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J R Soc Med. 2004 March; 97(3): 143–144.
PMCID: PMC1079331

A Martian sends another postcard home

Craig Raine's 1979 poem A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, with its evocative imagery, has given birth to a new genre of writing known as the Martian school. What follows is a medical variant. The original is much discussed on the Internet, where it can be found, for example, at [www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/poetry/poems/martian.html].

...they cause the eyes to melt or the body to shriek without pain—Craig Raine, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

All in all, they are not much changed.

Since I last thought to you, there are many more of them. Even the ozone window has not (so far) affected their surprising fecundity. The loud ones, the makers of television, have grown larger. The rest are small and quiet, and rarely seen. It is possible that they are ingested by the television-makers: you will recall that I modestly proposed a similar solution when I was last here, though (like my scheme for controlled nuclear fusion involving cucumbers) it may not have been adopted.

I have finally seen inside one, and it is as our scouts (the ones in Florence and Padua) transmitted. Each one has a clock; when it stops, they always finish, and I have not seen one start again. The carapace is a delicate crystal but they do not really care about it; after it breaks, it makes itself new again. Often they break it on purpose. They care about the jellies inside, particularly the one at the front end. I have not yet discovered how it works, and they still do not seem to know. They have a new name for it: the babbage. They have even learned how to take its picture, by bending the dance of protons, in a great maxwell that roars. Some of them want to make their own babbages, but I think this must be harder than it looks, because the ones they make (of sand and glass) can only count to two, and their conversation is limited.

Now I want to think to you about the galens; for of all the television-makers, they have changed the least, though it is true that they no longer put cloves at their front ends. I have still not discovered what they do. The galens have ever caused others' eyes to melt and their bodies to shriek, with what they call pain; but they have no other discernible consequences. If ever one of their race finishes, a galen is sure to be close by, but it makes no obvious difference; whereas, when one begins, there is frequently no galen to be sensed, and that also makes no difference.

My first hypothesis was that the galens might be engineers, but this was disproved during my third visit, at the time of the first Great Finishing, in the place they call Bartholomew's. My next hypothesis was that they might be scientists; but they rarely perform experiments, for above all things they admire the deeds of the galens that have gone before them. They are not priests, for they do not reverence the Water—their word for the Holy Substance, Oxygen Dihydride, Which is as common in their world as rust is in ours. (Why they are so careless of this, their greatest Treasure, is an impenetrable mystery; but it is the way of all the television-makers. There was the galen Snowjohn that lived in Bartholomew's in the time before television, who did love the Water and taught them to purify It; but the television-makers paid him no heed, they have filled It with their excrement and other abominations, until It breeds plagues, and they have tried to own It; truly, a barbarous race.)

Nor can the galens accurately be called artisans; most of their machines, like the leeuwenhoek and latterly, the hounsfield, have been given to them. The first machine they themselves made was the laennec, which grows from their front ends and makes a booming sound when it walks. They all keep a laennec now; but a good many laennecs must be lame, for I have never seen them walk. Also, they have learned how to make a perfect stillness, much better than their old sort of stillness that came in a bottle or a flower. This stillness is brought by volatile hydrocarbons, and it is very like their finishing, except it begins with a kiss, and usually the one who is kissed starts again after. The galens are thanked for the stillness with a jelly or perhaps a piece of carapace.

They have untwisted the sugars of their own histories. You will recall how surprised we were when they first deciphered the crickwatson. Now they have finished making their own Book of Spirals, and it is read in all their lands; but their understanding is still very imperfect. They have guessed the beginnings of the story; and they have dreamed many endings, though not even we know which is true. They have also started to recombine the sugars—so far, only in the old forms. As they did before when they broke their first atoms, some among them have found gods to forbid it.

They have new plagues. First among these is the African one; it has made another Great Finishing through the lands where they began, before we first visited. It is not like the old Asian one, that the rats brought to Bartholomew's; this one their blood brings. They have had plagues before that liked their young or their old, their males or their females, but this one loves all of them equally well. It grows slowly, and the other plagues are its servants. I remember once before, when the plagues came, one of the galens that lived on the edge of the Big Water found a sort of plague (the jenner) that broke the power of the others when it was scratched into the carapace. This plague was grown for them by a race of ungulate herbivores (along with the rats, this is one of the several races that they now serve). In a later time, another one of these Rain-loving galens left a window ajar, and a mould grew in his dusty laboratory. The Rain-lovers grew the mould in jars, and later they ate it in all their lands. And for a while, these moulds did contain the plagues of the later days. But the plagues have changed again; the dust has been all swept up; and all the windows are closed. The galens of the television-makers have turned their minds from the new Great Finishing.

They scarcely guess it, but their race is growing older; and I think the galens, or perhaps their moulds, may have something to do with it. This has allowed me to observe more of their life cycle. Their young are adored like their gods but more widely emulated; most of the adult forms seem to be slowly pupating back to the larval state, a process which I believe is unique among all the life-forms known to us. But only the oldest of their old ones ever complete the metamorphosis: finally they stop making sounds, and migrate to their ancestral spawning grounds. What happens to them there is a great mystery. Along with the Sargasso eels, they are the only species of this world whose reproductive process I have never directly observed; yet much of their life cycle is consumed in preparation for it (you will remember those gold disks we retrieved from their spacecraft: most of the fractal noises are in fact mating calls).

Nor do I understand their finishing. Among us, there is nothing like it. In the older days before television, several of them proposed their own hypotheses; but the galens have shown little interest in any of them, and these theories remain untested. Their finishing seems rather like the thing they call pain, yet more popular. It has unfortunate consequences. Because of it, none of them can ever visit the stars; and none of them will ever watch an Unfolding. Some of the galens have guessed the truth: that theirs is a race of diverting baubles strung on the endless thread of the crickwatson. These galens want to embrace the finishing; but they seem unhappy, and they make the other galens unhappy, too. Indeed, among the television-makers—in fact, in all the places of their world—the galens are not loved as they once were. Why this should be, I cannot say; for the finishing was before them, and after all, they finish, too.

And yet, many of them still do persist with that old foolishness I have thought to you about before. Some galens occupy themselves devising ways to make the life-bubbles stronger, or larger (for such a brief race, it is really rather touching), while others hold that the shape is all. Perhaps it is a little like the thing they call art; but that is another postcard.


Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press