Aliens / as if / Ideology / Kitsch / Philosophy / Politics / Science / Sounds / Tsish

A postcard from S/2004 N1


I have received an electronic picture postcard from Tsish, my alien friend from outer space. Let me share with you what he has written:

You know it is my job to observe planet earth and write reports about its inhabitants. But after working a lot, I needed some time off. To get a little distance from the affairs on your planet, I am currently in orbit around Neptune. This is a boring planet, a large blue ball with super-fast storms, beautiful initially but by far not as interesting as Jupiter, its rings are faint and its moons are just big dirty snow balls. So this is the ideal place for some holidays. As far as I understand the concept of holidays, as you earthlings have it, you go to some place that is really boring (like a beach with a lot of other people) to do nothing. Around Neptune, I am quite alone and there is nothing to do, so that seemed to me the ideal holiday location. To come here to do nothing for a couple of weeks, lying around on the sun deck of the ship under the transparent dome and drinking some nice flrx. At least, that was the plan.

After a short while, I felt so bored that I decided to take out the distance learning course about advanced asifology that I had ordered some time ago. Distance learning is the right expression here because the distance to the institution that produced the course is several light years. I opened the shrink-wrapped pack (I don’t know why every civilization has to invent shrink wrap, everybody hates it, but it is universal) and expected some books, but the box contained a little data storage medium. The instructions read: “Insert into your asifomat’s extension slot and follow instructions.”

I hate it when my asifomat is tampered with by some foreign software over which I have no control, but I trusted the institution that issued the course. I still don’t know if that was a mistake. “Welcome to ‘Advanced Asifology, Part II: Ideologies’, A Virtual Course by The Real Distance Learning Institute – Press OK to install”. So I pressed “OK”.

Of course, I had to accept the license agreement (it was far too long to read it but maybe reading it would have spared me some trouble). After some time, a green light on my asifomat that had not been there before started shining. “Lesson 1 ready” I read. I pressed OK again.

Suddenly, the sensors of my ship started producing some strange signals. It looked like some very large object had materialized only a short distance away. Well, my ship is virtual, produced by my asifomat, so I figured that the software just installed could manipulate the sensors of my ship and also create some new structures outside it in space. When I tuned the sensors on that object, it turned out to be something like a big space station or an asteroid covered with groups of buildings. Large letters on the side declared: “S/2004 N1“. Now, I had just read that S/2004 N1 was a newly discovered moon of Neptune and scientists wondered how it had managed to be where it was. I checked my instruments again. The object I saw was indeed S/2004 N1. Now, a newly discovered moon will normally not have its name written on it for telescopes to see it, so this was obviously the result of my as-if-ware manipulating my sensors. And indeed, on some corner of that “moon” I could read “All rights reserved, The Real Distance Learning Institute” plus some number, probably a year in whichever calendar. So the solution to the riddle of how that moon got there was that it was an artificial (and virtual) structure from my distance learning course.

My sensors now told me something very alarming: I had been caught by some tractor beam and was being drawn towards that object. Now, everybody knows that tractor beams are physically impossible and only exist in science fiction, but yes, asifomatic technology makes it possible to have virtual tractor beams acting on virtual space ships, so what could I do? A large whole opened in the surface beneath me and my ship was drawn into something like a giant hangar.

When I ordered the course, I had expected some theoretical and insightful books, not something like this. I was not sure if I really liked it. My ship approached the “gate”. When I passed it, I could feel the prickling feeling of passing the walls of a number of as-if-bubbles. The red light of my asifoscope’s dogma-detector lit up. I knew now I had to be extremely cautious.

The door of my space ship opened. I was obviously expected to leave the ship. Holding my asifoscope in one of my hands and the asifomat in another, I walked down the ramp. I was standing in a large hall. But before I could continue looking around, everything around me blurred, as if somebody had unfocused a camera. A screen appeared in mid-air, displaying: “End of lesson one. Please describe the structure of the as-if-constructions just encountered”. There was a blinking cursor and a hovering keyboard in front of me. I sighed: A learning program with embedded tests. I looked on my asifoscope and started writing.

The asifoscope showed me the interesting structure of the nested as-if-bubbles. The out-most one was from the course itself. Outside it, you would only see my space-ship, inside it, all the objects existed that belonged to the course.

The bubble forming the next layer was strange because it was pierced. I remember what I had learned about such bubbles in my university time. They represent ideological systems that have actually collapsed. For an as-if-bubble to be pierced means that the virtual objects inside it do not exist because the theory that the bubble represents has been ruled out by reality.

Inside that bubble, however, was another bubble. I had passed its wall already. From inside it, the pierced bubble seemed still intact. So although the theory the outer bubble represented was already dead, people here still pretended it was alive and kicking. From my university times, I remembered this type of bubble was called a denialism-bubble. I had spotted some bubbles of this type on Earth already but had not had the time so far to check them out in detail.

Inside that was another bubble. When I had passed its wall, it became invisible together with the other ones. The hallmark of an ideology: an as-if-construction pretending not be as-if, but real, so it is invisible from the inside!

I described this structure in a short essay. “95 of 100 Points” was the result. Had I overlooked anything? I scrolled the screen of my asifoscope. Indeed, there was another as-if-bubble outside the other ones. I knew this one already. It is the one that creates my ship and, alas, myself. I am virtual. I hate to think about that, so I had scrolled it out of the visible part of the screen. That had cost me 5 points here. Pah, I would still pass this course! The screen and keyboard disappeared and the hall came back into focus.

The walls of the hall where covered with violet pictures of a rising star and some aliens with raised hands, holding tools and weapons. I looked through the database and could finally identify which type of aliens they were. There was some xeno-psychological information and I could figure out that they were showing heroic-pathetic-happy body postures and expressions (visible from the position and angle of their antennas, the color of their eyes and some other features). The asifoscope had obviously come to a similar conclusion. On the screen, it identified these pictures as “X-istic realism, heroic kitsch (where X is any ideology)”.

Some aliens now came towards me. One of them spoke to me, in some strange sounding chirps. My translator, after a few moments, said: “In the name of the Great Archon of S/2004 N1, I arrest you for illegal entry of our territory”.

“But I was drawn inside here against my will”. I tried to reply. My translator chirped.

“You entered our territorial sphere, so you are arrested”.

“I…”. “Just shut up. You are obviously a spy. You will be brought to the immigration office”.

I noticed that this alien, obviously a soldier or police-person or something like that, did not look as healthy as the people on the pictures. All three of them had a yellowish color and looked quite thin. From what I knew about this type of alien, that where signs of bad nutrition.

I was put into a small cell. “That is the immigration office”, the officer said. Since you are a spy, you will immediately be put into a work camp. You will work in the rocket motor section. A door behind me closed.

The asifoscope was obviously working hard to analyze the situation. “violently enforced pseudo-bubbles” I could read on the screen. It took me some time to recall what that was. The people who had brought me here knew perfectly well that the ideology of the “Great Archon” was wrong. Each of them, individually, knew. But nobody dared say anything. Everybody complied, because otherwise, they would be punished. The as-if-construction was maintained to the outside, although nobody believed in it again. Everybody was enclosed in two nested bubbles. The outer one represented the pretense that everything was O.K. while inside the inner one, people knew the truth.

The door in front of me started moving, and behind it, I could see several people doing strange things. However, suddenly, the movements froze in mid-air, everything blurred and the hovering screen reappeared in front of me again. I really did not feel like answering test questions now. Fortunately, I discovered there was a “skip now, answer later”-option and I took that one.

The screen disappeared and the door swung open completely. People continued moving. I was in a large hall with wooden benches at the side. Some people where lying there, sleeping or playing something (it looked similar to a card game). They were just wearing dirty underwear or something like that. The room was hot and stinking.

In the middle of it there was a large metal structure, looking remotely like a machine but not making much sense to me. Integrated inside it there where seats in which people where sitting, noisily blowing out air and making a fizzling sound this way.

I thought it was better for me to change my appearance. I quickly instructed my asifomat to hide me in some bubble so that from the outside, I would look like one of them. Somebody came to me. “Aah, a new inmate! Just empty your pockets and give me everything you have.” Thanks to that bubble around me, I could now easily interpret his expression as some not so friendly grin.

I turned my virtual pockets out and showed him that I had nothing (my asifomate and asifoscope where, of course, hidden inside my bubble). “Damn those guards”, he said, and left, cursing. “I’ll deal with you later.”

“Be careful with that one” somebody else said to me behind me. “Welcome, so to speak”.

“What is this?” I asked, pointing around me.

“Where are you coming from, that you don’t know? This is one of the labor camps. Our whole space ship consists of camps, mainly”.

“And what is that thing in the middle?” I asked.

“That is the ship’s rocket motor”, he answered.

“The rocket motor?” I asked, in astonishment.

“Of course” he said, “don’t you hear the noise it is making? We have to make sure the jet engine is running.”

“But the people make this noise with their breathing openings, they just blow out air” I said.

“Shush, you must not say that” he whispered, looking around himself scarily. “There are informers around here. If you say that, yo’ll get into the detention unit. So, you understand, our job is to keep the jet engine running. When it is your shift, you sit there and contribute to it. Outside, they must be able to hear the jet engine’s sound. Look at the big microphone up there. The noise is transferred to the office of the Great Archon. We are moving, forward, forward, forward! Our job is to keep the engine running. Have you understood that now?”

I felt a shudder. “That does not make any sense. We are just in orbit around Neptune!” If this “ship” does not have a real engine, I thought by myself, the question how this moon got to this orbit remained unsolved.

“Shush, I know, but don’t say that so loudly”. He said. “I don’t know if you are an informer yourself, but it is my job to explain the ‘technology’ to any newcomer. Let me show you”.

“Is it not very exhausting to make this sound all the time?” I asked.

“Of course it is. What do you think a labor camp is for? But if you don’t do it, you receive no food.” He taxed me, than he obviously decided he could trust me. “Let me show you something” he said. He got to the side of the room and took a little object out of a whole in the wall.

“Take this” he said.

“What is that?”

“Just press that little button” he said. When I did, the device started making the same fizzing noise. “You see,” he whispered, “our work is to pretend that there is a rocket motor and that it is running. With this device, you can pretend to pretend that the rocked motor is running. But don’t tell anybody. It is your first shift now. Sit here and start making noise”.

I sat down. The seat was uncomfortable because it was not adapted to my real anatomy, but it was not so terrible. I switched the little device on. Its noise merged with the noise of the other people.

Imagine you are sitting in your car on the highway, in the middle of everybody else, and everybody is making motor noises like a little boy playing car, and everybody is pretending to drive. Forward, forward, forward. All of my antennas where vibrating in horror.

Initially, I could not make out which of my comrades also had a cheating device, but I soon found out. There was a screen in front of me, reading “Increase noise level by 5 percent! The production target has been increased”. As I could see, my cheating device had a volume button. I turned it. As I could see, most people also made some hand movement at the same time. Obviously, most of them had such a device. The noise became louder.

A big screen on one of the walls lit up. We could see young people marching; there antennas wiggling smilingly, chirping a heroic song, all of them happy, well fed and in clean uniforms, while a violet star was glitteringly rising over the horizon. Then, the “Great Archon” became visible and started a speech. I thought I knew quite well what he was going to say, at least in principle. I looked down at my asifomat. There was the escape button! I had enough of this. I pressed the button.

A screen appeared in mid-air before me: “Do you really want to leave this lesson? Cancel, Confirm”.

Without hesitation, I pressed “Confirm”. The next moment, I found myself sitting in my ship’s cockpit again. The little storage device popped out of the extension slot of the asifomat. I pulled it out and put it back into its box. I put the box back on the shelf.

I have decided I don’t like this type of learning material. I am a bit conservative, I think, I like my good old theoretical books. The opposite of “good” is “well meant”.

I am now circling around Neptune. How wonderfully boring it is, with its blue, stormy atmosphere! S/2004 N1 is a little moon again, a potato-shaped dirty snow ball. The puzzle of how it got there is still unsolved. Let it remain unsolved, scientists love to solve puzzles. I will spend the next few weeks here doing nothing and enjoying my boredom. I am beginning now to understand the terrestrial concept of holidays!

(The picture is from

3 thoughts on “A postcard from S/2004 N1

    • Be careful, being in a GULAG is no fun! 🙂 I recommend “Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum, in case you want to know the details. A really interesting history book. In fact many of the Sowjet rocket scientists where prisoners in special science/engineering camps. So think twice 🙂
      There are some “courses” that go into this direction (called ego-shooters) but you only learn to shoot space monsters or things like that. Some people spend extremely much time to become perfect in that art, for whatever reason. 🙂
      The potential of learning useful things this way is not used, but probably developing such courses in reality would be too expensive. So the only way to learning remains hard work 😦

  1. Pingback: At the Edge of the Universe | The Asifoscope

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