"My Strange Friend, the Astronomer" (1964)

a note from the translator

This early example of Dilov's penchant for melding the cosmic mysteries with the ancient earthly ones is one of his most translated pieces and has been included in several collections of his work over the years. One of his final novellas, The Lilith Bible (1999) expanded the demythologizing theme into a full-on ancient astronauts human origin story. But here we find a simple existential dialouge between Dilov's cold, calculating man-of-science and his compassionate, loyally-partisan anthropologist. Dilov continually counterposed these two aspects of socialist-realism's "ideal man" throughout his writing career; in science-fiction and even in autobiography. It isn't always easy to tell which side of the coin he favors...

A few translation notes:

1. The Sumerian god Ea is more commonly known as Enki, a member of the Anunnaki.

2. One dated technology in this story was just becoming available in the mid-1960's; it came to be known as the "VCR".

“Hello, star counter!” I shouted at him and spread my arms, but he didn’t want to hug me, he replied almost disinterestedly,

“Welcome! Where are you coming from?”

“The first plane from Cairo. Greetings from the pharaohs and from your ancient colleagues.”

“Sit down and talk!”

“You should talk, that's why I came. I read the newspapers and got on a plane. Here!”

I had brought him a small present, even though I knew about his indifference towards any kind of friendly gesture. This time, however, he seemed pleased. He took the little Tower of Babel, carved by an unknown but imaginative Beiruti master, and said,

“Yes, that was one of humankind’s rare ideas that wasn’t nonsense. As long as, of course, it was actually intended as an astronomical observatory, as you claim, and not as a monument to some idiot whom other idiots worshiped.”

He always spoke with sharp and curt judgments and had repeatedly insulted my profession, but I was already used to it.

“Accept it with my heartfelt congratulations to the great...” I began with a bit of solemnity, but I still wanted to embrace him because... I don't know why I feel affection for this strange man who now so unceremoniously interrupted me,

“Save your congratulations for your pyramid builders. Would you like a coffee?”

From the cacophony of all the shiny appliances that surrounded us, he pulled out an equally shiny coffee machine. He had lost weight, his face had grown even harsher, and there was not a trace of the excitement which rustled through the world media over his remarkable discovery.

His team had devoted themselves entirely to radio astronomy, and for two years now they had hunted, recorded, and studied only radio waves coming from the direction of the constellation Orion. Of course they had no greater success than any of the other radio astronomy observatories in the world because from the chaos of radio waves emanating from the depths of space, very little data could be extracted, mainly just the distances and approximate structures of its sources. But despite the staff's dissatisfaction with the monotonous and fruitless work of listening to, differentiating and classifying the same broadcasts from the same constellation, despite the protests of the academy's management and the threats of the financial authorities, my stubborn friend continued this boring and unpromising work. Until one day he was finally rewarded for his stubbornness: in the net of his hundred-meter antenna, along with the annoyingly familiar stellar signals, a new, different radio wave had been entangled. It was not entirely unknown, resembling the emission of so-called white dwarfs, which the hypothesis predicts are neutron stars. The interesting thing in this case was that previously, or at least in the last two years, there was no white dwarf in this location. The first thing that comes to mind is that the neutron star had just now formed, and this successfully filled out some other hypotheses, the authors of which hastened to congratulate my friend and thank him for the discovery. The management of the institute also acknowledged his value, praised him, and carefully asked him to focus on other areas of the sky. Carefully, because they were aware of my friend's character, and besides, by that time, he had become famous from this white dwarf of his.

However, the question was firmly based on whether it really was a white dwarf, where it had appeared from and how, and most of all - why it was so close, in the very center of Orion, while all other discovered neutron stars were a hundred or a thousand times more distant. And then, suddenly, my friend to whom fate had once bound me in a student rental, despite the earlier failures of the British, thought to look at this radio wave not as a pulsation of the still mysterious neutron heart of the white dwarf, but as fluctuating imagery sent by higher beings.

From my practice as an Egyptologist and a specialist in the Middle East, I am well aware that “accidental thinking” often plays a major role in science. You bang your head over a shell with two or three marks on it for years, and then suddenly it turns out that the answer, which had been idling in one of your brain folds has now started to move around for some reason. But as for my friend, I’m convinced that it was no coincidence. For as long as I can remember, he has dreamed of discovering some other world where the beings “wouldn’t be as idiotic as humans”. It is not possible, he argued, that we, the poor Pithecanthropus, are the most perfect beings in this galaxy. It’s insulting to all matter! I couldn’t see how he could hate people that way, but he told me, “I don't hate them. Or more precisely: I try not to hate them because I’m one of them. But in their current state, I despise them.”

I think it was this contempt that had made him an astronomer. As a young man, he had decided not to do anything human for the rest of his life. I never knew much about him because of his attitude toward “everything human”, he naturally never meant himself. That is, I only knew that he was alone, completely alone in the world, and that all his relatives had died either in the bombings or in the concentration camps of the Hitlerites. It seems to me that perhaps this was where the root of his misanthropy must lie, but I dared not say so because I myself am a very kind man.

I say “misanthropy”, but he would be offended if I were to attribute such qualities to him. Misanthropy is also a product of emotions, and he despised those most of all. By that logic, he should have despised me too, but it always seemed to me that somehow he didn't quite succeed, that behind the astronomical coldness of his attitude towards me lurked his despised need for warmer communication with another person. And so I didn’t miss the opportunity, since I was close by, to have a coffee in his office, to listen to his strange judgments about humanity.

No, maybe misanthropy really isn't the right word. His whole flimsy theory made my hair stand on end, and I’m capable of standing in front of an empty stone slab for days on end just because it was carved by someone five thousand years ago. I don’t consider myself stupid, my relatives claim that I am not devoid of wit, and in scientific disputes I have won many brilliant victories (please forgive my immodesty), but it was always terribly difficult for me to argue with him. He and I constantly debated the opposite position. When I argued against him, even though his arguments were based on the same achievements of human thought and some universally recognized truths, I had the feeling that I was arguing with an electronic machine - it has human truths embedded in it, but it instantly converts them into its own code, which he uses to inform me of irrefutably true, and yet false, machine syllogisms. This is, of course, a paradox, but there was no other way I could evaluate his theories, I, who spent my life studying human history. Tell me, is it possible to perform my profession well without having affection for the person I’m studying, even when they’ve long since ceased to exist? And how could I agree with the claims of this friend, cold as a telescope lens, whom people, without knowing him, revered as one of the prominent astronomers of our time?

No, I'm not saying this out of envy, and I'm even saddened that if people read my story, they might stop respecting my friend. It's just that I'm a scientist too, and I also hold truths above miniscule human emotions.

But he holds them above humankind in general. In our quarrels he spoke calmly, and if there were any traces of emotion, it was only the trembling of a contemptuous sneer that appeared on his lips at the moment when I would strike the table, ready to break everything fragile in the room with the divine wrath of Achilles. At such moments he would say,

“Look in the mirror and you will see the irrefutable proof of my truth! The human must cease to be a biological being because this makes them imperfect. You agree with me that consciousness is the highest form of matter and its only means of self-awareness on this planet. It’s as if matter failed to ascribe it any other purpose. Therefore, if humankind wants to be true to its own destiny, it must instead become precise and emotionless, like an instrument for gaining knowledge. Matter has not placed any moral tasks or missions before humankind. It’s invented them itself and, in their name, committed all its nonsense and all the crimes in history. It has also slowed the development of the brain’s cognitive functions. You're a historian, you know that much, at least. Tell me, has humanity become one gram better from its moral missions and purposes? Or smarter? Are the love of power, the love of money, and the thirst for pleasure of your Ramseses and Nebuchadnezzars essentially any different from the passions of today's politicians? Is there any significant difference between the slaves from back then and the functionaries of today..?”

“And communism?” I shouted. “What about communism? Don't you support it?”

A contemptuous sneer appeared on his lips,

“Communism? Yes. I support it, even though you all want to turn it into a new religion. I just hope you all don't mess it up! With communism, humanity has finally achieved something clever, found a way to discard those animalistic sediments clogging its brain folds. By forcibly solving basic social problems. These things can only happen by force. Electronic machines can study, coordinate, control. They can regulate humankind’s way of life, unlike some moral codex or heavenly commandments, so that our brains can truly take on their real purpose at last. Why are you looking at me like that? You must have been reading the party program like the devil reads the gospel. Everything is embedded there. From electronic coordination centers to reaching every child in every nursery and boarding school. Sentimental biological ties must be broken. Genetics will have its say in managed heredity. If in these twenty years we only weaken the most resilient of them - the relationship between parent and child, then by the end of the century we can do what needs to be done - raising children in a test tube, and for those who love to raise children, the ability to buy them from the pharmacy in a plastic bag. Thus we would reject the main burden of human consciousness - the instinct to procreate…”

“Oh my God!” Yes, I, the atheist, was ready to call on God against this interpretation of our party’s program. “Oh my God! A… ‘Man is a friend, comrade and brother to man’? This primary principle…”

His face remained unchanged, dry, his eyes gleaming,

“This is not a moral principle. You interpret it that way, you who still need to tickle your sentimentality. This is simply the natural result of solving the social problem. Man will be a true brother for man when he is born in the same test tube, not in the womb, and when he has nothing else to share in life but his knowledge. Then people will be human-brains, not human-hearts, and that’s why there will be nothing to divide them. This will bring an end to your imaginary moral tasks which have always stemmed from hunger and deprivation.”

I remember my jubilation when, a few years back, I had received a letter from him quite unexpectedly. I was squatting by the Euphrates to rest with a fishing rod in my hand when it was brought to me. Inside was a picture of a pretty young woman and, next to her, the dry, expressionless face of my friend. And a few lines in this spirit: “The instinct to procreate forced me to get married, and sexual selection brought me this personage. Don't gloat too much!” Not only did I gloat, but I couldn’t find space to contain all my joy because his words sounded like a joke intended to conceal his capitulation to the “biological”. But a year later - only then did our expedition to ancient Assyria Volonia end - I found him alone again.

“She's gone,” he said, as if I had asked him something insignificant. “The instinct was satisfied and…”

“Any children?”

“Of course. Isn't that why I got married? It's in the nursery.”

I am not a born killer, so I did the only thing I could: I vowed to end all contact with this inhuman specimen. I did want to learn more about his wife who, of course, couldn’t last more than a few months with him, but… from him? But I couldn't find the strength to look for her. Look, if it was about a Pharaoh's relationship with his wife, I'd dig it up. After all, that’s my profession! And I really didn't contact him anymore. It goes without saying that he, who didn’t acknowledge any sentimental connections, had never contacted me ever, except for those few lines which had made me so deceptively happy beside the Euphrates. But now things were different, and I didn’t care about my broken vow because I knew he wouldn't even ask me why I hadn't contacted him in so long.

Now he was standing with his back to me, tall, bony, looking out the window at the huge spherical and rectangular tangle of radio telescope antennas, and telling me disinterestedly, as if dictating his story not to a typist but to a dictaphone,

“You know what a telerecording is, don't you?”

How could I not know?! What home television owner doesn't dream of this relatively new invention which, like a Magnetophone, records live images on a little tape to play back on the screen whenever the owner wants? Unfortunately, these devices are still too expensive here to be owned by an ordinary television subscriber like me.

“… I decided to record this radio wave on the Magnetophone. It has sounds too. But the equipment is not perfect enough and we can’t separate them from the noise of the equipment itself…”

I hadn't known about the sounds. The newspapers had only reported symbols that resembled writing and some kind of image that could be the image of a living being. They even suggested that it was a portrait of the message's sender. I was eager to finally see these “heavenly signs”, but their discoverer was in no hurry.

“We’ve recorded other similar sources,” he continued his monotonous, business-like dictation, “but either no image was received, or if there were any semblances of symbols, there was not the slightest rudiment of this systematization in them. I mean, it was the familiar periodicity of neutron star radiation. So we are now undoubtedly facing something completely different, hitherto unknown. There is a system in the arrangement of the symbols, look,” only then did he move and approach me, taking a few photos from a drawer in his desk. “But our mathematicians probably won't be able to decipher it. You're surprised that I'm not excited. I am excited, of course. But I already knew that there were others in the Cosmos, beings more advanced than us. And to jump for joy is naive. Surely contact with them will remain forever unattainable. The mathematicians thought up a bunch of stuff with their electronic machines, and now you can see how helpless they are. Doesn't this task require some program? And how can you program it, when your own brain is pre-programmed by five billion years of terrestrial evolution in a completely different way from that of the constellation Orion..?”

“Yes, he's right, he's desperately right,” I said to myself, looking at the pictures with the magnified images of the characters. They were a not-so-complicated tangle of curved lines, in which my experienced eye could relatively easily recognize the repetitions, the first sign that a system is present. Their elusive meaning, of course, can lead to disinterest. But I was not yet disinterested. I arranged the photos beside me, one by one, going back to the first ones. They were numbered. Probably in the order that they’d been received, but he had handed me the pile shuffled up. I looked at them and at the same time felt my friend enjoying my look of stupidity. And it was stupid, it was stupid because a man like me, who is too often guided by his emotions, always in such cases unconsciously expects to see something accessible and understandable.

“Those aren't your hieroglyphs,” he said mockingly, and I stopped staring at the unintelligible symbols.

But I was angry at his excessive skepticism about human capabilities. These symbols coming from another world evoked in me, if not an ambition to compete with him, at least my respect. But in my friend, as usual, neither was noticeable. I, a layman, whose knowledge of the universe did not exceed by much the undetermined knowledge of the dear-to-my-heart Egyptians, Assyro-Babylonians, and Phoenicians, was naturally filled with reverence. And I accepted the final picture he gave me with trembling fingers, the magnified photograph of the being that lived under another sun.

A whitish silhouette stood out against the dark, almost black, background of the photo board. It didn't look like anything to me, no matter how hard I strained my brain for some analogy. If that’s a portrait..! But still, there seemed to be something like limbs, and there were four of them, and something like a head. I smiled involuntarily, because I suddenly decided that this could actually be the portrait of a human painted by one of our earthly abstract artists. There were also symbols on either side of the “being”. They seemed unexpectedly familiar to me, but that could be from half an hour of looking at them in the other pictures.

I started with my coffee, which had become unpleasantly cold, but my eyes kept shifting to the picture of the “being”. I had placed it half a meter in front of me so that I could look at it at any moment. I had this habit, other colleagues of mine practice it too - when an old inscription makes it difficult for us, we put it in a prominent place, trying to distance ourself from it, and only from time to time do we suddenly “come back” as if we want to surprise it right at the very moment that it, undisturbed by anything, will reveal its secrets on its own. At first glance, these games with manuscripts as mysterious living beings that must be outwitted seem ridiculous but very often give excellent results. Ask any decoder, not only of ancient texts but also in counterintelligence, they’ll confirm it. Because this method is actually nothing more than a way to release associations that are locked inside our memory and which don’t always agree to come out when we’re forcing our brain to do a difficult job or when we’re concentrating.

“Besides, we don't know if the record is even real,” said the indifferent voice of my astronomer. “All kinds of deformations are possible on this long journey.”

Lost in my thoughts, I sipped loudly from the coffee, smacked my lips from its coldness, and suddenly a voice inside me said, “His name is Ea.”

I almost jumped up. What was that? Where did it come from? I looked around, almost timidly resting my gaze on the “being”. And the voice inside me called out again, “His name is Ea.” I must have turned pale because my friend asked,

“What’s wrong with you?”

I didn't answer because, with a kind of mystical fear, I was reading the writing on the picture: His name is Ea, His name is Ea, His name is Ea…

“His name is Ea.”

“What? What?”

“His name is Ea,” I whispered, pointing to the “being” with my trembling thumb. “His name is Ea. It’s written here.”

“You're crazy,” he said. “It looks like the journey…”

And he reached for the photographs.

“Wait!” I roared.

I grabbed the stack of photos and frantically searched through them. No! Nothing! Complete nonsense! I probably was crazy. “His name is Ea…” But yes! His name is Ea! The two symbols beside the head-like end of the “being” were very different from those in the other pictures, and they were insisting that, “His name is Ea”. I rubbed my face so hard with my palm that it started to tingle. I got up, went to the window, looked at the antennas, came back, and calmly read it again, “His name is Ea”. And then I understood why I was able to read it. They were Sumerian cuneiform figures telling me in ancient Akkadian: His name is Ea. I shifted my gaze to the other side of the “being” where there was a larger line of the same symbols, and again I read them quite easily: “...and taught them to build canals, to irrigate the land, to make a tiller, to sculpt themselves from stone and wood.” I read it two or three times, and it got cold inside my chest, like in a refrigerator. I asked,

“Is it possible that someone did this... as a joke? Maybe transmitted them from Earth? Or from a satellite?”

“Impossible!” the astronomer replied, apparently forcing himself to suppress his curiosity. “I received them personally. And their source is precisely fixed between the stars Rigel and Betelgeuse.”

“Listen!” I was shouting now because my brain was used to immediately making assumptions, generalizing, building hypotheses. “Is that the entire recording? Aren't there any other..?”

“These are isolated images,” he said, his lips already expressing a desire to have fun with my sudden “craziness”. “For journalists. And for people like you. We don’t waste our time showing the recordings to anyone who wants to communicate with the Orionis.”

“Play me the recording!” I shouted. "The whole thing! Get everything prepared, I'll be right back!”

I must have shocked him by rushing out like that! I jumped into my old Volga and it roared down the road. At least ten policemen wrote down my plate number, and the next day I would receive a kind invitation to attend the Sunday school of automobile readiness, but to hell with that, I managed to return alive in half an hour with Schnitzer's Illustrated History of Writing and a book of ancient Akkadian grammar compiled personally by me twenty years ago!

I showed my friend the corresponding characters in Schnitzer and in my own grammar book. That was the only way I could convince him. I read him the whole inscription on either side of the “being”, let him compare it himself, and as he stumbled through it, I exclaimed in astonishment, for it was only now that a light flashed in my brain, dazzling me with its unexpectedness and improbability,

“The good and wise god Ea! Yes! This is the good and wise god Ea, who taught the ancient Sumerians to make their land fruitful. This is how and why my beloved Babylonians knew Pythagoras' theorem two thousand years before Pythagoras!”

“You're out of your mind!” said the astronomer, but he didn't seem so convinced of my madness. “These moral missions of yours again! All right, let's see what else your sentimental heart can read.”

As he turned the knobs on the telerecorder, I sat in front of the screen and frantically listed all the unproven evidence in favor of alien beings having visited Earth. About the Sirius calendar of the Egyptians, and about the mysterious “spaceport” in the Sahara, and about the supposed nuclear pit in the Dead Sea, and especially about the strange discrepancy between the priests’ knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry and the savage primitiveness of the means of production.

My friend was watching the flickering lights on the selector and laughed coldly and viciously because he already knew all of this, of course. Then we both fell silent, the first symbols appearing on the screen. They didn’t look like the others, but here and there were some triangles and cloves that I found very familiar. I gushed,

“These must be numbers! Tell your mathematicians to search the hexadecimal system! They must be coordinates.”

“Stop fantasizing!” he cut me off.

And I did stop because the completely unfamiliar characters from the first pictures were slowly fading on the screen. I stared at them until my eyes got tired and then leafed through Schnitzer's History, but the thing I was looking up had passed.

“Your enthusiasm has evaporated, hasn't it?” the astronomer said mockingly.

“No!” I shouted. “Hold on a second! Go back!”

Here and there, between the cosmic symbols, separate cuneiform images began to appear. Weren't these the corresponding translations from one language to another? The key to understanding between two civilizations? I didn't dare say my thoughts out loud because the screen suddenly emptied.

“The transmission probably isn’t complete. It’s impossible not to have missed some parts,” explained the astronomer. “Aren't these your Sumerian symbols again?”

I celebrated. His experienced eye had only begun to distinguish them from the others. Of course, I thought, of course! It’s both: the transmission is incomplete, and the poor ancient Akkadian speech can’t express everything that this Orioni wanted to tell us!

His name is Ea… This is the “being” now! Still just as vague as the photograph, still resembling an abstract painting. Oh how these devilish cosmic fields have deformed him!

It sailed slowly from the screen, as if sailing to its distant homeland, but it was followed by a calm and clear line of cuneiform symbols. I read with a dry throat and a voice I didn’t recognize, and I felt that at any moment my chest might burst with delight. I looked from time to time in Schnitzer and in my grammar which were sitting on my knees, and I read and read...

"… and taught them to build canals, to irrigate the land, to make a tiller, to sculpt themselves from stone and wood, to know the way of the stars, and his disciples wanted to become gods, and he wanted to stay longer to teach them… but then they were told about the terrible thing, (this was followed by some words that are completely foreign to every earthly tongue), and they all went back, promising the disciples they would return… (the message had some words missing, some marks that likely serve for punctuation in Sumerian lettering)… but no one returned because (an unknown word!)… from the terrible… they came six thousand two hundred and fifty Earth cycles ago… (an unknown word, probably the name of a star. But as for the number, I wasn’t sure because it was the first time I'd seen such a big number expressed only with the Sumerian triangle and clove)… and made us slaves… when Ea was on Earth… I, son of the son of Ea… I have hidden everything that was brought, and I learned the word of Earth and I speak hidden… from (unknown words!)… from the terrible… killed… and made us slaves… also on Earth… I, the son of the son of the son of Ea… “

Here, the text paused for a few seconds to refill the television screen with a poignant plea,

“… people from Akkadia and Sumeria and Hittussa who know Ea… if you have already learned how and you can travel among the stars… help us… from the terrible… I tell you everything, learn our word… come…”

And again the string of Orioni symbols followed. They were probably trying to communicate to us, the inhabitants of Earth, that necessary information which couldn’t be expressed by the scarce means of human language from seven millennia ago when Ea roamed with his companions amongst humans. Then they suddenly disappeared into the gentle and indifferent sound of the telerecording, and silence fell around us, such silence that I seemed to hear the crackling of my own brain’s biocurrents which were intoxicating my mind with insight into dozens of things that had puzzled me in my travellings through the lives of ancient Egyptians, the Assyro-Babylonians, and their ancestors from Sumer and Akkad. Yes, I thought, the good and wise god Ea, as they called him in their traditions, and whom they therefore did not invent! And whom they revered so much! He had taught them to be wise and good, and he wanted to stay on Earth with his comrades, who must have been teachers themselves, to neighboring nations in Africa and Asia Minor, so the people could become like them. But the “terrible” had happened… What was it? So he had to go. And his disciples did not become like him at all. They declared him a god and themselves priests, and they used the knowledge they gained to enslave their peers. And I thought about the whole course of human history, in which knowledge has had to constantly fight for its own freedom. And I was thinking a dozen more things all at once, and I would have thought of dozens more, forgetting everything around me if my friend's voice hadn't suddenly put me back in my chair in front of the television screen, next to the silent telerecording. That voice was unrecognizable!

“Listen!” he shouted, hoarse and vibrating. “That's enough… this is monstrous!”

“Which one?” I asked, but what I didn’t say aloud was, “Is it the fact that there are beings out there in the universe who use their superior knowledge to turn other beings into their slaves?”

“Listen,” he repeated softly but hoarsely. “Don't you understand? A being out there somewhere… is asking us for help and we can't… That's… That's… terrible!”

It was only now that I finally broke away from my thoughts and saw that his hands were trembling, that his eyes were burning with excitement, and even his always pale cheeks were colored by the feverish flames of a tragic experience. And some turbulent feeling made me stand up and open my arms to this strange friend of mine who didn’t acknowledge any moral purposes to humanity and its consciousness, but at that moment he was ready to cry with the grief and helplessness that he could not fly immediately to that insanely distant constellation to carry there our earthly human justice, won with so much suffering.

For the first time in my life, I hugged him, and he, the enemy of sentimentality, did not object, because he must have been thinking at that moment about that son of the son of the son of Ea longing for his embrace.