This is my part in the marathon reading this Saturday at the Wythe Hotel from 2:30-10:30 pm, organized by the Marina Abramovic Institute & the Atlas Review – where we read Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris aloud until the oceans rise up & control the macaroni soups of our minds:
Berton: No. I didn’t check my watch, but I’ve been flying for sixteen years. In my line of work you have to be able estimate time to the second, I mean short stretches of time; it becomes a matter of instinct. You need it for landings. A pilot isn’t worth his salt if he can’t tell whether a particular phenomenon lasts five seconds or ten, regardless of what’s going on around him. It’s the same with observation. You learn it over the years, to take in as much as possible in the shortest time.
Q: Is that all you saw?
Berton: No. But the rest I don’t remember in as much detail. I suppose it was too powerful a dose for me. It felt like my brain was bunged up. The fog was beginning to drop and I must have increased altitude. I must have, but I don’t remember how or when I did so. It was the first time in my life I came close to flipping over. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t hold onto the rudder properly. I believe I was shouting and calling the Base, though I knew the radio was down.
Q: At that time did you attempt to return?
Berton: No, because when I finally reached my ceiling it occurred to me that Fechner might be in one of those holes. I know it sounds ridiculous. All the same, that’s what I thought. Since these kinds of things are happening, I thought to myself, maybe I’ll manage to find Fechner as well. So I decided to enter as many of the holes in the fog as I could. But the third time, when I climbed back up again I realized that after what I’d seen I was in no state to continue. I couldn’t do it. I have to say this, and besides, it’s no secret. I suddenly felt sick, and I vomited in the cockpit. I’d never experienced this before. I’d never felt queasy.
Q: It was a symptom of poisoning, Berton.
Berton: Maybe. I don’t know. But what I saw the third time, I didn’t make that up, that wasn’t caused by poisoning.
Q: How do you know?
Berton: It wasn’t a hallucination. A hallucination is something created by my own brain, right?
Q: That’s correct.
Berton: Exactly. But this my brain could not have created. I’ll never believe that. It wouldn’t have been capable.
Q: How about you rather tell us what it was?
Berton: First I need to know how what I’ve said so far is going to be treated.
Q: What does that have to do with it?
Berton: For me it’s fundamental. I’ve said that I saw something I’ll never ever forget. If the commission determines that what I said is even one percent plausible, such that certain research on the ocean needs to be begun, then I’ll tell everything. But if the commission is going to see it all as figments of my imagination, I won’t say another word.
Q: Why not?
Berton: Because the content of my hallucinations, however ghastly they might be, is my private matter. Whereas the content of my experiences on Solaris is not.
Q: Does that mean you refuse to answer any more questions until a decision is reached by the appropriate organs of the expedition? You do understand that this committee is not authorized to make any immediate decisions?
Berton: That’s right.
The first transcript ended at this point. There was also an excerpt from a second, recorded eleven days later.
Chairman: . . . and taking all this into consideration, the commission, comprising three medical doctors, three biologists, one physicist, one mechanical engineer and the second in command of the expedition, has concluded that the incidents described by Berton constitute a hallucinatory syndrome resulting from poisoning by the atmosphere of the planet, a condition in which symptoms of confusion were accompanied by a stimulation of the associative regions of the cerebral cortex; and that these incidents had little or no correspondence in reality.
Berton: Excuse me, what does “little or no” mean? What is “little”? How big is it?
Chairman: Allow me to finish. A separate minority report was filed by Dr. Archibald Messenger, physicist, who testified that what Berton described could in his opinion have happened in reality and deserved careful investigation. That is all.
Berton: I repeat my previous question.
Chairman: The matter is simple. “Little” means that certain real phenomena could have triggered your hallucinations, Berton. On a windy night the most normal person in the world can mistake a swaying bush for a human figure. All the more so on an alien planet, when the observer’s mind is affected by poison. This is no affront to you, Berton. In light of the preceding, what is your decision?
Berton: First, I’d like to know the consequences of Dr. Messenger’s minority report.
Chairman: Practically speaking, there are none. That is to say, no investigation will be undertaken in that regard.
Berton: Is what we are saying going to be transcribed?
Berton: In that case I wish to say that in my view the commission’s decision is an affront not to me—I’m not important here—but to the spirit of this expedition. As I stated the first time, I will not respond to further questions.
Chairman: Is that all?
Berton: Yes. But I would like to talk with Dr. Messenger. Is that possible?
Chairman: Of course.
That was the end of the second transcript. At the bottom of page there was a note in small print reporting that the following day Dr. Messenger met with Berton and spoke with him privately for almost three hours, after which he wrote to the Expeditionary Board, calling once again for an inquiry into the pilot’s testimony. He stated that this was necessitated by additional new data given to him by Berton, which he could reveal only if the Board agreed to the inquiry. The Board, comprising Shannahan, Timolis and Trahier, turned down the request, and the matter was closed.
The book also contained a photocopy of one page of a letter found in Messenger’s papers after he died. It was probably a rough draft; Ravintzer had been unable to determine whether the letter itself had been sent, or what its consequences had been. The text began:
. . . their colossal obtuseness. Out of concern for its authority the Board, and specifically Shannahan and Timolis (Trahier’s voice didn’t count), rejected my demands. Now I’m appealing directly to the Institute, but you yourself know such a protest is ineffectual. I’m bound by my word, so unfortunately I can’t tell you what Berton told me. The Board’s decision was of course influenced by the fact that the revelations had come from a person with no academic standing, though a good many researchers would have envied that pilot his presence of mind and gift for observation. Please, send me the following by return mail:
- Fechner’s bio information, including his childhood.
- Anything you know about his family and family matters; I gather he left behind a small child.
- The topography of the region in which he grew up.