Popper's Disease

Charles Johnson



I visit my patients frequently, particularly those on farms like Anna Montgomery. She's poor, as everyone knows, and lives with eleven cats in a dilapidated farmhouse near Murphysboro, too poor to pay my bills—that's true, except in molasses cookies, gossip about her children in Missouri, and hot cups of milk tea—but come winter, her roof buckles under the weight of snow, her plumbing freezes, and I dutifully make the long drive from Carbondale to dig a path to Anna's door, and check her cupboard, then her pulse.

Now, I do not mention these weekly visits to the poor to impress you, or to suggest that without Dr. Henry Popper's services these people would die (many problems, Lord knows, are beyond the pale of physics), but to explain how I came to be on a lonely country road after the severest snowstorm in the history of southern Illinois, and to assure you that, for all the crackpots who report unearthly phenomena, I am the most reliable of men.

House calls help my patients, obviously, but they help me, too. They take me away for hours. They take me, now that it's out in the open, away from my wife, Mildred. She's fifty, Swedish, still has her looks, and gives piano lessons to our paper boy, Gary Freeman—I think it's Gary this Sunday. He's fifteen, the son of Bob Freeman, our pharmacist and one of my friends. "You're only in the way," says Mildred, and I daresay she's right. She doesn't grudge my Saturday night poker games at the Court House with George Twenhafel, the mayor, and Judge Hal Withers, who started doing push-ups, against my advice, and had some sort of attack. They're white, I should add, and I'm not, except in the sense that perhaps everyone these days in America is white, insofar as to ask, "Who am I?" is to ask, "By what social forces have I been shaped?" While logic would have it that I am Popper, perhaps you are Popper, too—or, more precisely, aren't we all tarred by the same cultural brush? Of course, Twenhafel, Withers, and I so cautiously avoid the topic of race during our get-togethers that the conversation seems to be about nothing but race. I'm not sure I understand them, and sometimes I'm convinced they don't understand me. Yet I have thought this puzzle through since my student days at Tuskegee, then Harvard, and it comforts me to believe we share the same cultural presuppositions—that history, for example, is linear, not circular, reason is preferable to emotion, and that one event "causes" another, although this is clearly, as many scientists have shown, an almost superstitious act of faith.

So my labor up frost-covered hills, alongside thick, unfenced woods, through cornfields bleached by snow give Mildred and Gary a brief moment to practice "Für Elise," and gives me four hours to myself, my black medical bag beside me—dear old satchel of tricks, tools, all Western methodology in a portmanteau, my pipe crackling softly, and steamy car window parted slightly so I don't fall asleep. It is pleasant and quiet, out here on the road with the sky very blue, the wind cold, and the air clear. During these drives I pull hard on my pipe and ponder nothing as ordinary as my old woman's odd ways, but instead scientific problems that have puzzled me most of my life—the ontogenesis of personality, for example, which is fully explained by the famous French neurobiologist Henri Ey in Études psychiatriques (Vol. III, 1954). There can be little doubt that personality is the product—no—the historical creation of society. The world and man, according to Ey, engender one another, but this implied—and here my thoughts shift as quickly as gears on my Buick—that ultimately, the most intimate features of a man's personality, those special aspects he believed individual and subjective and unique—kinks and quirks—had their origin, like Oxydol and doorknobs, in the public sphere, probably in pop culture. In other words, what we took to be essential in man throughout history might be accidental. A startling thesis, I'd have to say. But no more startling than the possibility that no man can escape the ceiling his culture sets for him, its special strengths and sicknesses. The case could be put in these terms: Certain aberrations in an Age might be so universal as to be unquestioned, and not recognized as problems for a thousand years. You'll think this mad, and I did, too, driving ten miles an hour, heavy snow swirling down; but I had been in half the sickrooms of southern Illinois, seen patients as physically healthy as prizefighters suddenly founder, then fail, and for no material reason, far as I could see, as if, strange to say, the malady lay in the invisible realm of values and belief.

Being an old man, I know theories are as plentiful as blackberries, so I'd be the last person to take such a playful hypothesis for true. These thoughts, however, kept my mind occupied during the drive to Anna Montgomery's. So occupied, in fact, that I was only faintly aware of the road sheering downhill, something streaking above the trees overhead, then static and a soft, miniature voice in my radio. The snow around me, it appeared, was melting. My foot shook on the accelerator. Then my engine got the hiccups, coughed, sputtered, and stopped cold. A shadow fell. Something blocked out the sun. The ground rumbled like eight-point-nine on the Richter scale, and I thought, Earthquake! They happen each spring in southern Illinois, but wasn't this winter? Cranking the starter key, slamming the stick into reverse, I saw through the frosty windshield—in a shock that made me whimper and rub my sleeve against the glass—a tremendous ship, two pie plates stuck together, hurtling soundlessly toward me, low, burning the crisp November air black with radiation. It zigzagged back and forth, snapping off a colonnade of tall-shafted pines atop a hill, then toppled Wayman Presley's fifty-foot cross (a local landmark of sorts) like a matchstick, made a hundred-degree turn without slowing down, then slogged into the earth. The explosion was stupendous, an earth-rocking blitz that ripped the roof off my car and threw me to one side of the road. Then all was quiet. For an instant I didn't know what it was hit me. My carhood was oxidized. My radiator boiled over. Faintly, the ship's relays and circuits clicked. Its surface burned first brick-red, then beryllium. And then something called to me from inside.



You can well imagine the dread and despair this caused me. Flying saucers, I have read, were psychic phenomena, products of a troubled mind, particularly a mind broken by peering too long at the Abyss, but here before me in a field of brown slush, beneath a cindery sky, was a vessel the likes of which I'd never seen. (A complex ship powered by the synthesis of plutonium and 4Yb, an ytterbium isotope. No time to relate this now. You'll find details elsewhere in this dossier.) That meant I was crazy. My mind had snapped—the result, I reasoned, of long hours at the hospital, too little sleep, talking cheerfully to patients only I knew would be dead before daybreak. What puzzled me was why lunacy had taken so long in coming. But crazy or not, I heard something squeal from inside. I was, as I say, still a physician. I picked up my bag, took two Pervitin, for I was still dazed, and forded weeds to the ship's entrance—a sort of orifice that opened with a quick, vegetable contraction as I came near. It looked real. It felt real. Quite possibly, it was real. Cautiously, I climbed inside. Behind me the hole closed with a hiss, a sphincteral snap so suggestive of the lower regions, of entombment, caskets and crypts that for a moment I could not move. The wail grew louder. A shiver passed through my back. If my intuition was right, this ship was older than the world. The entrance blended into a maze of propellant tanks, hatches, cables, crawl spaces: a bathysphere, or so I thought at first. So far all right.

But slowly the familiar blended into foreign shapes as I patched on, pushing through walk-ways smaller than those in a Civil War submarine. The machinery I saw now (on the ceiling) favored glasswork sculpture, fantasmata that might please the aesthetic taste of tarantulas. And it didn't sound like machinery—it might have been the echo of cell division I heard, the ring of enucleation, or embryo fission, the clack of hadrons collapsing into their constituent quarks. Little as I knew of space flight, I knew all technology was an extension of the body, but here interior design did not distinguish left (evil) or right (good), front or back, as if the pilot had no center, physical or metaphysical. What I felt was awe. What I felt, plainly, was terror. Almost I wanted to flee. Nothing even vaguely human would build a vessel like this. Now the wailing became a whimper. Then, abruptly, all was light. There came a cool splash of air, and I stood weaving in the lancet arch to a new chamber. I drew my neck in. My palms began to sweat, the way they perspired in the days when I first dated Mildred, for as a young man in medical school, the only Negro in my class—the one chosen to prove the Race's worth—I so doubted myself it seemed miraculous that a woman as beautiful as Mildred, with her light voice and brilliant eyes, would have me. Success in middle age, even the citations on my office wall, had not shaken this feeling that I'd not fully comprehended my own (foster) culture, that George Twenhafel, who counted it as his heritage, understood something I did not. Why these thoughts arose as I groped deeper into the saucer, I cannot say. Its strangeness seemed to trigger in me the same primordial feeling of thrownness that every Negro experiences when hurled into a society that simultaneously supports and, I am saying, annihilates him, because he can find reflections of himself nowhere in it—like a falcon exiled, say, to the Lifeworld of fish, always off-balance, but finally embracing the alien in all its otherness, yet never sure if he's got it right. (My ancestors—or so I've read—had a hundred concepts for the African community, but none for the "individual," who, as we define him today—the lonely Leibnizean monad—is an invention of the Industrial Age, as romantic love is the product of medieval poets. My ancestors, I've also heard, were pre-Industrial and, therefore, are no test of reality. But enough.) Panting a little now, I stepped inside, pouring sweat...

Well, no point in B-movie melodrama.

The Creature was hideous beyond belief, but there's no reason to bang the harpsichord about it. To any man who saw him, it would seem he was a huge boiled crayfish about the size of a fence post, sprinkled with a little squid, lobster, and jumbo shrimp—what you might expect to find on a seafood platter in a decent restaurant, or on the pages of Planet Stories. Whenever he moved, he left a trail of paste or organic matter. I stayed a respectful distance from this vision, who (I learned later) had six claws, eighty-four teeth, three antennae, two stomachs like a cow, and four enormous tentacles—his, he told me, later, was a family for large tentacles, which I believed. What else could I say? I knew nothing of his standards for beauty and truth, or even if he had such standards. And what did his control room contain? Spectrometers, I guess. Particle detectors. The only furnishings were four-feet-high platforms on the floor. In their bases lights were recessed. A wall-to-wall Telecipher—a sort of electronic speculum, with a screen thin as hair and integrated circuitry—processed data from Carbondale, Benton, Herrin, and Elkville. It could multiply, divide, add, do square and cubic roots, Boolean equations, calculate in metalanguage, or the Hilbert-Ackermann system, or deploy Rs1 logical strategies, and I couldn't for the life of me guess its full capabilities. Even so, a physician knows an unhealthy being when he sees one. Entering the room, putting away my knife, I could tell the pilot wasn't exactly running on all twelve cylinders. He gave a Dostoyevskian sigh. He looked sick as mud. What convinced me of his sensitivity, however, was that he had a Cambridge manner, and the pallor any creature has when he is trying to ask directions in German.

"No—speak English." I placed my bag on a platform by the Telecipher. "Speak English. You have landed in American. Are you injured?" I felt, rather than heard, the Creature say, "Quite." Telegnosis. What English he knew, as it turned out, came from eavesdropping on radio broadcasts around Cambridge and Amherst College—he pronounced car as "cah" and water came out as "waddah," which diminished his strangeness by a little. When introductions were over and he had taken my coat and politely offered me a part of the floor to eat (the whole saucer was edible, a fifty-four-thousand-ton Hershey bar), he touched the outside of my elbows as he talked, taking both my hands in his tentacles, and confessed in a very apologetic voice, "I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm not a Big Noise on my world, Henry. I am what you call a carrier. I have been quarantined."

"Quarantined, you say?" I withdrew my pipe and charged it. "You're not an ambassador or a diplomat?"

"No, I'm afraid not. On my world I'm the equivalent of your street people—I'm not even sure how this ship works. I'm sorry."

"Then why were you sent here?"

"They can't cure me," he said. "They use Earth as a leper colony."

This was all very unsatisfying. All these centuries we'd hoped for higher technology, wisdom. And what tumbled down from space? Outpatients. I sighed, tamping my pipe down with my thumb. "You want our medical opinion?"

"Now you understand. On my world the sickness is called by various names, but none as accurate as 'the Plague.' What I mean to say, Dr. Popper, Henry—may I call you Henry?—is that I have been exiled until either this disease passes or your culture discovers a remedy. Your research in this area skyrocketed in Vienna in 1884, Göttingen in 1916, then at Duquesne, Stony Brook, and Northwestern ten years ago. Don't be alarmed. It's not contagious. The Plague is not a disorder of your world, to my knowledge. It can't be passed physically, or picked up by sitting on toilet seats at the Trailways station."

"Of course." I smiled, just faintly, frightened, and took another step back. I couldn't shake the urge to spread tartar sauce on him. "Can you tell me the symptoms?"

"Well," he said, touching the tips of his tentacles, looking away, "for no apparent reason, and without the slightest warning, I experience feelings of first a tightness in the cerebral area, a tremor or unpleasant quiver, then a shock of dislocation, cold sweat, followed by vomiting, vertigo—the sense of falling, the inability to ascertain precisely what things mean, and the peculiar sense that I am somehow dependent upon everything in my perceptual field: xlanthia, hbeds, or sploks, which have a curious opacity, a marvelous beauty"—here he burst into tears—"yet threaten to absorb me, engulf me, annihilate me completely, because I am, in a word, deeply and inexorably different from them." His anguish exploded in my mind. "It's nauseating, do you see?"

"Steady there." I reached to pat his shoulder or knee—it was hard to tell which. "You don't have to go on." The effort to explain had greatly excited him—he was smoking. He stared, blankly, like a shock victim. Gambling, I gave him Trional. "Just tell me how to get out and I'll bring help—"

"So," he said, cutting me off, five tentacles slithering over what might have been a wet forehead, "so I feel a horrified fascination for the sploks and so desire (and yet dread) them that I yearn for their recognition, shift from melancholy to euphoria, and think of nothing else, which"—his voice quavered—"has led other Plague victims to irascibility, violence, moodiness, a morbid fascination with Time, boredom, the loss of memory, and, worst of all, thermogenesis."

"Beg pardon?" I asked. "Thermogenesis?"

"It's what you call internal combustion. The Plague affects us that way, physically. The final stage is extinction. We explode."

"When you say explode, do you mean explode?"

"Like Chinese fireworks," he said. "Like an MTV music-video."

"Horrible!" I swallowed. Then: "Did I come in through that corridor or—"

"You haven't heard the worst." His voice was frail. "I can thermogenerate at any moment."

I gave the Creature a dose of diphenylhydantoin.

It's not every day a Negro doctor is delivered a new medical anomaly with, as it were, a red ribbon around it. It was, accordingly, as you see, an awful affliction. Awful! He now stood only as high as my chest. The room was full of smoke. Psychosomatic, I'd have to say, and how it might be cured was more than I could have told you, but a man who has survived Carbondale for thirty years is an eternal optimist. We had but to isolate the cause of the Plague to name it, but name it to know its nature. The Nobel Prize would be a gift to whoever diagnosed, then cured this uncanny disease. It was front-page stuff. Medical history, I hoped, might even rename it after me. Realizing I would need help for a real examination, I fumbled into my coat, and hurried to the Telecipher for my bag. It was then that, looking up, I saw—or thought I saw—a man with a crowbar crack the lock to a farmhouse full of cats, enter, which startled an old woman inside, then smashed her head like a melon. Was this Anna? As he tore at her dress, there was a break in the film, some markings, then I saw another woman, younger, and quietly eagle-rocking her hips under a boy on a high bed with a carved oak headboard. She wore a pink slip like the one I had bought last year at Penney's for Mildred. Peering at the screen, I saw...

"That's my wife!" I croaked. "Can you turn this thing up?"

The Creature increased the volume. "Would you like the odors, too? This device, as far as I understand it…"

I missed whatever he said next, for now I heard the suction of sweating bodies, whiffed the venereal, fishlike bouquet of love. My old woman sighed, "Oh, Doctor..." I leaned forward, sweating from the soles of my feet upward, fingers in my beard; then, in disbelief, I saw Gary Freeman, his back glistening with perspiration, pull on a pair of Danger High Voltage slacks, and dry Mildred with one of my best Hawaiian shirts. Chuckling, he held it up to his face. "Does Henry really wear this shit?" My stomach tightened. My throat squeezed as if in a fist. On Mildred's walnut bureau, a crumpled Trojan lay atop a copy of The Joy of Classic Piano. I closed my eyes, counted twenty, turned my face from the screen, then opened my lids quickly. They fell to it again. They shook my picture off the wall.

"You're the only medicine I need," groaned Mildred.

I had cardiac arrest for the rest of my life. Too weak to stand, I sat heavily on the platform, opened my bag, took out the sphygmometer, and checked my blood pressure: 140 over 110.

The Creature gently placed a tentacle on my shoulder. "Come away, Henry." He adjusted the Telecipher—"It seems we are both strangers here, no?"—which responded by slashing from my bedroom to images of his Lifeworld—a low-gravity planet in the Alpha Centauri-A galaxy, a star system much like our own—but I was too shaken to pay attention. I pulled loose my collar. How in heaven's name could she do this to me? Trembling, I gave myself a shot of Dilantin and closed my eyes. They were right, Gary and Mildred; I was wrong. You couldn't really fault Mildred or the boy if, as then new morality said, a man like me, an antique Negro with my close-cropped haircut, heavy glasses that diffused my pupils, Murray's hair pomade, and funny Old Testament ways, was a relic—the product of ideas obsolete before I was born. By the way the world reckoned things, I was, at fifty-eight, Victorian, out of fuel now and running on the fumes. Old and crapped out. A pain corkscrewed through my chest. Should I weep? Should I call my attorney? Should I return to the only thing in this world that gave my life ballast: my work? I wheeled away, still flushed with confusion, from the Telecipher with this in mind, only to discover that the Creature had in my moment of confusion gone critical and was now so sensitive and overwrought that the slightest contact with objects in the saucer made him wince. "I want to say God bless you, Henry, and thank you for trying." He smiled sickly at me. He was no taller than my knee. His mouth slipped sideways, then he fell, his figure forming an X that seemed to obliterate everything. "The idea has just occurred to me that all phenomena are products of my ego."

Poor creature, he was past helping.

"You have to tell me how to get out." I lifted his head; it fell back, heavy and soft, like a bag. "Do you know how the door opens?"

Evidently, he did not know.

"I'm not Schweitzer!" I said. "Where's the key?"

In the terror of seeing him die instantly, the explosion going through me like a shock, and in the terror of being certain that without the Creature I was trapped, I backed away, then toward him, my terror greatest of all when I found no Creature there, merely vapor spiraling from a pool of black serum.

"I'm not Christiaan Barnard!" I whispered, hoping, perhaps, the words would, as in a dream dissolving, bring me back to my Buick. My eyes were swimming. My cry ricocheted about the chamber. Then the Telecipher, still beaconing, showed a thing so unearthly, so spectral my mouth fell open and I dropped my bag.



My patient expired November 24. The flying saucer, predictably, has been quarantined by the army in the cornfield where it fell. They're afraid, it's clear, of a biological crisis, afraid to use cutting torches until I tell them the situation inside. It's March, by my guess, or April—the snow in southern Illinois has vanished, but the winter chill remains locked in the strange metal of the ship's corridors, which I walk and walk when not reviewing the Telecipher's endless memory tubes for some clue that will open the exit. My labor is endless. The machine at times seems to contain my mind. The entries are infinite, ton upon ton of empirical data on every subject between the Milky Way and Alpha Centauri-A. On its keyboard you can play infinite variations on knowledge. It teaches me what questions to ask. It teaches me patience. Slowly, I progress. Quietly, I program the machine for answers, probability, analysis. My patient was, I know, old: millions of years old, and once I thought I'd unkeyed the cause of his affliction. It was partly this fact that so frightened me last winter: Their cities with fragile buildings like works of glass, where bridges seemed to flow as fluidly as the water beneath them, were full of shocks and mysteries, a glimpse into the ineffable Yonder—cities of such beauty and antiquity that centuries before Pithecanthropus (Peking Man) these creatures founded their metaphysic foursquare on what we would call, roughly, a theory of quantum electrodynamics. In their culture, Dualism was death. The whole picture came slowly, like a collage, piece by piece, the Telecipher scolding me for my failure to grasp it instantly. For what it's worth, I will explain this odd Lifeworld, though I hardly understood two images in three on the screen, and do not trust my diagnosis.

In what may or may not have been a wise experiment, I programmed the Telecipher to interface relativity and what I recalled from Ey's elegant series of papers on neurobiology, and it read UNCODABLE QUESTION STUPID, then reconsidered, recircuited the data, and said this about the Creature's science: a quantum field, as they understood it, was the vast laboratory of subatomic phenomena in which quanta of energy simultaneously took form as particles (A = A) and waves (A = not—A). As such, the field dissolved the distinction between solid particles and the space surrounding them. (Don't get impatient—I'm coming to the point.) Continuous in time, everywhere in space, the field was the idea of polymorphy made fact, its particles mere concretions of energy, as if Being delighted in playing hide-and-seek with itself, dressing up, so to speak, as Everything, then sloughed off particularities when bored with the game. Remarkably, the Telecipher then proceeded to diagnose the Plague. Dear God, I thought. It can't be true. My mind rejected it immediately. The margin of error seemed too great; I must have misread the evidence. I reran the tapes, then headed for the entrance, squeezing my hands together, my heart still racing after what I'd seen.

From outside I first heard Mildred, then George Twenhafel shouting, "Hen-ry!"I placed my stethoscope against the door to hear them better, and heard the mayor bark, "Popper, what are you doing in there? Are they dead?" Mildred wept with wronged nobility. "He's never done anything like this before." There were other voices, a flurry of talk about a press blackout, a possible epidemic from Mars; then Twenhafel's voice came back, gentler, conciliatory, like a father coaxing his child down from a tree: "If you're sick, we can help you, Henry, but the hospital needs something to go on."

Any physician who wishes to be taken seriously, especially a Negro doctor, must swear by his diagnosis. He must be compassionate, too. Because you cannot tell the terminal patient he has but a week to live, I hesitated. My throat was dry. I whispered, "George—"

"Yes, Henry. What killed them?"

"The machine said—" I paused, certain I'd programmed the Creature's machine incorrectly. In the control room's wizardly light, very blue, and not an angstrom from the smoldering remains of the pilot, whose world until now had believed thought and things to be of the same species, in a brilliant readout like my own mind stammering, I had seen the screen, had seen it clearly and definitely fulgurate like lightning in a few fibrous seconds It's the Self and There is no cure




“Popper’s Disease” from The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Charles Johnson. Copyright © 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 by Charles Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of the author.

The Collagist would like to thank James Kirkpatrick for his assistance preparing the story for this printing.