriented processes, and so on.
I remember once reading something about how cultures generally define for themselves a range of ailments consistent with their level of knowledge and medicine; beyond this realm lies the unnamed.
In a way, I am part of such a system today. By definition the problems on my desktop are condensable in the sense that they are presented as having potential answers to be drawn from what we already know.
Working in this manner, the unintended consequences of the solutions we reach are not cognizable, until they become so and then demand attention to be redressed with more concrete operations.
This cycle continues unabated and unquestioned, since to inquire about its wisdom would be a question without an answer, and thus anathema. The whole structure rests on not asking the unanswerable.
This may all seem quite abstract, but I assure you that it is completely tangible. And it was something I accepted without hesitation until just recently, when a problem crossed my path that gave me pause.
It seemed quite simple at first, actually. The deep space city-ship bound for Epsilon Eridani was en route on its multigenerational mission without incident, when some of the core crew started acting strangely.
We know this from the subspace messages received in recent weeks, which detailed the problem. While information can travel in this manner, physical items cannot—but at least we have real-time contact.
The ship has a rotating schedule of cryogenic cycles so that at any point, one-third are in stasis—which can only be utilized for a period of months at a time before the body needs to reset itself once again.
On a mission like this, it means that the 45 years of total flight time will actually age each crew member only 15 years, leaving them young enough to populate the candidate moon around the fifth planet.
Everything had been working well until we started receiving reports about problems with the cryogenic system. To be specific, it was reported that some people were failing to remain in stasis as required.
But this was not a function of disobedience. Their bodies were firmly in stasis and the system was functioning as designed. The reports spoke of something else, something more troubling and odd:
Subject seen near dining hall then exercise facilities—another found wandering near engine room—more viewed by individuals in personal residential spaces—increasing reports as approaching target system.
The logs go on like this at length. The sightings are described not exactly as ghostlike but not exactly as corporeal either. They are not solid to the touch, but do not pass through walls like apparitions might.
The problem has only arisen with the current segment of the crew in stasis; thus far, no common trait has been discerned among them that suggests anything that could begin to explain this phenomenon.
Likewise, the rest of the crew measures in good health and there have been no reports of psychological issues outside of the ordinary parameters associated with general human behavior and long-term travel.
The authenticity of the reports has been verified, and they have been signed by medical and administrative personnel in multiple offices on board. No technical malfunctions have been reported.
The teams working on this have explored all known phenomena to explain these ‘sleepwalkers’ but have not uncovered a plausible rationale. The annals of spaceflight contain no such prior indications of this.
Following weeks of analysis, the problem was transferred to my division. We are known for innovative thinking that sometimes generates new ways of looking at problems. This is my consuming life’s passion.
But the work is limited, since even innovations must be couched in terms of familiar variables and concepts. A viable answer can expand the terrain of knowledge but it cannot invoke unknowns to do so.
Thus, for instance, if the solution is proposed as involving ‘astral projection’ or ‘poltergeists’ or some other speculative and completely unverified concept, it will be automatically rejected as unsound.
My team has run through all of the cognizable factors that might be at play here: mass psychosis, food contamination resulting in hallucinations, alien manipulations, mistranslation of reports, and more.
In every case, we have been able to rule out definitely the presence of such factors. This confirms the work of previous teams looking at this phenomenon, and leaves it squarely within my team’s purview.
Interestingly, it was something contained in one of the standard reports that initiated a new thought process for me: ‘subjects appeared to be looking for something in many cases, but without clear aim.’
For some reason, this brought up an association for me, something I remembered from my childhood. It was a story my grandfather had once told me about something his grandfather had once told to him.
As the story went, my great-great grandfather had spent fruitless hours working to determine why he could not successfully power up an archaic mechanical transportation device known as an automobile.
He had taken everything apart, replaced all of the worn-out items, consulted various experts, and exhausted the limits of his knowledge. Still, the vehicle refused to power up no matter what he did.
Finally, an old man from the next building mentioned something that he had not yet considered. “The problem,” the old man said, “is that you’ve got something wrong with your neutral safety switch.”
My great-great grandfather considered this. How could it be the ‘neutral safety switch’? He had looked into this item before, but did not recognize it as being anything fundamental to the engine’s operation.
As he researched it further, he came to realize that this advice was drawing him more and more toward an answer in a manner that he could not understand. He became an expert on the neutral safety switch.
‘The neutral safety switch is designed to prevent an automobile with an automatic transmission from being started while the shifter is in the drive position, requiring that it be placed in park or neutral.’
The problem was that this innocuous device could not possibly explain the mechanical problem preventing the vehicle from starting in this case. And yet he had exhausted every other possibility.
The way my grandfather told the story, this became something of an obsession. The neutral safety switch was my great-great grandfather’s ‘white whale’, a mythical creature with tangible impacts.
As time passed, it became like a chimera to him—a hybridization of all of his fears of things known, but combined in a manner that rendered them unknown in any frame of reference discernable by science.
After replacing the switch with every version available on the market at the time, my great-great grandfather finally decided there was only one thing to do: he designed his own neutral safety switch.
He built in a feature that would allow the vehicle to start in any position on the shifter by supplying a dynamic current boost to the starter when the ignition was activated. He also solved the safety issue.
In the end, he held two important patents: a current-boosting neutral safety switch, and a brake-engaged ignition kill switch that moved the safety override to the brake pedal rather than the shifter.
Both of these minor advancements became industry standards over time, resulting in a substantial revenue stream for my great-great grandfather—and helped set my family on a course that led to me.
Ironically, however, he never actually got that old vehicle started. My grandfather remembered seeing it in the garage as a child, and it became something of a family heirloom and a monument to innovation.
How does all of this apply to the present problem? What made me think of this anecdote today? I think it was the idea of “searching for something” in the reports from the deep-space intergenerational ship.
The mission is in search of a new home world in the vast reaches of space. The people on the ship are explorers by disposition and training. Most of us working here in central control are seekers of solutions.
Somewhere in the chain of events and transmissions, there is an explanation for the appearance of sleepwalking apparitions on the ship. But we have been unable to find the answer to this specific issue.
What if, then, we instead focused on developing a different set of conditions on the ship? We could rename the myriad departments focusing on exploration to reflect a sense of cultivation instead.
We could emphasize intra-ship innovations of new forms of social exchange rather than limiting them to those inculcated from here. We can encourage more focus on the present and not primarily the future.
We can view the cryogenic cycles not as spaces to be endured, but as opportunities for intellectual, moral, emotional, and even spiritual development by stimulating certain centers of the human brain.
In due course, we might find that the crew feels more settled in their daily lives than consumed with the potential choices and challenges ahead. We might observe less restlessness and more peaceableness.
While we may never fully understand what caused the original problem in the first place, in the process of investigating it we might develop new initiatives and protocols to improve our deep-space missions.
Like my great-great grandfather’s example, we can draw upon what we know to enhance how we live—and we can do so without getting stuck on trying to provide a certain answer to every vexing question.
Indeed, I can see a path forward in which we steadily move from a system that prioritizes finding better solutions, almost obsessively, to one that places a premium on discerning more interesting problems.
Perhaps we can call this new orientation the ‘neural safety switch’—namely, that which provides a dynamic current boost to the search for knowledge with an open mind, balancing hubris with humility.
Lemar Starland, bound (someday) for Epsilon Eridani