A Fable of Science and Politics

In the time of the Ro­man Em­pire, civic life was di­vided be­tween the Blue and Green fac­tions. The Blues and the Greens mur­dered each other in sin­gle com­bats, in am­bushes, in group bat­tles, in ri­ots. Pro­copius said of the war­ring fac­tions: “So there grows up in them against their fel­low men a hos­tility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or dis­ap­pear, for it gives place nei­ther to the ties of mar­riage nor of re­la­tion­ship nor of friend­ship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with re­spect to these col­ors be broth­ers or any other kin.”1 Ed­ward Gib­bon wrote: “The sup­port of a fac­tion be­came nec­es­sary to ev­ery can­di­date for civil or ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal hon­ors.”2

Who were the Blues and the Greens? They were sports fans—the par­ti­sans of the blue and green char­iot-rac­ing teams.

Imag­ine a fu­ture so­ciety that flees into a vast un­der­ground net­work of cav­erns and seals the en­trances. We shall not spec­ify whether they flee dis­ease, war, or ra­di­a­tion; we shall sup­pose the first Un­der­grounders man­age to grow food, find wa­ter, re­cy­cle air, make light, and sur­vive, and that their de­scen­dants thrive and even­tu­ally form cities. Of the world above, there are only leg­ends writ­ten on scraps of pa­per; and one of these scraps of pa­per de­scribes the sky, a vast open space of air above a great un­bounded floor. The sky is cerulean in color, and con­tains strange float­ing ob­jects like enor­mous tufts of white cot­ton. But the mean­ing of the word “cerulean” is con­tro­ver­sial; some say that it refers to the color known as “blue,” and oth­ers that it refers to the color known as “green.”

In the early days of the un­der­ground so­ciety, the Blues and Greens con­tested with open vi­o­lence; but to­day, truce pre­vails—a peace born of a grow­ing sense of pointless­ness. Cul­tural mores have changed; there is a large and pros­per­ous mid­dle class that has grown up with effec­tive law en­force­ment and be­come un­ac­cus­tomed to vi­o­lence. The schools provide some sense of his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive; how long the bat­tle be­tween Blues and Greens con­tinued, how many died, how lit­tle changed as a re­sult. Minds have been laid open to the strange new philos­o­phy that peo­ple are peo­ple, whether they be Blue or Green.

The con­flict has not van­ished. So­ciety is still di­vided along Blue and Green lines, and there is a “Blue” and a “Green” po­si­tion on al­most ev­ery con­tem­po­rary is­sue of poli­ti­cal or cul­tural im­por­tance. The Blues ad­vo­cate taxes on in­di­vi­d­ual in­comes, the Greens ad­vo­cate taxes on mer­chant sales; the Blues ad­vo­cate stric­ter mar­riage laws, while the Greens wish to make it eas­ier to ob­tain di­vorces; the Blues take their sup­port from the heart of city ar­eas, while the more dis­tant farm­ers and wa­tersel­lers tend to be Green; the Blues be­lieve that the Earth is a huge spher­i­cal rock at the cen­ter of the uni­verse, the Greens that it is a huge flat rock cir­cling some other ob­ject called a Sun. Not ev­ery Blue or ev­ery Green cit­i­zen takes the “Blue” or “Green” po­si­tion on ev­ery is­sue, but it would be rare to find a city mer­chant who be­lieved the sky was blue, and yet ad­vo­cated an in­di­vi­d­ual tax and freer mar­riage laws.

The Un­der­ground is still po­larized; an un­easy peace. A few folk gen­uinely think that Blues and Greens should be friends, and it is now com­mon for a Green to pa­tron­ize a Blue shop, or for a Blue to visit a Green tav­ern. Yet from a truce origi­nally born of ex­haus­tion, there is a quietly grow­ing spirit of tol­er­ance, even friend­ship.

One day, the Un­der­ground is shaken by a minor earth­quake. A sight­see­ing party of six is caught in the trem­blor while look­ing at the ru­ins of an­cient dwellings in the up­per cav­erns. They feel the brief move­ment of the rock un­der their feet, and one of the tourists trips and scrapes her knee. The party de­cides to turn back, fear­ing fur­ther earth­quakes. On their way back, one per­son catches a whiff of some­thing strange in the air, a scent com­ing from a long-un­used pas­sage­way. Ig­nor­ing the well-meant cau­tions of fel­low trav­el­lers, the per­son bor­rows a pow­ered lan­tern and walks into the pas­sage­way. The stone cor­ri­dor wends up­ward . . . and up­ward . . . and fi­nally ter­mi­nates in a hole carved out of the world, a place where all stone ends. Dis­tance, end­less dis­tance, stretches away into for­ever; a gath­er­ing space to hold a thou­sand cities. Un­i­mag­in­ably far above, too bright to look at di­rectly, a sear­ing spark casts light over all visi­ble space, the naked fila­ment of some huge light bulb. In the air, hang­ing un­sup­ported, are great in­com­pre­hen­si­ble tufts of white cot­ton. And the vast glow­ing ceiling above . . . the color . . . is . . .

Now his­tory branches, de­pend­ing on which mem­ber of the sight­see­ing party de­cided to fol­low the cor­ri­dor to the sur­face.

Aditya the Blue stood un­der the blue for­ever, and slowly smiled. It was not a pleas­ant smile. There was ha­tred, and wounded pride; it re­called ev­ery ar­gu­ment she’d ever had with a Green, ev­ery ri­valry, ev­ery con­tested pro­mo­tion. “You were right all along,”the sky whispered down at her, “and now you can prove it.”For a mo­ment Aditya stood there, ab­sorb­ing the mes­sage, glo­ry­ing in it, and then she turned back to the stone cor­ri­dor to tell the world. As Aditya walked, she curled her hand into a clenched fist. “The truce,” she said, “is over.”

Bar­ron the Green stared un­com­pre­hend­ingly at the chaos of col­ors for long sec­onds. Un­der­stand­ing, when it came, drove a pile-driver punch into the pit of his stom­ach. Tears started from his eyes. Bar­ron thought of the Mas­sacre of Cathay, where a Blue army had mas­sa­cred ev­ery cit­i­zen of a Green town, in­clud­ing chil­dren; he thought of the an­cient Blue gen­eral, An­nas Rell, who had de­clared Greens “a pit of dis­ease; a pestilence to be cleansed”; he thought of the glints of ha­tred he’d seen in Blue eyes and some­thing in­side him cracked. “How can you be on their side?”Bar­ron screamed at the sky, and then he be­gan to weep; be­cause he knew, stand­ing un­der the malev­olent blue glare, that the uni­verse had always been a place of evil.

Charles the Blue con­sid­ered the blue ceiling, taken aback. As a pro­fes­sor in a mixed col­lege, Charles had care­fully em­pha­sized that Blue and Green view­points were equally valid and de­serv­ing of tol­er­ance: The sky was a meta­phys­i­cal con­struct, and cerulean a color that could be seen in more than one way. Briefly, Charles won­dered whether a Green, stand­ing in this place, might not see a green ceiling above; or if per­haps the ceiling would be green at this time to­mor­row; but he couldn’t stake the con­tinued sur­vival of civ­i­liza­tion on that. This was merely a nat­u­ral phe­nomenon of some kind, hav­ing noth­ing to do with moral philos­o­phy or so­ciety . . . but one that might be read­ily mis­in­ter­preted, Charles feared. Charles sighed, and turned to go back into the cor­ri­dor. To­mor­row he would come back alone and block off the pas­sage­way.

Daria, once Green, tried to breathe amid the ashes of her world. I will not flinch, Daria told her­self, I will not look away. She had been Green all her life, and now she must be Blue. Her friends, her fam­ily, would turn from her. Speak the truth, even if your voice trem­bles, her father had told her; but her father was dead now, and her mother would never un­der­stand. Daria stared down the calm blue gaze of the sky, try­ing to ac­cept it, and fi­nally her breath­ing quietened. I was wrong, she said to her­self mourn­fully; it’s not so com­pli­cated, af­ter all. She would find new friends, and per­haps her fam­ily would for­give her . . . or, she won­dered with a tinge of hope, rise to this same test, stand­ing un­der­neath this same sky? “The sky is blue,” Daria said ex­per­i­men­tally, and noth­ing dire hap­pened to her; but she couldn’t bring her­self to smile. Daria the Blue ex­haled sadly, and went back into the world, won­der­ing what she would say.

Ed­din, a Green, looked up at the blue sky and be­gan to laugh cyn­i­cally. The course of his world’s his­tory came clear at last; even he couldn’t be­lieve they’d been such fools. “Stupid,” Ed­din said, “stupid, stupid,and all the time it was right here.” Ha­tred, mur­ders, wars, and all along it was just a thing­some­where, that some­one had writ­ten about like they’d write about any other thing. No po­etry, no beauty, noth­ing that any sane per­son would ever care about, just one pointless thing that had been blown out of all pro­por­tion. Ed­din leaned against the cave mouth wearily, try­ing to think of a way to pre­vent this in­for­ma­tion from blow­ing up the world, and won­der­ing if they didn’t all de­serve it.

Fer­ris gasped in­vol­un­tar­ily, frozen by sheer won­der and delight. Fer­ris’s eyes darted hun­grily about, fas­ten­ing on each sight in turn be­fore mov­ing re­luc­tantly to the next; the blue sky, the white clouds, the vast un­known out­side, full of places and things (and peo­ple?) that no Un­der­grounder had ever seen. “Oh, so that’swhat color it is,” Fer­ris said, and went ex­plor­ing.

1 Pro­copius, His­tory of the Wars, ed. Henry B. Dew­ing, vol. 1 (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 1914).

2 Ed­ward Gib­bon, The His­tory of the De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire , vol. 4 (J. & J. Harper, 1829).