THE SOCIAL NEBULAE
It was with mingled awe and amusement that I ranged among the many groups of the social nebulae, awe at the vast and stormy universe into which I had fallen, amusement at the blend of the fantastic and the human in their behaviour.
At this early stage of cosmical expansion, groups of nebulae having constant intercourse were common. Moreover, there was occasional intercourse between groups. One small family or great tribe would drift within. "speaking distance" of another, and signals would pass between them, at first unintelligible. More rarely, two groups would actually collide. Each would then desperately seek to preserve its own group life and bend the other to its will. Sometimes, a number of groups, drifting more or less in proximity along the same stream (so to speak) of cosmical movement, would grow up as a community of separate clans, possessing in spite of local differences a common basis of culture, though no common allegiance. In these groups of groups intertribal Warfare was perennial.
But most groups of nebulae throughout the cosmos grew up to maturity in complete isolation from one another. Not till certain exceptionally favoured groups began to feel curiosity about the more remote objects around them was any attempt made to communicate by light signals between the groups. Not till the utilization of subatomic power was there any possibility of voyaging from group to group.
All nebulae, social and solitary alike, are so fashioned as to find their deepest satisfaction in dance-like physical activity internal and external. At the lowliest this terpsichorean behaviour is sheer animal play, but at its loftiest it is best described as pure art of a peculiarly subtle and powerful kind. By its veiled creative symbolism this art, as I have said, can raise the nebular spirit to the highest reaches of religious ecstasy. In the social nebulae the dance life is of course socialized and pregnant with all manner of social symbolism. In the solitary nebulae its aim is simply the perfection of self-expression.
Among the social nebulae, as among human beings, there arose inevitably all kinds of conflicts between the individual perfection and the social perfection. But in the nebular world these conflicts often took forms unknown on Earth.
With the nebulae the conflict was always at bottom an aesthetic conflict between the individual dance rhythm and the social dance rhythm. Each social individual experienced the urge to aesthetic self-perfection; but also he recognized, grudgingly or with delight, the rights of others to their own aesthetic policies, and the aesthetic excellence of the group itself.
Sometimes an unfortunate solitary nebula would happen to drift within range of a group and would be seized upon by the members of the group, either in the hope of gaining his support for one social party against another, or, if the group were a harmonious one, simply for the embellishment of the group by the presence of an interesting and beautiful foreigner. For the lone nebulae, being exempt from external influences, attained a perfection of physical form which was ever a source of wonder to the social nebulae. The captured solitary would of course prove quite incapable even of realizing that the shocking distortions and agonies which now beset him were caused by the efforts of other minds to communicate with him. It would very soon appear to the social nebulae that, for all his physical perfection and symmetry, the foreigner was but an abject savage, unable to appreciate the beauties of group life, and incapable even of intelligent intercourse; in fact, that he was a mere brute, physically superb, but blind, deaf, and incredibly stupid. For to the excited and babbling observers he offered no hint of the strange solipsistic intelligence and will at work within him.
Sometimes the stranger would be forcibly retained within the group as a curiosity, like a beast in a zoo. But more often he would be roughly expelled as a mere irrelevance in the group pattern. Probably he would be so mauled in body and shattered in mind by the hurricane of incomprehensible experiences, that the upshot for him would be either insanity or death.
The social life of the nebulae impressed me with extraordinary vividness because it was so clearly embodied in perceptual and aesthetic forms. I could actually see the conflict between the individual and the group. I could see the individual struggling to maintain the symmetry and the spontaneous rhythms of his own body against the compulsive and distorting influences of the group. Also, it must be remembered, I could feel in his mind the two conflicting apprehensions of beauty. I could savour both his passion for the lyrical freedom of his own dance life, and his ecstatic self-subjection to the dance life of the group as a whole.
I could enter into his personal loves and hates, too, all the more vividly because, in time, I became sensitive to the perceptual harmonies and discords between the private dance rhythms of diverse individuals. When I had been so immersed in nebular life that I could appreciate the exquisite expressiveness of nebular forms and actions, it became visually patent to me that such and such a nebular mind must inevitably be enthralled by the sight of such and such a beauty of tresses and core; or that such and such a style or mode or mannerism in the dance life of one individual must to the vision of a certain other individual be significant of a base spirit.
The nebulae, I found, were capable of every kind of personal relationship known to us. Even sexual partnership had its counterpart among these asexual beings. For though there were not two definite sexual types, many dance unions included physical caresses, and even a transmission of substance from individual to individual, for mutual invigoration, though not for procreation.
As with human beings, so with nebulae, love was broadly of two kinds. There was a simple love hunger directed upon any individual that promised enrichment to the pattern of one's own life. This kind of love led often to partnerships between two or three nebulae, each of which sought merely personal enrichment from the union, each of which willed merely to impose on the partnership his own aesthetic ideal. Needless to say, the result of such unions was invariably disaster. There was also love that included genuine admiration of the other's physical beauty and prowess, or of his mental or moral perfection. Sometimes, indeed, this passion was so intense that the lover dared not approach at all near to the beloved for fear of marring his beauty by his own extraneous gravitational sway. But in the happiest cases, where admiration and desire were mutual, each would conceive a craving to complete his own form by responding to the other's influence.
The most impressive of all nebular societies were those few small communities in which all the members were thus inwardly united by bonds of mutual understanding and affection, and all were also constantly, and sometimes passionately, raised above the individual plane by a common social purpose, namely the will to work out together an ever more harmonious and more significant dance life for the whole group.
Very few groups attained this perfection. Most were either too closely or too loosely knit. In the former the individual spirit was stifled by the proximity of his neighbours. He was a mere herd member, with no inner being. And because society was composed of barren individuals, social life was barren also. The dance pattern of the group was, so to speak, geometrical and fatuous. In the too loosely knit groups, on the other hand, there was no willed community at all, but only a grudging contract by which all engaged to refrain from interference with their neighbours, so as to secure the maximum freedom of individual behaviour.
In very many cases the group was perennially torn between two or more parties with opposing aims. One, for instance, might be seeking a more free and open formation of the group life, the other a dance form more close-knit and disciplined, in which every individual's shape and activity should be through and through determined by the pattern of the whole. Or one party might strive for an aristocratic society of dance leaders with satellites, the other for a more democratic arrangement. One might wish to see the group life controlled by predominantly athletic principles, another might demand a more genuine aesthetic mode, another might wish to subordinate the pure aesthetic to the religious in the significance of the dance. In a few groups there were intellectualists who wished to subordinate all activity to theoretical enquiry into the mysteries of physical and mental phenomena.
Sometimes in a group torn by conflicts or oppressed by some powerful oligarchy an individual with a strong urge toward self-perfection would seek to escape from the group into outer space, purposing to live the life of a hermit. Or a couple or triplet of ardent lovers would try to break away from the prying and tyrannously moral supervision of their fellows. Or an oppressed aesthetic or religious sect would seek to found an independent society. But seldom did the fugitives attain their end. Either by physical violence or by subtle moral pressure they would be compelled to remain and to subordinate the pattern of their lives even more rigorously than before to the dance rhythms of the groups.
In some groups I found two parties identical in disposition and policy in all respects save that each considered that itself should rule and the other be a subject race. In some others, one party, through long subjection, had lost the power of independent choice and had become inherently servile. In extreme cases the subject race was so debased that they were mere cattle under the control of the master race. And often the masters themselves were by now so modified in actual physical constitution that, had their slaves deserted them, they would have been undone; for little by little they had come to effect a style of athleticism and even a physiological habit which would have broken down completely if menial service had ceased to be available. Their dance measures were so difficult, their bodily constitution and mental operations so subtle and precarious, that they needed constant assistance from the simpler, tougher, and automatically loyal "cattle" attendant on them.
One other kind of group should be mentioned, namely that in which a great nebula imposed its dance measures on a number of minute satellites. These little creatures, which were as a rule bald cores shorn of all tresses, were generally unable to advance beyond that grade of consciousness which we attribute to our simian relatives. They were indeed mere domestic animals, unintelligent dance minions to the dominant partner; and mostly they were treated with no more consideration than our backward races expend on their cattle and poultry. But a few of these satellite nebulae, wrought and tempered by exceptional circumstances, developed a keen and fearless intellect such as the normal nebulae seldom attained. And one member of this dwarf race made history upon the grandest scale.
Chapter 6 Nebula
Nebula Maker Contents