Saturday, April 28, 2007

"The Possessed" (short story): Intellect in the abstract!

This story has something in common with the first story of "2001 A Space Odyssey" - aliens nudging apes to become humans. Only they choose a different species, & the story has a very different ending! And the aliens here are not as philanthropic.

This story also reminded me of another old book - "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. It was very popular when I was in college, & is written in style between a textbook & a story.

If I recall correctly, & I never went beyond first third plus its many pretty pictures, "Godel" dealt with the idea of consciousness (or at least self-awareness) in abstract mathematical structures. Kind of - can we isolate the idea of consciousness in a way that doesn't depend on anything physical, & will still be recognized as consciousness by reasonable people.

This story is very similar. It also is among the better ET stories by Clarke.

Story summary (spoiler).
A conscious being, Swarm, doesn't have a physical body in familiar sense - it's just a bunch of elementary particles that, nevertheless, is living & very smart. It can move between stars riding the interstellar light, except very close to stars where it can disintegrate & die.

It also is a parasite - it lives off other intelligent beings, by colonizing their minds. This idea of colonizing others' mind also appears in another Clarke story - "The Parasite".

Anyway, disaster has struck its home world, killing its host species & their world. So it is roaming the space in search of a suitable world, & suitable hosts. That is how it comes to earth.

But this is primeval earth. While there is life aplenty, there is no sign of anything intelligent. Should it nudge some of the living beings towards becoming intelligent, or roam the universe in search of another suitable world?

It decides to do both. Through a process akin to cell division, it splits into two equals. One will stay on earth, & try to convert some species into something intelligent; other will roam the universe.

They also decide on a point of rendezvous on earth. The one staying will visit this place periodically for any message from other half. If other half finds a suitable world, it will split again & send a copy back with the information - so the separated tribe can be united again.

Local watches over growing earth life, not able to choose anything suitable. And keeps returning to point of rendezvous - without luck. It is this need for rendezvous that gives the story its title.

Hundreds of millions of years pass. Routine repeats. In the meantime the local has chosen a local life form for nudging. Only problem is - it has bet on the wrong animal, & has lost much of its internal fire because of wait for good life all these years. But it still visits the point of rendezvous - in the hope the other half will come & redeem it.

End of the story is an amusing & inexplicable scene watched by a human family. And you know where the local Swarm had placed its bet.

Fact sheet.
The Possessed, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1951
Rating: B

See also.

  1. The alien we meet at the end of "The Fountains of Paradise" appears to be a somewhat more physical version of Swarm.
  2. Neil Gaiman's "How to talk to girls at parties", nominated for Hugo Award 2007 in short story category, appears to be a variant of "The Possessed".
The story appears in the following collections.
  1. "Reach for tomorrow"
  2. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  3. "More Than One Universe"

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