Broadcast Era, Year 7 Yun Tianming’s Fairy Tales
In the sophon-free room, those who had finished reading began to talk amongst themselves, though most were still absorbed in the world of the Storyless Kingdom, the sea, the princess and the princes. Some remained deep in thought; some stared at the document, as though hoping to glean more meaning from the cover.
“That princess is a lot like you,” said AA to Cheng Xin.
“Try to focus on the serious business here … and am I really that delicate?! I would have held up the umbrella myself.” Cheng Xin was the only one who didn’t bother reading the document. The stories were seared into her memory. She had, of course, wondered many times if Princess Dewdrop was modeled in some measure on herself. But the captain of the guards didn’t resemble Yun Tianming.
Does he think I’m going to sail away somehow? With another man?
Once the chair noticed that everyone present had finished reading, he asked for opinions—mainly suggested directions for next steps to be taken by the various working groups under the IDC.
The committee member representing the literary analysis group asked to speak first. This group had been a last-minute addition, composed mainly of writers and scholars of Common Era literature. It was thought that there might be a minuscule chance—unlikely though it was—that they could be of use.
The speaker was a writer of children’s stories. “I know that from now on, my group is unlikely to make any useful contributions. But I wanted to say a few words first.” He lifted the blue-covered document. “I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe this message can ever be deciphered.”
“Why do you say that?” asked the chair.
“To be clear, we’re trying to ascertain the strategic direction of humanity’s struggles for the future. If this message really exists, no matter what it is, it must have a concrete meaning. We can’t take vague, ambiguous information and turn it into strategic directions. But vagueness and ambiguity are at the heart of literary expression. Out of security considerations, I’m sure the true meaning behind these three stories is buried very deeply, and this makes the interpretations even more vague and ambiguous. The difficulty we are facing isn’t that we can’t get anything useful out of these three stories, but that there are too many plausible interpretations, and we can’t be certain of any of them.
“Let me say something else that’s not directly relevant here. As a writer, I want to express my respect for the author. As fairy tales, these are very good.”
* * *
The next day, the IDC’s work of deciphering Yun Tianming’s message began in earnest. Very soon, everyone came to appreciate the warning by the children’s story writer.
The three tales of Yun Tianming were rich in metaphors and symbolism; every detail could be interpreted in multiple ways, and each interpretation could find some support, but it was impossible to tell which one was the message intended by the author, and thus it was impossible to take any interpretation as strategic intelligence.
For instance, the idea of painting people into pictures was, by consensus, a rather obvious metaphor. But experts in different fields could not agree on a single interpretation. Some believed that the paintings were a reference to the digitization trend in the modern world, and thus this detail in the story suggested that humans should also be digitized as a way to avoid dark forest strikes. Scholars who held this view also noted that those who had been painted into the paintings were no longer able to harm those in the real world, and so digitizing humanity was perhaps a way to promulgate the cosmic safety notice.
But another camp held that the paintings were intended to suggest special dimensions. The real world and the world of the paintings were of different dimensionalities, and when a person was painted, that person disappeared from three-dimensional space. This brought to mind the experiences of Blue Space and Gravity in the four-dimensional fragment, and so perhaps Tianming had intended to suggest that humanity could use four-dimensional space as a refuge, or broadcast the cosmic safety notice in some manner through four- dimensional space. Some scholars pointed to Prince Deep Water’s violations of the rules of perspective as further evidence that the author meant four-dimensional space.
As another example, what was the meaning of the glutton fish? Some focused on their large numbers, their habit of remaining hidden, and their fierce, aggressive tendency, and reached the conclusion that they symbolized cosmic civilization as a whole in the dark forest state. The soap that allowed the glutton fish to feel so comfortable as to forget to attack represented some unknown principles behind the cosmic safety notice. Others, however, reached the opposite conclusion: They believed that the glutton fish represented intelligent machines that must be built by humankind. These machines would be small in size and capable of self- replication. Once released into space, the machines would use the matter found in the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud to self-replicate in large numbers until they formed an intelligent barrier around the Solar System. The barrier could have multiple functions, e.g., intercepting photoids headed for the Sun, or altering the appearance of the Solar System from a distance in a manner that would achieve the goal of a cosmic safety notice.
This explanation, dubbed the Shoaling Interpretation, was given more attention than other competing interpretations. Compared to the other hypotheses, the Shoaling Interpretation offered a relatively clear technical framework and became one of the first interpretations to be treated as an in-depth research topic by the World Academy of Sciences. But the IDC never put too much hope in the Shoaling Interpretation— although the idea seemed technically feasible, further study revealed that it would take tens of thousands of years for the self-replicating “shoals of fish” to form a barrier around the Solar System. Moreover, the limited functionality of AI machines meant that the protective and safety notice functions of the barrier were at best impractical visions. Ultimately, the Shoaling Interpretation had to be abandoned.
Countless competing interpretations were also offered for the spinning umbrella, the mysterious snow-wave
paper and obsidian slab, the He’ershingenmosiken bath soap …
Just like the writer of children’s literature had said, all these explanations seemed justifiable, but it was impossible to ascertain which one was really meant.
It was not the case, however, that all the contents of the three stories were so vague and ambiguous. The IDC experts were certain that at least one detail in the story offered a concrete piece of intelligence, and was perhaps the key to unlocking the secrets of Yun Tianming’s message.
They referred to the strange place name in the stories: He’ershingenmosiken.
Tianming had told Cheng Xin his stories in Chinese. People noticed that most of the place names and names of the characters had clear meanings in Chinese: the Storyless Kingdom, the Glutton’s Sea, Tomb Island, Princess Dewdrop, Prince Ice Sand, Prince Deep Water, Needle-Eye, Master Ethereal, Captain Long-Sail, Auntie Wide, etc. However, mixed in was also this other name that appeared to be a phonetic transcription of the name of a foreign place. Not only was it strange phonetically for Chinese, it was also really long. The name also appeared repeatedly in the story in a way that clearly suggested something out of the ordinary: Needle-Eye and Master Ethereal had come from He’ershingenmosiken; the snow-wave paper they used also came from He’ershingenmosiken; the obsidian slab and iron used for pressing the paper were also of He’ershingenmosiken; Captain Long-Sail had been born in He’ershingenmosiken; the bath soap of He’ershingenmosiken; the glutton fish of He’ershingenmosiken.… The author seemed to be repeatedly emphasizing the importance of this name, but there was no detailed description of He’ershingenmosiken at all. Was it another large island like the Storyless Kingdom? A continent? An archipelago?
Experts weren’t even sure what language the name came from. When Yun Tianming had left on the Staircase probe, his English proficiency wasn’t great, and he didn’t know a third language—but it was possible that he had learned another language later. The name didn’t resemble English, and it wasn’t even clear if the name belonged to some Romance language. Of course the name couldn’t be Trisolaran, since the Trisolaran language wasn’t spoken or expressed by sounds.
Scholars tried to spell the name in all the world’s known languages, to seek help from all fields, to search for it on the web and in all kinds of specialized databases, but nothing came of these efforts. Before this name, the most brilliant minds of humanity in various fields of study stood helpless.
The leaders of the various teams asked Cheng Xin: Was she sure she had remembered the pronunciation of the name correctly? Cheng Xin was unequivocal: She had noticed right away how strange the name sounded, and paid special attention to memorize it correctly. The name also appeared repeatedly in the story, and it was impossible that she had gotten it wrong.
* * *
The IDC’s analysis made no progress. Such difficulties were not entirely unexpected: If humans could easily decipher Yun Tianming’s stories for strategic intelligence, then so could the Trisolarans. The real intelligence information must be hidden deep. The experts in the various teams were exhausted, and the static electricity and acrid odor in the sophon-free room made them irritable. Each team was divided into multiple factions who argued over competing interpretations without reaching consensus.
As the decipherment effort reached an impasse, doubts began to creep into the hearts of those in the IDC.
Did the three stories really contain meaningful strategic intelligence? The suspicion was mainly directed at Yun Tianming himself. After all, he had only an undergraduate degree dating back to the Common Era, which meant that he had less knowledge than a contemporary middle school student. In his pre-mission life, he had mostly worked on routine, entry-level tasks, without any experience in conducting advanced scientific research or reasoning about novel fundamental scientific theories. Of course, after he was captured and cloned, he had plenty of opportunity for study, but the experts were doubtful whether he could understand the supertechnology of the Trisolarans, especially the basic theories that supported such technology.
Even worse, as the days went on, some unavoidable complexities began to creep into the IDC. At first, everyone strove to solve the riddle for the future of humanity as a whole. But later, various political forces and interest groups began to make themselves felt: Fleet International, the UN, the various nation states, multinational corporations, religions, and so on. All of these groups tried to interpret the stories according to their own political aims and self-interest, and treated the work of interpretation as just another opportunity to disseminate propaganda about their brand of politics. The stories turned into empty baskets capable of carrying any goods. The work of the IDC changed, and the debates between the various factions became politicized and utilitarian, which lowered morale.
But the lack of progress by the IDC also had a positive effect: It forced people to give up the illusion of a miracle. In actuality, the public had long ago stopped believing in the miracle, since they didn’t even know of the existence of Yun Tianming’s message. The political pressure exerted by the populace forced Fleet International and the UN to shift their attention from Yun Tianming’s message to searching for ways to preserve Earth civilization based on known technologies.
Viewed at the scale of the cosmos, the destruction of Trisolaris had occurred right next door, giving humans a chance to observe in detail the complete process of the extinction of a star and to gather massive amounts of data. Since the star that was destroyed was very similar to the Sun in terms of mass and position in the main sequence, humanity could potentially create a precise mathematical model of the catastrophic failure of the Sun in the event of a dark forest strike. As a matter of fact, this research had begun in earnest as soon as those on Earth had witnessed the end of Trisolaris. The direct result of research in this direction was the Bunker Project, which took the place of Yun Tianming’s message as the focus of international attention.
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