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.” Ed­ward Gib­bon wrote: “The sup­port of a fac­tion be­came ne­ces­sary to every can­did­ate for civil or ec­cle­si­ast­ical hon­ors.”

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 in­com­pre­hend­ingly 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 thing some­where, 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’s what color it is,” Fer­ris said, and went ex­plor­ing.