It was about intelligent threads of energy trillions of light-years long. They wanted mortal, self-reproducing life forms to spread out through the Universe. So several of them, the Elders in the title, held a meeting by intersecting near a planet called Tralfamadore. The author never said why the Elders thought the spread of life was such a hot idea. I don’t blame him. I can’t think of any strong arguments in favor of it. To me, wanting every habitable planet to be inhabited is like wanting everybody to have athlete’s foot.
The Elders agreed at the meeting that the only practical way for life to travel great distances through space was in the form of extremely small and durable plants and animals hitching rides on meteors that ricocheted off their planets.
But no germs tough enough to survive a trip like that had yet evolved anywhere. Life was too easy for them. They were a bunch of creampuffs. Any creature they infected, chemically speaking, was as challenging as so much chicken soup.
There were people on Earth at the time of the meeting, but they were just more hot slop for the germs to swim in. But they had extra-large brains, and some of them could talk. A few could even read and write! So the Elders focused in on them, and wondered if people’s brains might not invent survival tests for germs which were truly horrible.
They saw in us a potential for chemical evils on a cosmic scale. Nor did we disappoint them.
What a story!
It so happened, according to this story, that the legend of Adam and Eve was being written down for the first time. A woman was doing it. Until then, that charming bunkum had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.
The Elders let her write down most of the origin myth just the way she had heard it, the way everybody told it, until she got very close to the end. Then they took control of her brain and had her write down something which had never been part of the myth before.
It was a speech by God to Adam and Eve, supposedly. This was it, and life would become pure hell for microorganisms soon afterward: “Fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.” Cough.
So the people on Earth thought they had instructions from the Creator of the Universe Himself to wreck the joint. But they were going at it too slowly to satisfy the Elders, so the Elders put it into the people’s heads that they themselves were the life forms that were supposed to spread out through the Universe. This was a preposterous idea, of course. In the words of the nameless author: “How could all that meat, needing so much food and water and oxygen, and with bowel movements so enormous, expect to survive a trip of any distance whatsoever through the limitless void of outer space? It was a miracle that such ravenous and cumbersome giants could make a roundtrip for a 6-pack to the nearest grocery store.”
The Elders, incidentally, had given up on influencing the humanoids of Tralfamadore, who were right below where they were meeting. The Tralfamadorians had senses of humor and so knew themselves for the severely limited lunkers, not to say crazy lunkers, they really were. They were immune to the kilovolts of pride the Elders jazzed their brains with. They laughed right away when the idea popped up in their heads that they were the glory of the Universe, and that they were supposed to colonize other planets with their incomparable magnificence. They knew exactly how clumsy and dumb they were, even though they could talk and some of them could read and write and do math. One author wrote a series of side-splitting satires about Tralfamadorians arriving on other planets with the intention of spreading enlightenment.
But the people here on Earth, being humorless, found the same idea quite acceptable.
It appeared to the Elders that the people here would believe anything about themselves, no matter how preposterous, as long as it was flattering. To make sure of this, they performed an experiment. They put the idea into Earthlings’ heads that the whole Universe had been created by one big male animal who looked just like them. He sat on a throne with a lot of less fancy thrones all around him. When people died they got to sit on those other thrones forever because they were such close relatives of the Creator.
The people down here just ate that up!
Another thing the Elders liked about Earthlings was that they feared and hated other Earthlings who did not look and talk exactly as they did. They made life a hell for each other as well as for what they called “lower animals.” They actually thought of strangers as lower animals. So all the Elders had to do to ensure that germs were going to experience really hard times was to tell us how to make more effective weapons by studying Physics and Chemistry. The Elders lost no time in doing this.
They caused an apple to fall on the head of Isaac Newton.
They made young James Watt prick up his ears when his mother’s teakettle sang.
The Elders made us think that the Creator on the big throne hated strangers as much as we did, and that we would be doing Him a big favor if we tried to exterminate them by any and all means possible.
That went over big down here.
So it wasn’t long before we had made the deadliest poisons in the Universe, and were stinking up the air and water and topsoil. In the words of the author, and I wish I knew his name, “Germs died by the trillions or failed to reproduce because they could no longer cut the mustard.”
But a few survived and even flourished, even though almost all other life forms on Earth perished. And when all other life forms vanished, and this planet became as sterile as the Moon, they hibernated as virtually indestructible spores, capable of waiting as long as necessary for the next lucky hit by a meteor. Thus, at last, did space travel become truly feasible.
If you stop to think about it, what the Elders did was based on a sort of trickle-down theory. Usually when people talk about the trickle-down theory, it has to do with economics. The richer people at the top of a society become, supposedly, the more wealth there is to trickle down to the people below. It never really works out that way, of course, because if there are 2 things people at the top can’t stand, they have to be leakage and overflow.
But the Elders’ scheme of having the misery of higher animals trickle down to microorganisms worked like a dream.
There was a lot more to the story than that. The author taught me a new term, which was “Finale Rack.” This was apparently from the vocabulary of pyrotechnicians, specialists in loud and bright but otherwise harmless nighttime explosions for climaxes of patriotic holidays. A Finale Rack was a piece of milled lumber maybe 3 meters long and 20 centimeters wide and 5 centimeters thick, with all sorts of mortars and rocket launchers nailed to it, linked in series by a single fuse.
When it seemed that a fireworks show was over, that was when the Master Pyrotechnician lit the fuse of the Finale Rack.
That is how the author characterized World War II and the few years that followed it. He called it “the Finale Rack of so-called Human Progress.”
If the author was right that the whole point of life on Earth was to make germs shape up so that they would be ready to ship out when the time came, then even the greatest human being in history, Shakespeare or Mozart or Lincoln or Voltaire or whoever, was nothing more than a Petri dish in the truly Grand Scheme of Things.
In the story, the Elders of Tralfamadore were indifferent, to say the least, to all the suffering going on. When 6,000 rebellious slaves were crucified on either side of the Appian Way back in good old 71 B.C., the Elders would have been delighted if a crucified person had spit into the face of a Centurion, giving him pneumonia or TB.
Un racconto, attribuito a Kilgore Trout, citato in
Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990