The Long Utopia – Stan Berg’s sermon (from Chapter 48)

On the very day the Next came for him, in fact, Stan was preaching. Then again, most days he was preaching now, since coming back from the Grange with a head full of new ideas.

In the heavy afternoon sunlight of a late spring day, in this footprint of Miami – at the foot of the space elevator, an eggshell-blue thread that connected Earth to sky – Stan sat on the roof of a low concrete bunker and looked out over his fellow stalk jacks, a hundred or so of them gathered before him. And the crowd was in turn being surveyed by uniformed state cops, company security guys, and presumably by other agencies undercover. Ready for the trouble which seemed to be attracted to Stan.

And Stan Berg said, ‘Apprehend. Be humble in the face of the universe. Do good. Eleven words. Three rules. There endeth the sermon for the day, unless you want to hear a few lame gags …’ Laughter.

Even Rocky, at the back of the group, could hear him clearly. Aged just nineteen, Stan had developed a way of projecting his voice.

This was a meal break before the evening shift, and Stan had attracted a good crowd. Stan himself looked totally at ease as he took a bite of his sandwich, and a sip of alcohol-free beer. He said now, ‘You know, I never did like numbers much.’

That raised a chuckle from his fellow workers, who knew Stan was one of the brightest in the pool and had forever been turning down training chances in favour of staying with these people, the stalk jacks, his friends – friends who were increasingly his followers.

‘Oh, I was good at the numbers. Wouldn’t deny that. I could count to three before I was, well, three.’ He pulled a face. ‘Which confused me. But round about then I figured that I mostly didn’t need the numbers that go much beyond three. There was only one of me, two of my parents, together we made three.’ He looked down at his lunch. ‘I got three sandwiches here, three beers. I guess I’ll be needing the john three times during the shift.’ He looked around with a grin. ‘And I’ve been figuring, if I was to ask somebody smart, I mean really smart, what life was all about – how I was to live it – I think I’d measure that smartness, not by how many words he or she spouted, not by how many books he or she had written—’

He picked up a book now from his pile of stuff. Rocky recognized a battered old copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. Stan threw it out into the crowd, and people jumped to grab it.

‘No,’ Stan said, ‘I’d think they were smarter the more they boiled down their wisdom. The closer they got to the number three – to three simple rules of thumb, if you like. Who needs more than three? Such as.’ He held up his left thumb. ‘Rule of the First Thumb. Apprehend. Which is a nice word if you roll it around your mouth. Apprehend.

‘It doesn’t just mean “understand”, although it includes that meaning, fully. It means you should face the truth of the world – not let yourself be fooled by how you’d like it to be. You should try to be fully aware of the richness of reality, of the mixed-up complexity of all the processes going right back to the birth of the stars that have produced you and the world you live in, and this very moment …

‘And you need to apprehend other people too, as best you can.’ He gazed out at upturned faces. ‘Even those close to you. Especially those close to you. “You cannot love what you do not know.” That’s from an old religious teacher, some saint or other. That makes sense, doesn’t it?’

‘I grok you!’ somebody called, to general laughter.

Stan grinned back. ‘That’s catchier. And here’s another way of saying this. Be here now. Which is the title of an Oasis album.’

One of the senior engineers, an elderly British guy, raised a solitary whoop in response. ‘Gone but not forgotten, Stan!’

Be here now. If you have a god, then consider that every moment you’re alive and aware in this glorious world is a moment of awareness of that god – and to live in that moment is the only way you can be aware of your god …’

‘And you know what I’d expect this smart person to say to me next?’ He stuck up the thumb on his right hand now. ‘The Rule of the Second Thumb. Be humble in the face of the universe. Of course if they were that humble they wouldn’t be laying down the law in the first place. Be humble. You got to be aware of your limits, right?’ He glanced up at the space elevator. ‘We all have meaningful jobs on this thing. But you do what you can do. Unless you can solve fourth-order differential equations you ain’t going to be much help in the design office, are you?’

‘I bet you could solve them, Stan,’ called up one of the buddies.

Stan shrugged. ‘Not beyond third-order. I told you I can only count up to three.’


Be humble. Some of you are paramedics, first responders. The first thing they teach any medic is do no harm. Isn’t that right? Help if you can, but at least don’t make things worse in your ignorance. But to accept that limit you need to know your ignorance. Here we are building this mighty monument. We know what it’s designed to do, we’ve all seen the projections and the business models: the fruits of the sky brought down to this Earth. But none of us knows what effects it’s going to have, not in the short, medium or long term. We live in a reality that’s not just complicated, it’s chaotic. Unstable. So, be humble in the face of the universe. Know the limits of what you can achieve, what you can know. And in a chaotic universe, at least don’t snafu stuff even more than it already is snafued …’ He raised an arm and mimed flicking his middle finger at the cable. ‘You know, I have this fantasy that if I touch this big guitar string just right I could set up this huge oscillation … That’s one small pluck for a man, one giant twang for mankind—’ Hastily he stuck his hand in his pocket. ‘Best not take the chance!’

More laughter.

‘But you see,’ Stan said now, ‘I would want to ask this hypothetical person advising me to be a bit more active. Apprehend. Be humble in the face of the universe. Well, I could sit on my butt and manage that.’ He glanced around, as if in surprise to find himself still on his concrete plinth. ‘In fact I am sitting on my butt, but that’s by the bye. I think they’d sum up the rest something like this, with the Rule of the Third Thumb.’ He looked down at his own two thumbs. ‘Now, you see, I haven’t really thought this through. Because I ain’t got a third thumb.’ He looked down at his crotch, innocently. ‘Of course I could improvise.’

‘OK,’ Stan said, with a grin. ‘Take the third thumb as read. What’s important is the rule, which is: Do good.’ He looked down at his mother now. ‘That sounds a little bland, right? Kind of Mom-and-Pop instructions for when you’re about seven years old. But the question is, howshould you do good? After all the right path isn’t always clear – everybody knows that, you face dilemmas about that every day.

‘Well, if you’re faced with some situation, some dilemma, remember the other rules of thumb.Apprehend. Try to understand the problem, the people involved, as much as you can. Be humble in the face of the universe. Make sure you don’t screw things up further, at least.

‘But you can do more. Do the good that’s in front of you. If somebody’s hurting, or about to be hurt, try to save them. Figure out who’s vulnerable, in any situation. Who’s got no power, no choice? It’s a good bet that you won’t go wrong if you help them. Even so, there may be situations where that’s not clear. So there’s a much older rule I came across, which some call – or versions of it – the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. Would you want this done to you? Would you want to be saved from this situation? If so, do it. If you’re not sure, don’t.’ He shrugged. ‘You’re not going to get it right every time. It’s impossible to get it right every time. We live in a chaotic universe, remember? Be humble. But I figure it’s worth trying to get it more right than wrong …’

People started asking questions now.

Melinda sighed, listening absently. ‘Hear that? Some of them call him “Master”. Others are writing it all down. I think we just heard the Sermon Under the Beanstalk, delivered by a messiah called Stan.’

Martha almost snarled, ‘He’s just a kid.’

Roberta said gently, ‘With respect, Mrs Berg, I don’t think that’s fair. His message is simple but contains great depth – a depth which I am sure will be revealed by contemplation and exegesis in the months and years to come. Apprehend: one could take that as a mandate to achieve full awareness, indeed full self-awareness. To master the passions, for example – not to eliminate them, but to ensure they don’t control you. Be humble in the face of the universe: hidden in there may be a mandate for our management of the world, of all the worlds. We should embrace diversity, for example, for we can never know the consequences of our interventions in a maximally complex system like a biosphere.’ She glanced at Martha. ‘You’ve said you are not religious. You did not raise Stan in that tradition. His sermon sounded free of religion, humanist, perhaps even atheist. Yet buried deep in its implications there was even a guide as to how to approach God – any god, or gods. Consider that every moment you’re alive and aware in this glorious world is a moment of awareness of that god – and to live in that moment is the only way you can be aware of your god … That’s the basis of a creed that even the Next could embrace. And all of it packed into just eleven words, delivered by a man just nineteen years old.’ With liquid-bright eyes she looked around, at the crowd, the young man on the plinth. ‘This is not a trivial moment. This is the birth of a movement. Potentially a religion. A new force in the affairs of humanity.’

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – from the foreword

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

This is not her story.

But it is the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.

It is also the story of a book, a book called The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or even heard of by any Earthman.

Nevertheless, a wholly remarkable book.

In fact it was probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – of which no Earthman had ever heard either.

Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one – more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-three More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover. But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.

It begins with a house.